This is a very personal story about my breastfeeding journey and the horrific experience which ensued when things went terribly wrong. So many people advocate breastfeeding – which is entirely right as it can be so wonderful. However, what a lot of people don’t see is the insurmountable pressure on new mums to breast feed when sometimes it isn’t best for them.
I want to start a conversation to raise awareness about this pressure and about the myths that I believed that breastfeeding is natural and those who quit only do so because they’re not doing it right. It’s featured in today’s Daily Mail and here’s my story:
Within two weeks of giving birth to my beautiful baby girl, I was taken into A&E. I was experiencing the worst pain of my life – worse than labour. And what had been the cause? Breastfeeding. Or should I say bad breastfeeding.
At only 5lb2oz, my baby was too weak to latch on after the birth and struggled to feed. I’d wanted to breastfeed so I vowed I would do whatever it took to feed my own baby. A week on, we were improving but still having problems so a breastfeeding consultant visited the house and helped me practice. I found a lump in my right breast which she told me was “fine” and that I should just “give it a rub”. After this I didn’t worry about it but it didn’t go. The lump was actually a blocked duct and within days I had mastitis.
The next day feeding from my affected breast brought me to tears. Exhausted, I went to bed and woke up disorientated, dizzy and with a raging fever. This was the night I ended up in hospital and was diagnosed with a breast abscess; 4cm in width and depth.
As it was the weekend, the specialist breast clinic was closed so I had to wait. That day was horrific. I had to express to remove some of the pressure from my building milk supply but the abscess was growing and the pain was excruciating despite taking round-the-clock pain relief.
Before being treated at the clinic on the Monday morning, the abscess burst. Aside from the pain, the sight was horrifying to me. I could barely speak and was shaking with shock. Over the next three months, my family’s almost daily routine involved visiting hospital having my wound cleaned, dressings changed and having new fluid syringed out. As if one abscess wasn’t enough, I developed five more which were thankfully caught early on but I was in continual pain and fear. It was as if the abscesses were plaguing me and I’d never be well enough just to be a normal mum.
Throughout all of this, I continued to breastfeed. I was desperate to do it – my baby loved it and I did too. I kept asking if I should stop feeding and if I did would the abscesses stop. I spoke to health professionals, breastfeeding consultants, support organisations and visited support groups. Nobody told me to stop. My husband stood by me to support what decision I made but neither of us knew the right answer; I wanted to breastfeed but I also wanted to be well enough to care properly for my daughter. Even when I did ask for help quitting, I was encouraged to plough on. I just needed objective advice and support. I wasn’t strong enough to make the decision on my own and couldn’t argue against the argument that I was doing the best for my baby. I’d had fantastic medical care but the breastfeeding support was lacking. It was only when the hospital prescribed my 11th course of antibiotics and changed it to a type which would affect my milk that I eventually stopped. Almost immediately I was better. I made a magical physical recovery but emotionally, I am still scarred.
Telling my story, people ask me why I didn’t stop breastfeeding earlier but it’s hard to describe the amount of pressure I was under – from the health service, society as a whole and even from myself. Unfortunately, I am not alone. A Care Quality Commission report last year found that one in six women who talked about feeding were overwhelmed by the pressure to breastfeed, making them feel isolated and guilty.
In a new book entitled Guilt-Free Bottle Feeding, author Madeleine Morris describes how modern mums already face a “pressure cooker culture” without the intense guilt of choosing bottle over breast but also that we have forgotten that feeding should be about both baby and mother.
She said: “The pressure comes from all around – the medical establishment, other mothers, media images of celebrities with their perfect bodies, breastfeeding their perfect babies. That leads up to pressure on ourselves. We don’t need anyone to tut-tut if they see us use a bottle. We’re already tut-tuting ourselves. In our modern society, a mother’s needs have become so subservient to her child’s that she is expected to do whatever it takes to maximise every possible benefit for her baby, no matter the cost to herself.”
The external pressures to breastfeed are exasperated by the intrinsic internal pressure mums put on themselves. From personal experience, I felt that stopping breastfeeding meant I was a failure. From my first prenatal scan, I was asked if I would breastfeed. And the questions didn’t stop. Everywhere I went, people asked if I was breastfeeding; from baby groups to strangers in the street who stopped me to coo over my baby. These pressures built up and started to eat at me from within. When I did start exclusively formula feeding, I felt so guilty. I even ran out of a coffee morning with my baby crying with hunger because I was too ashamed to pull out a bottle.
From the beginning I was told that breastfeeding was easy, the most natural thing in the world and even that mothers who quit because it hurt just weren’t doing it right. This creates unrealistic expectations for new mums as any hurdle they then experience makes them feel like a failure. While my experience was extreme, the truth is that for many it doesn’t come naturally. It can hurt and it takes time and practice and when you succeed it can be wonderful. However, in some instances, breastfeeding just isn’t in the best interest of mum or baby. Looking back, I am angry at the experience I went through. I was a vulnerable new mum – sleep deprived, hormonal and desperately trying to learn how to look after a baby. Making the right feeding choice for my baby should have been easy. I saw or spoke to 17 individuals about breastfeeding but nobody truly helped me. What we must concentrate on is not necessarily providing more support to breastfeeding mums but the right support.