Our breastfeeding journey started so beautifully.
At our one week check-up, Aidan had put on weight. I remember feeling so proud, at the pediatrician’s “Good job mama”. The sun practically shone out of my face after hearing that little piece of validation. A life raft to cling to in that early haze of postpartum. I was doing a good job. I was getting it right.
Little did I know at the time how damaging that sentiment actually was.
In the beginning, as a new mom, I had no idea what I was doing. My squishy little newborn only seemed to sleep, and wake to eat. My job was to help him sleep, and to nourish him with my body. These were the only markers I had for whether I was performing in my new role. 1. Is he eating? Tick. 2. Is he sleeping? Tick.
The first four weeks were tough. Sleep deprivation hit me like a ton of bricks. “I can’t do this,” I said to my partner, Alex, after a night of cluster feeding. My voice cracked, releasing the overwhelm that had been brewing for hours, letting it pour down my cheeks. Of course, I did do it. As the nights kept coming, I continued to meet them with renewed strength. Women are resilient like that.
I didn’t have the best nipples, but they were doing the job – a bit overzealously if I’m being honest. The letdowns were frequent and unpredictable, but we were nailing breastfeeding.
I‘d read that a good time to introduce the bottle was four to six weeks, so at the four week mark, we did, with the idea that if Alex could do one feed in the night, I could get a bit more sleep. Yes please! I had it all figured out. But you don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t know anything about bottle preference, or nipple aversion, or pace feeding. I was aware that some babies don’t take the bottle; I thought that was my biggest concern. So I was relieved when he drank from the bottle like it was no different to the breast, albeit faster.
I thought I had the best of both worlds, the beautiful bond of breastfeeding that made my heart sing, and the bottle on standby, ready when I needed it.
Then slowly – so slowly I didn’t realize it was happening – the bottle started taking center stage. Over a matter of weeks, we went from one per day to the majority of feeds through the bottle.
He started getting frustrated at the breast. I didn’t understand. I could squeeze my nipple and milk would come out, it was there waiting for him, he had no problems latching. I didn’t understand. All I knew was I had a crying, hungry baby and milk building up in my breasts. I hand expressed 40mls and bottled-fed him, relief washing over me as his cries stopped. And so began the cycle of top-ups. He’d fuss and cry at the breast, and I’d top him up with a bottle, until our breastfeeding sessions were getting shorter, and the top-ups were getting bigger.
Then he started refusing the breast altogether. He’d latch for 30 seconds then pull away, and cry until I gave him a bottle. I couldn’t hand express enough to keep up with him, and paid the price with multiple bouts of mastitis, so we bought a hospital grade pump, and my pumping journey began.
From then on, he would occasionally breastfeed in the morning when the milk came the easiest – and only when he wasn’t on one of the complete nursing strikes that would go for days before he would allow me to breastfeed him again. Each refusal was a stab of rejection.
I began to cherish those fleeting moments, in the mornings. I snapped a phone full of photos that together painted the illusion of a full and effortless breastfeeding journey. It still makes my eyes hot and my throat tight to look at them.
I convinced myself that without breastfeeding, he would miss out on vital benefits. The saliva exchange. He needed that. He wouldn’t feel as bonded to me. He wouldn’t be as reliant on me. It was part of what made being a mom so special – I grew him for nine months, I birthed him into this world and I nourished him with my body. I was his first home, and he still felt like a part of me. It was too early for him to already start slipping out of my arms. It’s only with hindsight that I can see how I needed breastfeeding more than him.
Pumping was the next best thing I could do. But it was hard. Very hard. Six to eight times per day, in the beginning, was brutal. Waking up to feed him a bottle in the night and then staying awake to pump after settling him, was brutal. Feeding him a bottle while simultaneously pumping, frustrated by our unnecessary, cumbersome production line was beyond brutal, it was maddening.
It got easier as he started sleeping through the night, and I persuaded myself it was the right choice to keep going. He was still getting breastmilk, which was my preference, and I could get more sleep as Alex did the dream feed. As I returned to work (from home) I could pump while working. See, we can do this! And as someone who thrives on control, I liked knowing exactly how much milk I was producing and how much he was drinking.
As he approached six months, I started him on solids, eager to lessen his reliance on breastmilk. Gradually, he ate more and drank less. I am very lucky that he was – and still is – a good eater.
With every pump I dropped, I felt a little lighter, and as I edged closer to getting my body back, the process became more tedious. The less I expressed, the less milk I made until I got to a point where I was only making enough for one feed, from two pumps. He was 12 months old at this stage and I could justify that he didn’t nutritionally need breastmilk anymore; it was just an added benefit. I had built up enough of a freezer stash that I could plan to stop altogether and still give him one feed per day until 15 months, when our breastmilk journey would be complete.
As my final pumping session drew near, I was surprised to find myself feeling anxious. I had loathed pumping for the better part of a year, yet the idea of stopping felt wrong.
I need to do this for my baby. It was a mindset entrenched deep within my psyche.
It took a long time for me to accept that my mental health was just as important in helping him thrive. It took even longer to feel OK with making a choice that prioritized myself instead of my sweet boy. But it shouldn’t have.
The way we determine our success as mothers shouldn’t be based on how we choose to feed our babies. I look at my son, and I wonder if anything would be different today if we had used formula. All I see is a happy little boy who loves his mom. In fact, that’s all I see when I look at any baby, without knowing whether they were breastfed, formula-fed, or some combination of the two.
If you are a mother struggling with breastfeeding, or any type of feeding, please hear what I couldn’t hear until now: You are a good mom for loving your baby. Your mental health is just as important as the health of your baby. Feeding is hard no matter how you do it.