Before my first pregnancy, I cared not a jot about how anyone chose to feed their baby. I visited many friends with their newborns; inevitably, during my visit, the baby would start to wail, and my friend would put either a nipple or a bottle into its mouth to feed it, and we would smile at each other and enjoy the silence. And then I got pregnant, and did NCT classes, and a part of it was a breastfeeding workshop. I came out of it thinking I would like to give breastfeeding a go. If it didn’t work, it didn’t work. But it made sense to me to try it.
My son was born three weeks early and something primal kicked in. I put him to my breast, trying to remember the things I’d been taught about latch. I tried to feed him every time he was awake, and frequently woke him to try to feed him. I don’t know whether it was the fact that he was early, and small, but on his second day, a midwife said he’d lost too much weight and pretty much insisted on giving him some formula (from a cup, to avoid nipple confusion). Exhausted and scared, I wept. I’d been a mother for two days and I’d failed him.
But my milk came in, and he started to put on weight. By the time we were discharged, eight long days after the birth, I was considered to be breastfeeding successfully. I don’t think the latch was right, though, looking back. For weeks on end, the pain was agonising. I had mastitis twice, I had cracked and bleeding nipples, I went to the doctor with a blister that she popped with a needle. I spent a lot of time feeling scared: I was the only one who could feed him, and I didn’t know whether I could manage it. I was so tired. I could barely remember who I was. Again and again, my husband told me I didn’t have to do it. But I kept telling myself I did, and my voice was louder.
Things picked up, and I ended up feeding him for nearly eight months (although we introduced some formula from six months). I’m so proud of that, in that way you feel proud of the things you found the hardest.
When I got pregnant again, I never once considered that I wouldn’t breastfeed. And yet, I dreaded the early weeks of it more than labour. Partway through my pregnancy, I was told I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed for medical reasons, because I had breast cancer, and I was floored. I felt guilty and devastated. I felt like I would be denying my daughter something good that I’d offered my son. I felt like we wouldn’t bond in the same way. I felt like I was failing her before she’d even been born. And secretly, I felt some relief, too. While I never would have chosen bottle feeding because of the difficulties I’d faced first time, being told breast wasn’t an option took some pressure off.
My daughter spent her first couple of weeks in intensive care, and for a week or so, she was fed donor breast milk. I’d looked into getting more for her, but I hadn’t managed it. Still, those first few days are important, and I’m grateful for the breast milk she received. But from then on, she’s been formula fed.
My daughter is healthy and strong. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel guilty, but it helps. Despite all the hardship of breastfeeding, there’s something incomparable about looking down at a chubby baby and knowing that you grew that baby in your body and then sustained it with milk your body made. It’s nothing short of incredible. I felt more free as a breastfeeder, too. I could leave the house without having to think about taking my baby’s next feed with me, keeping it at the right temperature, or hoping there’d be somewhere to make it up.
But bottle feeding has its plus sides, too. My husband and I were able to share the night feeds. And in those early days of extreme tiredness, our parents took her overnight sometimes to give us a break. Perhaps breastfeeding wouldn’t have been so difficult and painful a second time, but perhaps it would, and bottle feeding saved me that pain. I do not feel that our bond has been affected in the slightest.
I’ll never know what impact my feeding methods have had on my children, because I’ll never know what their immune systems or their IQs would have been if I’d fed them differently. I try not to dwell on it. They are healthy. They are (mostly) happy. They are fed.
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Laura is a writer who lives in Leicestershire with her husband and their two children. When she’s not writing or reading, she can usually be found trying to get her son to put his shoes on, encouraging her daughter to sleep past 5am or moving small items from one room to another. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog about getting cancer when she was pregnant.