Breast isn't always best

Last updated 05:00 20/08/2014

MY STRUGGLE: "Every time I opened the formula tin it felt like I was a failure and my body was refusing to let me be the kind of mother I desperately wanted to be."

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When I announced that I was pregnant, the first question I was asked after receiving all the congratulations was "will you breastfeed?"

My answer was always "yes, if I can." I had known friends and family members that had not been able to - they produced too much milk which made baby choke, or not enough and made baby hungry, or simply dried up before they were done. I knew it might not be easy, but I was determined to give it my best shot.

At ante-natal classes we learned all about the crucial first attempts at breastfeeding and the importance of colostrum and a good latch.

The midwife explained in hushed tones that we would only be discussing breastfeeding as they were told by ‘those above’ that we were not to talk about formula or bottle feeding, but that if anyone was interested she could talk to us, but it would have to be out of hours and off the hospital premises.

I thought at the time that was a bit extreme but I understood that breast was best, and the notion of bottle feeding was only a last resort in my mind anyway.

It was discovered late in my pregnancy that our boy was breech so we were scheduled for a c-section a week before the due date.

The grand day arrived and we were surrounded with love and support. Shortly after having our son, the midwife said it was time to give it a try and positioned baby close to my breast; he latched and sucked and the midwife commented that we were both naturals. It seemed that my vision of breastfeeding bliss was going to be easier than I thought!

Or so I believed.

On our third day in hospital the midwife came for the pre-discharge check, she weighed and measured our baby, but looked puzzled doing the math.

She advised that my son had lost too much weight and neither of us would be allowed to leave until he was gaining again. I was visited by more midwives and a lactation consultant who observed the latch and offered advice on feeding positions and grip.

They theorised that I was not producing enough milk for my son, a common side-effect of c-sections, so needed to increase my supply and help my milk to come in. I drank more water and ate more frequently to keep my body fuelled. I was provided with an electric breast pump and told to pump for 10 minutes either side after a feed. I started to feel sympathy for dairy cows but I knew it was best and persevered.

Another check and baby was still not gaining weight, so it was decided that a little formula would give him a boost before we got to go home.

I thought it would be simple enough, but I had the midwife and the lactation consultant talk to me about the importance of breastfeeding and the dangers of formula feeding. I had to sign a waiver from the hospital stating that I would not blame them or take legal action if my son had any negative effects from taking the formula.

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To me the decision was easy - if I wasn’t producing enough then my son needed formula to live and thrive. He would not starve if I had anything to do with it, but the staff there made it feel like I was signing him up to a life of permanent disability and hardship.

I signed the form and was presented with a miniature bottle of liquid formula, and taught how to give it from a foley cup. He drank the formula and had the best sleep he’d had in the few short days he had been outside my body.

I continued to breastfeed him, topping him up with a small amount of formula after the breast, and pumping for 20 minutes after each feed. Once he was gaining weight, and my husband had presented proof he had bought a breast pump, we were allowed to go home.

At home things were hard. My husband helped as best he could but he couldn’t do anything about the blisters on my nipples, or my increasing tears and frustration at my body for not producing enough milk.

I tried talking to my midwife about it but all she could say was “just keep going”. The lactation consultant visited us and watched the latch again, confirming we were doing things correctly. She suggested we do a “babymoon” – just me and baby in bed for 24 hours, feeding whenever he wanted, which would encourage my milk to come in properly. We did that, but there was not noticeable improvement.

When my son was two weeks old I was re-admitted to hospital with an infection in my c-section site. I was told my body was diverting its energy into fixing the infection and that would affect my milk production.

I was also put on IV antibiotics which, I was told several months after the fact, slowed my production even more. I kept up with the pumping after feeding but we still needed a formula top up.

Once I was on the mend I returned home and continued the feed-bottle-pump cycle. I changed my diet to include foods that would help my milk production, avoided caffeine and other items that would negatively affect my flow, I kept up fluids and ate regularly, took supplements designed to boost my body and my milk, and slept as much as I could to give my body time to produce what it had to. It was hard – it felt like all I did was feed, pump and sleep, but I knew it was what I had to do to make my body do what was best for my son.

I broke down during a visit from the lactation consultant and she caved and gave me a one-week prescription for Domperidone, an anti-emetic drug with the side effect of increasing prolactin, the all-important milk-maker hormone.

Within a day of taking it I noticed a difference; my breasts were swelling and leaking, my son started taking big gulps and had shorter feeds and was significantly happier, and we needed less formula to top him up afterwards. The consultant was over the moon and told me to keep the meds up for the week to boost my system and chances were my body would naturally take over. But it didn’t.

The weeks’ worth of medication ended and again my breasts refused to fill themselves or my son and we had to go back to using more formula. I spoke to my midwife about it and she gave me another prescription for three months’ worth, and we were functional again.

The Domperidone helped hugely but we still needed to top-up with formula. I continued to express for 10 minutes each breast after a feed, and saved the milk to add to the next formula bottle to make sure my son was getting as much natural goodness as possible.

Still, I felt so guilty every time I opened the formula tin; it felt like I was a failure and my body was refusing to let me be the kind of mother I desperately wanted to be, it felt like I was failing my son every time I gave him a bottle.

It wasn’t until the Plunket Nurse arrived for the first check up and I told her the story that she said “well that’s ok, some people just can’t breast feed."

Aside from my family, she was the first person who told me it was ok to mix feed or go stop the breast altogether, she was the only one to accept it and to tell me that it was ok.

After that I felt much better and continued to mix feed. My mantra was “feed-bottle-pump”. But when my Domperidone ran out I felt my supply dwindling again. I tried asking the lactation consultant and the midwife for more, but as my son was four months old and I had officially passed from their post-natal care they legally could not write me another prescription.

I went to my GP and explained the whole story but she was mystified about Domperidone and why I would have been prescribed a drug purely for the side-effect, and refused to give me any more.

My supply continued to dwindle and we were relying on more and more formula to keep my son happy and healthy. For financial reasons I returned to work when my boy was five months old, but I continued to pump before and after work, and at night when he woke for a feed.It was exhausting but I was determined to keep up with it so my son got as much goodness from me as possible.

However, when he was seven months old I came down with pneumonia and had to be put on some very strong medication which was not safe for him to have via my breast milk, so I stopped expressing.

I was sad but I had to get myself better to be a better mother for him, and he became a bottle-fed baby.

My boy is 2 and a half now but I still feel sad when I think that I could not exclusively breast feed him.

I tried everything I could and I know I did well, but I still feel bad that I could not do what my body was designed to do.

I see all the advertising and notices that ‘breast is best’ and I totally agree, but at the end of the day I wholeheartedly believe that doing what is right for your child is best, and if that is bottle feeding or mix feeding there should be no shame in it.

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