I really want to discuss our feeding journey for Eli, but I feel like it’s a topic that can sometimes becomes far too political, so I’ve really debated how to approach it. Ultimately however, we started this blog to share the realities of our journey after Leo’s death, and it’s become a place (almost a friend) to discuss the trickier issues in life. It’s been a way to make sense of the thoughts in my mind, to share them honestly, and to also allow others their own voice in recognising similar emotions or experiences.
So I want to take some time to talk about our feeding journey, not for debate, but more for documentation of what the experience has been like for us as a family, in the view that for others it might be similar. Whilst I appreciate at times it can become a contentious topic, we really should be able to discuss feeding candidly without concern of reproach or critique.
Since I posted about our feeding journey recently, it seems it’s a topic people feel unable to discuss openly. Another taboo in parenting? Yet, it doesn’t seem people are embarrassed, but more fearful of backlash or unwanted commentary. I haven’t felt judged in my feeding decisions at all, but I certainly feel there’s an atmosphere in some of those conversations that can make it easier to just not have them. Whilst there is a healthy rhetoric lately about the need for increased breastfeeding support (understandably) I’m more inclined to think that support should be more holistic to feeding in general, and less about just a singular approach.
So, where to begin…
My plan for Eli was to “give breastfeeding a go and see what happens”. This non-committal stance on the question was in part due to never really thinking we’d have a baby that required feeding, and also in part, never really knowing how I felt about the whole topic. For Leo, we were fully prepped to be exclusive formula feeders straight away. We had all the kit, ready. It sat in place, virtually untouched, until we brought Eli home. Including two cartons of formula, now well past their use by date. That level of preparation just didn’t really exist for Eli. I did minimal to zero research on breastfeeding, and just purchased a few recommended must-haves, and left the rest for Amazon Prime to deal with after birth.
My approach with Eli, to at least give breastfeeding ‘a go’I think is mostly due to Leo’s death. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I just had a sense that I needed to give him anything and everything, and give myself evidence that my body (and I) could do what it was designed to do – a needed lesson, after it spectacularly let me down. But I knew breastfeeding wouldn’t be easy. We had both seen others really struggle, so we had always reasoned that if the stress outweighed the emotional benefit, then we would seriously consider whether we wanted to continue.
So snap forward to Eli’s birth, minutes after I delivered him in a rather quick labour, and he’s thrust to my chest, expected to feed. Understandably, after making his rapid entrance to the world four weeks early, he wasn’t really playing ball. In a bid to give him colostrum, my midwife immediately started hand expressing my other side into a tiny syringe and feeding it to him. At the time, I was rather bewildered and still confused that he was even breathing… Thinking back, this seems a strange thing to happen without discussion? Little over an hour later, he was whisked to High Dependency and I was consenting for donated breast milk and all sorts. It wasn’t the smoothest of starts.
During Eli’s stay in High Dependency, it was requested that I hand express to give him as much of my milk as possible, especially colostrum. The nurses were really encouraging when I’d give them the tiniest amount of colostrum, and I quickly gained a sense of just how important breast milk was for him. There is something rather powerful about seeing your newborn, who you never expected to breathe, hooked up to machine after machine to make you want to provide in any way possible for them.
After he was out of the incubator, they were keen to establish feeding, and would help me latch. We understood that as Eli was early, he was still learning his suck and swallow reflexes and so breastfeeding could be tricky for him, and it was important to keep him focused and awake with some gentle stimulation. One of the nurses also gave me a nipple shield to use to help him with his latch. I instantly found this quite a help as I felt it served the purpose of reminding Eli what he was hanging around at the boob for. We seemed to be slowly getting the hang of it – and enjoying it – and we continued after being discharged up to the ward.
Those early days of learning to breastfeed have given us all some incredible memories. In the midst of complete and utter shock, post birth adrenaline and exhaustion, and deep fear and anxiety of a HDU admission – we were experiencing life. Life in its truest form – something we never ever expected. Even just a few hours earlier. To watch Eli respond and develop in those short few hours was awe inducing.
Eli also had jaundice, and we understood that in order to help flush the toxins out, feeding was key. So I continued to express in order to give him top ups. Sadly, I’m not sure my expressing education was hugely beneficial, as I was just given the machine, a few pointers, and essentially told to crack on. I’d recommend everyone does their research before subjecting your boobs or nipples to the udder machine, personally! Which after a day or so, I did do, thankfully…
As we were in hospital, we essentially had 24/7 support and so I called on the team several times for assistance with my latch. They were always very encouraging, and I wasn’t ever really told we needed to work on anything. They were also really happy with his intake, and output, and encouraged us to keep doing what we were doing. When we got frustrated with his jaundice levels rising, yet no change to the care plan, we pushed for more information on what would be suggested for a formula fed baby, and at that point we felt we weren’t doing enough in regards to his volume from the top ups, and worked to improve this – and welcomed the benefits and ultimate discharge! I found jaundice quite frustrating, but maybe more on that another day…
Trying to shake jaundice whilst learning breastfeeding is a huge challenge. Equally learning to breastfeed in a heatwave, and on an uncomfortable hospital bed that you’ve sat on for nearly two weeks – well, it’s hardly, the calm, serene environment that they recommend! But ultimately, I left hospital feeling really good, comfortable and confident. I’d fed in public in the hospital cafes, and was really pleased to be able to have those precious moments with Eli. It wasn’t always smooth, but when it worked, it was good to see it working. I was feeling pretty f-ing proud of myself – and especially of Eli, and all the obstacles he was overcoming.
On our first check up out of hospital, Eli hadn’t progressed how they’d hoped. His jaundice hadn’t improved, and he’d lost a little weight (his maximum weight loss was 7.8% after birth). The obsession over these numbers can instantly make you loose all sense of what you’ve achieved – in pregnancy and parenting. Being somewhat threatened with readmission and paediatricians, and being asked to breastfeed to an audience whilst crying, told my latch wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t getting enough and ‘just’ comforting, made to feel like I wasn’t doing it right just because I was using a nipple shield, together with some thrusty manhandling of my week old child, was soul destroying. My all round confidence plummeted through the floor, with a bang.
We left that day, and all the emotion of the past few weeks came in. I lost my groove and a little bit of the love of feeding. We became solely focused on shaking the jaundice and regaining birthweight – that had to be the focus. It didn’t really feel like we had time to play around with improving breastfeeding. Tops ups and some full feeds of formula or expressed milk were the way forward, and I became far more confident when knowing his volumes. We also continued with breastfeeding, whilst I took some time to suss out what I wanted to do long term.
It was at this point that I realised mixed feeding and expressing was actually quite normal, especially in the early days – yet there is little said about it, and even less guidance of how best to balance it all out. This can make you feel quite isolated, and another reason why we should be able to just have non-judgemental honest conversations. Mixed or expressed feeding was something in both pregnancies I had asked about, as it seemed the ideal situation for us, yet no one was able to really guide me. It’s as if the suggested norm is either breast or formula, yet the reality is often very different.
I got to the point that I needed to decide what the long game was. For us as a family. We’d had offers of support, or suggestion of where we could go, together with encouragement to persevere with breastfeeding. People would tell me it would be worth it, after several weeks or even months of hard work. However, I didn’t actually feel much was wrong with his latch, based on all the guidance I’d now read and researched. Also the style of support we’d had already left me a little uncertain about putting myself in a vulnerable situation again.
I reasoned that the long game for us, was never to exclusively breastfeed long term, or at all. The long game for me was to enjoy the early days with Eli, together as a family. I decided that I could spend weeks of his life perservering with breastfeeding if I really wanted to breastfeed long term, or I could feel proud of what we’d already achieved and given him, and move to formula a little earlier than I expected.
I admire anyone who chooses the former, just as much as I admire anyone with the courage to stay true to what you want to do for your child and family – it’s hard to stay focused on that when there is so much other noise happening between midwives, GPs, and Health Visitors. Let alone a heavy dose of mum guilt. Plus loss mum guilt.
Throughout this feeding regime, I’d already started to feel that breast feeding, tops up and then expressing was draining, immensely time consuming, or just inconvienent to our day – and it made me further see the benefits of formula feeding for us as a family. I’d always wanted to be in a position to share feeding with my wife, and enjoy the benefits of that for us all. Yes, I appreciate that sounds like I’m being selfish, but is it really selfish to do what feels right for your family, as long as it’s safe? We’d already buried one child, I just want to be free to fully enjoy this one.
When asked by people (as in midwifes) how feeding was going, I’ve found I’ve had to justify our decision to start moving to formula exclusively with the instant caveat of “I’m happy with this situation” for them to be happy also and leave me to it. I find making the decision to stop feeding Eli breast milk is potentially more controversial than if we’d never given it to him in the first place. It’s a strange political world, and I’m not sure who creates the tension around the subject, but it’snot nice from either side of the table.
Once we got going with breastfeeding, I’d decided I wanted to at least get to his due date – as a way of repaying him the lost weeks of pregnancy. It balanced out my mum guilt. So at the point of deciding to stop, I’d aimed to coincide with this date, at least. I planned a way to wean off the expressing (I’d already stopped putting him to the breast), in order to sensibly and safely stop. However, the next day we had a long day out and despite good intentions, expressing didn’t happen. Overnight, my supply literally disappeared a week or so earlier than I’d planned for! I took it as a way to move on to reestablish our new feeding grove and just go with the flow. I had moments of getting a little upset about it, but reminded myself of the biggest lesson of grief – be kind and gentle to yourself, you have and will always do your best, and that’s all you can do.
We are now a few days in, and Eli is smashing on the pounds. He is happy, chilled and content. I am far more comfortable and less on edge without the constant obsession over weight and feeding intake from the health care professionals around us, and easily enjoying days out as a family – which is what this summer has been asking for, for so so long.
Ultimately, Eli is fed. I’m pleased we’ve journeyed through the stages and are content and confident with the decision that we have made. When you struggle to believe it’s possible for your baby to breathe, I really feel the priority must be tapping into stress free joy. Our motto for these early days is that. Enjoying the respite from the overpowering anxiety of pregnancy, and the deep sadness of grief, and taking those two emotions and allowing them to make you bathe in the joy, albeit bittersweet, even more so.
– J x