Growing a Human: My Breastfeeding Journey

I never expected to write about breastfeeding and I know this post won’t be interesting for everyone, but it feels right to share this experience. If you read my Fourth Trimester post then you’ll already know a little bit about my journey into motherhood and how I struggled. It’s hard to admit, but I think it’s important to talk about these things including my breastfeeding journey.

My breastfeeding journey began in the neonatal unit – that’s something I didn’t expect to say. After a sleepless first night on the maternity ward, the morning after Dylan was born he was taken to the neonatal unit. Picture this; I’m sitting on a bed with a midwife trying to help me squeeze some colostrum (first milk) out of my boob into a syringe, another midwife is trying to comfort Dylan who won’t stop crying, another midwife is showing me a folder of the best breastfeeding positions, a lady had stopped by to tell me about pelvic floor exercises… AND THEN a doctor pops in to tell me that they need to take Dylan to the neonatal unit. It sounds like a nightmare, right? It really felt like it.

They took Dylan to the neonatal unit and that’s where he spent the next 7 days. Thankfully he wasn’t as poorly as they first thought (they originally suspected he had Sepsis), and being surrounded by all of the tiny premature babies made me feel very lucky. Whilst at the time it was the most terrifying experience, some really good things came from our time in the neonatal unit and the support I received with breastfeeding was amazing. The midwives up on the maternity ward were great too, but they didn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to individual patients and I’m pretty certain that if Dylan hadn’t been taken into the neonatal unit I probably would’ve given up on trying to breastfeed.

Dylan at 10 weeks vs Dylan at 34 weeks

Pre-birth I wanted to try breastfeeding (especially as the first milk is the best/important for baby) but also knew that it just didn’t work for some Mums, and so I didn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on myself. I think keeping an open mind really helped as I had to adapt to the curveball of Dylan being hooked up to tubes in the neonatal unit whilst I was still a patient on the maternity ward. Breastfeeding was complicated at this stage and slightly delayed whilst we figured out why Dylan was poorly.

Initially Dylan was tube fed before moving onto bottles on day 2. In the whirlwind of everything that had happened, breastfeeding was the last thing on my mind but the neonatal nurses encouraged me to try expressing which gave me something to focus on whilst I was separated from him in the maternity ward surrounded by crying babies. So I set alarms at 12am, 3am and 6am and by 2pm on day 3 I’d expressed a whole bottle of milk – it felt like a massive achievement. Sometimes your milk doesn’t arrive for days, and after our stressful experience I wasn’t sure if it would be affected but luckily it was fine.

Luckily I’d been sent the Medela Swing Flex electric pump to review and I would’ve been lost without it. It’s really simple to use – you can start to express with the touch of a button, literally. I’d say it’s fairly quiet too, considering how speedy it can work its magic. It’s also easy to clean (and sterilize) and lightweight for expressing on the go – because you never know when you might need some milk. 

When Dylan’s tube was ready to be removed the neonatal nurses helped me with breastfeeding positioning – it really was a team effort. The first time it took 2 nurses to help me hold my arms correctly and support Dylan because at this point I hadn’t held him a lot as he had been attached to tubes so it still felt weird. But we managed it and he latched on straight away! From there onwards we worked on a mix of breastfeeding and expressed milk when I wasn’t around as I wasn’t yet discharged from the maternity ward. I tried to go to feed/see Dylan as much as I could obviously but I still had to be at my bed for painkillers, general checks and meals. Hospitals run on quite a strict timetable but when I missed a few mealtimes the lovely food trolley lady took my order in advance and would leave the food (and sometimes extras) for me to eat when I got back from feeding Dylan. The nurses were all very understanding of the situation, but eventually we were given a room within the neonatal unit and Jack was able to stay with us for our first night together as a family.

Once discharged from hospital Dylan was breastfed 100%. He loved boob (typical bloke) and it was working for us so far – he was putting on weight and the new parent adrenaline was getting us through the night feeds. He seemed to be quite efficient but frequent; he would feed for about 10 minutes every hour during the day, which was fine with me seeing as I had read other mums were basically spending their whole day feeding as their baby’s feed lasted an hour at a time. At night he would wake every 2 hours and go back to sleep very easily after being fed.

Mixed feelings

Prior to the birth I know that Jack had envisioned some bottle feeding bonding time with Dylan (which he did experience in the neonatal unit) but once back at home Dylan seemed to be getting on so well with breastfeeding that we just kept going with it and forgot about bottles. In the beginning it was just a case of getting Dylan fed as quickly and easily as possible and it was my only focus, but with just a 50 minute gap between every feed I soon got a bit fed up. It’s something that you can’t fully understand until you experience it for yourself, but a lot of parenting is boring, repetitive and monotonous, and breastfeeding a newborn is no exception. It felt like I was just spending my whole day feeding and couldn’t get anything else done because nobody else could feed Dylan – I was the boobs.

On one hand it was nice to feel needed and loved. It’s really amazing that I can keep a tiny human alive using just my body – absolutely crazy! But on the other hand, and it might seem selfish, but even as a new Mum I’m still a human being and sometimes you just need a bit of time to yourself. However I didn’t feel like I had any alone time or (and here’s the start of the contradictions) didn’t feel like I could take any time for myself in case Dylan needed me. It was a lot of pressure on me, my body and also mine & Jack’s relationship. I don’t think any new Mum can honestly say that they felt absolutely no anger/frustration/jealousy towards their sleeping partner when their baby woke up to feed at 11pm, 1am, 3am and 5am. It wasn’t Jack’s fault and I knew it didn’t make sense for both of us to be awake, especially when he was back at work because he needed to sleep properly. But that didn’t stop it from being annoying me and taking it out on him in my tired, delirious and hormonal state.

Jack could see that I needed a break and suggested trying to combi feed (part boob, part bottle) so that he could help, but Dylan had decided that he didn’t want to take a bottle. We tried lots of different teet brands, different times of day, different positioning using expressed milk and formula milk; nothing worked. A lot of people told us to keep trying and eventually he would break his stubbornness but it was hard; Dylan squirmed and cried, Jack got frustrated, and defeated I would just put Dylan on the boob. Breastfeeding was easier than preparing a bottle in a practical sense, but mentally it was a lot harder. I didn’t have a choice as obviously I wanted to feed my baby but in a society where the general rule is that ‘breast is best’, my opinion/frustration with breastfeeding was unpopular. Its one of those situations where you can’t win either way – Mums that weren’t able to breastfeed were envious of a bonding experience they thought they were missing out on, yet I wished that I/someone else could bottle feed my baby so that I could have a bit of distance.

I felt trapped by breastfeeding to be honest. I couldn’t be too far from Dylan, and if I was then whoever was looking after him was dealing with a grumpy hungry baby. For example Jack couldn’t easily go to the Dads & Baby meet up alone as by the time he walked there and had one drink, Dylan needed feeding. A couple of times he tried to stay out as long as he could to allow me time for a bath/ to do my tax return without distraction, but the irony is that I would spend most of the time worrying that they should be home by now/ wondering if Dylan was ‘kicking off’ because he was hungry. Most babies show signs that they’re getting hungry (feeding cues) but Dylan seemed to drop these quite quickly and if he was hungry he’d go from 0 to 100 without warning which made me worry. A hungry baby is no joke, and I didn’t want to put Jack in a position where he was stuck with a grumpy and hungry baby. When I explained this to Jack he said he didn’t care, Dylan was his son and he’d deal with it, but I still felt guilty because I was the one with the milk supply.

There have been a lot of these guilty moments, because of course I’m not saying that every moment of breastfeeding was awful. Sometimes it was lovely – moments of quiet where Dylan needed me and I could cuddle him whilst he fell asleep in my arms. Moments where he needed to feel safe and feeding him was the only way to calm him. Moments where I was amazed that my body alone was keeping a tiny human alive. One moment from a sunny day in September is very vivid in my mind – Jack, Dylan & I had gone on a riverside walk in the middle of nowhere and we stopped for lunch. I fed Dylan and ate a sandwich whilst I looked out at the river flowing and listened to the birds chirping. There wasn’t anyone else around, just our little family and the great outdoors. There’s only one way to describe it: glorious. I felt warm and good – just call me mother nature!

On the go

Which leads me on to the challenge of breastfeeding in public. Have you ever had to get a boob out in public? It’s not that fun, especially with a crying baby in your arms. In the modern day you should be able to breastfeed pretty much anywhere – society is supposed to be cool with it (but are they really?) and I’ve never experienced any negativity personally, but it’s still not always an easy or comfortable experience. Cafes aren’t really designed with breastfeeding in mind – you need a fair amount of space between the table and chair so you can fit your baby’s head. The chairs aren’t always very good for positioning or holding your baby for a good length of time with arms at strange heights or backs at uncomfortable angles. Oh and you’ll always find that the best tables for breastfeeding discretely will be taken and the tables next to doors and aisles free. Why is there always a man sitting alone reading a newspaper on the most breastfeeding friendly table tucked away in a corner? I really don’t want to get my boob out right next to the till in Costa so that whilst everyone is ordering their oat milk latté they get an eyeful when my baby decides to faff around despite being hungry (obviously), but sometimes I don’t have much choice.

Maybe nobody really takes any notice as they’re too wrapped up in their own lives/ phones, but after 8 months I still sometimes feel self conscious of breastfeeding in public. I guess it just comes with the territory of having big boobs – they’re not very discreet. Most people will feel awkward and avert their eyes (it’s the British thing to do!) but you still get the occasional weirdo who wants to watch. On the whole I’m confident and I don’t care because I’m minding my own business, not bothering anyone and I just need to feed my baby. But there’s always that worried feeling in the back of my mind, especially if I’m out on my own because I feel vulnerable.

Undercover mother

In the early months, when Dylan was really easy to feed, I would use a large muslin as a cover to avoid the weirdos. It took some getting used to logistically: put muslin round my neck, then pick up Dylan, put him under the muslin without flashing the world, then look over the top to check he was ok until he needed burping etc and repeat. But it gave me some privacy and stopped me feeling so conscious, which is also kinda funny because covering something up generally makes people want to look at it MORE. I know, the logic is messed up, but whatever works eh? But as Dylan grew, got wriggly and interested in everything the muslin cover stopped working. He started to wrestle the muslin which stressed us both out and drew attention to my boob hanging out whilst I tried to calm him down. Exactly the situation I was trying to avoid. Sigh. More recently I’ve started to care less and figured out discreet positioning, pre-empting Dylan’s behaviour and dressing more practically for breastfeeding. I guess it just comes with practice, confidence and accepting the limitations. As clever as breastfeeding friendly clothes are, I can’t wait to wear a maxi dress or impractical jumpsuit just for the fun. It’s the simple things!

When Dylan turned 6 months we started weaning. If I’m being totally honest I was excited because I saw it as the beginning of the end of breastfeeding – a stepping stone to more freedom. But of course weaning is a slow process: they don’t actually eat a lot of the food to begin with, it’s a lot of preparation, persuasion and cleaning up and you’re still breastfeeding too… so in fact I now had less freedom (but I know that it’s worth it in the end). One of the biggest motivators for nailing weaning as soon as possible was so I could get back into working – I missed working and needed to feel like me again. As a freelance creative I have the benefits of choosing when and how I work, but I struggled to see how I could make it work if I was still breastfeeding Dylan full time. How could I put him into childcare for the day if he needs me to feed him? But how could I be the best me (and the best Mum) if I didn’t go to work (for my sanity and the money)? There’s not really a right answer and again, it’s another parenting contradiction and something that I never gave a thought to before it was too late. I know that a lot of Mums just make it work – they feed their baby before work, express whilst at work and feed their baby when they get home from work. Babies do adapt and who knows, he might even take a bottle if he really HAD to but I just can’t imagine that first time waving goodbye knowing that he’s going to be hungry and I won’t be back to feed him for hours. The other week I learnt that babies should ideally continue to be breastfed until they’re 18 months old and as you can imagine, I let out a long sigh of frustration.

Dylan is now almost 9 months and weaning is going well so far. He has fruity porridge for breakfast, fruit and a biscuit for lunch and a range of options for his evening meal – Pesto chicken, Fish and rice, Pea and mint rice… he eats better than I do! Oh, and milk through out the day when he needs it. He doesn’t have any teeth yet, so that’s a bridge that we’ll have to cross at some point… ouch!

I was meant to begin working again when he was 8 months old, but it didn’t happen for a few reasons. For months I had been stressing out and worrying how I was going to work whilst breastfeeding, to the point where I couldn’t sleep properly and I was making myself feel ill. I realised that there was no point putting unnecessary stress on myself when instead I could ease back into working over a longer period of time – I just needed to be savvy with my money. Once I had made that decision and accepted that was the reality I felt SO MUCH BETTER. Oh, and then COVID 19 happened. The week after my maternity pay ended the UK went into lockdown and my plans to return to work were put on hold – out of my control. I guess that’s the world’s way of saying that it’s not time to give up on breastfeeding just yet?

Keep calm and carry on milking it

Here are a few of my ‘top tips’ to help any new mums on their breastfeeding journey:

– Stay hydrated: Try to drink some water every time you breastfeed. This will keep you hydrated (because you need to look after yourself!) and help with your milk production too. Put several bottles of water around your house so that wherever you sit to feed baby you can get your H2O fix. (Also don’t forget that whilst breastfeeding you should be eating 500 extra calories a day… although, sadly chocolate doesn’t count!)

– Get on the app: Download an app on your phone to help you keep track of your breastfeeding sessions. Mum brain is a real thing and you might find it hard to remember everything so why not make it easier for yourself? You can use an app to make sure your baby is feeding normally, notice a pattern in their feeding habits and lots of other things too including weight, naps, poos & expressing. (Although you don’t have to log EVERYTHING – I just log things so I can predict when Dylan will need his next nap, poo etc) I use the Medela app (as it can sync with my breast pump) which also has interesting articles for you to read whilst you’re stuck under a baby.

– Multitasking Mama: Sometimes you might be tired and just need a quiet 5 minutes whilst you feed baby, but I often get bored and twitchy thinking about my massive to do list. Use the time to boost your productivity – write a to do list, set reminders, send an email, check in with a friend, write an Instagram caption or start an online food shop. The world is in your hand.

– Even stevens: Be sure to alternate boobs after each feed so that your milk supply is even and steady. This will also help to avoid mastitis, ouch! When I log feeds in my app, the next time I open it tells me which boob to feed with.

– Easy freezy: I know that it’s generally not recommended to express until your milk supply is in a good rhythm and your baby is established with breastfeeding (I think it’s 6 weeks ish?) but once you feel that you’ve got everything figured out, express and freeze some milk for when your baby starts weaning. Frozen milk can be stored in the freezer for 6 months+, so you’ll have a good stock ready to add to porridge etc.

Dylan at 10 weeks vs Dylan at 34 weeks

Hope that’s been an interesting / helpful read if you needed a bit of motivation or someone to share the struggles with. Sometimes breastfeeding is really hard, but I guess that making sacrifices is just part of motherhood? I definitely believe that you have to do what works for you, and as long as your baby is fed and happy you’re doing a great job!

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© Natasha Nuttall | January 2022

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