A guest blog from Jeni Atkinson
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I didn’t really consider that I would do anything other than breastfeed her. I’m not sure if I was breastfed as a baby, but I certainly remember my mum making up formula for my younger siblings and helping to bottle feed them. So, by all logic that would have been the more obvious choice given that it was what I’d been brought up with, it was my ‘normal.’ But, no, from seemingly nowhere I was very clear on my choice and despite reservations from my partner I made sure that skin to skin and breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth were written into my birth plan.
When my daughter arrived, I soon discovered that breastfeeding was hard, my boobs were sore and cracked and I was exhausted. In the hospital I’d been given some support with latching her on and she was gaining weight which seemed positive. However, by the time she was 3 weeks old we were struggling, my little girl wasn’t gaining as much weight as the professionals thought she should, and she was very unsettled and constantly sick. By 4 weeks I was so stressed out and feeling like I was failing my daughter in fulfilling her most basic need. I was exhausted and the lack of sleep was making everything feel impossible.
My mum suggested I might have supply issues and my health visitor thought perhaps a dairy allergy was the issue and both suggested that formula and the health professionals more specifically soya formula. By this point, as much as I was disappointed in myself and my body, I was also desperate for an excuse to give up. So, at 4 and a half weeks, I gave up and honestly it was a massive relief. The soya formula was exactly what she needed, she became more settled and stopped the constant vomiting and we both slept for more than an hour for the first time in a month.
Formula feeding was logistically more difficult; sterilising bottles and packing the right number of them to go out and measuring out the powder took so much more thinking about. But it was so worth it, both for my ability to function and parent and for her health. Now, I know in hindsight that a change in my diet to cut out dairy would have meant the same, if potentially slower outcomes. But I don’t regret my choice at all, it did what we needed it to, and it did it quickly.
Fast forward 2 years and towards the end of my pregnancy with my second baby, I was really torn, should I try again with the breastfeeding? Knowing it was going to be difficult and painful or opt for formula from day 1 and deal with the logistics? Eventually I decided on a second attempt at breastfeeding, but brought a steriliser, bottles and a tin of formula ‘just in case’. I felt I needed a back up plan so if I found I couldn’t cope I had the means to go with the alternative to hand. My son arrived unexpectedly at 35 weeks weighing just 5lb 1oz. I cuddled my tiny boy and encouraged him to feed, he rooted, and he tried but he could not latch, he got more and more distressed and I remember crying and asking what was wrong with me that he didn’t want my boobs.
As it turns out, it wasn’t that he didn’t want my milk, he had an underdeveloped latch reflex, so he just couldn’t do it. He had his first couple of feeds of nutraprem formula from a cup, just lapping it up a tiny bit at a time. I was OK with the formula as an option if its what he needed, but my boobs were very uncomfortable. A midwife asked if I’d like to express so milk for him, she suggested that it might make me more comfortable and that my milk would be good for him. What? I could feed him my milk with him having to get it from my breast? Yes, this was new information to me, it was the first I had heard of expressing milk!
She taught me how to hand express and it was a revelation, I was so happy to be able to give my little boy my milk albeit not in the way I had envisaged. I invested in a breast pump and for 6 months I pumped my milk for him, first with the cup and then after a few weeks I managed to get him to suck from a bottle which made things a bit more practical. I never managed to get him to latch on to me, but I did manage to exclusively feed him breast milk until the point we introduced solid food just after 6 months which I was over the moon about, I was so happy with what we had achieved together. I swapped to cartons of follow on formula at that point as I felt like I had done the all-important early months and that formula was a more practical option now he was having a mixed diet.
Baby number 3 was going to be my first baby to have breast milk from my breasts, I was older now, better informed about the benefits and more determined. Fate and my second son had other ideas and he arrived at 33 weeks, my second premature baby and my second with an underdeveloped suck reflex. But this time I knew what to do, or so I thought. I asked for a pump and a cup and expressed a tiny amount of colostrum so his first feed would be my milk. He tried, but he was tiny, and he was tired, after a day of not managing more than a fraction of a ml the decision was made to give him a nasal-gastric tube to give him some time to rest and recover from birth. He made quick progress and by the time he was 2 weeks old he was feeding from a bottle by himself and the tube was taken out.
It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I knew what I was doing, I felt confident and I knew what I was setting out to do was achievable. Not long after the tube was taken out it was clear that something wasn’t quite right, most of what my little boy was drinking he was vomiting back up almost immediately after his feed and it was getting worse. He started to lose weight and the doctor prescribed him infant Gavisgon for gastric reflux. It helped a bit, but what helped most of all was a health visitor suggesting upright feeding and keeping him upright following his feed. This was difficult at first and I struggled to let him sleep and keep him upright and run around after a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old. This is when I had a moment of genius and dug out the carrier I had used with the older ones, it was a Chicco carrier that I had been gifted and it worked perfectly! We could feed to sleep in the sling and then let him nap upright, the relief I felt at my son finally being comfortable and settled was immense and we made it to 6 months of exclusively pumped breast milk.
Baby number 4 was expected to be early, possibly even earlier than the previous 2, my goal was the get to 32 weeks. It was a massively scary prospect, but I knew what I was getting myself into, I’d done it before, and I’d do it again. I was carefully monitored and again, I made sure I had all the bottle-feeding kit and pump ready. So, imagine my surprise, when I not only made it to 32 weeks, I made it to 39 weeks, my longest pregnancy. My second daughter was born onto my chest and had her first breastfeed at around half an hour old. She latched on and drank from by boob straight away, it was so wonderful and unexpected, but I doubted myself and I doubted my body. After my first experience with baby number one all those years ago, I was ready for something to go wrong.
It didn’t, yes it was hard and yes it was painful at first, but it was so different to my previous experience, after a few weeks my boobs became a bit more comfortable and after a few months I began to find it easier and ultimately it just came absolutely natural to us both. This was the type of milk feeding that worked for us. My now almost 4-year-old daughter and her younger sister who has just turned 2, and took to it equally as naturally, are still feeding and we intend to encourage natural term weaning when they are ready.
None of these options have been easy, formula feeding was hard, pumping was hard, breastfeeding was hard, feeding babies is fucking hard however you feed them. I have made many choices along the way and they haven’t always been easy either, but for me, it’s been about making the best, most informed choice I could at the time with the information and knowledge I had at the time and I have no regrets about any of them.
About The Author
Jeni is the owner of Little Possums and Derby and Nottingham Sling Library along with her partner Bob. Jeni is passionate about making carrying accessible to all. Little Possums offers their Pre-Loved scheme, which provides a place to purchase carriers for as low as a £10 deposit. Our ex-rental carriers are all sent to new homes via her!