It’s been a long, long time since I’ve posted an FFF Friday feature, but I wanted to share this great piece from Fearless Admin Erin, who has recently spearheaded the resurgence of the #ISupportYou Movement along with a few other amazing women, who I’ll be introducing you to in the next few weeks.
Suzanne (The FFF)
When I think back to the first few months after the birth of my son and try to sum it up, the well-known words of Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’ seem very apt:
‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!’
I could not have felt more prepared or for my baby’s birth if I was Eileithyia herself. I study reproduction and lactation biology for a living, and my two best pals are Senior Midwives. Even before I was ever even thinking of becoming pregnant, I was having conversations about childbirth and lactation on a daily basis. In a sense, I had been preparing for pregnancy and birth for years. Then, when the two lines came up on the pregnancy test my quest for knowledge intensified. I read multiple books on pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. I attended a baby fair. I even shelled out a ridiculous sum of money on an even more ridiculous hypnobirthing course, but that’s a different story (I’m still bitter). I knew a helluva lot about pregnancy, labour and lactation; from the physiology I had studied as a scientist, to potential obstetric emergencies and how a medical team would respond should they occur.
Perhaps, in hindsight, this was part of the problem.
As The Bard prophesised, the best laid plans don’t guarantee success. My wee Mouse decided he was ready to meet the world a full 4 weeks before his due date, on day 1 of my maternity leave. As we left calmly for the hospital, having been advised to come in following my membranes rupturing, I waved goodbye to the next four weeks of doing nothing but relaxing in the July sunshine with a couple of bonkbusters. That was particularly disappointing because at 8 months pregnant and resembling a pufferfish, that was the closest to bonking I was going to get.
In the five hours that followed I had a textbook birth, and mercifully quickly. I enjoyed the sweet, sweet relief of the gas and air after being admitted to the labour ward at 10cm dilated (or ‘fully’ as the midwives called it to my amusement) and my son was delivered by my friends, who were both on duty that day. It was bloody perfect.
Just after he was born, one of my friends told me she was going to ask my husband to cut the cord as my son was ‘a bit flat’. I knew that this meant he needed some stimulation to breathe, but didn’t panic. The room was an oasis of calm and as he was premature, the Neonatal Team were already in the room so they got to work right away. After some suction, he let out a lovely big yell and all was well. We enjoyed some skin-to-skin while the duty midwife helped him latch and he appeared to enjoy his first breastfeed.
After a glorious shower and the best tea and toast I have ever eaten, we were moved through to the postnatal ward. My friends went back to work and after a while my husband went home to shower, change and get me some supplies. I spent a lovely afternoon snuggling and staring in wonder at this wrinkled wee blue burrito I had been given and tried a few times to feed him. It looked like he was doing what he was supposed to but, having never done this before I wasn’t sure. He was very sleepy and content so I wasn’t worried.
That evening, everything changed. During the routine tests, the Doc identified that our wee one’s blood glucose level was dangerously low and he was admitted to NICU. While there, he vomited up old blood and it was quickly established that he had no suck reflex. He was given a feeding tube and I was encouraged to hand express to stimulate my milk.
The first time I hand expressed with help from the midwife, I got 0.1ml colostrum. Yes, you read that right, 0.1ml. I sucked the droplets up into a 1ml syringe and it was brought to the NICU even though it was mostly empty. I continued to hand express through the night and got nothing. Not a drop.
In the NICU, I was given a hospital grade pump and started the routine of putting baby to the breast to try and stimulate both his suck reflex and my milk, feeding him with formula, and then pumping to try and get some breast milk for him. This routine was to continue for the next three months.
After a week, he was discharged from hospital and we went home. When the Public Health Nurse visited two days later he had lost weight, even though I had been feeding him the milk I had pumped, as well as formula. We were teetering very close to being readmitted which was a horrible thought and very scary. Each feed was a struggle; try to nurse, cry (both of us usually), bottle feed, pump, repeat. It was relentless. The three of us were miserable. It was clear I was producing very little milk. I kept records (hello, scientist remember!) and my maximum daily production, even when taking off-label drugs to boost supply – don’t try this at home, it’s extremely dangerous – was 150ml of milk. Five measly ounces. I was waking up in the middle of the night, even when I didn’t have to because my husband was doing the night feeds, to pump as little as 2ml of breast milk from each boob. I attended a weekly breastfeeding group, staffed by a public Health Nurse and Lactation Consultant, where I was the only Mum to bring a bottle. I used to save the breast milk I had pumped for that bottle as the other ladies there were very scornful of formula. I look back now and can laugh at the ridiculousness of it all! What in the ever loving you-know-what was I thinking?
Through all of this, we were also dealing with an undiagnosed Cow Milk Protein Allergy (CMPA) which was horrendous. Our GP and hospital Paediatricians and Nurses palmed us off as paranoid parents. I was given the explanation that ‘babies cry’ and scoffed at. I felt like a failure. Like nobody was listening to me and I was going out of my mind with frustration. Frustration that my boobs weren’t doing what they were supposed to, even though I was doing everything the books told me to, and that they promised me would work. Frustration that my baby cried all day and nobody believed me that something was wrong. Frustration that I couldn’t get advice on formula feeding from my medical providers. Frustration that neither me, nor my husband had any idea what we should do. I was suffering from postpartum anxiety and not far from depression. That’s when a bit of internet searching led me to the Fearless Formula Feeder.
It’s no exaggeration to say that finding FFF changed my life. Immediately I felt listened to and validated. It felt like a massive weight was lifted off my shoulders. I cried. A lot. The amazing women in that group helped me and my family more than they will ever know; from practical advice on formula feeding that seemed so scarce elsewhere, to allowing me to process my initial feelings of failure and later my anger at having succumbed to the relentless societal pressure to exclusively breastfeed.
When and why had I become so fixated on this goal of exclusive breast feeding? I honestly have no idea. I think it’s so ingrained in our societal psyche that it just chips away at you without you really knowing. I also feel that a lot of it was fuelled by the information I was reading in books and websites from well-known (although sometimes self-appointed) breastfeeding experts. I was learning that if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong, my body was built to breastfeed and to just keep putting baby to the breast. I now see these statements as the gaslighting, naturalistic fallacy and useless advice that they are, respectively. One surprising fountain of misinformation was the NHS. I mean, who questions the NHS? They’re a public health service, the NHS must be completely evidence based, right? Well, aye. If you don’t count the homeopathy and acupuncture…..
In the end, I came to my senses. With a little nudge in the right direction from my midwife pal who told me very unceremoniously to “f*ck up”! It sounds harsh, but it’s sound advice here in Scotland and I thanked her profusely! Because she’s a midwife, it felt like I had official permission to stop torturing myself. I ditched that damned pump and never looked back. Had it not been a rented hospital pump I would’ve smashed the bastard to smithereens with a mallet! Around the same time, my wonderful cousin pulled some professional strings resulting in a diagnosis of CMPA and finally getting the right formula for our son. Our red faced screamin’ demon turned into a angel overnight.
Now, almost three years later, I am honoured to be part of the Admin Team at FFF and to have been trusted with the I Support You baton, which I have reignited with my fellow Admins and new BFF Stephy! I hope sharing my experiences with other women who are just starting out on the rocky road of motherhood will do for them what the kind words of other Fearless Formula Feeders did for me.
I have also used my sciencey skills to do some actual literature research about infant feeding, as opposed to internet googly research, and have been amazed, angered and incredulous at the sheer volume and audacity of misinformation out there. Let’s not even get started on the public moralisation of how a woman uses her breasts. As a scientist, I am still ashamed that I trusted what I read about breast and formula feeding without reviewing the original source of the claims. It’s the first bloody rule of science club; always read the original study! But, even scientists are busy and sometimes skip that bit. So, hopefully, by breaking down and summarising the data I can help people access accurate information in more palatable and bitesize chunks. Go science!
I also wonder if perhaps my knowledge of the physiology of lactation gave me a false sense of security. Ultimately, no amount of reading or preparation can influence biology and thinking you can do will leave you, as Robert Burns said, with nothing but grief and pain for promised joy.
Burns was a passionate laddie, who wrote about his loves and influences so in that spirit, this story is my Ode to FFF; to the wonderful women who supported me and to the wonderful friends I have made along the way. Thank f*ck my boobs didn’t work!