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Bye Bye Breastfeeding: A message on Mastitis

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Originally written in May 2020

It has been a week now since I made the ever-difficult decision to stop breastfeeding my six-month-old son, and only now do I feel comfortable enough to talk about it. When I first made the choice, I was absolutely devastated. Heart-broken. I felt like it was the end of the world.

Because really, it wasn’t a choice at all.

A message from my body to my brain told me that my breastfeeding journey was to come to an end. And more than anything, I was angry.

After finding out I was pregnant, I knew that I’d want to breastfeed for at least one year, perhaps beyond that if our bodies allowed for it. So having to stop halfway into the year sent tears that could’ve filled a ravine.

Of course, I’m just being dramatic right now. But it really was such a painful truth to have to acknowledge. In all honesty, breastfeeding has been difficult for us since day one. Neither of us knew what we were doing and following my boy’s birth, to say I was exhausted would be an understatement. You see, he was born at 23:50, a mere five minutes after arriving to the hospital.

That’s right, I almost birthed my child in the car on the way to the hospital (on a subsequent visit to the hospital our midwife said to plan for a home birth for baby number 2).

After arriving in such a frenzy, understandably, the staff were shocked, scared, rushed off their feet perhaps, so cheerio to my birth preferences, but it seemed no one wanted to actually check that I was okay. Could I pass urine properly on my own? Did I tear? Could I shower? This may be voyaging to the realm of TMI for this particular blog, so I’ll get back to the point.

Amidst all the chaos, nobody came to see that my son was properly fed! Finally, at around 3am, one of the midwives asked if he had had his “first feed” to which I said, “Yes”. She nodded her head and left the room.

Though it was a painful feed – and I thought it was supposed to be painful in the beginning – it was a feed nonetheless. Sharing a single bed in the post-natal ward, the two of us instinctively lay beside each other as his mouth found my nipple and when he was done, he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

Now, let’s fast-forward to day five. A Friday. Both my breasts were swollen to high heavens. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t lie down comfortably, and feeding my son had become excruciating, to the point where my partner and his mum had had to rush out the night before to get formula and nipple shields. What we didn’t know was that that would eventually make things worse.

I woke up that Friday morning feeling like my chest would explode.

So, with paracetamol and ibuprofen, I went to bed while Joe took the baby. In the evening, when I felt better, I took over so that Joe could sleep. I felt the pain creep up again. The nausea, chills, dizziness, to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable holding our son. I went to our bedroom and thrust the baby into my partner’s arms saying nothing more than, “Take the baby”, while he struggled to wake himself back up as I teetered through to the kitchen.

And then the pain really hit me. I could no longer stand. I held on to the kitchen surfaces while I waited for the kettle to boil, thinking a hot water bottle would fix me up. I started to feel the pain not only in my breasts, but in my lower abdomen, and my sleep-deprived brain thought it was just the pain of my uterus shrinking itself back down to its regular size, as they say happens when you’re breastfeeding.

Joe had come through to the kitchen, baby in arms, concerned about my unseemly manner, and boy, am I thankful he did. I felt myself deteriorate even more. I was shaking violently, unable to stand at all, feeling like I would lose consciousness any minute. Joe called his mum. She watched over our son while we waited for an ambulance, but after three hours, it was clear no one would arrive before I passed out from the pain.

Uber it was, all the while my symptoms worsening by the minute. By the time we arrived, I was screaming, crying, in pain. My diagnosis? An infection in either my breasts or uterus, strong possibility of it being sepsis. With fear, pain, and dread in my heart, I held on to Joe’s hand as needles and tubes took over my whole body.

Yes, I’m overdramatising again, but I hate hospitals, so maybe my perception is slightly askew. Heck, I don’t know what I looked like.

Joe’s mum brought the baby on Saturday and, thankfully, we were allowed our own room. We ended up staying in the hospital until Tuesday. Could you imagine me there by myself? At some point during our stay, though, our midwife, and probably my favourite medical worker to date, said that it was likely mastitis, an infection in the breasts caused by a build-up of milk. It normally happens when your baby doesn’t adequately empty the breast during each feed, hence, the mistake of replacing feeds with formula. Following our stint in hospital, the midwives who visited insisted it was in my and my son’s best interests to continue breastfeeding. So I went to a local breastfeeding support group where I was told he may have tongue-tie, which was vehemently refuted by my health visitor, who instead suggested that despite the “help” I’d received in hospital by the midwives after my mastitis diagnosis, it would just take time for us both to get used to feeding. And it will get better.

My son was born mid-November. We are now in May. For a while it did get easier. He learnt to latch properly, I learnt which positions suited us both, but every now and then the problems persisted. It has now got to the point where I feel I am at a loss. Thanks to our pandemic, breastfeeding cafes are closed and I will only get a visit from our health visitor in the case of an emergency.

One particularly disturbing point for me is that, while so many new mums I know got support from jump, I didn't! And to make matters worse, I felt bullied into breastfeeding when it brought me nothing but pain and misery, thus, making me feel like I was a terrible mother to begin with. So, with my stress, lack of sleep and frustration all paired with the pain, lack of sleep and frustration of a teething baby who is very aware and often distracted by any noise in his environment, I had to come to the decision to quit breastfeeding.

That night, in my journal, I wrote:

“I am heartbroken. I really thought we’d made a breakthrough. I thought we’d overcome our hurdle. It just wasn’t for us. My heart is broken. I wanted to last a year. I am not ready to stop.”

And that really is how I felt. The end of worlds. As if grieving the loss of a loved one. But mere days later, I felt a strange wave of relief. As if the tonne of bricks I had stacked on my chest were magically lifted.

I didn’t have to breast feed.

He is six months, we’re weaning him onto solids anyway, and until my milk has completely gone, I will continue to pump during the day and breastfeed during the night to keep up with the supply. An excerpt of my journal a few days later reads,

“Today was a good day. After having time to think about it, I am definitely ready to phase out breastfeeding… it’s such a relief not having to fight anymore… I think I can be proud of myself for making it this far despite our difficulties, now it seems we’re both happier and a lot more relaxed.

And relaxed I am. No longer weighed down with dread each time I have to feed him. Battling to stop him whipping his head round, pulling my nipple with it, because he heard a dog bark outside (#niplash). No more trying to coach him to open his mouth wider, or position his head at the right angle. I’m sure with time all of this could be fixed. But while we’re all confined to our homes until further notice with no one to sit with me and really coach me through, I can honestly remain satisfied and relieved knowing that although I didn’t achieve my goal of breastfeeding for one year, we made it to six months, and can transition naturally to solids with bottle feeds of my expressed milk as and when he needs.

Even as I write this, I can’t help but smile with pride. We have been through so much in such a short amount of time! I’m just thankful that after a traumatic birth and another hospital stint with mastitis, we lasted as long as we did. And whether we do revisit breastfeeding in the future or not, my son is healthy, happy and bloody strong. And that, for me, is enough.

What would I say to anyone else going through the same thing? If you see things the way I do and it really does feel like you want the heavens to open up and swallow you whole, remember, you did so well to keep the baby (or babies) alive to start with! No matter how they came into the world, or how you're feeding them, the pure fact that it affects you so much for not being able to continue on your breastfeeding journey shows you are already an amazing parent. I can guarantee that your baby loves you regardless, so please, don’t be ashamed of bottle feeding, or worse, be shamed into breastfeeding, as I was. You’re doing incredible work as is, especially in times like these. You really are.

Have any other parents reading this felt the shame? Shame of choosing the bottle over breast? Shame of not wanting to breastfeed at all? Ask yourself this: Is your child happy? Are they gaining enough weight? Do you love them so much that you could smother them (with love, of course)?

If the answer to any of these is yes, you're already doing a great job!

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