My daughter was born in the last week of the full Level 4 Coronavirus lockdown. Her labour was long and arduous, a full day and night of regularish contractions which were too strong to sleep through but too weak to dilate my cervix. What I expected to be painful ended up breaking me mentally more than it did physically- I lost confidence in my body and its ability to do what it was supposed to be doing. After a second check at home, my midwife said I was completely effaced and that she could feel my waters bulging, but only 2cm dilated. The relief I felt hearing “I think we need to go to the hospital” was a far cry from my water-birth-at-the-birth-centre plan. Due to Coronavirus restrictions, the hospital was less busy than usual. We were given a quiet room and the anesthetist came almost straight away to give me an epidural. I slept for an hour or two. With gentle encouragement, my daughter was born into her father's arms at 5.25am on a Sunday morning. We delayed the cord clamping and she did the breast crawl. I had been awake for close to 48 hours and I was exhausted.
From her first feed, my daughter latched almost perfectly, proven by her A+ chart notes from the birth centre. We went home after two days, exhausted but elated and in love with our baby. She continued to have a great latch, but in like most breastfeeding stories, we had some trouble. She slept a lot during the day, and it was very difficult to keep awake on the breast. I was exhausted and was desperate for her to finish feeding so I could rest. We had no visitors, and no help, due to Covid restrictions.
Her weight gain was small and slow. By day 10 it had plateaued, with no change over 2 days and still a fair bit under birth weight. I felt sick. Our beautiful, calm midwife looked at her notes for a bit before saying, quite firmly “do you have a bottle? You need to go and pick up a tin of formula, now”. She stayed and showed us how to feed her a bottle. My daughter drank the whole thing, and fell asleep in her bassinet. When the midwife left, I cried.
From here began a different feeding journey than I had expected. My mother had fed 4 babies from the breast, and I expected no different for myself. I went on every galactagogue under the sun, to increase my supply. I triple fed (breast, top up, pump) for about 2 months. From every 30 minute pumping session, I would get about 35 mls between breasts. Once she required more milk, her top ups were made up of either formula, or breastmilk shared from beautiful and generous mothers.
I got into milk sharing via a midwife friend who was supporting another friend in the breastfeeding journey. She was able to pick up some milk for me and helped me get on to the NZ milk sharing facebook page. I was hesitant at first, and interestingly, I have found this has more stigma around it than using formula. We have received milk from many different donors, some regular and some one offs. Some people have given litres, and others, a couple of bags. Every time we received some, my heart glowed with the generosity and empathy these women have. Almost all of my daughters' feeds for the first 3 months were of breastmilk, both my own and from others. This has slowly moved in the other direction as the volume of milk she requires has increased. She’s 5 months old now and we finished our last bag of donor milk last week, and I’m not sure we will look for any more. She weaned herself from the breast the day after she turned 3 months.
Looking back now, there were a lot of things I didn’t know or understand about breastfeeding. I knew to expect sore nipples or blocked ducts, but I had no idea about things like breast capacity or slow flow or that different babies would drink differently. I didn’t know that I could have kept my baby latched for hours, as long as she needed to be full. I didn’t know that exercising and food and lack of sleep and anxiety could affect what I produced. Looking back now, I really didn’t know much at all. And I was too tired to figure it out.
I think a lot about our feeding journey. I wonder about the impact of lockdown, a long labour and extreme sleep deprivation on my mental health. I wonder about how there is indication that I have insufficient glandular tissue and whether my supply was always going to be pretty low. I think about what I might have done differently, how I should have done this, or not done that. I have cried about it and talked about it. It still hurts my heart and shames me that I didn’t breastfeed my baby exclusively, and I have a lot of blame for myself. But I also know that in the moment, with a tiny newborn, I did what I thought was best. I did what I needed to do. There is so much shame around how we feed our babies. I am proud to be the friend that women come to to talk to me about their feeding troubles.
And I am hopeful. For my next baby, if I should be so lucky to have one. For what I know now about the act and art of breastfeeding. For the growth to come from the mistakes I’ve made, and the knowledge that, regardless of what happens, it will be ok. As for my daughter, I consider her breastfed, because she was. By mine, and by others. She is healthy, and extremely strong. She is alert and bright and happy. And for our little family, this is what counts.
Ainsley lives in Hamilton and is a mama of one wee girl, Juno. When she’s not mumming, she’s teaching! Find her on @littlepeachpiepreloved for cute second hand baby threads. X