Every Last Drop

This time would be different.

I told myself every day. I read all the books, joined all the relevant support groups, and revisited my experience with T. What had I done wrong? What should I look for this time? Who could I ring if the same problems cropped up?

I was so prepared. I knew almost everything there was to know about why breastfeeding is sometimes difficult and all the things I could do to avoid it. I studied pictures of tongue ties, talked to my friends and family about what I’d need from them in terms of support, practised positioning with cuddly toys (and at one point with Joey, the Sheffield Slings demo doll). I even expressed colostrum during my final weeks of pregnancy and froze it in tiny syringes to use if we had any latching difficulties in the early days. I wasn’t going to give birth “properly” but I’d make damn sure I was going to feed him the way nature intended!

This time would be different.


The first thing L wanted to do was feed. He lay on my chest and frantically searched for my nipple, and when eventually he fed he stayed latched for 45 mins, constantly suckling, waves of oxytocin washing over both of us. I glowed with happiness and all my fear fell away.

That first feed was as easy as it would ever be.

I worked through pain, sleep deprivation and shallow latches during my hospital stay. I utilized all the help I could. I refused any formula top ups. I WAS GOING TO DO THIS. I told myself it was just a matter of time before it would get easier.

We were discharged and so began nights of constant nursing, my tiny boy attached to me permanently. I cried, I liberally applied Lansinoh, I panicked that I must be doing something wrong, but I never considered giving up. My milk was slow to come in and by the time it did Leo had lost 10% of his birth weight, but where some parents would be worried by that drop, Thom and I were ecstatic as it was nowhere near Tristan’s 14%. I kept going. He fed so much that most nights there was no point in going to bed. I stayed downstairs, surviving on bad TV and lactation flapjacks made by a lovely friend. It was a strange, delirious time, but I was determined. His latch improved and my confidence grew.

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And he gained weight. A baby of mine gained weight on my breastmilk! I wept with relief. I was doing it! I was feeding my baby! I relaxed. I told myself it was going to work, that it would all be worth it. Slowly and steadily parts of me started to heal. I saw so much of Tristan in Leo, so I could feel as though I was atoning for the past and feeding both of them. I started to forgive myself.

But then he lost weight. Not a lot, but enough to make the midwife suggest supplementing, enough to make her want to carefully study my feeding technique, enough for her to blame my fear and negativity for my poor milk production; enough to send my mental health spiralling.

Yet still I refused to top up. When it was just Leo and I together, him happily nursing at the breast, his almond eyes gazing up at me full of love and trust, I knew we could do it. It was just matter of time before it fell into place. This wasn’t Weight Watchers, a small loss could be explained by anything. We had this, he and I. We were still finding our feet, but we had this.

Until he was next weighed and he’d lost yet more weight, this time not a small amount. We were immediately referred to the children’s hospital where my precious breastfeeding relationship with my son became entirely medicalised. I saw everything through tears. A doctor quizzed me on how often I’d been feeding him and outright accused me of lying when I said he was constantly on the breast. My baby was prodded and poked. My heart broke. I carried on nursing him in our hospital bay, tears streaming down my cheeks, as I kissed his head and told him I was sorry. Thom reassured me that it wasn’t my fault but I knew there was something about me that wasn’t working, or something I was doing wrong. The doctor had said as much.

Thankfully Leo was well and healthy, but despite that they wanted to keep us in to monitor his feeding. I simply couldn’t do it. I needed my home, my eldest child, my bed, my cats, my safe haven away from there. I couldn’t take any more scrutiny or accusations of neglect. And so we were discharged and immediately started giving him formula at home.

That first night I cried more than I ever have. I couldn’t bring myself to give him bottles because I knew he’d frantically root for my nipple if I held him so close. I was suddenly scared of breastfeeding him, even for comfort, because my attempts at nursing my children had landed them both in hospital. My body felt toxic, criminal, dangerous. I had failed again, and this time it was even more devastating because I’d had the briefest taste of success.

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For a few days I couldn’t bear to let him try to breastfeed. I was too scared. But with whatever strength I had I started to express my milk and give it to him in a bottle. Seeing it there, actually seeing it and knowing it existed, and watching him drink it happily and hungrily helped me see value in what little I could do. And so I tentatively let him nurse at the breast, and through the pain of knowing I couldn’t do it exclusively there was also a warmth, a lightness and a relief. I could feed my baby, I could give him everything I had, however little that was. I could give him that inimitable nursing relationship and still be strong and brave enough to pull him off my breast and offer him a bottle, even though it would break my heart every time. And so I did.

It wasn’t until later that I gained the confidence to talk to a lactation consultant. She asked me lots of questions about my experiences with Leo and Tristan and some things I didn’t expect about my breast development during puberty and pregnancy. After a long, long exchange and many tears I finally learned about Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT). An answer, after 2.5 years of self-loathing and guilt.

I refused to believe it at first because it felt like I was giving myself a free pass. It had to be my fault, it had to be something I’d failed at. To accept there was a reason behind it would mean I had to forgive myself and make peace with my body, a body I’d learned to hate so much.

It’s an ongoing process. Some days I don’t believe there’s anything or anyone to blame but myself, and others when I look at the evidence and vent in my IGT support group and realise I did everything I could. Absolutely everything.

So what does our feeding relationship look like now? It’s formula and bottles. It’s breasts and nipples. It’s pumps and hand expressing. Sometimes Leo will want to switch from bottle to breast mid feed, which I can tell you has put me on the receiving end of some strange glances while out in public. But I don’t care because I will give my son what he wants and needs, no matter how ridiculous it looks to the outside world.

I am feeding my child. I am breastfeeding my child. There are some things it can’t do as well as perhaps it should, but my body is not a tragedy. How can I hate my breasts for not working properly when my little boy adores them, when they are his favourite place to be, when they work so damn hard to give everything they have, however little that is?

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Slowly but surely I think I’m healing and learning that there’s more than one definition of success. All thanks to this beautiful little person and the support of some truly wonderful friends.

I saw a breastfeeding support worker last week who hugged me and told me I was doing brilliantly. Perhaps soon I’ll start to believe her.

Meeting Under Fluorescent Light

The day we met started too early. I couldn’t eat or drink, so I just got dressed and tried to calm my nerves by obsessively reading the Guardian news app. I spent a long time hugging Tristan before we left and I shed a few tears on the way to the hospital because no hug, kiss or giggle could last long enough that day. I’d never been away from him for so long before, it was entirely unthinkable. How would I cope without my sparkly little boy to get me through the scary bits?

We arrived at the hospital, early enough that we found a parking space right outside the main entrance. Part of me wanted to run. I had to remind myself with every step towards the ward that this was a different story and a different child and I’d changed so much myself; I had to believe that I wasn’t throwing myself to the lions.

We got inside and there were bright lights and kind voices, deep breaths and butterflies. My space on the ward was exactly the same as two years previously, near the same window with the same view of the dental school. I changed into a hospital gown and waited to be escorted down for surgery.

More bright lights, more kind voices. “Pop yourself up here. Lean forward so your back is nice and curved. This won’t hurt too much but if it’s too uncomfortable tell me and I’ll stop. You’re doing brilliantly!” The midwife’s hands firmly grasping my own, my head resting against her shoulder as the needle squirmed in my spine, my thoughts all about the baby I was about to meet to distract me from the pain.

I’ve got this, I’ve got this, I’ve got this.

The consultant and anaesthetist read my birth plan and respected all of it. They would explain everything they were doing, they would be completely silent as our baby was born, and the curtain would be lowered so I could see him or her being lifted out of me.

“I’m just cutting through the final layer of tissue.”
“I can see your baby’s head. There’s a lot of hair!”
“I’m about to pull your baby out now so I’ll lower the screen.”

The room fell quiet, the curtain fell, and there he was, still attached to me. Small and curled up, face swollen and scrunched like his brother’s, an angry squawk coming from his tiny body. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I wept glorious, perfect, happy tears. Thom kissed me, and I remember his eyes were shiny.

The cord was cut and the midwife attached the rainbow cord tie we’d brought with us, and he was placed on my chest against my bare skin. He stopped crying immediately and I kissed his soft, wet hair and told him I loved him. I told him how proud he’d already made me. I told him I’d keep him as safe as I could for as long as I lived.

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I also said, “I told you we’d have a boy!” to my husband, who rolled his eyes and smiled at me.

“We have sons!”
“We do. They’re perfect.”

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He left my arms for the first time to be weighed, a good half an hour after he was born. He weighed 7lb 8oz. He fed for the first time in recovery, sunlight pouring all over us from the open window. It was a truly gorgeous spring day and a wonderful moment. My heart was completely full.

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We spent the rest of the day falling in love harder and faster than ever before.  It wasn’t stronger or deeper than with Tristan, just easier. All those parts of myself had been opened up before so letting a tiny new human in was as simple as looking at him and knowing he belonged in our little family.

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He was born at 10.27am and remained nameless until 9pm that night.
The name we agreed on was Leo.
So in a way I did throw myself to the lions – or at least one very small and very beautiful lion.

His birth was joyous and memorable, in all the ways his brother’s wasn’t. I confronted my last experience and made peace with it, plastered over the old wounds with the happiness I found with Leo. My stay in hospital wasn’t necessarily easy but it was overwhelmingly positive. I felt strong and optimistic and left after two days with determination and a belief that the story really would be different. And so far it has been different, but also desperately familiar, in good ways and bad.

But this isn’t the place for the bad. This is the place for me to be thankful and inspired and healed. A mother to two incredible little boys who I love and treasure completely. I have hair to smell, tiny hands to hold, noses to kiss.

The rest can wait. 🙂