My Breastfeeding Journey: ‘Informed’ is best for all mums

By Olivia Farrelly, 24, – BOOBS Volunteer and mum to two boys; Campbell and Alexander

Being a ‘young’ mum, I knew as soon as I got pregnant at 21 I wanted to breastfeed to give my baby the best start in life. I naively booked but didn’t go to the specialised breastfeeding class ran by the hospital, remembering at the time saying to my partner (who agreed with me!) “Well, they taught us a bit about breastfeeding at our antenatal group, what else can they teach us? Seems pointless”. I knew a lot of women struggled & also having quite flat nipples I was aware I might struggle but didn’t really think too much about it. I was planning on breastfeeding, I was going to breastfeed.

I had quite a long & traumatic labour so when he was finally given the OK for me to hold him, the midwife helped latch him on & it was an amazing moment. It didn’t hurt at all, I was breastfeeding! Then, the issues started. He wouldn’t stay latched on for more than a few seconds, I couldn’t get him to latch myself so had to keep buzzing the midwife & as soon as they left he would unlatch. I stayed in the postnatal ward that night desperately trying to hand express colostrum into syringes surviving on very little sleep, alone & anxious & isolated.

My baby wouldn’t latch on, he wouldn’t wake up, he was so tired (assuming from the long labour, complications & possible side effects from pain relief given to me). It was awful, I had this new-born baby & absolutely no support & I had no idea what to do. I asked – pestered – the midwife on shift to get me a breastfeeding midwife out to help me & they said they would but nobody came. They wouldn’t discharge me until we had feeding established, I was running on empty at this point & phoned my partner in tears asking him to bring formula with him. I was desperate to get out of there & try again at home, it was genuinely a terrible experience. I’ve never felt so unsupported by health professionals as a new vulnerable mum.

We did go home with him on formula & I did try again to get him to latch, but he just wouldn’t – in hindsight I’m convinced it was a Tongue Tie. I felt there was nothing I could do & I went through the awful engorgement (cabbage leaves anyone?!) to let my milk dry up. I leaked for months, a constant reminder. I cried lots, I felt like such a failure and I felt so jealous if I was anywhere & I saw a breastfeeding mum feeding. My baby was absolutely fine, but I felt I’d failed him.

Olivia bottlefeeding her first son Campbell in Costa after her early struggles with breastfeeding

Now, I always knew I wanted a small age gap so once my baby turned 1 we decided to start trying for another one. I fell pregnant almost straight away & I knew that I was determined to breastfeed! The guilt I felt, the upset it caused by me not ‘trying hard enough’ or managing to get that special ‘breastfeeding bond’ with my first son was enough to spur me on to do it. I researched lactation consultants in the area, I joined every breastfeeding group on Facebook, and I wrote posts asking other women for advice ‘had anyone else not breastfed their first baby & managed with their second?’ I was a woman on a mission! My google searches must have been a fun read, I researched everything to do with breastfeeding & when a good friend of mine managed to breastfeed her third baby, it looked so lovely & natural that it spurred me on even more.

When I got to 36 weeks, I used a manual pump & started expressing colostrum. My plan was, if I couldn’t get him to latch I would simply give him my colostrum to bide me time, instead of giving formula. I ended up expressing over 100ml of colostrum over those 5 weeks, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but in terms of colostrum it’s a huge amount.

When my second son was born, I had a natural birth with no drugs bar gas & air (not through choice I might add) & I had the complete opposite experience straight away. He latched on almost instantly & wanted to stay latched on all night. He screamed so much on the postnatal ward if I put him down (complete opposite to my first son who just slept for basically the first 8 weeks of his life!). I caved & gave him a dummy in the early hours of the morning & he slept for hours. Then I was worried he wouldn’t latch again, feeling guilty for the dummy & ‘nipple confusion’. He did latch again & fed A LOT!

When my milk came in, I was very, very sore. I was engorged to the point I had oedema in my nipples, I have large breasts & a good milk supply so the engorgement was awful, he stopped latching (he couldn’t latch on to a bowling ball!) as my nipples disappeared with the swelling – I mentioned I had flat nipples above. So I used nipple shields which, you guessed it, I then felt terribly guilty about. I was worried he would never feed ‘naturally’ & read so many stories about babies only latching with nipple shields & your milk supply dwindling! I desperately emailed a lactation consultant to come out & to be completely honest, she wasn’t all that helpful, I have a fused wrist (a bone was removed in my teens) so some positions aren’t comfortable or possible for me. Big breasts don’t help.

Olivia breastfeeding baby Alexander.

Luckily, I quickly learnt to feed lying down but I did have to literally place the shield/my nipple in his mouth as he wouldn’t open his mouth wide enough. It wasn’t textbook latching, but it was working & it wasn’t sore! What she did see is that he did have a tongue tie which probably didn’t help with my bowling ball BOOBS! So, to avoid long waiting times, we booked to get it snipped privately & paid £200 (on top of the £80 for lactation consultant – breastfeeding definitely wasn’t free for me!). I managed to get him off the shields once my engorgement went down thankfully, as I found them a faff.

We’ve had many struggles since then, he had terrible colic & would get so overtired & scream every evening. I’d walk for hours & hours to try to get him to sleep. Looking after breastfed baby & a toddler on my own definitely wasn’t easy to start with. We’ve had hospital stays where I have co-slept & been reported to the Health Visiting team, we’ve had nursing strikes, months where he would only feed lying down so I’ve seen many of my family & friends bedrooms (or I’ve even lay down on the floor in the living room, when they’ve been out in the garden), times where he wouldn’t eat solids & I’ve blamed myself as his brother took to weaning so easily. I’ve had times where he was cluster feeding so much that I felt like my breasts were ‘empty’ – of course I know he was putting his order in! But at the time when a frustrated baby is desperately trying to get a let-down & you’re struggling with sleep deprivation turning to a bottle would have been quite easy. But I persisted.

We are now a few days off the big 1! My baby will be a toddler & we are still breastfeeding. How long for? I have no idea. Ideally I’d like to wean him off before 18 months, for my own personal reasons, but as I’m going back to work soon maybe he’ll make that decision for me. What I do know is, there is no special bond, I love my boys both the same – one formula fed & one breastfed. I know I tried my hardest with the situation I was in & ultimately I was let down, so I am hoping by ‘being open on breastfeeding’ we can get mums to not feel guilty, to not feel attacked if they are formula feeding, but to be informed & make their own decisions whether that be breast or formula. Informed is best.

Olivia and Alex feeding as a toddler.

Breastfeeding for so long has given me a great sense of pride. I DID this! I was the one putting chubby rolls on my baby exclusively for the first 6 months, my body has grown a baby & managed to feed that baby for a whole year. That’s amazing & I’ll argue against anyone who says I can’t be ‘proud’… because I am. Proud that I persisted & managed my goal. Proud of what my body has become, I’m a good 3 stone heavier than I should be & it definitely didn’t make me ‘skinny’ (that was my hope!!) but my body has done this – & that is why I love breastfeeding.

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