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.
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.
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?
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.