Before my son was born, I had decided to be nonchalant about whether he was fed by breast or bottle. Ideally, he would take to the mummy milk and that would be that, but I knew so many new mums who’d struggled to bf and unfairly beaten themselves up for needing to use formula that I (prematurely) made my mind up that I wouldn’t care either way. Of course breast is technically best, but there is nothing wrong with formula if breastfeeding doesn’t work out.
Once our son had made his tardy arrival, we attempted our first feed and he wasn’t a natural. The midwives wanted to give him some formula to make sure of his wellbeing so I consented. Over the next day or so we persevered with skin-to-skin, topping him up with the sminsiest cups of formula you’ve ever seen. I didn’t particularly mind; I wanted to give it a good old try before giving up but was prepared for failure – ceasarian babies can sometimes struggle to breastfeed due to the anaesthetic making them dopy, the trauma of surgery delaying the arrival of mum’s milk, and surgery recovery making the physical act of positioning baby a struggle.
As much as I hate to criticise hardworking nurses and midwives in any form, I did receive some poor support regarding breastfeeding. It mainly consisted of cramming my boob into the baby’s mouth, which I modestly believe I could have managed myself and which (unsurprisingly) we found an unsuccessful tactic. There was little talk of positioning, managing expectations, or my post-surgery comfort, and little reassurance. Yet I remained fairly relaxed.
His tongue tie, incidentally, went unnoticed.
Then this happened, and once my day-old son was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I felt very differently. Suddenly, expressing milk for the nurses to give him via his feeding tube was the only thing I could do in a helpless situation, and that made it the most important thing I could do. The NICU nurses were so encouraging without pressurising me, praising me for my minimal milky offerings and feeding them carefully to my son. This is one reason many women don’t get to breastfeed their babies; intensive care often takes that choice away.
Encouraging my milk to come in without a baby to do the necessary was a slog, I have to say, and expressing was much harder than I expected. The hospital-grade pump was good quality, but machines are nothing compared to an actual baby. So when gallons of milk fail to appear, it can be really demoralising.
I remember jealously eyeing the vast quantities of milk the other NICU mums had left in the communal fridge! I honestly hated the whole pumping process: the boredom, the sensation, the disappointment and the inconvenience. But eventually things got moving, and at the same time our son’s health was improving so we could attempt actual breastfeeding.
It was many weeks later before I felt like a competent breastfeeding mum. We were stuck with ‘rugby ball’ hold for a long time as baby didn’t feed comfortably any other way. We used shields for the first couple of weeks for comfort, but it was learning the rugby ball hold that allowed us to drop that. Eventually his tongue tie was spotted and snipped. For a few weeks baby needed small bottles of formula top-up, at first for calories and after that to give him Gaviscon medication. Baby fed hourly for months, only stretching to two hourly by about five months. Don’t get me started on learning to feed discreetly in public! Breastfeeding can be hard work (or it can be very easy!) and if you have worked hard to establish breastfeeding or relactate then you should feel rightfully proud of yourself. So no, our breastfeeding journey – like many – wasn’t simple.
The joy of providing sustenance and comfort to your child in an organic and ancient way is indescribable. To do what women before you have done for thousands of years is moving and powerful. To provide what your child most needs is beyond satisfying. Plus, popping out a boob is a lot easier than messing around with sterilising bottles, letting boiled water cool to temperature and endless burping!
My only sadness regarding breastfeeding has been the attitudes of some other women. It seems that so many of us struggle to find a balanced opinion about how babies are fed, as our opinions are so coloured by our own choices and experiences. Breastfeeders can be so militant: some, because they are jaded by negative experiences with public breastfeeding, others because they know that officially breastfeeding is the ideal option and feel passionately about it. Formula feeders can be just as bad: often they are defensive of their decision or circumstances and feel the need to exaggerate the virtues of formula and knock breastfeeders. For heaven’s sake, ladies! We’re all trying to feed our little ones and doing our best.
I think I am privileged to have seen my baby fed by cup, tube, syringe, bottle and breast within his first two weeks of life. I believe, hopefully correctly, that it’s given me some understanding of the emotions both breastfeeders and formula feeders experience. When he was being fed by a nose tube, I felt that the one thing a mum should be able to give her child was being stolen from me. When breastfeeding was not yet established, if my son sometimes rejected mummy milk but accepted a bottle, it felt as though my heart would break. In floods of tears, I would tell myself that he didn’t want me, that I wasn’t good enough, that I was rubbish at breastfeeding and should give up. When breastfeeding was eventually established and he began to reject the occasional bottle, I felt claustrophobic because I couldn’t leave him with anyone else and had lost all social connections. I have felt bored, stuck on the sofa nursing with nothing to do. I have felt lonely and isolated. I have felt tired, as breastfeeding mums are generally up more in the night. But I have also felt empowered and proud of both myself and my baby.
What I suppose I’m trying to say is, I know how it feels to face formula feeding, and it’s OK. You’re giving your baby important nourishment just like a breastfeeding mum, and he will love you exactly the same and bond with you all the same. You’re a great mum; enjoy the convenience of four-hourly feeding and being able to have others feed him too. Enjoy the booze!! I also know how it feels to breastfeed a baby, and it is both a deep joy and an exhausting drain physically and emotionally. Let’s support each other in this crazy journey of giving nourishment to these tiny, precious people we made! Well done, ladies.