When I was pregnant I was pretty ambivalent about breastfeeding. I knew it was probably ‘best’, but I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. I think in a strange way I didn’t believe it would really work! These boobs?? Producing milk?? All a bit too weird. I’m hardly the earth mother type, and my IVF pregnancy was probably the most medicalised event of my life!
My baby was born by c-section, and he was taken away as he was quite early so didn’t have any initial feeding experiences. I was given some brief advice on expressing colostrum and like many people was pretty disheartened by the 0.1ml I managed after 30 minutes of determined squeezing!
But I continued, mainly because I wanted to do something for my baby, who looked so fragile in his incubator. I hadn’t had any idea I needed to do it so often, and the constant pressure from the NICU to keep producing more and more was stressful! They were after 5ml every few hours, and I think I produced less than 1ml for the first day or so. Then I was so pleased with my 2.5ml, and they said ‘great, 10ml is needed every 3 hours now!’. I nearly gave up, and I happily agreed to a request to give him formula, as he was too tiny to risk losing much weight. In fact I was shocked to find they had let him go hungry! Feed the baby!!
On about day 4 my milk arrived! It’s a funny thing, but it really happens. From then on it was hospital pumps while we waited for E to grow.
Baby E still couldn’t suckle after almost 2 weeks, and I was getting disheartened. We had a few attempts on the breast but there were a few big problems such as jaundice making him tired, but the biggest problem was my massive engorged boobs and flat nipples! His teeny tiny mouth was just too small. I couldn’t help laugh thinking my boobs must have looked like a small moon to him! And he was supposed to latch onto my teeny flat nipples. It looked hopeless, and slightly comic with his little head and acres of white boob smothering him. The only way to get him home was to get him feeding, so we were very close to switching to bottles…
But we had SUCCESS! It was actually quite sudden once we had the magic of the nipple shields! One nurse suggested them tentatively, I think worried I would be offended, but I was more than happy to try. Suddenly he had something to get his non-existent teeth into. He got a good suck on, pulled the nipple up into the shields and suddenly we had milk flow! I admit I cried I was so pleased. It was really magical to see his little mouth working away and feeding. A really special moment. And it was roughly then that I fell in love with breastfeeding. It was so primal, so natural and really beautiful.
How do they work? The shields (I used Medela) are little bits of plastic that create a more firm nipple for you. Keep them sterile, and when feeding stick the slightly damp shields on your nipples. The baby sucks and your natural nipple is pulled through. The baby stimulates your breast tissue through the thin plastic. Some people say the stimulation is less effective, and that it can lead to nipple confusion. I can only give my experience, but I felt there was plenty of pressure from the baby onto the breast tissue, and he was happy to move between shields, bottles and eventually a dummy.
Once we were home things were pretty normal I think. Cluster feeding, stress over lack of weight gain, endless feeds, and the deep satisfaction of the odd milk drunk face. I used the shields for about 10 weeks, some expressed milk in bottles by my partner, the odd bit of formula and a looooot of reflux. Stopping using the shields took about a week once baby E was big enough. I reverted from time to time, but after a few weeks they were never used again.
So, to summarise what worked for me:
- Manual expressing of colostrum for the first few days. With some combi feeding to keep the baby fed.
- Lots of expressing in the early weeks which built supply, and a nice freezer stash of milk.
- Nipple shields!!
- Lots and lots of milk building foods. Porridge every day, lactation cookies, keeping hydrated with lots of water and milk.
- Holding my big floppy boobs in place for him, as well as pushing it away from his little nose so I didn’t suffocate him. Poor bub, such a lot of boob, so little baby…
- Feeding, feeding, feeding to build up supply.
As I didn’t feed baby E directly at first I never had any nipple pain at all. Using shields from the start and having the time to let my milk come in made all the difference. It was a strange experience, made easier by having the backup of the tube feeding, but overall a positive breastfeeding story. We did use bottles at the start with the expressed milk from time to time, but by about 6 weeks he was 100% breast fed directly.
Now at 7 months I’m starting to see my supply drop off. Due to weaning, return of my period after an enforced feeding break during a hospital visit at 4 months, and too much formula cheating. I’m not quite ready to give up so I’m going to try to boost supply again! I’m not ready to give up the sleepy night feeds with a lovely cuddle after. It’s the only time he will just snuggle up to me these days!
Breastfeeding turned out to be something I really loved, to my great surprise. I still don’t think it’s necessarily the best or only way, but it worked for me and hopefully my experience is helpful to those thinking about it.