You may have guessed it from the title of this blog, but for the avoidance of doubt, I will start off by saying that this piece of writing is probably only going to appeal to a very, very small percentage of our readers! It is not particularly related to eating well, training smart or feeling great, but that said, I really hope that what I am about to write may be found by new visitors to our blog (welcome!) and may offer some comfort and useful breastfeeding advice to even just one new mum out there who is grappling with the responsibility of keeping her tiny little newborn baby alive and well.
My story so far
I thought I knew what to expect. Childbirth classes and hospital leaflets informed me very nicely that ‘breast is best’, as we were shown romantic photos of women breastfeeding in fields, in cafes, on holiday, at home. Yes, we discussed the aspects of breastfeeding that might prove difficult, but with no real clue what any of it meant because we didn’t yet have a baby crying in our arms. Much more was made of how it would feel completely natural, how baby would know what to do as soon as they were born, and how it would provide a wonderful bonding experience for mum and baby right from the off.
I should say that I did at least also know of friends and family who had hit problems very early on with breastfeeding, and had seen at close quarters how the almost incessant pro-breastfeeding marketing patter can shatter a new mum’s already fragile confidence, when what she really needs is unbiased and unfaltering emotional support for her particular situation.
And so, believing my eyes were wide open to what breastfeeding involved, but with the romantic images still fluttering through my mind, I happily told everyone that “Yes, I will breastfeed, if I am able to.”
And I was able to. I actually got off to a good start when I stumbled across a very helpful breastfeeding counsellor in the hospital on day one. She turned me from a clueless new mum into a slightly less clueless new mum, and for that I will be forever grateful. Lucas seemed to feed well as he started to figure out what to do, I didn’t feel any pain (at first), and I was basking in the glow of happy hormones. Lucas only dropped 1oz of his birth weight by the end of his first week, and he seemed to be thriving. Enough good news to spur me on.
But before too long, reality started to bite. Lucas, like many newborns, would feed at least every two hours, and could feed for up to an hour in one sitting – leaving just one hour of not feeding before he was crying with hunger again. One night, around day four, he fed almost non-stop all night long. And that was repeated a few nights later. And a few nights after that. With so much feeding going on, and very little respite, it started to hurt. Even with what I was told was a good latch, I was sore, tender and still not convinced I was doing it right.
But I felt so proud to have my new baby in my arms, and in those early weeks I confidently fed in public and genuinely believed things would quickly improve.
Unfortunately, as the weeks passed by in a blur of sleepless nights, things got worse rather than better. Lucas brought up some blood after an evening feed, which sent us into a horrible panic. Mastitis reared its very ugly head (more on this later). Lucas was still feeding every few hours, day and night, which was exhausting. He also started choking badly as he fed, which undermined my confidence to feed in public and in private. Any happy hormones I had felt early on had well and truly jumped ship.
The pressure ramps up
But the pressure to continue feeding seemed to intensify. At every baby clinic, weigh-in brought a sense of utter dread as Lucas stopped gaining weight as quickly as he was expected to. “Can you squeeze in a few more feeds?” I was asked by the health visitors. “Why don’t you start expressing milk every day, on top of feeding, to give him some extra before bed time?”. And so it went on.
I was slowly coming apart at the seams and at times could see no good in what I was doing. By two and a half months, I had reached my breaking point and felt lower than I have ever felt in my life. I visited the doctor to help me beat another bout of mastitis two days before Christmas and ended up crying rather uncontrollably on his shoulder.
But that visit to the doctor marked a turning point for me, as he very kindly but firmly told me that I had done so well to get this far, and that Lucas had already benefitted a great deal from the start I had been able to give him, and that I should feel no pressure to continue breastfeeding.
And I am here to tell you that I got through it.
Right when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, we turned a corner. And now, four months in, we are finally on a more even keel. I can even feel some of those happy hormones coming back, as I hug Lucas close and watch him grow, laugh and attempt to roll over in his cot when he should be napping!
And so this next part is my attempt at offering some help for those new mums in the early weeks and months who are trying to breastfeed and who might be going through the same things that I did. My friend Holly, soon to be a new mum herself, suggested I write this blog when I mentioned to her that I had found it quite difficult to find help when I needed it (which was usually in the middle of the night, at 2am, on a weekend!). If you are anything like me, as a new mum you may be feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, lonely, confused, guilty and at times, scared. So let me offer you a virtual hand to hold, and trust that it will all be ok. Here goes…..
This is so important, from day one. All mums out there will know that there is very little let up when caring for a newborn and physically you feel like you have been hit by a truck. All pregnant women are warned to stock up on sleep in preparation for the months ahead. But still, nothing quite prepares you. You are exhausted, delirious even, and the only way I got through it was by making sure I got as much energy and refreshment as I could from good food, water, and quality supplements. Often, when I got so run down that I got an infection (more on that to come), I simply hadn’t eaten enough/drunk enough water/looked after myself well enough. I learned the hard way (probably as all new mums do) that your health as a mum is critical to the happiness and health of your baby. So make your own health an absolute priority…..it will be worth it if you can manage it.
So eat. Eat some more. Then eat again. Try and eat as much highly nutritious food that you can, including plenty of good fats and protein. During breastfeeding, healthy unprocessed carbohydrates are also your best friend. Think sweet potato, organic white or wild rice, starchy and leafy vegetables. Drink a load of water. If you can, call on friends and family to make you great food that you can gobble down (apple pie anyone?) or heat up really quickly (soups, stews, casseroles). You need roughly 600 extra calories per day when feeding, and I found that pretty hard to achieve at times due to having little time to focus on my own needs. Great snacks include olives, dates, avocado, roast chicken, dark chocolate, nuts, and if you can tolerate dairy, full fat greek yoghurt with bananas, seeds and honey. Baked sweet potatoes are a very tasty and super easy lunch.
Space and time
Learning how to breastfeed takes time, and can be emotionally and physically draining as you adjust to your new responsibilities, so the best thing I can recommend is that you give yourself and baby the space you need, in private if necessary, to get to a point where you feel more confident about it. You may not need the additional pressure of a hectic schedule of visitors to manage, particularly if you are finding feeding tricky at first, so perhaps try to keep only close family and friends around you in the first few weeks while you figure it all out. Make yourself, your baby, and feeding your priority, and only take on visitors if you are up to it.
From the very first moment that your baby is in your arms, do not be afraid to ask for professional help with feeding. It turns out I was quite lucky as due to the length of my labour, I ended up staying in hospital overnight which meant I had access to postnatal care for longer than most. So through my bleary and frightened new mum eyes, I plucked up the courage to ask for help when I had no idea what I was doing and I was thankfully rewarded with a lovely breastfeeding counsellor who showed me how to express a little milk by hand and then how to create a good latch. I was also lucky that Lucas seemed to know what to do. Looking back however, I should have continued to ask for help (and ask again!) once things started to go a little less smoothly in the weeks that followed.
As a result, my advice here would be to trust in yourself to know when something doesn’t feel right and be confident enough to ask people for more help if you need it. Confide in your partner, your mum, your sister…..anyone who can help support you emotionally at this time. Breastfeeding helplines and local groups are great for general support from fellow mums, giving you advice on issues such as over or under supply, latching techniques, feeding guidelines etc. And if you continue to suffer with ongoing issues, please don’t blame yourself or feel guilty or try to deal with it all on your own – keep trying to find someone who can give you the help you need.
I had hit a real low when Keith and I decided to pay for a lactation specialist to visit me at home for two hours when Lucas was three months old, to try to get to the bottom of our ongoing problems, and I really wish I had done it much sooner! It was so beneficial in many ways (it even helped me reconcile some of the negative feelings I had been left with following the labour process) and left me feeling a great deal more confident and able to deal with the pressure of it all. Our consultant pointed out a possible posterior tongue tie which may explain a lot of the issues that Lucas and I were struggling with. (More on this below).
This specialist help, along with the unwavering support of my family and friends, helped me to keep going when the going got almost too tough. So don’t be afraid to get support, and lots of it.
I must also say at this point however that whether bottle or breast, how you feed your baby is a completely personal decision and you should never, ever, feel pressured into continuing with breastfeeding. Personal motivation is critical (I have only got this far because I had a very clear motivation in my own mind for wanting to carry on, related to a strong history of allergies, asthma and eczema in our families).
You, and only you, are the one who gets to decide how you will feed your baby and only you can say when enough is enough on the breastfeeding front. I truly believe that happy mummy = happy baby = the ONLY important thing. No-one else matters.
Lansinoh. The only word you need to know! It is truly amazing stuff (it is pure lanolin however, so if you have a wool allergy, I would avoid it).
Blocked ducts and mastitis
Eurgh, The dreaded mastitis. I had never even heard of it before, when suddenly it came barrelling into my world with the force of a tornado. At its peak, the pain was as intense as labour. Yes, really. But on top of that, you don’t know if, how or when it will end. It often hits in the middle of the night. And the most awful thing at the time is that you need to feed through it in order to make it better….when you really want to run screaming from the building, then lie down in a dark room under a big cuddly duvet and never, ever breastfeed again! So if you can prepare yourself for the possibility of getting mastitis, you will be a massive step ahead of where I was when it first hit. Here is my mastitis and blocked ducts survival guide.
- Recognise the signs early Hard lumps and tenderness or a burning feeling are often the first clues. This can very quickly escalate, so as soon as you feel something unusual, do the following:
- Rest Go straight to bed to rest (if you are not already there!). I didn’t do this first time round, and paid the price. Immediate rest is so important in order for your body to fight this thing off. I recommend having your partner or mum look after baby while you rest, and only take baby as and when you need to feed.
- Heat Apply heat to the area (hot water bottle or hot flannel worked well for me, or get in a hot shower before taking to your bed)
- Dose up Take a big dose of Vitamin C and some paracetamol, down a pint of water, and swallow some chopped up fresh garlic cloves with water (yes, really – garlic is an incredible natural antibiotic). Just make sure you have something to eat immediately following the garlic and I promise it really isn’t that bad!
- Massage Massage the area, as firmly as you can manage, from the outside in.
- Feed and pump Feed baby as much as you can, continuing to massage. Try nursing in different positions to your normal one to help clear down the blocked area. I found that leaning forwards seemed to help and was easy to do, even when exhausted….perhaps gravity can lend a hand that way. If your breast doesn’t empty with baby, try hand expressing or pumping, while still massaging. I won’t say this doesn’t hurt – but I promise it really does help if you persevere.
- Ice Use an ice pack in between feeds, and before applying heat again, to relieve swelling and pain.
- Repeat! Repeat the heat, massage and feed cycle.
Using the above strategies as soon as I suspected there was a problem enabled me to clear increasingly painful blocked ducts before they developed into mastitis on a number of occasions, so I know they work. If you can just get through the discomfort of massaging and feeding when symptoms first appear, and REST, it really will be worth it when you avoid an infection.
Importantly, if you are unable to make any headway using the above strategies within 12-24 hours, and you develop a fever, I would recommend that you see your doctor and if necessary get some antibiotics. These days I am the first to try and avoid antibiotics if at all possible, but when something is this horrid they will work wonders and get you back on the road to recovery quickly, which is critical when you have a baby to look after. Just remember to take a good quality probiotic following the antibiotic prescription and you will really help your body to recover fully.
Over supply and choking baby
I was lucky enough to be blessed with a great milk supply, however this presented its own problems. Mainly, that Lucas often choked badly while feeding, which is quite distressing to deal with. The best way I found to manage over supply and to reduce the likelihood of choking was to express a little milk by hand first, through the first let down, before feeding. This worked well for me during the night.
I also found that feeding while slightly reclined helped, as gravity then helped the excess milk to run out of Lucas’ mouth, rather than firing it straight down his throat!
However, during the day, it became increasingly difficult to deal with as it was rather impractical to express milk each time I needed to feed, or to feed in a reclined position, when I was out and about. But without expressing, I ended up with a choking, noisy baby which I found difficult to deal with in public places where you already at times feel like you stick out like a sore thumb when breastfeeding.
So my solution, suggested by a lovely lady on the breastfeeding helpline that I called, was to block feed. Which essentially means that you feed from the same side for two feeds, before switching sides, if those feeds are within three hours of each other. Once you get into the swing of this, it regulates your milk supply down to a more manageable level, and greatly reduces the choking. You can go back to your regular side to side feeding pattern after a few days.
It turns out that at the root of a lot of feeding problems you might find a tongue-tied baby. I strongly recommend you ask at the earliest opportunity (at the hospital) for them to check whether your baby has an anterior or posterior tongue tie.
If you are suffering with sore nipples, blocked ducts, mastitis, a colicky baby or a very bad sleeper, please continue to seek advice about whether your baby has a tongue tie, even if one person, or even two, have said they don’t have one. I was told at the hospital that Lucas did not have a tongue tie, but the lactation consultant then quickly pointed out a posterior tie and a lip tie when she visited me at 13 weeks. Once correctly diagnosed by an expert lactation consultant, it can be easily dealt with if spotted early enough, and from stories I have read it may just save your breastfeeding experience. More on the symptoms of tongue tie and how to deal with it can be found here.
Reasons to be proud
So there you have it. My own breastfeeding story, and my attempt at a survival guide based on the small bits that I have learned along the way. I really hope this might help anyone out there who is desperately seeking help, whether at 2am in the morning, or 3pm in the afternoon. Breastfeeding is without doubt the biggest personal challenge that I have ever faced, and having literally brought me to my knees, I am proud to have come through it just that little bit stronger than I was before.
If you need more help, I highly recommend the website Kellymom, which is a truly wonderful resource for breastfeeding mums. The advice I found there proved invaluable at times, and I still refer to it frequently now, as I continue to manage the challenges of being a novice breastfeeding mum. My sister in law also shared ‘Reasons to feel proud’ with me when I had reached two months of breastfeeding, and whether you manage one day of feeding, or one hundred, it might just help you to know how brilliantly you are doing.
I would love to hear of anyone else’s survival tips, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below. And finally, all the love and luck in the world to all the mums out there – you are doing an awesome job!