It’s a cloudy, blustery and downright freezing Saturday in March and I am sat in my car at a beachside car park breastfeeding my six-month-old son. It’s one of those classic “Ahh! Why are you crying? You’ve had a nap and milk and are warm and dry, fuck it we’ll try a boob in the mouth” feed. The kind that often evokes the on-again-off-again latch of doom. I have my toddler’s cardigan slung over my shoulder as a makeshift cover-up as I’m in full glare of families out for another-weekend-in-lockdown stroll and feel too vulnerable to deal with the aftermath eye-contact from a dad who’s just accidentally spied my nipple. And, as I am sat there, waiting for my baby to decide if he’s hungry or not, I am feeling a million things. Because I know, right there overlooking the sea, that it’ll likely be the last time I breastfeed him, or in fact, any baby, ever again.
Y’see, long before he was born I’d decided that I would try my best to breastfeed him, but that if it didn’t work for us, there would be no pressure to stick to it. I’d also decided, long before he was born, that my second child – if I was so lucky to be blessed with a second child – would likely be my last.
My first baby – born in 2018 – had taken to breastfeeding well. So well, that he’d often drink until he projectile vomited the entirety of his feed back over my boobs and down my stomach. Yum.
After an initial difficulty in getting him to latch in the 24 hours after he was born, he took to it with absolute gusto. The only problem was – as like many new mums – I struggled with the mental and physical pressure of being the lone baby-feeder at midnight and 1am and 2am and 3am and 4am and, well, you get the picture. At six weeks we’d introduced the magical pre-bedtime bottle of formula in the hope of getting him to sleep longer at night (spoiler: he didn’t), and by 12 weeks he’d been fully weaned off the boob.
At the time it’d felt right, but as time wore on and I was able to gain more distance and perspective on my feeding journey, I felt as though I’d been pressured (by myself, and the forces around me) to make the switch to formula before I’d truly been ready. It had been a major playing card in my game of ‘FUCK, LET’S GET LIFE BACK TO NORMAL’. And I felt like I’d rushed myself out of something that should have perhaps been savoured (or even enjoyed), no matter how full-on it had felt at the time.
With baby number two, I knew I wanted to continue to be flexible and adapt to my needs at any given moment, to chop and change my views and ideas as I needed to. I also knew, that I wanted to appreciate the early baby days – and all the hard yet fleeting joys like night feeds, newborn snuggles and baby-wearing. I would listen to my gut and to what felt right and trust myself a lot more than I had with my first. I bought a tub of formula and a small collection of MAM bottles, whilst also getting myself a Haakaa pump (seriously, so good and cheap) and some fresh new M&S DD+ bralettes to feed in. I wanted to be prepared, yet relaxed, for every scenario.
But the one thing that truly prepared me above all else? The experience of doing it the first time. I gave birth just before the second Covid wave had truly come crashing down, but the hospital maternity wards were heavily understaffed and there was little to no time for midwives to stop and help with things like latches and feeding. I was lucky to be able to attempt to do it on my own, mostly through the good ol’ friend that is muscle memory. And, by the time we were home (around 36 hours after my c-section – full birth story here), things in the feeding department were already running smoothly – aside from an oversupply that ensured both of us were soaked with breast milk for 72% of the time.
I look back at the early days from my first baby and felt suffocated and overwhelmed for almost every moment of it – the fear of never having proper sleep again felt all-consuming. But this time round, I look back at my fourth trimester and only feel good things. Nothing felt as hard – night feeds included.
I slept (along with the Snuzpod) in the spare bedroom, geared up with a TV, a pack of nappies, and a bundle of wipes. Every evening after toddler bedtime I’d prepare myself a pint of squash and a bottle of water and a selection of snacks (bananas, nuts and biscuits were my go-tos) and I’d spend the next 12 hours drifting between sleep and feeding the baby whilst watching Grey’s Anatomy. I managed to re-watch 15 seasons of it over a four-month period – and yes, that’s over 300 episodes, before I had to move on to the likes of Emily In Paris, Bridgerton, Firefly Lane and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I felt in control instead of flailing, somehow empowered, and hugely comforted. The nights felt no-where near as daunting as they had before and I didn’t dread them – instead, I somehow found a way to embrace them.
Lockdown definitely had an impact on breastfeeding too – it helped me get to grips with it quicker and allowed me the time, space and comfort to do it without getting flustered and nervy in public places. But it also meant that I rarely left my baby, even for an hour or two, and so – unlike my eldest son – he refused bottles from anyone else. With the easing of restrictions on the horizon, I knew that I had to help him trust other people to feed him because I wanted to reclaim some kind of freedom after a long, hard stint of staying home. So at three months old, I started the slowest wean off the boob known to the world. I dropped a feed once a fortnight or so, so that over the following three months he went from entirely breastfed to entirely formula.
And that last car park breastfeed (he’s had a lot of car park breastfeeds – usually at supermarkets or McDonald’s because it’s the only place a girl can get a drive-thru coffee near me), came just two days shy of his six-month birthday.
The one thing I have found entirely different about these first handful of post-breastfeeding weeks, is how much I’ve noticed my fluctuating hormones. I feel emotional and unsteady and I wasn’t prepared for that. I’ve also felt plenty of womb cramps, which I can only assume is my body gearing up to bless me with its first period in around 16 months, which I can assure you I’m not overly excited about – I’ve kept all my Tena pants on hand to guide me through it. My appetite has shifted back to a recognisable state rather than the if-I-don’t-inhale-a-family-size-bar-of-chocolate-every-evening-I-will-wilt-and-die state that I’d been surviving in since last autumn.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the baby feeding journey that I mapped out in my head beforehand, actually come to fruition. And I hope that in one year/five years/twenty years, I will look back on this time with glorious happy memories, despite the shit storm that raged on outside.
“Look at him, he’s starving!” Even over the sound of my son’s relentless wail, I heard the health visitor’s words loud and clear. As, I assumed, did all the other new mothers at the weigh-in clinic. The mothers who must be doing a much better job than me of feeding their children.
My first child was a tiny 5lb 6oz boy born at 37 weeks. Breastfeeding had always been my hope, and this was clearly stated in my birth plan (I use the term plan loosely because things rarely go to plan when it comes to birth and motherhood) but after he failed to latch, a midwife took him and proceeded to bottle feed him around the corner. I missed his first feed because I was too spaced out on morphine after my c-section to ask why she was bottle feeding him instead of me. I might not have been able to get him to latch, but I could hold a bottle. I wouldn’t get another chance to try because he was swiftly whisked off to special care where he stayed for five days. For the first 48-hours, he was fed through a tube in an incubator.
The next few days were a blurry feeding battle as we tried in vain to keep him awake long enough to take in a measly 30ml of milk – either from me or via a bottle of formula. Breastfeeding was hit and miss and my milk supply was all over the place – it was only after my dad asked the midwives if there was somewhere I could express that I discovered there was a pumping room and began the first of many almost hour-long expressing sessions in a depressing curtained-off cubicle. The noise of a breast pump haunts me to this day.
While the midwives were keen to help me to establish breastfeeding, each had their own preferred technique and the conflicting advice was overwhelming. I never felt like I was doing it quite right and the clinical, sweltering setting of the special care ward did nothing to create the relaxed feeling that is essential to successful breastfeeding in the early days. At home, it was a different story, but that’s not to say it was plain sailing. My son struggled to put on weight, which led us to that shame-inducing experience at the weigh-in clinic. The aforementioned health visitor suggested I feed him every one and a half hours, twenty-four hours a day. “But when would I sleep? Eat? Get anything done?” I pleaded. The look she gave me suggested I was selfish for even asking. I left the weigh-in consumed with anxiety and tried her advice for a few days until my son was so full of milk he was in constant pain. My instinct (and a lot of friends) told me this wasn’t right for me and my baby, so I went back to what I’d been doing. Slowly but surely, he began climbing up that centile chart. I continued to breastfeed (alongside bottle feeding with expressed milk and later, formula) until my son was 10 months old. There were times when I never thought we’d get there, but I’m so glad we did.
Like many things with your second child, breastfeeding is both easier and harder the second time around. There were no worries about my baby measuring small – in fact, consultants predicted she would be a large baby – and she arrived 11 days after her due date, weighing a rather average 7lb 11oz. I didn’t have the VBAC (vaginal birth after c-section) that I’d hoped for, but I did get to experience a moment I’d only ever seen in birth videos and almost thought was a mythical thing – my baby rooting around and latching onto my breast within seconds of being placed on my chest. It was without doubt the most magical thing I’ve ever experienced, and I remember sobbing as I looked down at her sucking away.
If that all sounds sickeningly perfect, I’ll level with you. After two days of successful feeding in hospital – it luckily just happened a lot more easily this time – we got home and everything appeared to go to shit. My daughter had gone from feeding every 1.5-2 hours to being permanently attached to my boobs for 48 hours, sucking furiously but seemingly never getting enough. As she yo-yo’ed from left to right, my nipples got drier, my google searches more frantic and my resolve weaker.
A lot of things are easier with your second baby because you’ve done it before. But I hadn’t breastfed my first born on days three and four of his life – the days when your milk comes in. I felt like a first-time mum stumbling blindly through unknown territory. Google (of course) informed me that Mabel was trying to stimulate my supply, and sure enough, the next afternoon my chest looked like I’d had a botched boob job, felt hard as a rock and squirted like a super soaker at the slightest touch. I did an Amazon Prime order for some silver nipple covers, sent my husband to Boots for extra Lansinoh cream and repeated that age-old motherhood mantra to myself: this too shall pass.
And it did. My milk supply found its groove – as did my little girl – and we’ve exclusively breastfed since. I’m by no means saying it has all been easy. The actual act of feeding has been relatively smooth sailing, but it feels so much more exhausting this time around – probably because I have a two-and-a-half-year-old to look after – and, like Hannah, my hormones have fluctuated wildly. I noticed that when I ran out of my postnatal vitamins recently and didn’t get round to buying a new pack for a few days, I felt bone-tired and developed a mouth ulcer (always a sign that I’m run down) almost immediately. Just like it was with my first baby, my let down is strong and sometimes painful, and I have an oversupply that can leave us both soaked and uncomfortable at times. Also – again, probably because I have a two-and-a-half-year-old to look after – feeding isn’t always the calm, peaceful experience it sometimes was with my firstborn, and it can be hard to shake the mum guilt when the toddler wants something and I have to make him wait.
Said toddler has zero recollection of his breastfeeding days (which kind of breaks my heart) and watched with fascination as his sister latched and fed. At first, I worried this physical bond with my daughter might make him feel left out and jealous, but he either barely notices or finds it wildly amusing. One day, naked and about to jump in the shower, my daughter decided she wanted a feed. As my other boob started dripping milk onto the bed, my son stuck out his hand, got a droplet on his finger, licked it then fell about laughing. He’s also taken to shouting out “mum boob!” whenever I feed her, both at home and in public. Speaking of which, I’ve always felt quite confident about feeding outside of the house – largely thanks to self-assured friends who paved the way for me to do so – and this time, I definitely care even less about what people think, which is hugely liberating.
My daughter is 12 weeks old now and I’m yet to get my Elvie pump or steriliser out of storage. Yes, expressing so that someone else can give her a bottle might allow me more freedom, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already sick of breast pads and nursing bras, but her feeding schedule isn’t so punishing that I feel the need for help. I’m also 99.9% sure she’ll be my last baby, so I’m trying really hard to enjoy it, even when it’s hard, exhausting and limiting.
A few people have asked me how long I plan to continue breastfeeding. I really don’t know, and I’m not sure why they care. To be honest, I feel like women can’t win. If they don’t feed successfully from birth, they are made to feel like they’ve failed. If they carry on longer than what society deems acceptable (despite the World Health Organisation recommending children are breastfed up to two years and beyond) they are often met with judgemental looks and raised eyebrows. We’ve just hit the distraction stage – my daughter looking up and smiling at me mid-feed is heart-melting. Whipping her head around and yanking my nipple at every sound or movement? Not so much. Our breastfeeding journey might continue for a month or it might continue for a year. Right now, what we’re doing works – and feels good – for both of us. As soon as it doesn’t, we’ll have to navigate that the way women navigate everything else that motherhood throws at them. It’s a rollercoaster ride, and one I’m not ready to get off just yet.