N was born only 3 days early and weighed 2.8 kg. Despite attending months of prenatal yoga in the lead up and fully intending to have a natural birth, when push came to shove I completely panicked and gratefully accepted the nitrous oxide proffered eagerly by my student midwife. I was in the delivery suite of the local public hospital and had never met the midwives who were assisting me. It was a terrifying experience. N came out super fast and caused extensive damage on the way out, so I needed injections of morphine and vast amounts of stitching up. I wasn’t exactly ‘present’ when I met my first born for the first time.
Although I’m told N latched on to the breast straight away I have no memory of it. All I remember is that after the first couple of attempts she completely failed to latch. She was super keen but just couldn’t form a seal. A parade of midwives and nurses streamed in and out of our hospital room with various pieces of advice, and a particularly unhelpful ‘lactation consultant’ sat next to the bed and told me ‘you’ll get it eventually’ while I desperately tried and failed to feed my increasingly hungry and hysterical baby. A doctor came in on day two and declared that N was starving and needed to be supplemented formula. I was manually expressing my colostrum as best I could. I was in tears almost all of the time.
By day 3 my milk had come in and I started to use a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS), wherein I pumped my milk and then fed it to her via a tube that was taped to my breast where she was able to latch on with the help of nipple shields. By day 6 we were sent home.
I continued to feed N with nipple shields and gave up the SNS very quickly because it was so fiddly. Instead I supplemented after every single feed with my pumped milk, which meant that I was breastfeeding for 30-60 minutes, then bottle feeding for 20 minutes, then pumping for 20 mins, then cleaning the pump equipment… and repeat. Every. Two. Hours. I was barely sleeping, let alone eating.
At 5 weeks we went to the Queen Elizabeth II Family Centre (QEII) to try and get her off the nipple shields because it was clear she was struggling to get enough milk from the breast. QEII is an overnight and day stay centre run by the Canberra Mothercraft Society with the aim of helping mothers who are experiencing a range of difficulties that have been unable to be resolved by the family doctor or the community nurses.
Upon arrival at QEII she was declared ‘failure to thrive’ and we were put on an immediate, intense routine of breastfeeding and then supplementing with double the amount of pumped milk we were previously offering. The nurse who checked us in mentioned that she thought N might have a tongue tie but she was ridiculed by the other nurses and especially by the resident doctor who came to see us. We were told there was ‘absolutely no reason this baby cannot breastfeed’, yet after 4 days there we were no better off. In fact, by the end of the week I was at rock bottom emotionally and physically and while staying with family in Sydney afterwards I finally began to supplement N’s feeds with formula.
The first night after we gave her formula for the first time was horrendous. It was clearly hurting her tummy and she screamed and writhed all night. In tears the next day I rang the community nurse I had been working with most consistently and she suggested trying a hypoallergenic formula instead. This one seemed much less offensive and was the beginning of the end of our breastfeeding relationship.
I continued to (unsuccessfully) offer N the breast without nipple shields and I continued pumping and supplementing with a mix of expressed milk and formula until she was 6 months, after which I stopped pumping and only supplemented with formula. At 9 months old N finally latched on to the breast without nipple shields and I was overjoyed, but by this time I was pregnant again and she was only down to one breastfeed a day.
By the time N was 10 months old I was finding breastfeeding to be incredibly uncomfortable and so I stopped. The overwhelming sense of grief and failure I felt at the time is indescribable. Regret doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Suffice it to say that N is now a very healthy, normal little girl. Her language skills are incredibly advanced and there is nothing physically wrong with her. I have been able to accept that formula is not the devil. I could have tried harder to source donor milk but I didn’t because by the time I turned to formula I had run out of energy to keep trying to go down the hard path and I had to do what was right for my whole family. I’m sure there are other mamas out there who fought harder and for longer than I did, and I congratulate them. The lengths some people are able to go to are incredible and inspiring, but what I have come to realise is that everyone is different. Everyone’s hard is hard. You make choices for you and your family, and ignore everyone else.
Since having my second and third babies, we have discovered that N has a clear posterior tongue tie. This was almost certainly the cause of our breastfeeding difficulties and it makes me incredibly sad that it wasn’t picked up and remedied. However, life is always perfect in hindsight, and who knows how things might have turned out differently if we’d had it snipped. I won’t waste time wallowing in ‘should have, could have’. It’s time to enjoy my children and love them regardless of how they were fed.