Wednesday 9 July 2014

Breastfeeding - and me.

I've really been enjoying taking part in the "#PNDHour" weekly twitter parties, created by the wonderful @PNDandMe.

Tonight's chat is all about breastfeeding (BF) and mental health, and is hosted by the equally wonderful Jenny from "Birth ROCKS London".

I have the sneaking suspicion that I won't be able to fully convey my thoughts and experiences of BF in a succession of 140 characters. So here is a blog post (mind dump!) to which I can refer anyone to read, should they wish.

I especially do not want to offend anyone who has managed to successfully BF (hurrah!) or for anyone to get the impression I am against BF.

Allow me to set the scene...

During my pregnancy (the blissful ignorance phase of motherhood, for me!) I was certain that I would BF my baby.  I had paid attention in the NCT's special BF class, and we had armed ourselves with everything a BFing mother and baby could ever need: breast pads, nipple creams, nursing bras, nursing tops, a series of beautiful modesty scarves, and even a gorgeous new armchair set up in the nursery.  I imagined many a blissful hour spent happily in that chair, nourishing and comforting my newborn son.

I had devoted approximately two minutes to preparing for the possibility of having to formula feed (FF).  We had bought on impulse (it was only 50p!) a second hand sterilising unit from a nearly new sale.  And I had also bought a starter pack of bottles, as well as a breast pump.  No actual formula, because of course my baby would only ever drink expressed milk from a bottle.  I hadn't even learned how to properly work the steriliser, let alone anything around how to prepare a feed.

Fast forward to the birth aftermath (you may have read "A Letter to My Midwife" which basically tells our birth story).  Despite being 5 days sleep deprived, seriously anaemic (70% blood loss) and shell-shocked from a near-fatal C-section  I was still determined to have that precious first skin-to-skin and to begin our BF journey.  

The birth may have gone all kinds of wrong, but we were both alive and surely we could now put it all behind us and start BF as we meant to go on?

Sadly, no. Not quite.

Not one health care professional warned me, but it was highly unlikely I was going to successfully BF after such a physical trauma.  I tried, and tried, and tried.  I became neurotic about my baby's lack of nourishment.  And, sure enough, the hungrier the poor boy became the harder it was for him to feed.  

Even after my first psychotic episode, I still insisted upon BF and would stay up all night, every night, in the postnatal ward wishing in vain for my milk supply to come in properly.  Not one midwife suggested that perhaps my sleep was more important (a huge trigger for psychosis, as anyone with any basic mental health training is taught).  Not one person offered to feed my baby while I tried to sleep, or eat a proper meal, or get some fresh air.  I'm not saying that this could have avoided the full-blown postpartum psychosis that followed a few more days later.  But it might have helped.

A specialist mental health midwife, intervening during those desperate postpartum days, might just have been able to overrule the relentless drive to promote BF in the maternity wards.  She may have been able to explain to my concerned family (while my own mind was increasingly confused and agitated) that what mattered more for The Boy and me was for mummy to get some precious rest.

But no, we were eventually discharged home.  Still desperately trying to BF.  And on a collision course for A&E and psychiatric inpatients.

Fast forward a couple more days, to the Mother & Baby Unit...

Specially trained psychiatrists immediately put paid to my BF hopes and dreams.  They even advised my family not to allow me to express my milk, in order to reinstate BF later.  Nope.  It was important for me to be quickly medicated, and not to have any more stressors (such as pumping milk every two hours).  I was too psychotic to know what was going on, but I know now that this was exactly the right decision.  

My little baby thrived on FF - first by the different staff in the MBU, and then by me (as my psychosis receded).  He fed and slept beautifully and was sleeping through the night from about six weeks.

I am full of regrets, but I am thankful for the professionals who took the hard decisions for me.  My mental health had to be prioritised over my wish to BF.

And, it is possible to have a lovely FF experience.  I have only ever fed my son in my arms, cradled against my chest, me holding the bottle.  It is very much a BF substitute. 

And we have had many a blissful hour spent happily in that chair, nourishing and comforting my (now not-so-newborn) son.


  1. There is just so much pressure to breastfeed, especially when you are in that whole world of NCT classes and midwives. In my case I think that feeling I had "failed" at giving birth (emergency C-section) made me utterly obsessed with succeeding at breast feeding to make up for it, even when I was so exhausted I was hallucinating.

    It's such a fine line, I had some midwives tell me I should supplement with formula and I was angry with them for not supporting me, I sobbed in despair when my husband gave our baby a bottle of formula so he didn't have to wake me half an hour after the last feed. But with hindsight they were probably right (my husband certainly was!) I just couldn't see it at the time.

    Having now had another baby, after a very calm, planned C-section, I also realise that sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn't. My first was a dreadful feeder and I wonder if her own exhaustion from the labour was part of the reason. My second, popped out, tried to feed while still in surgery and never looked back from there!

    Will hopefully join you for the pnd hour later

    1. Thanks so much for commenting SB - it's great to know that a postive experience is possible, after such a horrendous first time! I can identify very much with the pressure you put yourself under (I did exactly the same thing - also to the point of hallucinations, and eventually severe psychosis). We live and learn! X

  2. This is a great post. There is a lot of pressure to BF and not enough honest balanced advice given. It's great to hear you have had a lovey experience with your baby after your birth experiences #POCOLO

  3. I wanted to BF too and expected to be able to. Had a (calm - 13 hours on induction drip, only getting from 1-3cm dilated) unplanned csection, and he seemed to latch on each time, but wouldn't suck. (turned out 2.5y down the line that he had tongue tie which probably had something to do with it).

    But I found I wasn't really pressurised at all. We had to hand express for a bit, then after 2 nights, he had to be FF as his blood sugar was low having not really fed anything. Yes I was disappointed, and planned to keep trying at home. Because they said his latch was good, I thought it was just a case of milk needing to come in properly. Of course he wasn't having any of it and we ended up FF as I couldn't get on with a breast pump.

    I had thought (from other friends who'd been in the same hospital) that I'd be marched off to the pumping room. But not one midwife suggested it, and I couldn't get out to baby cafe, not being able to drive. FF ended up being brilliant for us, and he thrived on it. I didn't really feel bad as mums have to feed their babies in the way that works for all of them, and just like a natural birth wasn't happening for us (lazy baby), neither was BF

  4. Loved your post Kathryn. Like you, I'd imagined skin-to-skin and blissful breast feeding experiences. Nothing turned out the way it was supposed to, but I know that everything that could have done was done. I'm horrified about your experience - breast may be best - but only when it's appropriate. I'm glad your little one is now thriving, and you still managed to enjoy blissful moments with him xx

  5. Pregnancy and motherhood is already hard as it is and the last thing that a mother needs is someone to pressure them to do things just because it is what they believe in. I am so glad that everything worked out for you and thanks for sharing your experience. I respect your decisions. I am glad that you found out things that works well with your and your baby =) #PoCoLo