This is a modified version of a post I wrote in 2014, while working through long term breastfeeding difficulties with my thirdborn. Please note I am writing here from a personal perspective, not in my role as a breastfeeding counsellor.
First things first: I need to apologise.
I have a big helping of humble pie to eat in front of every mum in my life whose breastfeeding struggles I didn’t understand. Whose supplementing I was baffled by. Whose formula use I distanced myself from. I thought that I knew what breastfeeding problems were and that I had overcome mine, and I didn’t have enough patience or empathy for yours. I’m so sorry. I was a superior, annoying, boob-head. And I was not a good friend to you.
I breastfed my first two babies relatively easily; mastitis was about the worst that it got. Our breastfeeding relationships were long (each of them self -weaned around 18 months) and enjoyable. My thirdborn was a total shock – like many mothers I now know, undiagnosed tongue tie sent us ricocheting from crisis to crisis and expert to expert for months, and by the time the physiological issue had been dealt with his psychological aversions to nursing had set in. After 11 gruelling months things finally clicked, and we went on to enjoy breastfeeding together for another year after that.
My lovely little 4th has also been a tough slog. Tongue tie again, but also a classic ‘fussy baby’ who has seemed overwhelmed by the sensory experiences of feeding. Coming up on 4 loooong months and things are beginning to feel a little more stable. But once again, it continues to be a very difficult road to travel. Every step forward is followed by at least half a step backwards.
The silver lining to going through these horrible things myself, is that those experiences have equipped me with knowledge and tools I can pass on to other mums facing struggles of their own. Now please don’t take this as an implication that you or anyone else has to keep breastfeeding because it is Best or because Good Mums Keep Trying. I would say that there are a number of ways in which continuing to breastfeed has not necessarily been the ‘best’ decision for our family; it’s been physically, mentally, financially, and relationally costly. But so far I’ve never quite reached any of the markers I set for myself which mean it’s time to say ‘enough’. The day may still come when I reach one. But until then, here are some of the things which have been crucial to surviving breastfeeding when it has been a battlefield.
1. Find a knowledgable care provider that you trust
In Australia we are blessed to generally have a choice of health care providers. Unfortunately, not all doctors/nurses/midwives/lactation consultants are equal. Make sure that you have at least one health professional on your team who A) understands the issues you are facing and B) is supportive of your choices. Discuss your medical history with your healthcare provider to see if there are underlying issues which may be impacting breastfeeding (e.g tongue tie, torticollis, PCO, endometriosis, IGT/breast hypoplasia, fertility treatment, gestational diabetes).
You may need to within your breastfeeding support networks for specific recommendations. This might mean requesting a particular child health nurse for your visits, or travelling a little further to a GP who specialises in mother-baby dyads. Having a professional who understands you and can help you feel confident and competent when you leave them is invaluable.
The Possums Clinic (Brisbane)
Mother Baby Clinic (Adelaide)
Please let me know if there’s a wonderful professional or team in your city!
2. Rally your village
There’s no medal for The Mum Who Did The Hardest Stuff Alone. Accept offers of help, and ask for any help you need. Don’t say ‘I’m fine’ if you’re not.
Remember that something being hard does not mean you are failing or that you are a failure – lots of mums have faced breastfeeding struggles. Find women who have been there, or meet some! Find your local ABA meeting, or head online. Facebook is a marvellous source of community networks and support boards. There are groups full of parents whose stories will make you jump up and down saying ‘YES!! EXACTLY THAT!!’. There are people who have done the research so that you don’t have to, people who can point you to local care providers, who have great ideas, who can be a digital cheer squad or a shoulder to cry on.
3. Put on your own oxygen mask first
With all those feels happening, the stress of it all can sometimes be totally overwhelming. Your baby (and other kids, if you have them!) needs you to be functioning and whole – it’s essential that your emotional and physical tank is full enough to enable you to meet their needs. Try to invest in little things you enjoy, and minimise extra stress. Talk to the friends who ‘get it’, even see a counsellor. Get some exercise, fresh air, food which makes your body feel good. Schedule something you can look forward to (eating cake is fun to diarise).
4. Set some goals…
One of the toughest things about feeding issues is how relentless they are. The younger your baby is, the more times every day you have to woman up, and the stakes feel incredibly high. But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! Sketch out a plan, and include a series of small goals which feel achievable along the way to your bigger goals. Work out your plan B, C, D…. And celebrate the victories you achieve along the way!
My goals so far with C2 have been: exclusively breastmilk feed to 6 weeks; 8 weeks; 10 weeks; 12 weeks; 4 months (almost there!).
If When we make it to 6 months, I’m treating myself to the kickass motherhood tattoo I’ve been dreaming of for years.
5…. but know your limits
‘And then they breastfed happily ever after’ sometimes just doesn’t happen. It’s entirely possible that no matter what you do or how hard you try, things might not work out the way you wanted them to. It’s all very well knowing the WHO hierarchy of infant feeding, but what is an acceptable compromise for you? Breastfeeding means a lot to me, and if I give it up, it’s going to be with no regrets, in full confidence in the choices I made in the circumstances I faced. For me, if exclusive breastfeeding doesn’t work out, I’ve decided that I am prepared to express milk as long as my supply allows it, that I’m happy to seek donor milk top ups if needed, and that formula is the next step after that.
Decide what the red flag is going to be that it’s time to move to your plan B. My red flag is our health – if my baby is not thriving (which includes it becoming obvious that she does not want to breastfeed any more), or that the cost of persevering is too great for my physical or mental health, it’s time.
6. Keep calm and find another way to bond
‘Breastfeeding bonds’ something something. Well it definitely can… but it can also tempt you to invoke the Goblin King to come and take your baby away, except instead of going through the labyrinth, you’d just lie down and sleep for a week. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to need to find some other ways to get the oxytocin flowing, because with everything you’re going through you and your sweet baboo deserve some time to properly enjoy each other! The three most important tools in my own bonding kit so far have been babywearing, skin-to-skin contact, and co-sleeping; just say the word and I’ll babble endlessly about how much I love them. Posting lots of photos of your cute baby on social media is good for the soul too.
7. Never quit on your worst day
You will have moments when you sob ‘This is it, I’ve had it, I don’t want to keep doing this’. You will have days when those moments last for hours. But… if you don’t have mastitis already, stopping cold turkey will definitely take you there! See how you’re feeling tomorrow, or the next day. Still had enough? That’s ok. You don’t need permission to keep breastfeeding, and you don’t need permission to stop!
Remember, too, that breastfeeding does not have to be all or nothing. ‘Exclusive breastfeeding’ is a definition, not a club – many mums have found that a bottle of expressed milk or formula takes the pressure off and makes the breastfeeds they are able to achieve much more enjoyable for them and their baby (if introducing supplementary feeds, please talk to an IBCLC or breastfeeding counsellor when it comes to nipple confusion, pace feeding, and managing your supply).
8. Remember that breastfeeding is for the babe, not the babe for breastfeeding
Breastfeeding can be amazing. Breastmilk is an amazing thing. But no matter how desperately you want to breastfeed or how hard you are willing to try, keep in mind that there are two people in your breastfeeding relationship. Persevere to the ends of the earth if you are both happy to, but please, please keep a close check on your baby’s physical and emotional health. Breastfeeding is only one part of a dynamic, complex, lifelong journey of love together. You’re a great mum, you know your baby, you know their needs and how to put them first.
Persevering through breastfeeding difficulties can be particularly challenging in a culture which hates to see mums ‘suffer’ or paints mums as trying to win a martyrdom contest. But many mums find that sticking it out is a process of learning about themselves and their baby which brings joy and closeness even if breastfeeding itself is not enjoyable or doesn’t work out. I hope that no matter where your feeding journey takes you, that it’s one in which your desires are honoured and your motherhood respected. Whether you make it one day or one year, every drop is an act of love.