To be honest, I can’t really remember what breastfeeding knowledge I had before having my own baby. It seems like so long ago, although it was only 5 years. I certainly remember feeling confident that I had some knowledge – after all, I often gave advice to new mothers while doing my postnatal ward round at the hospital, and in the GP clinic setting when they came in with breastfeeding problems. I felt like I was on a better footing than most new mothers…
I was wrong.
The first few weeks of my daughter’s life did not go to ‘plan’. My milk didn’t come in. I didn’t realise until day 10 that I was really sick with a postnatal complication and needed to be readmitted to hospital for another week. I’m sure this played a role. I also didn’t realise until we were readmitted that she had gained no weight since discharge. I was shattered! I thought things had been going ok. I had no idea I had almost no milk. I didn’t really know what normal was; what lactating breasts were meant to feel like. What I thought had been heavy wet nappies, were in fact, not. What I thought had been a satisfied baby after an hour breastfeed, had, in fact, been a tired baby. Despite all my medical knowledge, I wasn’t able to identify these issues in my own baby. I felt I had failed her. This was the start of me as a Mum, not me as the Doctor. I was about to go on a steep learning curve.
She “woke up” around the time we were readmitted hospital. Began telling me that she was indeed hungry and I did not have enough milk for her. Screaming and fussing. We started on the band-wagon of medication, feeding, expressing, topping up. It was brutal, but I was desperate to breastfeed. I had just assumed it would work! I had no idea it could be this challenging.
We continued like this until about 6 weeks. My milk supply increased, but never matched her needs. She started to prefer the bottle and fuss at the breast. We had less and less “good” breastfeeds. Every breastfeed became a battle. I eventually got some help, but it was probably too little too late, and I didn’t keep on pursuing that help. I didn’t know where else to get advice.
Eventually I made the decision to stop breastfeeding as she clearly “hated it”. It was soul-destroying. The one thing I wanted to provide my daughter with, I couldn’t. I didn’t know then that this was breast refusal, a frustrating breastfeeding complication that does not mean she was rejecting me, although I certainly felt like that. We had numerous breastfeeding problems that had not been addressed. I continued to express and bottle-feed her until 4 months of age when I had had enough.
The first year of her life was a rocky one as I navigated the challenging path of new-parenthood. The resources that I had turned to for advice, were the ‘wrong’ ones. In my desperation to do ‘everything right’ as a mum, I had become trapped in the idea that I could study my way through it. The information increased my anxiety and reduced my confidence in reading my baby. I tried to make her sleep when she didn’t want to. I felt house-bound while juggling routines. I should have trusted that I had the skills already and just followed my baby’s cues. Life would have been so much easier! But we got there!
The difficulties I faced during her first year inspired me to be a better doctor to all the mothers and babies I see. I experienced first hand just how challenging motherhood can be and felt determined to help other mothers who were struggling too. This is what kick-started my interest in breast feeding medicine as well as evidence-based care of the mother-baby pair.
Second time around my experience was significantly better, but far from perfect. I was much more relaxed (as all second-time mums are) and decided to just ‘read my baby’. It was so simple and so rewarding! I still had low milk supply but came armed with a plan to get myself off to the best start. We breastfed (with top ups) until he self-weaned. I never had a goal to “fully breastfeed” as I didn’t want to ‘fail’ again. Instead I just wanted to give him as much breastmilk as I could, but also make sure I enjoyed the time I spent with him. I didn’t want to feel resentment towards an unsustainable routine of feed/express/top ups.
All I wish for every mum out there is that they know where to get the right help and they don’t delay in getting it. It’s my one regret with my first. Breastfeeding can be a real challenge for some. It can be devastating when it doesn’t go to plan.
I know. I’ve been there.
Dr Briony Andrew is a GP Obstetrician, Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and co-founder of Adelaide Mums and Babies Clinic