World Breastfeeding week takes place annually every August 1-7 as a global campaign to raise awareness, educate and encourage breastfeeding.
And I felt this was a good time to start my Alchemy of Motherhood journal posts and to talk about my experience with breastfeeding (side note, I would have posted this last week but alas my computer died, which was actually I think the Universe encouraging me to take a couple of days off..)
Like many Mamas to be, I had high hopes for my breastfeeding journey. I was passionate about breastfeeding because I knew the value of breastmilk to a baby, not just for their early life, but for the years to come. Breast is best. There was no doubt about that in my mind and understandably I wanted to give my child the best I could. I had visions of nursing my baby effortlessly. I even stocked up on breastfeeding storage as I envisioned my breasts overflowing with milk and saw myself happily pumping surplus milk that I would freeze and feed him in time to come, or add to his homemade food.
It didn’t quite go as I planned, and my breastfeeding journey had a massive impact on my post-partum mental health and brush with post-partum depression.
Asher latched very quickly and soon enough got that all-important colostrum which we Mamas produce before the milk truly comes in. I remember my joy at this beginning of our breastfeeding journey and proudly capturing a selfie of us nursing. But just a day into his life I was advised by the hospital pediatrician that he needed topping up with some formula as he had lost weight (normal for a newborn), seemed hungry and she was concerned he wasn’t getting enough milk. Of course, I said yes, as I could tell that my milk hadn’t fully come in and I wanted to make sure my baby wouldn’t go hungry. I didn’t see the topping up with formula as a huge issue but with hindsight I wish I had prepared for this with formula of my choice rather than that doled out at the hospital.
We returned home two days after Asher was born and soon after amazing post-partum doula come to support us in those crucial first 40 days of our newborn’s life.
She soon realized that I had a low milk supply and told me that those first few weeks would be crucial to establishing my milk supply and as to whether I would be able to exclusively nurse Asher.
She had already warned me before I gave birth that breastfeeding wasn’t always easy for everyone and that to do it exclusively may be really hard work, however I had no idea that it may not be possible, how hard it would be, or how it would make me feel.
I could write thousands of words of the details of those first few weeks of attempting to nurse and I will share more in time, but for now I will keep it short and sweet.
The long and the short is that I didn’t produce enough milk to exclusively nurse Asher, and topping him up with formula went from being a temporary measure in the first couple of weeks to being a long-term solution. I ended up nursing him for the first four months and then pumping for another two months before weaning him onto solids when he was six months old.
During those first few weeks of his life both he and I had multiple check ups and both his pediatrician and my ob-gyn made me answer a questionnaire which is designed to scan new mothers for post-partum depression. On each occasion my answers indicated that I was experiencing moderate to severe post-partum depression. My son’s pediatrician asked me a few questions related to his nursing and I ended up bursting into tears. I felt utterly inadequate about the fact that I was not producing enough milk. She was concerned and told me I didn’t have to exclusively breastfeed, that it was ok to do a combination of breast and formula. I then went to see my ob-gyn for a check up and she gently grilled me (she’s the most perfect combination of kind and compassionate but also straight talking) and told me that she felt a lot of my anxiety and sadness were down to my breastfeeding journey. She candidly told me in her experience my persistence and the pressure I was putting on myself that I had to exclusively breastfeed would likely lurch me into full post-partum depression, the consequences of which could be way more damaging to my son than topping him up with some formula.
By now Asher was a few weeks old and my doula – a firm proponent of breastfeeding – was still having me on a full on schedule of nursing and pumping every two hours, which meant I barely had any rest at all. As any new mama knows, nursing sessions with a newborn can take time. They often get sleepy and have to re-latch properly. Most sessions took around 45 minutes to an hour. And then I would need to pump. And then it would be time to nurse again. This is the journey of breastfeeding for many mamas with low supply, and many push through it. However it was pushing me over the edge and after my discussions with both the pediatrician, my ob-gyn and my husband, I knew that for me, it was right to pull back from all the extra pumping, lean into topping Asher up with a formula that I was comfortable with (a European brand, I will do a whole post on why, which brand etc) and understand that because of that my body probably was going to get a signal that I only needed to make a certain amount of milk, which would mean I would probably never exclusively nurse my baby as I imagined.
I remember informing my doula that I was done with pushing, pushing, pushing – or rather pumping, pumping, pumping – and that I was ok with my decision. She respected my candidness and said some breast milk was certainly better than none, which I knew. Within a couple of weeks, I was actually enjoying breastfeeding so much more, my milk supply was better and the guilt around topping Asher up with formula started to fade. It allowed my husband to feed him a bottle and bond with him, while I pumped to keep my milk flowing. In time I understood what it meant to have engorged breasts (when you really needed to get the milk out!) and delighted in realizing I was a milk machine, albeit not operating at full capacity.
I provided Asher with as much breast milk as I could for the first six months of his life and I am so glad I was able to do that. There is no feeling like your baby latching and nursing and it is a unique, precious bond between a mama and child. Whether it was our morning feeds (my favorite) or when he would sometimes cry in the night (but wasn’t really hungry) and I would comfort feed him listening to his sigh of relief before suckling and seeing his little chubby hands resting on my chest in the shadows of the darkness of the night – nursing him will forever be among the most precious moments of my life.
But the truth is that I could not (and even if I persisted with the pumping, may never have been able to) fully provide milk for my huge, hungry boy (he is 97th percentile for height and 86th for weight, if you have seen any pics I post of him, you will see his chubby cheeks and rolls of delicious baby fat) and it broke me in a way that I have never experienced before. I am sure much of that feeling was down to all the hormones surging through my body and the exhaustion. But now, months after I have weaned him, when he is almost a year old, with the clarity of time and hindsight I can see it was one of the most important lessons of motherhood for me.
I won’t always be enough. No matter how hard I try. How much I prepare. Whatever I do. I won’t always be able to give my son exactly what he needs. And sometimes I will get it wrong.
The other benefit of hindsight is seeing that in spite of how much I read, planned and all the best, heart-felt intentions in the world, I simply did not give myself (and therefore Asher) sufficient time and space post-partum. I cringe now at how I thought I did, but that’s another story for another time.
What I learnt from my breastfeeding journey is that Asher will not have a perfect mama. There are some things that I will do my very best to provide to him (in a range of areas) and simply be unable to. I will get things wrong. I will ‘mess’ up.
And that’s ok. Our journey will be imperfectly perfect, like so much of life.
I have been reminded that amongst everything that Asher needs from me is also a Mama who is healthy and happy – mind, body and soul. Because a happy, healthy Mama has the best bet of mothering a happy, healthy child.
Our children truly are our greatest teachers, if we have the humility to receiving their lessons.
And with this in mind, I look forward to the unfolding of his little soul’s journey knowing my job is to do the best to be a caretaker and guide to this precious being of light that chose me as his Mama, and to take care of myself in equal measure.
Cheers to the alchemy of motherhood.