I guess it always begins before birth

by Lucila Newell

I guess it always begins before birth. I wanted to breastfeed. I knew it might be difficult. My mum breastfeed me and my younger brother but nor my older brother, as she had a lot of pain, and difficulties, and no support. So I was aware that it might be hard. I had gone to my NCT classes, read about breastfeeding, but it felt like reading about running without ever having run. 

My baby girl, Ana, was born three weeks early, and she was what was called an ‘undiagnosed’ breech, which meant that when I arrived at the hospital pushing, and they examined me, they told me they could see a foot, and could my husband be so kind to press the red (read: alarm) button behind him. Soon, many people joined us in the delivery room, but even though it might have been traumatic for the staff, I was calm and delivered her naturally. She was tiny, and she needed help to breath, as many breech babies do. But she did not latch on, and she did not seem to have the energy to do so. She wanted to sleep. 

One of the midwives helped me express a few drops of colostrum and put it in her mouth, but that was it. The doctors were on my case straight away about giving her formula, and inserting a tube into her to feed her. I vividly remember how three of them came to my bed, just as my husband had left, and stood towering next to me and told me how they needed to do this. I say she would feel the tube, and that if we didn’t give her time to try breastfeeding and was always full she wouldn’t try. A midwife hovered on the side, making a bed, watching too. They told me how my baby was small, and had problems to breath when she was born, that she needed food, and that more or less that if I didn’t do that now she would be in danger. I argued back: the midwives told me it was normal for breech babies to need help breathing, and that I wanted to breastfeed and this would interfere, I wanted a chance to try. But the doctor pressed on. I burst out crying. One of the women doctors relented. She said I could feed her with a cup, but that would mean I had to wake up to feed her every few hours. I was confused, of course I was prepared to do that anyway, what did they expect? Not much really it seems. I asked for a breastfeeding counsellor. There were none, but the midwives would help, I was told. In the meantime, the cup was it, and I was to express every two hours round the clock. I didn’t mind that, at least I felt like I was doing something. The doctors left. The midwife that was hovering come near, and gave me the thumbs up, ‘well done’ she said. I felt much better. 

Because she was so small, they made us stay in the hospital for five days until they could see she wouldn’t loose much weight and so she could be monitored. The days were pretty similar. I learnt the ropes. I had to fill a form stating every feed, how much she had drunk, and the times, and her temperature. If she had not fed more than certain amount of her cup, or certain amount of time, I was to top her up with formula. I tried a couple of times, but  never did in the end, because it was kind of hard to tell (is 13 minutes instead of 15 ok?), and if she did not want more, she would spit it all out time anyway. At every feed, I tried to breastfeed. Some midwives were helpful, giving me praise for Ana even just sniffing the breast, others were there at 3 in the morning, ’you have five minutes. OK, nothing is happening here, give her the cup’. I would wake her up by undressing her, changing the nappy, as she was always asleep, tried to feed, then give her the cup, put her to sleep, sterilise the equipment, express, and tried to sleep for the 40 minutes remaining until I started over. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. After a few days, a midwife suggested nipple shields. I tried, and she latched on. Hurrah! However, some midwives were not supportive of them, the books also were mixed. I felt torn. I was tired, emotional, trying to do my best. But what was best? I wasn’t sure. I was alone a lot, which didn’t help. There was a virus going round and I couldn’t have any visitors but my husband at a few specific times. Finally, she hardly lost any weight, and we could go home. I couldn’t wait, but I was scared too. 

At home, I spent days and days, still expressing just in case, and breastfeeding her with the nipple shield and giving her the little cup. I tried taking the nipple shield away so as to go to the breast. It hurt. My nipples soon were raw, bloody, and sticking to my bra. Feeding her was torture. I dreaded the moment. I would put all the pillows, pay attention, tried to relax (which was impossible as I knew the pain was coming) and did my best. She seemed to be doing the right things, according to books and midwives, but it was hard to tell really. I had my daughter in December, and it was a snowy December. There weren’t any drop-ins as the times changed for Christmas  and New Year. There were two a bit further out of town, and in the morning. I was afraid of driving far with her in the snow,  she hated the car and cried, and also there was no way I could get out of the house before lunchtime, so I did not go. I was really struggling. The GP did not have a clue, told me to not feed on the most hurt nipple, and sent me to the delivery suite at the hospital. The midwives were too busy and did not understand why I was there (understandably so). One or two midwives were quite dismissive, I’ve got a few ‘I‘ve seen worse’ , which I guess they expected me to make me feel better, but really made me feel worse. 

Some of the midwives did really help in trying to ‘de-medicalise’ me, as they said. They told me to try to forget about times, writing down how much or how long she had fed, and measuring her temperature, and so on. I learnt new ways and positions to breastfeed. Also, one midwife suggested to use this wet gauze so that my scabs would not stick to my bra, and re-open every time I took my bra off to feed. All that helped enormously. Trying to establish breastfeeding was all consuming, and I felt quite demoralised. I called the helplines, and each time, I would get a bit of hope to keep going a few more days. I was online, I read books. I read somewhere that the pain might last for six weeks, which strangely gave me hope, something to hold on to. The pain became worse. I was determined to breastfeed, but this was ridiculous. My husband and parents supported me, but also told me that it was ok to give up. I heavily considered bottle feeding, and was prepared to do so if things did not improve in the next week. This was week six. I thought I would ask at the baby drop in if they could help me first. I went, told them my story, and asked them to watch me feed, and to see if they could help. They said she was doing well, she just had a tiny mouth. But one of the health visitors checked her mouth and saw some white spots. We had thrush. Which sounds bad, and it was, as it was razor like pain, but at least I knew what it was and could do something about it. Another hope to keep me going. After this, the pain slowly faded and I started to heal. And to really enjoy breastfeeding. At last I could relax into it. After so many weeks of struggle, it felt so sweet to watch that satisfied little face fall asleep contented. This was just the beginning. We ended up breastfeeding for more than 2 years, and I breastfeed easily a second time around, but that is another story.  

I think for me the struggle, the isolation, the conflictive advice, made me feel lost and I felt that it shouldn’t be like this. I didn’t want other women to feel like that. I fantasised about a space where I could just drop in whenever I needed it, a comfy, relaxed space, a sociable space, non-judgemental made just for us, mothers who were on this journey. A place thought just for our bodies and needs, instead of one in which I had to make my body fit in. It is when I became a mother that I realised most poignantly the need to belong, to be with others who welcomed me, whom I could talk freely about my experiences, and who could get what was going on for me. A place in a way that was kind to us. That deep desire, planted a seed in me, which has now become this space, but which hopefully one day will become a physical space, why not?

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