A MOTHER: breastfeeding guilt
Unicef data shows that the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with eight out of ten women stopping breastfeeding before they wanted to and this is mostly due to lack of support from public services.
Jasmin is one of those women. Committed to breastfeeding her new baby Olive who was born in July 2021, Jasmin lacked support and had some negative experiences with midwives after the birth of her daughter which ultimately led to her stopping breastfeeding before she wanted to.
As someone who has exclusively breastfed over a year now (Otto refuses milk in any other form!) i sometimes yearn for the day of freedom where he can be put to bed without me, not pull my boob out in the middle of the street etc. However, when i read Jasmin's story i realised how lucky i was to have had a positive experience.
Unfortunately it really is a postcode lottery when you're dealing with the NHS, and i was extremely lucky to get 1-2-1 support pre & post baby (I have a breastfeeding blog post with my positive experience/some helpful support links if anyone wants to read it)
I'm so glad Jasmin took part in this series, I'm sure her story will resonate with others, so i hope you enjoy reading her story.
First time Mum here, and just working it out as I go!!
1. How did you feel about feeding in pregnancy, did you have a clear plan? Feel open to whatever worked?
I had always planned to breastfeed. To be honest, it hadn’t really occurred to me that I might not. I do feel I was quite prepared. I wouldn’t say I knew lots about it, so when my Health Visitor called to introduce herself near the end of my pregnancy, and she offered breastfeeding support, I actually jumped at the chance. A breastfeeding consultant came to my home with brochures and props and all sorts. We talked it all through, she demonstrated with her knitted boob (!) and although it felt a little overwhelming, I figured it was a very natural process and therefore it would just come easily. It wasn’t something I worried about too much.
Interestingly, my sister-in-law actually dropped round a Perfect Prep machine, some bottles and formula for us, just in case we needed them. I remember her saying you just never know how things will go and you don’t want to be stuck, and that was the first time I’d thought, oh! You’ll hear later how grateful we were for that!
2. Did your hospital offer any feeding support groups during pregnancy?
Unfortunately, for more than half of my pregnancy, we were in yet another lockdown. So all the support groups that might have been on offer in the past were cancelled. There was a generic online course that the NHS had outsourced to some company - I remember starting it but there were about 20 modules and I think I just lost the will with the lack of interaction. Thinking on it now, I’m not sure how much that would’ve helped? Because with the best will in the world, even armed with all the knowledge you can get, your baby is doing their own thing! They don’t get to read the books and do the courses! So you might feel in control but it’s counterproductive when you’re battling with a baby who has other ideas (that little nugget of advice applies to ALL things baby by the way!).
3. Did you feel like you had enough support post birth in hospital in regards to breastfeeding?
Olive was born three weeks early and very, very suddenly! I realised I was contracting about 2am, and I was in active labour pretty much straight after. We raced to the hospital as soon as I felt that down push, but we live 30 mins away and I didn’t think we’d make it. I arrived at the hospital with a baby already between my legs - one push and she was out. Olive was born at 4.10am! She was unresponsive at first and took some time to come round. I think she was probably still in a state of shock? She was only 6lb 2oz. As she lay on my chest for that magical ‘golden hour’, I waited for her to find her way to my breast and latch on herself, as was explained to me in all my reading and discussions. And she absolutely didn’t. Olive wasn’t interested in feeding at all. The labour had all happened so fast, to be honest I almost couldn’t blame her for being a bit dazed and confused.
The midwife didn’t seem fussed either - she explained that babies are born with fat stores and she’d be ok for a good while without milk, and we could try again later. We did try several more times, but neither myself nor the midwives could get her to latch. They showed me how to express my colostrum into a syringe - what a painstaking process that was for approximately 0.5ml! But we were hoping it was enough for Olive to get a tiny taste which would encourage her to try again. It didn’t!
The midwife asked how I felt about going home and I asked if I could stay another night just to get the feeding established. Covid rules meant my partner was sent home, and I really didn’t want to stay without him. But I felt I needed the support to get things going - I just didn’t trust that Olive and I could make this work on our own. They said there would be feeding support arranged for me and I was moved on to the maternity ward later that night. Unfortunately, this is where it all turns a bit sour.
The staff on the ward were less than helpful. No one spoke to me let alone offered any support. I don’t know if it’s because I arrived at the shift changeover, but I honestly feel like no one even knew I was there. I was woken in the middle of the night by a midwife demanding to know why I hadn’t fed my baby (there was a feeding chart for me to complete that no one had told me to fill in) I explained to her that I needed help as Olive hasn’t been able to latch yet, and I couldn’t have been any more of an inconvenience to her. She was extremely rough with Olive, thrusting her face into my breast, with an aggressive hold on her head. This really upset me. But I didn’t feel able to say anything. You want to trust that the professionals know what they are doing but it just didn’t feel right to me. Again, it was unsuccessful. I continued to express and syringe feed, but I was becoming more and more agitated.
Fast forward to the morning, still no successful feed (and no offer of any alternative) and no visit from any support team as was promised. I felt totally lost - I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t feel anyone was helping. Every new midwife I met seemed to make me feel really stupid - like some silly little girl who didn’t know how to look after a baby. And I admit I didn’t, but none of us first timers do, right?!
When the new Sister took over that morning, I begged her to let me go home. I just felt the environment and people were making me more anxious and stressed, which wasn’t ever going to be conducive to a successful experience anyway! She was the kindest person I’d met so far, she said she’d arrange for the support team to come and see me, and she gave me a premade formula bottle for Olive. I felt so relieved to be listened to and for Olive to have some food!
But I waited all day. All the while Olive’s Dad wasn’t allowed to visit which was heart breaking. And I felt pretty useless as a Mum at this point. So I was definitely feeling overwhelmed.
Around teatime, a lady from the breastfeeding team came along. My initial relief was met with sheer disappointment when I realised it was the exact same spiel I’d had during my pregnancy! I learned nothing new, she didn’t even ask me to hold Olive and try it. But it did mean I could finally go home - despite the Sister being reluctant. I knew I’d be seeing my Community Midwife the next day, and I had a much better relationship with her and hoped that would help. I can’t tell you how happy I was to leave that hospital!
4. How was the initial latch/early days? Were you supported by health visitors?
My midwife, and student accompanying, were both super lovely and they just tried to stay really positive. ‘Just keep trying, don’t stress, you’ll get there eventually, she won’t starve. etc. etc.’ all the reassuring things the hospital staff could’ve said but didn’t - they just made me feel like it was my fault!
I was advised to try nipple shields, just to give Olive a more pronounced area to latch on to. This proved to be really helpful initially and I almost felt like we’d cracked it (and yet, every breastfeeding account I followed told me to ditch them asap - conflicting information is also a real challenge in motherhood!).
They also arranged for someone from the Breastfeeding Peer Support Group to call me for a chat and a visit if I wanted. I was dubious - would it be the same disappointment as before? Not at all. She was absolutely lovely, and arranged to come and see us. She stayed for 90 mins, helped me get Olive to latch, and talked me through every detail of what Olive was doing during the feed. Don’t get me wrong, she didn’t magically start feeding properly - she agreed she wasn’t quite getting it but just to keep trying. Unfortunately, I felt the more we tried the more distressed Olive would get. This was now several weeks after giving birth and I was starting to wonder if it was just too little too late.
5. Would you say you enjoyed breastfeeding/ How was your experience?
I actually really did enjoy it when we had those short moments of success. Probably my favourite thing was side lying in bed where she would feed a little and then fall asleep and we’d be cuddled in together. It was often more about the comfort than the feed - for both of us! I loved that closeness, and I’ll be honest, it almost made me feel I was a ‘real Mum’.
But when it didn’t go well… I was consumed by guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and I felt totally powerless. It was a real low point for me.
6. How long did you breastfeed? Was it exclusively or were you pumping/combi feeding?
So our breastfeeding journey only lasted 6 weeks. See, there we go, I used the term ‘only’ as if it’s not good enough! I think it’s so sad that we’re conditioned to think that, and yet there are so many factors - support being a HUGE factor - that impacts on that. But I still blame myself for not doing well enough! That right there is the biggest challenge with motherhood!
Although Olive had started to feed, it was in very small spurts. I was panicking that she wasn’t getting enough from me so I would top up with expressed milk if I could. Expressing hadn’t been very successful either - I was at it for hours, gaining very little. I was exhausted and stressed. So I had started to top up with that emergency formula we had - and also top up my own feelings of guilt!
The only positive to this was that Olive’s Dad was able to feed too which he absolutely loved.
7. What was the cause of you changing to formula and how was that process for baby?
By 6 weeks, despite desperately trying to feed and express, we always ended up back at the formula. I realised that she was happier, which meant I was happier. At the end of the day, a well fed and happy baby is what we all want and I did have that. There really shouldn’t have been anything more to discuss. But the Mum guilt was overpowering. So the final transition was probably more difficult for me than it was for Olive.
8. Mentally how did you feel about the change? Do you feel like even now you are affected by it?
As I said, the feelings of guilt and inadequacy were intense.
Inadequacy more so because I genuinely don’t think anyone had prepared me for how hard it was going to be. I really feel I was led to believe that it just happens naturally, and that is so not the case. So to have that in your head, whilst knowing it’s not working for you, just makes you feel like it must be something that’s wrong with you. I wish I’d known then the reality of it is so far from that. I now know so many other Mums who have struggled with breastfeeding. I wasn’t an isolated case. Maybe if the conversation around challenges had been more open, I wouldn’t have beat myself up so much.
There was also a huge amount of guilt. We all want to be the best Mum to our little ones and breastfeeding is synonymous with motherhood. I just kept thinking, I’m a bad Mum if I don’t breastfeed. This meant I carried on in a situation that was distressing for both me and Olive, against my better judgement, and all so I could live up to some imaginary notion of what being a Mum really is. The guilt also crept in every time someone asked the loaded question - ‘are you feeding her yourself?’ I honestly don’t know why that question has become a thing. Like, genuinely, what does it matter to you - a well-meaning but relative stranger - how I feed my child? It is bizarre. And yet, if I had a pound for every time I was asked that, well I wouldn’t be stressing about going back to work!!
The societal expectation of a ‘one size fits all’ experience is so far removed from the reality (that includes things like sleep - they really don’t all ‘sleep through the night’!) I honestly don’t know why we don’t challenge this more. Seriously, if there was only one correct way to raise a child, it would be detailed in a hardback manual given to everyone who has a baby. That doesn’t exist. Because every baby is different. And as Mothers, we need to be permitted to trust our instincts to do what we know is right for our baby. Without the imaginary rule book!
9. Did you have any favourite feeding accounts on social media or any other online resources?
I did, and still do follow so many breastfeeding accounts. During the early days, I was desperately searching for ideas and answers that might help me be more successful. Now I still follow, I think, to have that reassurance that lots of women struggle and I’m not alone. I’m still learning lots, and I’d like to think that will build my confidence should we be lucky enough to have more children in the future and I can try again. But as I said earlier, it means nothing to the baby who hasn’t read it. If there was a next time, I’d probably have far less in the way of expectation and just go with the flow.
My favourite account is probably @kathrynstaggibclc
As a lactation consultant, Kathryn obviously advocates for breastfeeding, but I feel she does so in a really positive and empowering way. I’ve never felt ‘less than’ reading her account because I eventually formula fed. She provides information on both, and ultimately supports Mums to do what they need to do for their little one. I really love that. She’s super down to earth, and has a great sense of humour, which is pretty essential during the trials and tribulations of parenting!
10. If you could go back in time would you do anything differently?
I wish I had persevered in asking for help much earlier. I think after my experience in the hospital, I just lost all confidence in doing so. But earlier intervention is definitely key and might have changed the journey we ended up on.
I wish I’d also trusted my own instincts. Easier said than done when you don’t actually know what you’re doing! But if I’d listened to myself, rather than place all that pressure on myself to do what was expected of me, the journey might have been less distressing for both Olive and I.
11. What would you tell yourself if you could go back?
I would just be kinder to myself. I knew nothing about babies or motherhood before having one myself. There was so much to navigate and learn. I really shouldn’t have got so hung up on that one aspect as it probably detracted from all the other things I was doing so well. Ultimately, I know now that Olive being breastfed or not doesn’t define her as a person, and it certainly doesn’t define me as a Mum. I have a happy, thriving girl who is nearly 9 months old and I should be really proud of that!