Doing the Damage: My Breastfeeding Story

My sad little story is this: breastfeeding started off really well. I nailed it in hospital with no pain and at least two midwives confirmed a good latch. Feeling pretty smug, I went home happy with my status as a breastfeeding mother. I’d fallen hook, line and sinker for the ‘formula is the work of the baby devil’ mantra and was already patting myself on the back for my success. I was judgemental, narrow minded and oh so naive.

Within a week I had nipple blisters the size of raisins. I was feeding my child a healthy mix of 50% breast milk and 50% pure blood. I was screaming silently in agony each time the Tiny Terrorist clamped her tiny, invisible shark teeth on my breast. But I was still determined. With the Lanolin flowing, I struggled on through. Eventually, within another week they toughened up. The blood to milk ratio improved and once again I was pretty damn pleased with myself.

Then came the mastitis. And the fever. And the chills. And the hospital trip. The doctor prescribed antibiotics and I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to know that this was a bit like treating thrush with crabs. I did the first round of antibiotics and while the fever subsided and the pain eased other things were silently and painfully going on.

Within two days of finishing the antibiotics, the mastitis was back. Again to the doctors. Again with the antibiotics.

After the third round of mastitis and the third round of antibiotics I started to feel a whole new world of pain. Something new was wrong. I was tired, I was exhausted, I was hating motherhood and feeding and I’m pretty sure I hated the Tiny Terrorist and I was done with the whole thing. At one point the Tiny Terrorist was screaming and screaming and my husband said, “God, if this doesn’t stop someone is going to call the social.”

I remember thinking: I hope they do. I hope they come over tonight and take her away and I won’t mind because I have literally done everything possible to get this motherhood thing right and I’m still failing. I’ve given it my best shot, but it’s just not for me.

(Un)Fortunately, the social never came. Instead, I ended up back in hospital with a confirmed bout of mastitis again and, just to make things interesting, a thrush infection in the breast. Compared to a thrush infection in my breast, mastitis was a walk in the park. The thrush infection meant two things:

1) For the whole feed, it felt like someone was hacking off my nip-nips with a bread knife

2) Feeding suddenly got a lot more faffy and complicated with creams for my nipple after every feed (that I had to wash off before the next feed) and medicine for her after every feed.

At this point I had spent about three weeks with a constant flu-like fever, I was shaking with intense fear everytime I pulled my baby toward my breast and I was hating every minute of motherhood. At that point, I would have put the Tiny Terrorist out by the bins and I wouldn’t have thought twice. Everytime I fed her, my tears silently splashed down onto her teeny, chubby cheek and I remember thinking: This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, surely?

It was shit for me, it was shit for her and it was shit for everyone in the house.

The hospital had said they would send a breast-feeding consultant over. I was too tired to fight them; the last person I wanted to see was another health pro telling me that I had to breastfeed but weak, vulnerable and in constant pain I didn’t have any fight left in me to resist.

At 5pm that evening the breast-feeling consultant turned up. I got straight to the point:

“We need to be on the same page. This baby is not going back on my breast. If you can use that as a starting point and help me figure this feeding thing out then let’s go. If not…if you’re just going to sit there and tell me that it’ll get better and I should just keep going then you need to leave now.”

To give her credit, she quickly wiped the shock off her face and got on with it. She was amazing. She told me that there was no point taking antibiotics for mastitis – it was an inflammation not an infection – and therefore I should have been advised to take ibuprofen and hand express in a hot bath. She showed me how to hand-express; no one had ever done that. I still wanted the Tiny Terrorist to have breastmilk (formula was poisonous, wasn’t it?) and so she advised a hospital grade pump.

At this point my daughter was six weeks old. I was hormonal, feeling inadequate, in pain, suffering serious scars from the breastfeeding nightmare and convinced that this hell would not end.

I started pumping and pumping. The mastitis still came and went but I was able to manage it much more effectively. I pumped day and night and when I wasn’t pumping I was sterilising pumps and bottles. When I wasn’t doing that I was feeding her a bottle, or in the bath hand expressing blocked up ducts until the “stringy stuff” came out. Things were better but I was still exhausted and occasionally in pain but she was getting breastmilk and that was all that mattered, right?

By this point, at eight weeks old, she was sleeping through (I know, I know…but we’d had our fair share of shit in other areas!) and I was still getting up twice a night (midnight and four a.m.) to pump to avoid the dreaded mastitis. I was sitting in the nursery on a cold January night lonely, shattered and shivering as both boobs were systematically sucked into funnels until they were red raw. But I couldn’t complain…this was an improvement, right?

On top of all this, my husband was in tatters. All he wanted to do was make it stop. He wanted to fix it and make me smile and make something, anything in this special time worth remembering. He wanted to take it on, to be the one who was faced with the overwhelming responsibility of feeding our baby. He was passionate in his resolve but helpless in the face of reality.

Eventually, I couldn’t pump enough. In our exhaustion-addled brains we started rationing the milk I’d pumped. When she needed four ounces we were giving her three because we had to make the milk last. She was hungry all the time and she cried and cried about it. I was stressed, tired and undernourished – an almost fool-proof way to decrease your milk flow and my husband was lost somewhere in the middle.

In an effort to stem the crying and to give me a break, my husband took her out for a walk. They both cried the whole way and when he came back he told me he’d made a decision.

“We have to give her some formula.”

I replied, “We can’t baby. It’s so bad for her.”

“What’s bad for her is not getting enough milk. This isn’t right. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. We are on our knees and our child is hungry. I’m going to buy formula.”

I was overwhelmed with relief. In all honesty, I’d been wanting to say it for ages but I felt that I couldn’t. I’d been so rigid about breastfeeding that I couldn’t go back on my judgemental views now plus if I had said it then I was the mother who didn’t want to breastfeed. Technically, I was producing milk, I could express it was just really, really, really hard…and that wasn’t a good enough reason to ‘give up’? Was it?

So, we gave her her first bottle of formula and we both weeped while we did it. In an unfathomable move of solidarity we had to share the task – I gave her the first half, my husband gave her the second half. We had lost our minds. We had lost all perspective and we were slowly losing our grip on reality.

The next morning I was still distraught at the prospect of having a formula-fed baby so I called the health visitor. This was the conversation that followed:

Me (sobbing): “I’ve just given my eight week old baby a bottle of formula and I just need you to tell me I’m not the worst mother in the world.”

Health Visitor (sighing): “Well, if you decide to go the formula route, you can always try to undo the damage you’ve done when it comes to weaning.”

I’m sorry, what? Undo the damage? I was shocked to my very core. My sobbing ceased immediately and in that very moment I realised what a load of bollocks it all was. For a health visitor to say such a thing to a distraught, new mother was so far beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable that I knew at that very moment this breastfeeding thing had gone too far.

I made the decision there and then to formula feed my baby exclusively. Instantly, my soul was lighter, my head was clearer and I was happier. Breastfeeding had not worked for me. I had done everything. I had moved breast-shaped mountains to try and make it happen and still I was feeling shit about being a mother.

From nine or ten weeks old the Tiny Terrorist began to exist on what health professionals would have you believe is a concoction of tequila, cocaine and dung beetles, and you know what? She’s fine. She’s thriving…and yes, now that she’s weaning I’m ‘undoing the damage’.

That’s my story. There’s a whole other post about my thoughts on the “Breast is Best” campaign (which is nothing more than a good rhyme) but for now…that’s how it went for me.

You?

20 thoughts on “Doing the Damage: My Breastfeeding Story

  1. Andy says:

    THANKYOU for putting into words my experience….my ‘tiny t’ is now 13 months & doing beautifully despite the ‘poisonous’ formula that I gave her…It’s just a shame for us that those first few months were filled with such guilt, pain & worry! Here’s to all mothers just doing the best they can. Love, love, love is the main ingredient they need x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wendy says:

    Wow. What a story. I’m so happy that you saw that health visitor’s comment for what it was. I have two sons, and while my second son breastfed well, the first was a nightmare. At 6 weeks I was in the hospital with him because he was still at his birth weight and labelled ‘failure to thrive’. I cried because I’d given him some formula in the waiting room, but luckily for me the doctor handed me tissues and tutted about the ‘pressure put on mothers to breastfeed nowadays’. I grieved because I couldn’t breastfeed him.

    Now he’s 10 years old, healthy as you like and I’ve checked but can’t find that anyone has tattooed “Formula-fed baby” on him anywhere.

    Breast IS best, except where it’s not.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Naomi says:

    Well said and good choice. As you know went through hell feeding both mine (a fair mix of milk/blood and ‘stringy stuff’) and in hindsight and with a clear mind I would have done it differently. Could have had some happier early memories rather than ones tinged with anxt and pain….better get on with that third so I can crack on with a bottle! X

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jennie says:

    Those comments from the Nazi Visitor are totally unforgiveable! What she should have said is ‘well done, you have given her the most important start in life and now we can move on’. Vile b***h! You are doing great and your baby is gorgeous and I am loving reading your blog and recalling my baby years with Nikki H and her sister, thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Stacey says:

    Hooray! Thank you for writing this and showing that the expressing and formula feeding mums are not evil, lazy cretins but women who tried really really hard to give their baby ‘the best’ and who made probably pretty bad decisions just to give their baby the magic milk as we were pressured and harrassed by the guilt inducing breast nazis! I expressed for 5 months with my first and just stopping after 6 weeks with my second and still feel guilty despite knowing formula is fine. That guilt has been ingrained! I know breast milk is best nutritionally but if there are other ways to get nutrition that’s good enough that means the baby has an available, emotionally stable and pain free mummy then that is truly best! Well done us all basically!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Branda says:

    Your story sounds just like mine with my first baby. I’m so sorry you had to go through that too! Formula is not the devil, but those doctors gave you such horrible information! My first daughter was formula fed from 8 weeks on, but I was able to successfully breastfeed my next 3 babies, even through mastitis and thrush (which neither are nearly as bad when treated properly). I wish you had been given better information because breastfeeding CAN be so rewarding. If you do decide to have another tiny terrorist (yes, they can be terrors even when breastfed, lol) I would be happy to give you some helpful resources! But you are not a bad mother for giving formula! In fact you are a great mother for caring so much about your little one! Caring enough about your baby to make the “tough decisions” is all that matters!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kiri Rachel Macfarlane says:

    I breastfeed both my kids im lucky its easy for me. Ive never had mastitis or blisters or low supply. I definitely believe breast is best but I know many babies who thrive on formula. What that health visitor said was out of line completely. you tried your best to the point that the benefits weren’t even worth it. No one should look down on a mother for formula feeding. We don’t know each others stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Branda says:

      She may not have known those were options. I only recently learned of donor milk being an option (I thought you had to pay tons of money to a milk bank to get it) and I’ve been breastfeeding for 13 years. That’s the problem. Her support was so slim and inadequate. We moms need to do a better job of supporting each other and informing each other of options. I feel so bad for her that this all happened for no other reason than she wasn’t given good information. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Diana says:

    I hate that you went through all that! I must say though, I know you’re in a country other than the US. Advocating for breastfeeding is done more by parents than health professionals here. We have to fight doctors and nurses on the issue constantly. The uninformed, the weak of heart, the hormonal wrecks-all are often bullied into giving formula when they want and need to nurse MORE. By no means are you the worst mother in the world. Formula isn’t ideal, but it is still nutrition. If my first had been that difficult, I probably would’ve done the same thing. I remember one particularly difficult night when he was cluster feeding and my nipples were cracked and sore, I was sobbing, he was screaming, and hubby had had enough. He got up to make a bottle of formula from a sample pack the hospital sent home (even though I was breastfeeding). He spilled the bottle in his sleep deprived state. I put my son back to breast, gritted my teeth, and he nursed to sleep. I put him to bed and he slept for six hours for the first time. The next day, somehow, it didn’t hurt nearly as bad. The day after was slightly better. But I know without that turning point, I’d have given up. You didn’t have that and some mommas don’t. Don’t feel bad. You chose not to ruin your relationship with your child. I know lots of breast feeding Nazis. Even though I’ve successfully nursed four children, I realize how difficult it can be. I’ve had different issues with each one and mine haven’t been half as difficult as some. Cheers, momma!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jane says:

    My children are all adults now. I did manage to breast feed them all ( four of them ) although the last one only for six weeks. It seems to me that the whole of motherhood is one big guilt trip. We struggle hard not to feel guilty at every turn. If you know you love your child and you do the best you can, then congratulations to you! Being a mother is one of the hardest things, whether you breast or bottle feed is only the first hurdle and we are all human after all, even mothers!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. mellody says:

    Sorry to hear about all that pain and hassle you had to go through! I’m so glad no one tried to tell me that formula is the devil. My little boy, 7 weeks old, gets breastfeeding when I can, but occasionally he gets a bottle of formula as well. It’s the ideal solution for us, and so far there aren’t any serious problems and I’m pretty relaxed about the whole feeding thing. Hope it stays this way.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. blueskytokyo says:

    So sad to read of your struggles Cat and Jimmy and Tiny T. Believe it or not I have been a lactation consultant for 12 years and it saddens me to read how the health professionals handled your situation. Why is breastfeeding so poorly understood? Why are mums having such terrible experiences even now when we should know so much more? In hindsight there are many different pathways that could have been taken and you chose the one right for your family this time. Next baby, contact an LC ( or me ) in advance and make some strategies so this kind of experience isn’t repeated for you. I’m always happy to help.

    Like

  12. Iona says:

    So sad to read of your struggles Cat and Jimmy and Tiny T. Believe it or not I have been a lactation consultant for 12 years and it saddens me to read how the health professionals handled your situation. Why is breastfeeding so poorly understood? Why are mums having such terrible experiences even now when we should know so much more? In hindsight there are many different pathways that could have been taken and you chose the one right for your family this time. Next baby, contact an LC ( or me ) in advance and make some strategies so this kind of experience isn’t repeated for you. I’m always happy to help.

    Like

  13. Becca says:

    What a horrendous situation! I hate how much pressure there is on us to feed a particular way. I kind of had the opposite problem – my eldest wouldn’t stop breast feeding. That includes crying solidly for 5 hours in a row whilst refusing a bottle with me sitting in an upstairs room sobbing and shaking and hating myself but knowing that feeding her was making me ill, miserable and borderline insane. She won the fight and I breast fed her for 10 months, delaying my return to work and leaving myself in a mental mess having had absolutely no time off in those 10 months (the problem was the bottle, not its contents, so expressing was not an option).
    When pregnant with my 2nd, I discussed this problem and my worry about it happening again (how do you care for a 2 year old if your newborn again favours 2 hour feeds on a 4 hourly basis 24/7?) and was spoken to as though I was suggesting not only using a bottle but filling it with vodka to boot! Eventually (in labour) I stopped beating myself up and decided that this one would not be having a relationship with my boobs!
    My little one is nearly 2 now and if you were to ask me to select the more robust, healthy and bug-resistant of my children, it wouldn’t be the breast fed one!

    Like

  14. C says:

    My baby never latched so I started feeding with shields at ten days. In those first ten days midwives told me I should not allow my baby water or formula but readmit her to hospital to be drip fed. We gave her Aptamil.
    After 4 months I told the health visitor I wanted to try mix feeding to try to get some sleep and because I was getting very thin myself and felt my baby needed more volume. The health visitor said that formula reversed the benefits of breastfeeding. A month later I was so run down I ended up in bed for three days vomiting, my husband shut the bedroom door and gave our daughter a bottle which she drank herself.
    One of my friends who is a health visitor made no attempt to breastfeed her children.
    I am pregnant again and intend to breastfeed again but will be bringing in bottles of formula as and when I need them from the start.

    Like

  15. Laura says:

    Thank you for posting this. You’re story is similar to mine, but mine is not that bad yet. I hope it won’t be. I understand that guilt. After going through everything I’ve been through, I am ready to stop giving breast milk completely. I think a lot of people share your struggles, so don’t feel bad about giving her formula. My mom never breastfed any of her kids, and we are fine!

    Like

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