Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.
Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They also are not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.
Michelle’s story is another perfect example of how healthcare systems are failing women. One might argue- and rightfully so- that if lactation was given more attention in the medical field, an experience like Michelle’s wouldn’t have happened. But I would counter that argument with a warning: by making exclusive breastfeeding the goal rather than providing parents with holistic care that values the health of the mother as much as the health of the infant, we will keep seeing stories like this – regardless of how many units of “breastfeeding medicine” med students are required to take in school.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
I’ve always thought of myself as being very pragmatic and logical and I carried this trait into my pregnancy and fully expected to use it when it came to parenting. What I didn’t count on was Mommy Hormones and Mommy Feelings that all led to Mommy Guilt. Before my daughter was born I planned on breastfeeding and read all the research including all the problems that can plague breastfeeding. I bought bottles just in case but I never really expected to use them, after all breastfeeding is the logical choice, right?
My daughter was born mid-July, nearly 2 weeks late, after a textbook pregnancy and textbook induction and labour. As soon as she was born she was skin-to-skin and we breastfed within the hour with zero latching problems. Her second night we ran into some problems because my milk hadn’t come in but within another day or so I got to experience the ‘full’ joy of engorgement. Everything was going well until she was 8 days old.
The moment I got shooting pains in my breast (ol’ Lefty!), I called my midwife who was also a Lactation Consultant. Within the hour I saw her and was sent to the hospital to see an Ob. After an 8-9 hour wait he finally arrived only to take my temperature, listen to my lungs and declare that I was getting a cold (July is Winter by us so it was possible). By this time I just wanted to go home so I didn’t make a fuss that he didn’t even look at my breasts, I took his useless prescription for Vitamin C and Paracetamol and went home. By the time I got home the prescription was in tiny pieces, still the most useless one I’ve ever gotten.
A few days later my MW saw me again and she suggested I try pumping every hour and warm compresses etc just in case I had a blocked duct. But she was not fully convinced it was a blocked duct so she prescribed me antibiotics as well because by now the pain was constant, my breasts were red and there was a nice lump forming.
For more than a week I was in hell. Every time my daughter latched, or my milk came in or let down, it was like someone was plunging a red hot knife into my breast and then twisting it. I would bite my tongue or my cheek to keep from screaming. I would stand on my toes hard to try and distract me from the pain in my breast. On top of this I was starving because the antibiotics I was taking had to be taken on an empty stomach. I took it once an hour after eating a few crackers and it made me sick as a dog. I could’ve called my MW but I didn’t want to. Breastfeeding was something that I had planned on doing, something that I had researched and something that was supposed to be natural.
Two days before my next MW appointment I hit into supply problems. Looking back now I can see the logic behind it. I was starving and breastfeeding women need to eat to produce the calories for the milk. But the main reason I think was the lack on endorphins and all the happy hormones. Breastfeeding wasn’t some loving, gentle, holy bonding moment for me. It was painful, torturous hell. Milk production needs all those happy hormones and I would descend into tears when I knew that my daughter was getting hungry.
One evening she fed as usual but instead of drifting off to sleep like she had before this time she came off the breast screaming. Whenever I put her onto the breast she would suck a bit and then come off screaming. After 40 minutes of screaming I couldn’t handle it anymore so I put her down in her cot and went to brush my teeth (something that I’d been desperate to do for hours). My husband came out of the bedroom looking puzzled but when I explained to him he was happy to hold our screaming daughter for another 20 minutes while I pumped to try and get some milk into my breasts. She finally got some more milk and drifted off into exhausted sleep. After the second night of this my husband went out and came home with formula. We’d been discussing it for a few days already but I just couldn’t bring myself to actually buy some or to ask him to. He took the initiative and shouldered that guilt for me and I love him for it. That night he only let her scream for about 20 minutes before he took her and gave her some formula. She guzzled it down and had the best sleep of her life (not joking!). I was in tears but seeing her sleeping so deeply and being able to sleep more than 2 hours myself was amazing.
When I saw my MW the next day she was so encouraging about us topping up with formula. My daughter had lost weight and I looked like death warmed over. By this time the lump in my breast could fit in the palm of my hand. For an hour we tried everything she knew to move this lump before she sent me back to the hospital. I needed a scan to make sure this lump wasn’t an abscess and she reckoned that a hospital would be able to scan me quicker than my GP who would need to refer me.
Back at the hospital I only waited 3 hours before seeing the Obstetric Registrar. This time a woman who looked at my breast. I emphasise the ‘look’ so no physical examination although she asked if she could and I assented. She declared that it couldn’t be an abscess because I didn’t have a temp (hindsight: I was on the antibiotics which can remove fevers) and also because I was willing to let her touch my breast and if it was an abscess I wouldn’t let her near it. Gee and here I thought she had to touch in order to diagnose. Her recommendations went something like this:
“You need to pump every hour that you’re not feeding!”
“Oh, well you need to massage it as well!”
“You need to hire a lactation consultant!”
“My midwife is one, one of the reasons I chose her”
“Well you just need to try harder”
Rather than swearing at her I told her that it was fine but she had to be the one to call my MW, who had seen everything I was trying. Five minutes later I got a call from my MW asking what had happened. I basically repeated everything above and she told me to sit tight because she thought the Registrar was an idiot so she’d gone over her head and straight to the Ob Consultant on call and insisted the Consultant (aka, Registrar’s boss) come and see me herself.
Within a minute of that conversation the Consultant was there dragging with her a very sulky Registrar. The Consultant gave me a proper examination, one where I was gritting my teeth and jamming my nails into the palm of my hand to stop myself from crying. She told the Registrar to refer me for a scan because there was no other way to properly diagnose my lump and that a blocked duct would have moved by now.
It took 4 days and my MW chasing the Registrar before I got my referral. It took the Radiologist less than 10 seconds to diagnose a Breast Abscess, one that was bigger than the palm of my hand and deeper than my fist (10cm x 8cm x 4cm). I was operated on that night where they irrigated a ‘huge amount of frank puss’ according to my surgery notes, and was sent home the next day with a bandage that would have done a breast plate proud. For a whole weekend I could only feed on one side thanks to the bandage and just topped up with formula. It was the best two days since my daughter was born. After the bandage had been removed everyone encouraged me to put her back on that breast but I couldn’t. I sat with her in my lap telling myself to just do it, just put her on, just do it! But then she waved her arm and brushed the operation wound and the pain from that just sent me back to the hell before.
I told my MW that I couldn’t, while logically I understood that physically I could do it, mentally I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Her main concern: “Are you happy with this choice?” She was willing to help me go back to breastfeeding, willing to prescribe me the milk boosters and willing to see me every day but most importantly she was just as willing to let me breastfeed from one side and top up with formula. She was more concerned about my mental health than the supposed health benefits of breastfeeding. “Happy Mama = Happy Baby” she told me and it became my mantra. She was amazing and she was the one that went and took on the doctors that had been so useless (a few days later I got a letter of apology from the Consultant).
I mixed fed like that for about three weeks, but every day my daughter was demanding more and more formula. And one day when my nipple cracked and I felt that pain again I decided that enough was enough. Breastfeeding was not for me, not this time. A few days later my mother took the baby for a night and I didn’t even miss her. I realised that with the pain and torture that I’d gone through that I hadn’t really bonded with my daughter. That one night of freedom cemented my decision to stop breastfeeding and my milk dried up within three days with no engorgement and only one pumping session.
If it wasn’t for the positive support I received from my husband and my midwife (and from my family too) I don’t know what would have happened. I wasn’t medically depressed but I don’t think I was far from it and I hadn’t bonded with my daughter. The fact that my midwife was equally concerned for my health (both mental and physical) as well as for my baby’s is the best thing that could have happened to me and I count myself lucky every day that I chose her.
My daughter is now nearly 9 months old and when she’s in a group of babies you wouldn’t pick her out for being formula fed. She’s a happy and healthy weight, she meets her milestones either early or on time and most importantly she has a mother who has finally bonded with her. Who finally finds feeding her a pleasure and who loves seeing her and her daddy bond over a feed too and also a mother who is enjoying the freedom that bottle feeding gives.
And while everyone harps on about the pros of breastfeeding, I am glad that I have been able to find all the pros of bottle feeding too.
Feel like sharing your story? Send it to me – firstname.lastname@example.org.