For something that is so natural, it definitely doesn’t come naturally – at least it didn’t for me. Mother Nature really didn’t cut me any slack when it came to breastfeeding. Initiating breastfeeding soon after birth is highly recommended to help with latching. When Ayaan was born it was about an hour and a half until we tried breastfeeding. At our first try he did not latch and I was a little disheartened so we started with some skin to skin to begin bonding.
Ayaan had to spend his first 24 hours in the NICU because his body temperature and oxygen levels were a little low. Though this is sometimes normal, these levels usually elevate after some skin to skin but it didn’t for us. We were on the opposite end of the hospital but every time he would wake up for a feed, the nurses would call our ward, my husband would wheel me down to the NICU and we would try to get him to latch. The great thing about being able to stay in the hospital was the constant help we had. Every time we would attempt to feed we had a midwife help us; he would latch every time with their help and almost never without. His vitals improved very quickly and was moved to our ward the next day.
The second night I was up from about 10pm until 6 am the next day feeding. I thought this is what cluster feeding is all about so I pushed. We were given a little sheet to track his feeding and diaper changes. The following morning, the midwife came in to check on us and noticed that Ayaan had not passed urine for about 15 hours and this was not normal. They recommended we give him some formula because he was probably really hungry – but also if he passed urine right away we would know there were no issues with his digestive track. My heart sank – my baby had been hungry the whole time and I couldn’t even tell. I cried when we gave him formula – he drank it so quickly because he was so hungry. That was when I realised Ayaan had not been latching at all.
With lots of help Ayaan began to latch better on the right but not so well on the left. On our fourth day in the hospital we weighed him to assess his weight gain. Though he had gained weight, the nurses were still a little concerned that he was not feeding so well on the left breast. They suggested we try using a nipple shield to help him. When we first tried it – I thought it was amazing because he fed so well! Why didn’t everyone just use nipple shields? And it wasn’t as painful! The nurses were happy with his progress so we felt confident to go home on day 5.
The more we used the shields though the lazier he became. If he was too sleepy he would not latch on either side without them. I found sterilising and cleaning after every use was inconvenient. He would wake about every two hours to feed, and I would end up using both the shields every time he fed. So after every feed, when he was swaddled and back in his moses basket, I would get up and clean the shields before I went back to bed. Doing this for a couple of days was fine but it soon became cumbersome.
A week after being discharged we were back in the hospital because I had a 39.9 degree fever. I was on pain killers and anti-inflammatories at the time because of my stitches and as a result didn’t realise that I had mastitis on my left breast. We thought we were just going in for a check and would be able to go back home, but my heart rate was too fast and my fever kept spiking. We were admitted back into the hospital that night. For the first couple of hours I had to have my vitals checked every 15 minutes and I was put on an IV for antibiotics for 24 hours. The positive side to all of this was that we once again had round the clock support to help with latching. I thought this was my chance to stop using the nipple shields. We ended up staying in the hospital for two nights because I had sepsis as a result of the mastitis. I was too tired and weak to try getting him to latch and using the nipple shields was just easier, so we continued.
When we were back home I tried to get as many midwives as I could to help us get the latch perfected. Again when they were around he would do so well but when we were alone we couldn’t manage. I remember one night I tried to stop using the shields cold turkey. Ayaan and I both cried for most of the night and we were not successful. I felt awful for putting him through so much distress.
Our midwives were great, but we would rarely have the same midwife come visit more than once. At one such visit we were referred to a new organisation that assisted new mothers with breastfeeding. At our initial visit with them we had a lactation consultant and a breastfeeding peer guide us. The great thing about the organisation was that they would come see us as often as we needed them to and we would have the same person come every time so we didn’t need to explain our situation multiple times. The support of all the midwives, the health visitor and the breastfeeding peers was so crucial in our breastfeeding journey.
I remember clearly the day we stopped using nipple shields. When Ayaan was two weeks and three days old, just before his first afternoon feed, I picked him up and explained to him why using the nipple shields was inconvenient and difficult for me and why I needed him to latch without them so that we can successfully reach at least our six-month exclusive breastfeeding goal. After that talk he latched on right away and continued to do so successfully and we have never used nipple shields since. He latched on to the right side very well but still had some trouble with the left but it was an incredible improvement. If we didn’t have the constant support I think I would have reverted back to using nipple shields.
I don’t have anything against nipple shields. They are a great tool to breastfeed with if you are struggling, but it just was not for me.
After a week of nipple shield free feeding, I started to feel pain in both my breasts. It felt like shards of glass being pulled out with every feed. I thought my mastitis was back. The advice to recover from mastitis is to continue feeding – so thats what I did for about another week. I would dread every feed but I thought recovery was on the horizon so I just tried to pull through with the help of painkillers. When there was no improvement I consulted our health visitor who thought it wasn’t a relapse but that I had thrush on both breasts, which is apparently very common after mastitis. This usually occurs because antibiotics kill the good bacteria along with the bad and this is the perfect environment for thrush to thrive. And so we began treatment for thrush. At this point I didn’t think I was ever going to enjoy breastfeeding and I so wanted to.
It wasn’t until Ayaan was about eight weeks old that I started to feel comfortable breastfeeding, in the comfort of my home that is – feeding in public is a whole other challenge. I haven’t met a mother yet who didn’t have some challenges with breastfeeding. I understand now why so many women choose not to continue breastfeeding or even initiate it. Not only does it take a physical toll on you, it can be mentally challenging too. A lot of mothers also feel ‘touched out’ because you have a little human attached to you for about 20-60 minutes almost every two hours. Not to mention you have to think twice about what clothes to wear because you want to be able to easily and discreetly feed.
Breastfeeding can be incredibly overwhelming, especially in the first few weeks because you have so much else going on. If you choose to breastfeed you have to deal with engorged and leaking breasts. You’re still recovering from labour, you’re sleep deprived, always exhausted and trying to figure out how best to care for your little human. I felt very lucky to be in the UK for my first few weeks postpartum because I had a lot of support that helped me continue to breastfeed. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you what a great job you are doing and that everything will become better with time.
After almost 4 months of breastfeeding I still have days when I feel like I will never reach my breastfeeding goals which are to exclusively breastfeed for six months and then continue for two years. I have found talking to other mamas helps a lot. Slow down and take one feed at a time. Whether you are exclusively breastfeeding, breastfeeding and using formula or only using formula, this journey is yours to take with your baby, so you have to do what works best for YOU. A happy and healthy mama raises a happy and healthy baby.