What does it really mean to ‘succeed’ at breastfeeding?
I am a peer supporter but I did not exclusively breastfeed my baby.
That often surprises people but it’s true. I did not even manage to exclusively breastfeed my baby for 24 hours. We were still not exclusively breastfeeding when she was weaned onto solid foods.
Recently I’ve found myself talking to people a lot about the concept of ‘all or nothing’ applied to breastfeeding. It often feels to parents like a binary choice needs to be made. If you can’t exclusively breastfeed, sometimes it feels like that must mean exclusively formula feeding instead. Sadly, I also talk to mothers and parents every week who tell me that because they supplemented their baby they feel like they have failed in some way.
If anyone out there needs to hear this- breastfeeding isn’t an exam. Nobody fails at breastfeeding and nobody is giving out grades. Breastfeeding is a relationship and a journey, sometimes not an easy one. We all have different stories. Different journeys. They are all valid and unique. ‘Success’ at breastfeeding is subjective.
As a peer supporter, I try to avoid talking about my own breastfeeding experience unless it is really relevant and I think it is here, so bear with me while I ramble on a bit…
When I got pregnant I knew I was going to breastfeed, I thought it would just be mind over matter. An alternative option didn’t even cross my mind. Nobody in my immediate family had ever breastfed but I was in a privileged position of being in a social circle where lots of folks already had. Breastfeeding had seemed to come quite easily for my friends and so I’d never really asked them much about their experiences with it. I attended a breastfeeding session at an antenatal class (not the BRAS one, much to my regret!) and that was about all the research I did. I remember talking with my husband saying “Honestly, how hard can it be? Few days to figure out the latch? I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it.” I joke now that someone up there overheard me and turned around and said: “let’s give that cocky one a challenge”.
My baby was born with a tongue-tie and high anterior palate, so initially, feeding was very painful and damaged my nipples. Sometimes, my baby just cried and cried and I struggled to get her to latch on at all. A couple of days after birth it also became obvious my baby wasn’t getting enough milk. She wasn’t having many wet nappies and was very jaundiced. I desperately tried to express milk for her. Squeaking away on an awful hand-held pump. Those first weeks of her life were a blur of tears, dribbles of expressed milk, formula, bottles and shame. Shame I couldn’t seem to get it to work the way it should. Shame for wishing my baby would stay asleep so I wouldn’t have to feed her. Shame all my friends seemed to be managing it fine and I wasn’t. I was in fact so ashamed I even hid the fact my baby was having formula from my breastfeeding counsellor. Which in hindsight was probably not that helpful! We had my baby’s tongue-tie divided early on but it didn’t seem to make much difference, so we struggled on like this a couple of months.
Eventually, after weeks of constant painful feeding (seventeen hours out of twenty-four is written in my red book!) and a ‘colicky’, baby who was struggling to gain weight, the health visiting team sent a breastfeeding specialist to see me. I was told my baby still had some tongue-tie in place, so my baby had a second tongue-tie division. My breastfeeding relationship improved from this point but unfortunately, a lot of damage had been done to my milk supply and my self-confidence was in tatters. I would never reach a point where I felt assured my baby could get enough milk from me alone. We instead muddled through until she was six months old. We breastfed a lot and topped up when needed (though this time with a plan to reduce the formula gradually from the infant feeding team). I pumped a lot. I was so desperate to replace the formula with my milk, desperate to increase my supply. Sadly I was one of those people who just didn’t respond well to any sort of expressing. Despite it all though I gritted my teeth and got on with it. We managed to drop down from 4 bottles of formula a day, to just an ounce which I just couldn’t trust myself enough to drop. Emotionally, though I resented it, it had become almost a safety net to me. She had that one tiny bottle, that ounce of formula until she started solid foods. The day she chomped on her first carrot was the day I threw out all the bottles- just the sight of them was triggering and I was glad to be rid of them.
You can probably tell, reading that, that I carried a lot of pain and guilt for a very long time about the fact we didn’t exclusively breastfeed but now, 5 years on, as a supporter of other families, my perspective has finally changed. I refuse to berate myself, I would now never say to myself that I ‘failed’ because my baby was combination fed.
I still breastfed. I breastfed through pain, nipple damage, tongue-tie, thrush, colic, low weight gain and low supply. Yes, we supplemented too. We had to make decisions which weren’t in the original plan. 5 years on though, we are still breastfeeding! So nobody can tell me that isn’t a success. It was my journey and I own it all. I am so proud of what we have achieved. I worked bloody hard and frankly, I should be, formula or not.
So if you are struggling to breastfeed or supplementing, I know what a rollercoaster that can feel like. I know there is often guilt, sadness or even anger that things have gone off course. All of the BRAS’s do. My story isn’t unique, many of the peer supporters have also had struggles along the way. It is probably one of the motivations driving many of us to support others. Now, when I meet families in this sort of situation, with feelings of guilt and failure, I often talk about reframing breastfeeding journeys. What truly makes a ‘picture of success’? Success and what that looks like is unique to you, it is not just ticking the right box, the one that says “6 months of smooth sailing, totally exclusive breastfeeding”.
Sometimes your success might involve some challenges but there is also success in picking yourself up again when you feel beaten. There is courage in seeking out support when you know you need it. Sometimes making a decision that isn’t part of the journey you imagined can be bravery. Sometimes the bumps in the road, the detours we take along the way and how we deal with them, despite it all, are something to be admired, not ashamed of.
Life isn’t binary and so neither is how we feed our babies. Breastfeeding never needs to be all or nothing. Every bit of breastfeeding you achieve has worth and is something to feel proud of.
So if you take one thing away from reading my story, make it this. You can be a successful breastfeeding mother or person wherever your journey takes you. You just need to redefine your picture of success.
Over the next days and weeks, we hope to share more stories of people talking about their own breastfeeding “bumps in the road” on our Facebook and Instagram pages- look out for them and get in touch if you want us to talk about your picture of success. And if you need support with your bump in the road? You know where we are. We are here for you.