I keep reading posts advising soon-to-be or new Mums to largely ignore advice and go with their gut instinct. Ah, the irony.
While I agree that you will usually know what’s best for your baby, there are some occasions when you simply don’t have a clue. When BUB.1 was born he was a healthy seven pounds four ounces, but like all babies he lost a bit of that weight. And like some babies he didn’t put it all back on within the ten days or two weeks they hoped that he would.
Sitting in a circle of new Mums in Bondi, where I was living, I listened as my fabulous robust health visitor (“Big Jan”) asked each Mum how much their baby had gained that week. BUB.1’s gain, and I think it was his first gain, was meagre. She asked to see me afterwards.
Standing next to her after the group was another Mum whose baby had also failed to make the grade and we were given our no nonsense instructions. After every breastfeed we were to express milk and give that extra milk to the baby after the next feed. So we were to breastfeed the baby, then give the baby a bottle – or a cup initially to avoid nipple confusion – of breast milk while also expressing another bottle. It takes a bit of juggling. Bra-snapping. Boob-heaving. Nipple-cracking. A lot of commitment, shall we say.
Over the next fortnight, I did this. It took up all of my time. Willy Wonka’s family were visiting from the UK, so day trips around Sydney saw me hunched over in the back of the car with my manual Avent breast pump. I expressed at the top of Centrepoint tower in Sydney. By night I sat up in bed crying with fatigue, breast pump in one hand, imaginary shotgun in the other.*
It was tough, but it worked. Slowly, over the course of about two weeks, BUB.1’s cheeks puffed out and he started to pile on the pounds. My boobs became gigantic, and I went on to breastfeed him for 19 months, during which time I got to experience all the joys of engorgement and mastitis. I just needed a kick start.
Looking back on photos, we can now see how thin he looked during those first few weeks. But the important thing is no one panicked, he was fine. We just needed to tweak things.
When BUB.2 came along, at a bouncing seven pounds ten ounces, the EXACT same thing happened. The midwife didn’t even have to say anything on my home visit when he wasn’t regaining his birth weight. I raised my hand to shush her, told her what had happened with BUB.1 and she said: “That seems to just be the way your babies are” and left me to it.
I invested in a Medela electric pump this time so I could keep my hands free to deal with BUB.1. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t exhausting, and left little time for anything else, but it fixed the problem. He put on weight.
By the time a bumper seven pound 13 ounce BUB.3 arrived, I have to admit, my energy was floundering. She was an undiagnosed breech, and she had a tongue tie. So until she was 11 days old and underwent her little tongue snip, she was having some formula anyway. Even the kind ladies at the breastfeeding clinic said I needed to consider the whole family.
But, I went onto to express again and I managed to breastfeed, with formula top ups, until she was six months old. I meticulously noted down exactly how much formula and expressed breast milk she was having to ensure she got at least equal of both. I drove myself crazy with my little notepad.
A combination of having two other small children, a baby who seemed to be VERY content** with a combination of both formula and breast milk and an overwhelming feeling by 9pm each night that I’d rather put a wet finger in the plug socket than my breast pump yet again, meant that my supply dropped off much quicker than the first two times.
Despite her being my last baby, my fondness for breastfeeding, and the morphing of my breasts into two empty pitta breads, I refused to let sadness cloud me. I knew that I had given my all.
It must be wonderful to have an instant and abundant supply of milk for your baby but for many people, it takes a little bit of extra work to get things going. And even then, it doesn’t always work, or there are other factors such as family or commitments that mean you just don’t have it in you.
I think what I’m trying to say is that if you experience difficulty breastfeeding and the solution offered to you seems difficult, or hard work, it might be miserable but it will probably work quite quickly. If it doesn’t, there will be something else to try. I remember crying down the phone to a breastfeeding hotline handler, but soon enough that misery was resolved.***
As for the question of advice from seasoned Mums, it won’t always be about breastfeeding, because soon enough there will be something new to cry about. Welcome to motherhood.
* It led to me coining the phrase “expressing like a bastard”, which is best delivered through gritted teeth while brandishing a dripping, overheated breast pump and a crying infant.
*** Since publishing this post I suddenly remembered that yes it worked, but it was a constant balancing act between expressing enough to get the supply going, but not too much that the boobs were empty sacks once the next feed was due ( roughly three minutes after the last one for a newborn) or so much that your boobs overproduced and you became engorged and at risk of getting mastitis, a horrible business involving cold cabbage leaves, red hot bosoms and a weird floaty feeling. Just thought I should mention that.