Doing the Damage: My Breastfeeding Story


My sad little story is this: breastfeeding started off really well. I nailed it in hospital with no pain and at least two midwives confirmed a good latch. Feeling pretty smug, I went home happy with my status as a breastfeeding mother. I'd fallen hook, line and sinker for the 'formula is the work of the baby devil' mantra and was already patting myself on the back for my success. I was judgemental, narrow minded and oh so naive. Within a week I had nipple blisters the size of raisins. I was feeding my child a healthy mix of 50% breast milk and 50% pure blood. I was screaming silently in agony each time the Tiny Terrorist clamped her tiny, invisible shark teeth on my breast. But I was still determined. With the Lanolin flowing, I struggled on through. Eventually, within another week they toughened up. The blood to milk ratio improved and once again I was pretty damn pleased with myself.

Then came the mastitis. And the fever. And the chills. And the hospital trip. The doctor prescribed antibiotics and I wasn't knowledgeable enough to know that this was a bit like treating thrush with crabs. I did the first round of antibiotics and while the fever subsided and the pain eased other things were silently and painfully going on.

Within two days of finishing the antibiotics, the mastitis was back. Again to the doctors. Again with the antibiotics.

After the third round of mastitis and the third round of antibiotics I started to feel a whole new world of pain. Something new was wrong. I was tired, I was exhausted, I was hating motherhood and feeding and I'm pretty sure I hated the Tiny Terrorist and I was done with the whole thing. At one point the Tiny Terrorist was screaming and screaming and my husband said, "God, if this doesn't stop someone is going to call the social."

I remember thinking: I hope they do. I hope they come over tonight and take her away and I won't mind because I have literally done everything possible to get this motherhood thing right and I'm still failing. I've given it my best shot, but it's just not for me.

(Un)Fortunately, the social never came. Instead, I ended up back in hospital with a confirmed bout of mastitis again and, just to make things interesting, a thrush infection in the breast. Compared to a thrush infection in my breast, mastitis was a walk in the park. The thrush infection meant two things:

1) For the whole feed, it felt like someone was hacking off my nip-nips with a bread knife

2) Feeding suddenly got a lot more faffy and complicated with creams for my nipple after every feed (that I had to wash off before the next feed) and medicine for her after every feed.

At this point I had spent about three weeks with a constant flu-like fever, I was shaking with intense fear everytime I pulled my baby toward my breast and I was hating every minute of motherhood. At that point, I would have put the Tiny Terrorist out by the bins and I wouldn't have thought twice. Everytime I fed her, my tears silently splashed down onto her teeny, chubby cheek and I remember thinking: This isn't how it's supposed to be, surely?

It was shit for me, it was shit for her and it was shit for everyone in the house.

The hospital had said they would send a breast-feeding consultant over. I was too tired to fight them; the last person I wanted to see was another health pro telling me that I had to breastfeed but weak, vulnerable and in constant pain I didn't have any fight left in me to resist.

At 5pm that evening the breast-feeling consultant turned up. I got straight to the point:

"We need to be on the same page. This baby is not going back on my breast. If you can use that as a starting point and help me figure this feeding thing out then let's go. If not...if you're just going to sit there and tell me that it'll get better and I should just keep going then you need to leave now."

To give her credit, she quickly wiped the shock off her face and got on with it. She was amazing. She told me that there was no point taking antibiotics for mastitis - it was an inflammation not an infection - and therefore I should have been advised to take ibuprofen and hand express in a hot bath. She showed me how to hand-express; no one had ever done that. I still wanted the Tiny Terrorist to have breastmilk (formula was poisonous, wasn't it?) and so she advised a hospital grade pump.

At this point my daughter was six weeks old. I was hormonal, feeling inadequate, in pain, suffering serious scars from the breastfeeding nightmare and convinced that this hell would not end.

I started pumping and pumping. The mastitis still came and went but I was able to manage it much more effectively. I pumped day and night and when I wasn't pumping I was sterilising pumps and bottles. When I wasn't doing that I was feeding her a bottle, or in the bath hand expressing blocked up ducts until the "stringy stuff" came out. Things were better but I was still exhausted and occasionally in pain but she was getting breastmilk and that was all that mattered, right?

By this point, at eight weeks old, she was sleeping through (I know, I know...but we'd had our fair share of shit in other areas!) and I was still getting up twice a night (midnight and four a.m.) to pump to avoid the dreaded mastitis. I was sitting in the nursery on a cold January night lonely, shattered and shivering as both boobs were systematically sucked into funnels until they were red raw. But I couldn't complain...this was an improvement, right?

On top of all this, my husband was in tatters. All he wanted to do was make it stop. He wanted to fix it and make me smile and make something, anything in this special time worth remembering. He wanted to take it on, to be the one who was faced with the overwhelming responsibility of feeding our baby. He was passionate in his resolve but helpless in the face of reality.

Eventually, I couldn't pump enough. In our exhaustion-addled brains we started rationing the milk I'd pumped. When she needed four ounces we were giving her three because we had to make the milk last. She was hungry all the time and she cried and cried about it. I was stressed, tired and undernourished - an almost fool-proof way to decrease your milk flow and my husband was lost somewhere in the middle.

In an effort to stem the crying and to give me a break, my husband took her out for a walk. They both cried the whole way and when he came back he told me he'd made a decision.

"We have to give her some formula."

I replied, "We can't baby. It's so bad for her."

"What's bad for her is not getting enough milk. This isn't right. This isn't how it's supposed to be. We are on our knees and our child is hungry. I'm going to buy formula."

I was overwhelmed with relief. In all honesty, I'd been wanting to say it for ages but I felt that I couldn't. I'd been so rigid about breastfeeding that I couldn't go back on my judgemental views now plus if I had said it then I was the mother who didn't want to breastfeed. Technically, I was producing milk, I could express it was just really, really, really hard...and that wasn't a good enough reason to 'give up'? Was it?

So, we gave her her first bottle of formula and we both weeped while we did it. In an unfathomable move of solidarity we had to share the task - I gave her the first half, my husband gave her the second half. We had lost our minds. We had lost all perspective and we were slowly losing our grip on reality.

The next morning I was still distraught at the prospect of having a formula-fed baby so I called the health visitor. This was the conversation that followed:

Me (sobbing): "I've just given my eight week old baby a bottle of formula and I just need you to tell me I'm not the worst mother in the world."

Health Visitor (sighing): "Well, if you decide to go the formula route, you can always try to undo the damage you've done when it comes to weaning."

I'm sorry, what? Undo the damage? I was shocked to my very core. My sobbing ceased immediately and in that very moment I realised what a load of bollocks it all was. For a health visitor to say such a thing to a distraught, new mother was so far beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable that I knew at that very moment this breastfeeding thing had gone too far.

I made the decision there and then to formula feed my baby exclusively. Instantly, my soul was lighter, my head was clearer and I was happier. Breastfeeding had not worked for me. I had done everything. I had moved breast-shaped mountains to try and make it happen and still I was feeling shit about being a mother.

From nine or ten weeks old the Tiny Terrorist began to exist on what health professionals would have you believe is a concoction of tequila, cocaine and dung beetles, and you know what? She's fine. She's thriving...and yes, now that she's weaning I'm 'undoing the damage'.

That's my story. There's a whole other post about my thoughts on the "Breast is Best" campaign (which is nothing more than a good rhyme) but for now...that's how it went for me.