If you’ve come to the end of your breastfeeding journey and are feeling mixed emotions about it, then this article is for you. For many women breastfeeding is a huge part of how they see their future role as mother and when it doesn’t work out it can often leave you feeling like you have ‘failed’ in some way.
I see this story over and over, where women have had their hearts set on breastfeeding their baby but have encountered problems that have meant their vision hasn’t happened. Guilt, depressed and failure are words I often hear from women whose breastfeeding journey hasn’t unfolded as expected. Becoming a mother is a steep learning curve and realising that you can’t always have the outcomes you want is one of the earliest and hardest lessons to learn. Just like when you go into labour and how your birth pans out, life often has it’s own ideas about how things will go – and that often includes breastfeeding too.
Breastfeeding is often romanticised as the ideal way to bond with your baby and to be a truly natural mother, but this kind of idealisation is often not very helpful. The reality can be very challenging, especially in those early weeks, when your nipples are leaking or squirting milk three feet in front of you, your breasts are hard and sore and your baby can’t latch and always seems hungry and unsatisfied. The emotional rollercoaster of trying to establish breastfeeding while dealing with all those postpartum highs and lows, is actually very stressful. All you want is your baby to feed well, grow well and stop those agonising hunger screams.
While it’s true that breastfeeding does offer a lovely moment to bond with your baby when it’s working, if breastfeeding hasn’t been possible, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to bond with your child. Remember, in no way is it a reflection of your capabilities as a parent.
I always say breast milk is the most natural option but remember it is not the only option. There are actually many different ways of feeding your baby, even if at first it may seem like there’s only two – breast or bottle. In fact there are other ways of doing things, and depending on your own circumstances you may want to look into them as well. From tube feeding and syringe feeding tiny newborns to expressed breast milk given in the bottle, to exclusively breast feeding, to feeding with nipple shields to combination feeding to formula feeding or using donated milk from milk banks, ultimately how you feed is not the be all and end all, the most important thing is that your baby is fed, and growing well.
In the early days of having your baby the focus will very much be on establishing breastfeeding and making sure that their latch is good. With hospital staff, midwives and lactation consultants available in most hospitals, while you are in the maternity ward try to take full advantage of the expertise around you. If you’re worried you may forget something ask if your partner can video the conversations you have with medical staff about your feeding, so you can go over it again once you’re at home. It’s worth noting that often there can be conflicting advice on the best way to establish breastfeeding, and that’s because different things work for different mothers and babies. You may find that even on one maternity unit you’re given different approaches or opinions. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but trust your instincts. If you like the patience, manner and attention from one particular consultant, and feel you can put your trust in them, then do so. Good advice takes your unique situation into account and has your best interests at heart. Follow the advice from the person that you have the best gut reaction to, as your instincts are rarely wrong.
If you’re struggling to breastfeed but have not yet given up hope, then talking with a lactation consultant or midwife experienced with breastfeeding is an excellent first step. They will be able to assess why feeding is not working how you want and should be able to provide guidance, support and information about all your feeding options.
Successful breastfeeding isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. Yes, your body is made to do it. Yes your baby instinctively knows that you are a source of sustenance, but that doesn’t mean it will be as natural as you might imagine. I’d describe breastfeeding as a skill – one that you and your baby have to master. It often takes weeks if not months before it becomes a natural and effortless bond. The key is to get support early on.
In Australia, 96% of mothers start out breastfeeding but by the time the baby is five months old, less than 25% are still breastfeeding. Often this is because women are not getting the right support to help them to successfully establish breastfeeding. The most challenging time for breastfeeding is normally during the first three weeks. It’s during this time that your baby and you have to get used to nursing. If your baby has a poor latch it will mean they’re getting less milk and may be ‘sucking in air’ which can give them painful wind. Other early issues that can make breastfeeding harder include tongue-tie, mastitis, nipple soreness and delayed milk supply.
In my experience, after those first three weeks women start to feel a lot more comfortable with breastfeeding but not everyone does. Some women never feel fully at ease with nursing, this could be down to an emotional block or a physical issue that stops it from feeling comfortable, or a combination of the two. However you decide to proceed, a big part of being a mother is making decisions that are right for both you and your family and if it makes more sense to switch to formula then do so.
I’d recommend that if you’re determined to breastfeed, in those first three weeks you get help and if you can afford it, arrange a home visit (or two) from a lactation consultant. They will be able to spot any issues early, and give you advice and techniques to overcome them.
Breastfeeding is very much a lifestyle of sorts. It means you have to be with your baby almost all the time. It means that you have less freedom and it means you have to be able to respond to your baby’s needs wherever you are. Feeding in public is not something every woman feels comfortable with, especially as finding your confidence as a new mum can sometimes take a little while. I’ve seen first hand just how much of a difference it makes to morale and mood when women are able to connect with other mums who are breastfeeding too. Look for breastfeeding groups on line and in real life. Often there will be meet ups at community centres and cafes or look into the services and events held by your local health clinic. Having an understanding support network of other mums is, in my opinion, one of the most important things that can help you to breastfeed more smoothly, and for longer.
There are lots of reasons why breastfeeding doesn’t always work out. These can be physical reasons i.e. an undetected or untreated tongue tie or lip tie, things like inverted nipples, low milk supply, having had a breast reduction or breast augmentation, or the fall out from having had a traumatic birth. Physical reasons also include exhaustion or the strain of having to care for and feed multiple babies. There are also emotional reasons why breastfeeding might not work. Some women don’t feel ‘right’ breastfeeding, or may feel that they want to share the feeding responsibilities with a partner. Other factors that can contribute to breastfeeding issues include an unsupportive partner, not feeling able to feed in public or even confidence issues.
If you set out to breastfeed and it ends up not working out for whatever reason it can have a very profound emotional impact on the mother. Women can feel rejected by their baby, or can feel like they have failed. I’ve spoken to women who have said they feel like they are being a bad mother, or unable to look after the basic needs of their child. On another level women who have not been able to breastfeed can feel guilt or like they are being selfish or not cut out for motherhood. Such negative feelings in response to not being able to breastfeed can, at worst, lead to depression and anxiety.
There is an incredible amount of internal and external pressure to be the ideal mother, and making the decision to give formula or even expressed milk by bottle is for many women a very hard one to make. Especially if they feel that people will question why they are not breastfeeding. Start by acknowledging your feelings and talking them through with a supportive friend or partner.
If you’re struggling to accept that your breastfeeding journey has not worked out there are places you can turn for support. It can feel like you have to mourn the experience that you didn’t have. It can even leave you feeling bereaved of an essential part of motherhood that you expected to go smoothly, or see if you can talk to another health professional who has your best interests at heart. They’ll be able to recommend how to move forward with your feeding journey with practical, non-judgmental advice.
If you’re interested to learn more about feeding then why not join up to HATCH our online antenatal preparation course that has a module dedicated to feeding so you can feel well-informed about your options.
*Sofie’s article was written for and first published by SassyMamaHK.
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