Claire is a Switzerland-based Australian writer whose passionate, thought-provoking musings and poetry can be found at clairevetica.wordpress.com. The clarity and intensity in both her self and her writing is something that I have long admired. Claire’s first child was born in London and her second child in Zurich.
What were your thoughts and expectations about breastfeeding before you gave birth?
I didn’t really think much about breastfeeding before I had kids. While pregnant with my first child in London in 2010-2011, like most women in my position, I was mostly focused on the pregnancy and the impending, terrifying Major Life Event of actually giving birth. It seemed as though the books I was reading and the people I spoke to focused on that too, rather than talking much about what came afterwards. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.
I guess the thoughts I did have about breastfeeding were that it seemed vaguely ick to me personally (ie: while I’m not grossed out by others doing it AT ALL, I didn’t love the thought of doing it myself). I don’t think I’d heard of people having major problems with breastfeeding, apart from mastitis, (which sounded bad enough – but as though most people got through it and went on to bf fine). However, breastfeeding seemed like the Right Thing To Do and if women had been doing this for millennia, why wouldn’t I? I guess I felt much the same about giving birth “naturally” (ie: vaginally, without drugs) – again something that women had been doing since the dawn of time. The natural birth went fine. The breastfeeding did not.
How were those first few days and weeks? Did you feel supported?
The first few times with breastfeeding were OK – it’s so weird anyway in that post-birth haze. But it quickly became very painful, as indeed it does for most new mums – cracked nipples, engorgement etc. And I just felt really awkward. I had been told in my antenatal classes run by the NCT (the UK’s National Childbirth Trust) to get all the help I could from the midwives at the hospital, so I tried to ask anyone who came by if the baby was latching on OK and if they could help me/show me what to do because I felt like a complete klutz. A few tried to help but, in the busy environment of a big university hospital, no one had much time to focus on me and my “breastfeeding technique”, which the literature said was all-important to perfect. There was even a tragicomic incident where a breastfeeding adviser toured the ward but was only able to help the new mums who lived in the London borough (local council area) that she was employed by – unfortunately it was not the borough in which I lived.
NO ONE TELLS YOU THIS! We got home and, as the weeks went by, breastfeeding continued to be incredibly painful and awkward for me. Every. Single. Time. I was the first in our NCT group of eight women and their partners to give birth so, as each subsequent person gave birth, I’d see and hear about how her breastfeeding was going. They all started out with pain – I now know that it’s pretty much a universally unpleasant surprise to all new mums and: “No one tells you this!!” But all of the others got through it and were breastfeeding fine*, while I was still in agony. (*Not strictly true, others had some problems but mine seemed the worst!)
3am, hunched over the baby, gritting my teeth as I tried to steel myself to feed him again (Shoulders back! Relax! The child can feel your tension!) crying buckets. Three weeks in, 100+ painful feeds, my chest aches, my shoulders ache, my back aches and I’m as sleep deprived and shell-shocked as any new mother.
It was around this time that I looked up from this awful, panicked and vulnerable position and asked my husband to buy a tin of formula “just in case” – because I knew in my heart of hearts that something had to give.
But you kept going. What was your fuel at this point? What was your motivator?
Why didn’t I just stop? I guess I found that I wanted to breastfeed more than I’d previously thought I did. Of course I knew that plenty of mothers formula fed their babies but I guess I also knew that most middle-class, university educated mums of my age breastfed theirs. I hate being bad at things and I was bad at this. I am also stubborn and a perfectionist who sets stupidly high standards for herself and maybe, because of some past experiences I won’t bore you with here, I was afraid of the depression I might suffer if I “failed” at breastfeeding. Plus everything I read in print and online, as well as the people I spoke to, said Breast is Best and that breastfeeding just Wasn’t. That. Hard. I didn’t want to fail. So I kept trying.
And I tried to get help. I feel like I did everything I could: I put cabbage leaves in my bra, used up entire sheep-flocks’ worth of Lanisoh, called the breastfeeding helplines, went on the Mumsnet forums, attended local breastfeeding mornings and visited my GP, who, after telling me she was all about “empowering women” was quite dismissive of my breastfeeding problems – nice. I read about and was told all the usual things: maybe he has a tongue tie, check and perfect your latch, try the football hold, what about lying down, do the breast crawl, vasospasm, Reynaud’s,thrush, give it more time etc. etc. It seemed as though once you found the magic fix, it would suddenly result in “pain-free breastfeeding”. Again, it seemed that most of the stuff I read in baby books and online skimmed over the pain aspect – saying any discomfort you might feel will last only days, or a couple of weeks, max.
But it wasn’t getting any less painful for you…Were you getting closer to a diagnosis?
I should say that having a new baby and being at home with him during this time was mostly lovely. He was gaining weight and we were both healthy, happy and sociable in most other aspects. But six weeks after the birth I was still in a lotof pain with every feed, – searing and shooting pains all through the breast like hot needles while feeding and for some time afterwards. And I’d sometimes get a blast of pain at random other times too. From all my reading, my symptoms seemed closest to nipple thrush. So to try to treat it, I sought out my London borough’s single NHS (the UK’s National Health Service) infant feeding expert. This was one woman to cover a population of 250,000 so you can imagine she was incredibly busy and in-demand (there used to be three experts in the area but: funding cuts).
Once I got an appointment, the infant feeding expert was lovely. She spent a few hours with me, listened to all my concerns and heartbreak and let me cry and cry. She checked my latch and diagnosed a posterior tongue tie (TT) but said it didn’t seem to be affecting the feeding. She agreed it did sound like nipple thrush so hand-wrote a full-page referral to the GP outlining her diagnosis and politely requesting them to prescribe medication and the dosage. I took the letter triumphantly to the GP feeling like I might finally make a breakthrough. But the male doctor did NOT like being told what to prescribe and was patronising and rude and made me feel terrible, although he eventually deigned to let me have the medicine the infant feeding expert recommended. As he scrawled out my precious prescription, he sneered at me: “Are you sure you want to take all these strong drugs, and pass them on to your baby?” You can imagine how great that made me feel.
The thrush treatment seemed to help a bit for a while, but breastfeeding still hurt a lot. I was still calling the helplines, still on the forums, still crying. Still determined to Get. It. Right. Still seeing my wonderful NCT friends and their babies each week. Still in love with my own tiny but rapidly growing boy. It was a very emotional time.
So you were quite a way into your breastfeeding journey now, and still in pain. Where did you go from here?
Ten weeks in, post-thrush treatment and combo feeding (about 50:50 breast and bottle by now) but still in pain, I should REALLY have given up at this point. My mother told me she’d stopped breastfeeding me at six weeks (although went on to feed my two younger brothers for 9 and 12 months respectively) and another kindly mother-in-law of an NCT friend who was a retired GP gave me some very sound advice “Breast is best ONLY if it works”, but I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t getting pressure from friends or anything, I just didn’t want to fail. And there was one more thing to try.
You could get a tongue tie (TT) division in two ways – make an appointment at the large hospital nearby, which would be in several weeks’ time, or engage a private practitioner to come to your home who you’d pay £80 in cash (the hospital appointment would be free – there are some amazing things about the NHS too). I didn’t want to wait, I was desperate, so I booked the private TT lady. She came, she saw, she agreed there was a tongue tie but unfortunately it was too tricky for her to tackle, she apologised, she went (and didn’t charge me). We finally got the hospital appointment and they did the cut. I felt like I noticed a small difference but not the wondrous – “Ah, finally it’s right” that I was so hoping for. Maybe since my baby was already older than three months by this point, it was too late to make a difference. Maybe if we’d done it earlier it would have helped. But, in the end, I felt like I’d cut my baby and caused unnecessary distress to all of us – including my husband – for nothing.
I persisted with breastfeeding up to around five months, although by the end it was just one feed per day first thing in the morning, with him lying on my stomach. It still hurt. Not as badly and I think I had a few feeds without any discomfort, but I never achieved the holy grail of consistently “pain-free breastfeeding” that everyone else seemed to manage. I don’t know if I’d say I’m proud we got to five months because I do think I should have given up sooner and saved myself a lot of distress. And I really feel that this kind of martyrdom around motherhood in general is not healthy for women. But hey, I guess that stubbornness is also what has made the human race survive and thrive all this time.
And then you had another baby! How did your breastfeeding experience differ the second time around?
My second son was born nearly four years later in Zurich, Switzerland. I was prepared to give breastfeeding another go but I was determined not to let myself suffer like I did the first time. I found breastfeeding painful once again, but it wasn’t as bad. Maybe because I had a lot clearer idea of what I was in for. Maybe I was more relaxed. I think he was also a better breastfeeder than my first boy. And I guess I was better at it too. I certainly felt less awkward this time around.
Switzerland also has a much more supportive system of home midwife visits than the UK (I feel) and the midwife I had was lovely. She put me on to breast shields, which I’d only heard extremely negative things about in the past (I think I tried one with my first but it was a chunky clumsy thing – these new ones were very sheer). She also had time to sit with me and really focus on me and what I wanted, which was wonderful. The breast shields worked well for me, allowing me to persist with breast feeding through the worst weeks of pain (OK so I was still stubborn and didn’t want to give up this time either). However, I still found breastfeeding painful up to 10+ weeks although the pain was lessening and I gradually stopped using the shields. Around this time Johanna also put me on to the fantastic Nipplease silver cups and they helped too. After four of five months, I was finally breastfeeding “pain-free”. Woohoo!
We still introduced a bottle of formula when my baby was a few months old, so my husband could help with the feeding and I could get some much-needed rest. I pumped a couple of times but I really dislike it and it feels like it takes such a long time – 20 minutes of sitting hunched over a breast pump every morning I cannot do! Luckily our second boy, like our first, was always happy to take a bottle and never seemed to mind switching between bottle and breast. And I’m comfortable with giving formula.
I ended up BFing my second boy until around 18 months (again, by this stage we were just doing one first-thing-in-the-morning-feed). By the end he seemed less and less interested and actually I kind of forgot about it for a few days and then realised “Oh, I guess we’re done”. He did have a final feed one morning about a week after that, but that was it.
So how do you feel now, looking back at your two breastfeeding journeys?
Looking back now, and maybe even at the time, I can take the perspective that there are some things you just aren’t good at and, for me, breastfeeding was one of them. Some people are terrible at maths, or they’re tone deaf, or they can’t catch a ball to save their life. I was yet to learn that motherhood is a series of “amateur hours” and I’ve always been scathing of amateurism. However, unlike deciding you’ll quit the basketball team or only do Arts subjects from now on, you can’t walk away from the aspects of motherhood that you suck at. Or can you? I was crap at breastfeeding and I probably should have walked away but I persisted. Like most women expecting their first child, I had an unrealistic picture of how “easy” breastfeeding would be and when that wasn’t the case for me, I got myself all tied up in knots and felt like the fault was mine and it was something I had to fix or else consider myself a “failure”. I’m glad I was finally able to breastfeed “pain-free” with my second boy, but I’d hate to think of anyone putting themselves through the nightmare of breastfeeding that I imposed on myself the first time around.
Seeking support for these issues can feel like a very lonely road – which is why I think the work Johanna and her group are doing is so important. For anyone going through similar problems to what I had, I would urge you to seek out sympathetic people, ignore bad advice and, above all, be kind to yourself. Breast is best, ONLY if it works – in whatever capacity that means to you.
Claire, thank you so very much for trusting me with your exposed heart in this piece. I remain in awe of your self-awareness, and see so much of my own journey in yours, as I am sure many mums will. The fear of failure and the idea of being ‘bad’ at something is definitely one that I can personally relate to, and one that can be so very hard to turn off… But hey, that’s what makes you a brilliant woman. Thank you for your vulnerability.