Supply and Demand: When the ‘let down’ is a let down.

Wowza, turns out A LOT of you have had similarly frustrating experiences with breast-feeding. Thanks so much for the response. So, time to get specific and talk about the issue that particularly effected me: supply.

When Bubs was a newborn he screamed. A lot. Yes, I know they all do that, but, phew, not quite like this. Honestly, nurses on a post-natal mental health ward were wide-eyed at his fits. When my Health Visitor heard him bawling directly after a feed she just turned to me and said. “Yes, that’s a hungry baby.” Up to that point I hadn’t really grasped the idea that there just might not be enough juice available to fill him up. The thing is that there was definitely some milk there. I didn’t know that it was supposed to be squirting out by now. I didn’t know that he cried more than most. He’s a baby. I just thought I wasn’t very good at coping with it all.

Before I started Bubs on formula I was pretty much breast-feeding all of the time. All. The. Time. I know this because of the hazy sleep-deprived memories of constant suckling, but also because in those early weeks I can find no photo of me with him where I’m not breastfeeding. Not one.

Here's a typical example.

Here’s a typical example.

And another. (note the mystery bruise)

Oh yeah, and this one.

Oh yeah, and this one.

Also this, in which my boy is giving the finger to all of the unhelpful advice.

Also this, in which my boy is giving the finger to all of the unhelpful advice.

Sometimes a girl has to multitask

Sometimes a girl has to multitask.

See, every bloody photo. I wasn't joking!

See, every bloody photo. I wasn’t joking!

Okay, I’ll admit, there are a few pics of us asleep too. But you see my point. I remember someone remarking sympathetically that I was doing a lot of breast-feeding. I also remember hurriedly snapping something back along the lines of “well it should be on demand do I just so it as much as he wants!” I got a bit defensive, mainly because I had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t want anyone to realise that. A mother should be able to feed her baby, right?

I know that many women find that breast-feeding eventually becomes a close, warm, cuddly time of connection with their baby. I know that it’s hard for everyone and there is always a degree of ‘pushing through’. This was not my experience. No amount of resolve on my part could have made a difference. My baby rarely settled satisfied in my arms after a feed. He often just kept sucking until he tired himself out and fell asleep. Or resumed his regularly scheduled screamathon. Even now I feel a pang of guilt when I think that he was hungry all that time (you know, whilst I’m having a break from feeling guilty about formula feeding), though there was no reason I should have known that. He wouldn’t sleep alone because he wanted to be close to the source. He cried so much because he was trying to tell us something. Like “I’M F**KING STARVING OVER HERE WOMAN!”

Seriously, the very day I started to give Bubs formula a near-magical transformation occurred.  He cried about a fifth of the amount he usually did. I was so indoctrinated into the woes of bottle-feeding I actually worried I was drugging him or something. Drugging him. With food? Sigh.

Recently my sister-in-law has had a lovely little girl. Thankfully breastfeeding has generally gone well for them but, of course, the baby has the odd day when all she wants is to be nursed, you know those golden ‘upping mum’s production’ days? Fun. My wonderful sister-in-law says these are the days when she feels the most overwhelmed and on the edge. She realised that this must have been how my boy was behaving for the first month of his life. Putting it like that clarifies for me how hard I did try, and that helps to quieten the guilt a little. What’s more, I know I’m only one of thousands (millions?) of women who has had this experience.

So why no supply? I think for me it was a combination feeling traumatised by his birth (not awful in the scheme of things but, you know, forceps and operating theatres were involved, bleurgh) and the pain from an infection I got in my stitches. No one realised I had it for a while and by the time we did I was having to breathe through the pain (thank you Voltarol!), lie only on one side and go to the loo with a walking stick. Bleurgh again.

Let’s just take a minute here – I could only lie on one side and was in pain with every movement. But I still breast-fed. On both boobs. Oh the ridiculous contortions I made that young lad go through to get a few insufficient glugs of milk!! And I’m not saying this to show off – no no! This wasn’t a triumph of motherly love, it was a consequence of the fact that I thought giving your baby formula was basically like feeing them McDonalds! If I had a time machine I’d go back and tell myself to get some bloody Aptimil and go to sleep.

The fact is that the pain, trauma and antibiotics were giving my body and mind a lot to cope with when it should have been concentrating on getting that milk out. At a time when the best thing you can do is be relaxed (ha ha) my body was tensed against pain. So the ‘let down’ didn’t really happen how it should! It all seems pretty much like common sense now but in the haze of confused, tired, early-parenting the ‘breast is best’ mantra was heavily etched onto my psyche.

With all the “everyone can breast feed” chatter it’s hard not to feel that if it doesn’t work for you it’s because you didn’t ‘stick with it’ or that you’ve done something wrong. But this stuff happens a lot and it’s not anything you’ve done or haven’t done. One particular midwife kept telling me to eat more. “We’ve got to look after mum.” She’d repeat. The thing is that she never actually asked me how much I was eating. The answer was loads. Nobody has to tell me to eat 2,500+ calories a day twice; I am fine with that! Oh, butter and whole milk you say? Ok, well, if I must (nom nom). Oh and people kept lecturing me about how to breastfeed properly, how to get a good latch etc. This was usually before they’d actually observed me feeding, at which point they’d say something like “oh yes, that’s very good”. One midwife who observed my side-lying contorted breast-feeding described my technique as ‘expert’. So, I knew that the mechanics were not the issue; it was the fuel supply that was out. Grr, arg.

So do bare it in mind if you’re expecting or know someone who is. Sometimes you just ain’t got the juice. And that’s fine. No harm will come to your baby. (true story, a Health Visitor told me so!)

What’s your story? Share in the comments below, give a tweet @aafew or…

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12 thoughts on “Supply and Demand: When the ‘let down’ is a let down.

  1. Hi Aileen, I am sorry to hear that you had such a hard time breastfeeding. I am still miles away from that stage (at least I think so right now) but boy well done you for sticking it through. Hope everything is better now with the formula – or maybe your son started eating properly now… Greetings from Denmark. Birgit xx

  2. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing this – I share the same story and feel so unbelievably guilty about it, but I just couldn’t go on anymore breast feeding. I know I made the right decision for us in the end though, and baby is happy and healthy, that’s the main thing! Thank you x

    • Jillo, what a wonderful comment to receive. I’m so glad you found reading my post helpful, that’s my main reason for writing this blog. I know there are so many of who feel the same and just this knowledge is comforting isn’t it? You have absolutely no need to feel guilty, watching my son grow I am so adamant that formula was the right choice for him and us. May you continue to grow in confidence! It sounds to me like you are striving to the very best for your baby, and you a re succeeding!

  3. Reblogged this on The (mal)Contented Mother and commented:

    Hello Dear Reader, today I was all important and stuff and went on the actual radio! (I know riiiiiight?)
    I was talking about the messages all the ‘breast is best’ stuff has on mums in the context of a local news story about a hospital in Luton to stop providing formula to mums who’ve made an ‘informed choice’ not to breast-feed.
    If you’d like to listen you can do so here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02mm35y
    The segment starts about 1.08 in and I’m on at 1.19 for about 10 mins (I don’t come back after the news headlines, just fyi)
    Seeing as it’s the subject of my day, I thought I’d reblog this post about supply issues – it’s new and improved!
    Peace out homies.

  4. First off, I love your blog, your honesty is just what I need at 4am after having 20 minutes sleep all night!
    I’ve just read this for the first time, and really felt I had to comment, because honestly, it worries me that there were other new mothers who were going to read it.
    Everything you said about how your new born behaved in those first days is normal new born behaviour, they are supposed to be on the breast more than off if it. This doesn’t mean they are hungry, they are just new and scared and the only thing they know is that Boobie is nice and mummy is safe.
    I’m not commenting on your situation in particular, I’m just saying in general, because Im worried that another mum will come along and read this and think, ‘wow, my baby does this, I must have no milk!’ This is actually a very rare situation for a mother to not produce enough, mainly because they need so little in the first few weeks anyway, but also a breast doesn’t ‘run out’ of milk, they constantly produce so are never empty.

    I feel really sad when I read or hear about mothers who ‘couldn’t breastfeed.’ With the right support almost every mother should be able to if they want to. Unfortunately midwives don’t normally seem to have much training, I know in my area the new trainee midwives had the breastfeeding section of their training cancelled (I mean really…!)
    And to get help when I needed it in the first week from someone who was trained , I had the travel half an hour, not something I wanted to be doing post emergency c-section.

    Formula milk is perfectly fine, and works for a lot of mums and babies, but after the birth not going as I wanted and feeling like I had failed my son, if I hadn’t been able to breastfeed I would have really struggled to keep myself going and bond with him at all and possibly would have ended up with PND.

    I hope you understand that my comments are intended to be an alternative view on a really complex and emotive subject.

    • Hi again! Thanks for taking the time to comment and I’m really glad you enjoy the blog in general, that’s always nice to hear.

      I appreciate your perspective and, yes, perhaps clarification is in order – I’m not discouraging perseverance with breast-feeding, which is always hard for the first few weeks/months. What I am encouraging is a wider knowledge of the negative possibilities (pain, feel totally overwhelmed and low supply) so that people can seek help if they want and know they’re not alone whatever decision they make.

      I also want to clarify a few things about my story, though I know you said you weren’t specifically referring to that. The behaviour I describe wasn’t during the ‘first days’ but for the first month. I have spent a lot of time with newborns since then and realised that Bubs’ behaviour was not the norm – I cling to this fact as it the only way I can contemplate having another child!! Also, I am aware that breasts don’t get empty, as mine never were (which is why I didn’t realise there was a problem) and I did bf Bubs a tiny bit til he was about 12 weeks old. Ironically, I feel I bonded with him more after I stopped, as our physical contact became more cuddly and less functional!
      After an assisted delivery in theatre I also felt I had ‘failed’ at childbirth, imagine then how this was compounded by eventually be told by my health visitor that I also didn’t have the juice to feed him (I really didn’t, he was SO MUCH more content once formula was introduced). Any way, I did suffer from postnatal depression and went into hospital with it, which is what spurred me on to start this blog – I was overcome with guilt in so many ways. So I know what you mean about that! But I didn’t end with PND because I couldn’t/didn’t breastfeed – it was the wracking guilt and fear of not breast-feeding that, in part, drove me downwards. So I hope that clarifies my informed position a little.

      Also, I have to tell you putting terms like ‘couldn’t breastfeed’ in inverted commas creates the impression that you know they could’ve if x, y and z had happened. This is a very disempowering way to talk about another’s experience and it’s something women who formula feed get a lot. Saying low supply is ‘very rare’ or that ‘almost every mother should be able to if she wants to’ is also the kind of language that implies formula feeders were the ones who didn’t try hard enough or get enough help. Perhaps it’s possible that they genuinely found it harder than those who continued? I am absolutely sure this wasn’t your intention at all, but I think it’s important to share my perspective with you as I know a lot of women inwardly shrivel when they meet with language like that.

      So, there’s my response, but all that said you have made me think and I may do a little post later on that clarifies the whole issue from my perspective.

      Thanks again Jennifer, I hope you keep reading!

      P.S. cancelled the breast-feeding training?? CANCELLED it???? Knobs.

  5. I wasn’t going to reply, but it’s 4:30 and I’m still thinking about what you wrote, so here goes.
    I want to say thank you, because you really have made me think, what you said about the pressure to breastfeed driving you downwards has actually made me realise that this was probably partly my struggle too. Although breastfeeding did help me heal after labour, the pressure I put on myself to suceef also contributed to my feelings of inadequacy in those first few weeks, and I hadn’t considered it this way round before.

    I also want to apologise, it really wasn’t my intention, but I can see how what I said came across as quite condescending.
    Having said that, I still stand by what I said, just not the way I said it.
    So to try and explain. In cultures where breastfeeding is the norm, most women manage to breastfeed comfortably and easily. The difference between those societies and us it that those women are surrounded by women who have done it already. They have expert advice from every woman around them who has had children, they also grow up watching these women feeding their children so they already have a knowledge of how it works before they even get pregnant.
    I think that we have just lost the skill to breastfeed, and we need to realise it is a skill and stop just merrily sending women home from hospital with a mantra of ‘breast is best’ stuck in there head and nothing else. Then wondering why so many women can’t do it. It’s just cruel.
    Yes, it’s really natural to feed your baby, but a footballer can naturally know how to kick a ball, but you wouldn’t send them out to play a game with out a lot of coaching and guidance and training from people who know what they are doing.
    And for the mothers who really can’t, atlest they would know why they couldn’t. Most of my friends who could breastfeed have no idea what went wrong. At least you got a reason, but wouldn’t it have made everything easier if you had got it sooner? Imagine how different it could have been if you had someone there from the beginning who could have told you the problem straight away, rather than struggling on for weeks?

    So there it is! Hopefully I can sleep now, well at least until I’m woke up again!

    • Oh I hope this didn’t keep you up stressing! I don’t think I’ve ever heard the argument put so sensitively and intelligently, so well done for 4.30am!!
      I think you are totally right, have you read my post on breast-feeding workshops? I basically rant about how they make it seem like the latch is all you need to worry about and and then spend the rest of the time telling how natural and wonderful breastfeeding is, arg! I completely agree that if women were more equipped with all of the information positive and negative they may keep breastfeeding longer because they don’t feel like crap when it’s hard and they understand everything much better.
      I think there’s a lot of research to suggest that peer support is a powerful factor in carrying on so your example of other cultures is spot on.
      Do you know, I actually have a dream about creating peer-led ‘infant feeding’ workshops, whose focus is very much on breastfeeding but not ‘why you should breastfeed’ more about problems, emotional issues and all that. Also has a little bit about combination and formula feeding, like how much your baby needs to eat in the first few weeks and preparation and stuff like that so women don’t feel completely lost if they do starting using formula.
      Wanna do it with me?? 🙂
      Really good to engage with you Jennifer!

  6. I’ve said exactly the same thing about setting up a peer support group!
    One that gives support before and after birth, and that will come to your house to help. Also, it would be great to be able to see the same person every time, so you don’t have to tell 4 different people that you have tried the bloody rugby ball hold and it didn’t bloody work! (You may have guessed, this actually happened to me)
    Yes, I would very much like to do that with you!

    I have really enjoyed having such a thoughtful conversation.
    I look forward to your next post as always!

    • And I look forward to your next comment 🙂
      P.S. I had about half a dozen different people lecture me on bf technique BEFORE observing me, only to say ‘oh yes that looks fine’ so I totally hear you on that one sister!!

  7. Pingback: ‘I can’t cope’ she said, whilst coping. | The (mal)Contented Mother

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