The Vagenda

Why Breast Isn’t Always Best

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The Virgin Mary breastfeeding: no pressure.

Two months and a day ago I became a mum. My daughter barged her way into the world at 8 pounds 14 ounces after a 32 hour labour, a compound birth, forceps, a suction cup and an episiotomy (where they cut you ‘to avoid tearing’). It felt like the battle for Middle Earth had taken place between my legs. No one told me I would wet myself, that all the periods I hadn’t had for the last 9 months would come along at once and that I would walk like I had a saucepan between my legs. No one also shared the information that breastfeeding starts immediately, that you don’t have a chance to catch your breath before this beautiful bundle of bones and skin is placed on your chest and a woman that you didn’t even see enter the room suddenly has your nipple between her forefinger and thumb and is manoeuvring it towards your baby’s mouth. There is no respite, no down time, before you’ve had time to truly understand what’s happened: motherhood begins.

But I’m moving too fast. Let’s start with my breasts. They’ve always been big; since they started growing they’ve been of substance. My mother who has sported no more than a pair of double As (except when she was breastfeeding when they, in her words, ‘ballooned to a C cup’) couldn’t figure out where I had got them from and used to put my bra cups over her head in amusement and wonder. I loved my breasts. They were great, they settled at a 34 DD much to my delight and until now there’d never been anything but positive feelings about them. My body was appreciated and loved.

Returning to motherhood; I had to spend 4 days in hospital. My husband had to go home each night, so my first night with my little girl was on my own and she was hungry. The trauma of the birth meant my body was a little behind in giving up its colostrum and milk so I had nothing to give her. A wonderful woman answered my frantic buzzing and gave her a bottle to tide her over until the morning when, she told me, breastfeeding would begin in earnest. I felt enthused, I would join this club where women were bathed in a golden light as they gazed adoringly at their child, who sucked contentedly getting everything they needed from calories to antibodies. It’s what would make me a fully qualified mother.

That didn’t happen. Not even slightly. My breasts were enormous, they went up to a G. They were heavy and almost impossible to hold in one hand. They were unwieldy and my daughter’s little mouth couldn’t take it all in; she would tug and fret as she tried to gulp the milk that poured from them. She couldn’t latch properly as the forceps had dislocated her jaw so my nipple was cracked and bleeding. I got through tubes of lanolin. To make things worse, my left breast had a totally flat nipple. How had I never noticed this before? How was it never pointed out? She couldn’t feed from it and as a result they became two completely different sizes. I looked like a sideshow. A nurse said I had “porn star boob and third world boob”, a sentence that becomes more bonkers every time I think of it. Milk leaked all the time and my life became a whirlwind of feeding and pumping trying to maximise the milk that my little one could access. I cried. All the time.

The trauma of the birth coupled with the total dread of her hungry cry, meant that pain was relentless be it physical or emotional. I hated my body. It hurt! Everything hurt! I couldn’t sit down or stand up for long periods. I was having to feed every two hours or so day and night, going through the ridiculous ritual of trying to latch her on then almost immediately sticking my finger in her mouth to break the vacuum as the searing pain shot straight through me. My body didn’t feel like mine at all. I was a stranger in it.

Every two hours I had to steel myself for the pain and more so, the crippling disappointment as yet again the feed wasn’t successful. I was a shit mother. I had shit tits. And I was reminded of this approximately 10 times a day, every day for a month. I cried as I held her, my daughter’s hair constantly damp. I felt I wasn’t bonding, that I was thinking only of myself and what kind of person did that make me? I had to put my daughter first and so I kept feeding. I developed mastitis 3 times and on one occasion went to bed shaking uncontrollably as my breasts felt like cartoon bombs, red and swollen and about to explode. I couldn’t pick her up but still I put her to the breast again, desperate for her to drain them, to suck the poison out.

I couldn’t handle it. My mental health deteriorated I looked at my beautiful little girl and simply felt I was letting her down before we’d even begun. Feeding was all I could talk about, it dominated everything I did. I went to milk spot classes where I was told to persevere, and retold everything I already knew. I paid for a woman to come to my house and take me through the psychology as well as the physics. I read every forum and even went on YouTube. At this point my daughter is just over a month old.

What makes me really angry is the relentless pressure to breastfeed. I was given no other option. At no point did someone look at me and say, “you know what? Maybe persevering at this isn’t the best idea.” I even woke up to Radio 4 repeating every half an hour the latest discovery that breastfeeding your child increases financial and personal success, that they are more emotionally stable, less likely to suffer from depression and generally just more likely to win at life. I felt I was trapped in this Bermuda triangle of loving my daughter and hating feeding her: the result of which swallowed me up.

And then I stopped. I bought a box of powder and made up a bottle, she guzzled it. Then she slept and when she woke she guzzled another, my nipples stopped hurting and bleeding, I felt as though I was a human not a milking machine. I stopped crying, her hair dried out and I started smiling when I looked at her rather than wincing and gurning with pain. Our eyes locked when we fed and the look of total trust from her as she held my gaze was one I never got from the boob. I stopped hating my breasts. I started to heal in every sense, in every way.

I wish I’d got breastfeeding, I wish I’d been one of those women who sit in cafés with an artfully draped scarf over themselves and a contended baby as they wolf down a slice of carrot cake and a decaf cappuccino. For those of you who find it easy and who enjoy it and whose babies are thriving with it I salute you unreservedly.

However, what I wish more than anything else is that someone, just someone: the GP, the health visitor, the midwife, the lactation consultant, the milk spot ladies, anyone really, had said “this is a skill, it must be learned and is something that may never be mastered, the fact that you have tried this hard for this long is totally admirable, now give yourself a mental, physical and emotional break and make up a bottle of formula. Antibodies? You live in a clean flat in South London she’s got them, move on.”

So I’m saying it. I’m shouting it to anyone and everyone who has ever struggled and felt the overwhelming pressure and guilt to persevere at something that just makes them miserable. You’re a fab mum to a fab baby. Enjoy every minute.

- Georgia Gillies

9 thoughts on “Why Breast Isn’t Always Best

  1. Yes, why indeed does no one tell you it can be hard and there’s a possibility it won’t work? My daughter wouldn’t feed properly, and each feed took an hour and I hated every minute of it, so after 3 months of mixed feeding I changed to the bottle and was able to start enjoying her and actually bonding. I seem to be fortunate in that I was able to do this without feeling judged or a failure and was totally happy with my decision.

    Nonetheless, with what I now knew, I decided I’d give breastfeeding a shot next time around and endured about a fortnight of sofa-kicking agony with my son, got all the support I could and cracked it within three weeks. So I’ve been both sides of the coin and I feel so upset every time I see a mother absolutely distraught at her ‘failure’ to breastfeed. And I see that a lot. If you absolutely cannot go on PLEASE do not go on. What is right for you is right for your child.

  2. Gosh I swallowed this in one gulp starved of truthful literature about breastfeeding. I totally identify with your experience. I tried to breastfeed for a week after the birth of my daughter, I was kept in hospital for the time with endless helpful experts coming to tell me what to do etc. friends and relatives saying I needed to persevere, it’s natural, you’ll get the hang of it. I cried almost solidly for the week and my daughter who is now a relaxed 4yo screamed. Finally someone who really was an expert at the hospital came to see, I was so nervous but she looked at my attempt to feed baby and declared almost instantly that I must stop. I have a condition called tethered nipple so no milk would ever come out and in the process my breasts were being damaged. Relief and sadness washed over me in equal measure. I was then discharged from hospital and began bottle feeding. As you say it is so much calmer and more beautiful when you’ve struggled! But I still felt the need to apologise and explain to others why I couldn’t feed. When I had my second child I knew I would bottle feed the experience was so much better and I was out of hospital within the day of having him! Wider awareness raising of difficulties around feeding must be made. All the best x

  3. I’m so sorry that you didn’t have anyone to tell you formula was okay. Your story has made me so grateful that I had many people tell me while getting breastfeeding going, that all that matters is a fed baby. That you do the best you can.

    And yip, we’re all the best mom that our littles could ever need.

  4. I had a terrible time too. Two inverted nipples, nobody, NOBODY touched upon the difficulties of breastfeeding with inverted nipples through the entire pregnancy as well as having a huge bust that exploded when my milk came in. This was compounded by a traumatic birth (E. C-section) a suspected pulmonary embolism that resulted in having a radionuclide scan, 2 weeks of drugs that were not safe for breastfeeding meaning whilst I pumped hoping to breastfeed once the drugs worked their way out my system he had gotten used to the bottle. On top of this the health visitors disdain because I clearly wasn’t trying hard enough even after trying everything from nipple shields to those torturous devices designed to pop your nipples out.

    Then once you get into the swing of motherhood the pro-breastfeeding clique at the mum and baby groups… rolling their eyes you pulled out a bottle not a boob even though it was expressed milk, I expressed all through the time trying desperately to breastfeed. I gave up at about 4 months. I was exhausted and getting much more stressed it just wasn’t happening.

    For me, It wasn’t the right thing. I probably would have recovered from the birth much quicker had I just reached for the formula straight away. If number 2 happens I wont even try to breastfeed. I’ll have a supply of formula In the cupboard ready.

  5. One thing that strikes me about the guilt that is induced in mothers that “fail” to breast feed by people banging on about how studies show this, that and the other, is that those studies are (or should be if they are conducted properly) based on statistics from whole populations of people that don’t say anything about the individual cases. Surely a happy mother and baby is the key thing and who cares if the bottle-fed person is 0.23 cm shorter or lives 0.00223 years less.

  6. Also, you could have *chosen* not to breastfeed. Not all women can and are willing to breastfeed, and choice is crucial here as well.
    There are many countries where, conversely, women are pressurised into bottle feeding, even if they can and would prefer to breastfeed.
    Same with childbirth options: in the UK, a vaginal birth is the default; in some other countries, women practically cannot opt out of a c-section (flogged as more convenient, more dignified, after all you’re not an 18th Century peasant etc).
    We need to be informed and empowered in our choices, and they happen across a wide spectrum, not quite black or white only.

  7. You probably may not like what I have to say. I went through the same things you described – inverted nipples, failure to latch, huge breasts, mastists and all the associated trauma. My daughter was premature, underweight and refused to latch. I was told I couldn’t breastfeed her and just like you there was a point I wanted to just give up. She was categorized under failure to thrive. Any mother would breakdown at the use of such words. Yet, something in me stopped me from giving up. I persevered and was able to completely breast feed my baby by the time she was 5 months. Yes, initially I did give her formula. I stopped using the bottle though. I gave her formula using a spoon so that she does not get nipple confusion. I would always latch her first to my breast. Let her spend some time trying to drink and only then offer her formula. Every week I would reduce the quantity of formula by an ounce while keeping a tab on her pee count. It was hard work no doubt. The emotional baggage was immense. After a time, when things started working out I felt it was worth the trouble. In short, I completely understand what you are going through and I empathise with you, but I also encourage you to try to breastfeed if you still can.

  8. I have choosen not to breastfeed when I have a baby for a few reasons. One, my boobs are HUGE (G cup) and I can’t physically handle them being bigger any longer than absolutely necessary. Two, I was formula fed and turned out just fine. Three, I’ll be a working mother. 40+ hour workweeks do not make for easy nursing.

  9. It’s crazy how different cultures and societies can be in this world. I worked in the mother and baby unit of a hospital in USA and I noticed that formula was pushed far more than breastfeeding. It generally is the mothers choice, I saw some mom’s right off the bat just request formula and not even try breast feeding, and others who failed and were recommended just doing formula. I was shocked reading this post until I realized that you weren’t in the US. Hope the best for you and your baby!