When I fell pregnant at 25 I was ecstatic. My husband and I had been happily married for 3 years and we were both excited about being parents. The only tarnish to the excitement was that my husband deployed to Afghanistan when I was 15 weeks pregnant and wouldn’t return until just before the birth. Even this major hurdle couldn’t dampen our excitement as my husband has been in the forces for 8 years; we were used to the lifestyle. We just accepted it and condensed our baby shopping into a few short and early weeks, just after our 12 week scan. It was horrible saying goodbye but we just focused on the future. Most people will agree looking back a pregnancy of 37 weeks seems surprisingly short.
I threw myself into getting prepared as a new mum and signed up for ante-natal classes (with the added incentive of more time off work!!) It was at these classes that I realised how ‘green’ and naïve I was. I have no shame in admitting that the thought of labour terrified me, and the class on breast feeding made me feel ‘icky’. The T.V show Little Britain and its ‘bitty’ sketch has a lot to answer for!! I was embarrassed -what if I had to feed him in public or worse in front of my dad or my in-laws!! I had an immature notion that my baby would be all sweet smelling nappies and suckle contentedly on a bottle. Luckily the children’s centre that held the classes were hugely encouraging when it came to breast feeding and gave me all the support I needed to give it a go, and overcome my embarrassment. Yet, in being pro-breast feeding they provided no information on bottle feeding. Which effectively left no choice-either get support with breast feeding or bottle feed in isolation!
My husband made it home safe and sound on the 19th March and our baby was due on the 31st. We crammed in as much quality time and relaxation as being 8 months pregnant would allow. After all, I never really expected to go into labour on my due date-but that’s what happened!! It was a slow start.I remember the car journey so vividly-the fear, the excitement, the pain! The labour was long and arduous (as they all are I hear!) But it was harder for our baby than it was for me as I opted for an epidural after 12 hours of him being painfully ‘back to back’. There were repeated fluctuations with his heart rate which meant in the end that I had to be given help with a forceps delivery.
Finally, our beautiful baby boy was born, weighing 6lb 12oz, with a full head of blonde hair and his daddy’s frown on his face!
After a lot of support in hospital we got him breast feeding well and were sent home after 2 days. My midwife was on holiday so I had a different nurse come round to do the post natal checks, and after initially dropping to 6lb 2oz, our baby stayed within his 10% parameters and quickly gained again, going up to 6lb 14oz at a week old. I was surprised to find I actually enjoyed breast feeding, it wasn’t painful to get him latched on correctly and feeding. It was also bonding time for us and I knew I was doing what was best for my baby.
This soon changed though. At 3 weeks old our health visitor came round to weigh him and broke the news that he was still only 6lb 14oz exactly. There had been no weight gain at all in 2 weeks! She watched me feed and told me I was doing everything right and it was a good sign that he hadn’t lost any in 2 weeks but she referred us to the GP. Matthew was a ‘sicky baby’ and we thought that could be the problem. Unfortunately that day went from bad to worse, as the Dr detected a heart murmur and sent us straight up the hospital. Two days later Matthew was diagnosed with Ventricular Septal Defect- a hole in the heart. Our world crashed! I remember desperately asking the nurse “Is his heart likely to just stop working?” I was terrified of losing him but it’s one of the most common defects with new born babies and often closes spontaneously within weeks or days of birth. However, more serious cases can cause further health problems and have to be surgically closed; which would leave our son with permanent heart disease, due to scar tissue. We were reassured that the best thing we could do for Matthew was continue to breast feed to boost his immunity, and the hospital would monitor him closely. The following week his weight had dropped to 6lb 12oz and he was constantly sleeping. (This might sound like bliss-but when it’s not normal-it’s not!) . Over the following weeks we were up and down to the hospital visiting specialists and his weight continued to plummet! I was desperate! I was waking him every hour to try and feed him-but he would often be too sleepy to feed. I was expressing constantly to try and keep my milk supply coming, but because he wasn’t demanding much my body started making less. On advice from the health visitor and a paediatric dietician we tried expressing milk before a feed, to get rid of the foremilk so he would latch on straight to the richer milk. Expressing after a feed to make sure I could give him some richer milk from a bottle. Expressing in between feeds to keep my supply up, but it quickly slowed down and it got to a point where it would take me all day of expressing, as well as feeding, and I could only express about 4oz of milk. I telephoned the dietician to explain I wasn’t making enough anymore and was told to express more – “It’s supply and demand” she said. I was beyond desperate at this point and wanted to give up breast feeding. I had no sleep, hardly got dressed and if I didn’t have my son attached to my breast, it was a breast pump! I was told a million different things by friends, family and health visitors- “just do 10 minutes on each side” , “try skin to skin” “let him feed for as long as he needs”…… I tried everything! I was exhausted and depressed. I remember one particularly hard day, Our little man was sleeping and my husband bought me dinner as I was too busy “expressing” to cook. I couldn’t eat it. I saw my tiny, fragile little baby asleep in his moses basket- How could I eat when the poor little man must have been starving??!! Luckily my husband was hugely supportive and we decided to give up breast feeding and try a bottle.
I felt like an utter failure, but my instinct was telling me it was the right thing to do. We went to our routine hospital appointment the next day, and they again insisted we keep breast feeding. We were given a supplement of fat and sugar to mix with boiled water and give to him in a sterilized syringe for 2 weeks. The dietician callously told us that “sometimes with ‘cardiac babies’ the weight gain can be such an issue, they have to be tube fed.” I looked at my tiny baby, who seemed to be shrinking before my eyes and thankfully my husband was brave enough to ask “Why don’t we try a bottle first?” but were again told not to and to keep breast feeding “he’s getting everything he needs from you.” The Dr told us, and I thought for one horrible minute my husband was going to punch him when he grumbled “Well it doesn’t seem like it to me!”
At this point he weighed just less than 7lb at nearly 7 weeks old! He was still wearing early baby clothes! If the supplement didn’t work he would have to be admitted to hospital and tube fed until he got his strength up; But that would have confirmed the Dr’s decision that his heart was causing further health complications, and they would need to operate. We were preparing for the worst scenario – open heart surgery.
In the car home, my husband broke the silence by suggesting “We could still try to bottle feed, it’s up to you.” I told him “We can’t! We have to do what the Dr’s say.” I was convinced that formula must be some kind of poison and dangerous, or cause cancer, as I couldn’t understand why anybody, let alone health professionals, would suggest tube feeding a baby over giving him a bottle.
Another exhausting week went by with the constant breast pumping, and added job of mixing a sticky glue like paste that stuck to everything to syringe into our son before a feed. My husband had been lucky enough to have extended leave after his tour in Afghanistan and had been with me at every hospital appointment, but the time had come for him to return to work and as he was based in Scotland I had the daunting reality of doing this all on my own with no one else to support and reassure me. We live 200 miles away from any family so I was understandably nervous, but my little one kept me strong. I dutifully expressed before a feed, after a feed, in between feeds; woke him every hour to feed and ate myself to keep my strength up, for 6 exhausting days before the time came to have him weighed again. I was praying with every cell of my being that the sticky supplement would be the answer and he had put on the required 4oz. He hadn’t! – He had put on just 2oz. When the health visitor looked at me and said “It’s not really enough is it?” I cried. I couldn’t help myself and blubbed that I was going to try a bottle before they tube feed him. I asked her for advice on how to do it as I’d only ever been given information on breast feeding, and she explained that she would prefer I discuss it with his dietician as he may need special care formula. The dietician dutifully sent a prescription for a high calorie formula, but no information on how to make up a bottle or sterilise- I had to rely on the packet instructions. I walked out of the baby clinic feeling so isolated and alone, my legs were like jelly and tears streamed down my face as I pushed the pram home.
I felt like a failure. I’d failed in my most important role to provide nourishment for my child. It was a rare occasion when my little man was awake because his heart condition made him so sleepy. He looked at me with his clear blue eyes and gave me a ‘toothless’ smile. It brightened my day and I was sure I was doing the right thing by giving him a bottle. But I had no idea where to start. How much do I give him? How often? I didn’t know how to sterilise equipment or wind a bottle fed baby.
I fumbled my way through and followed the detailed instructions on the packets and within a week he had gained 10 oz. He weighed 7lb 12oz, at 8 weeks old he had finally gained a whole lb above his birth weight and he went from strength to strength. His weight gain meant the hospital were happy to monitor the hole in his heart for longer before they made the decision to operate.
A week or so later as I sat giving him his morning bottle the issue of breast feeding was raised on a morning T.V show. It showed a pro breast feeding ‘earth mother’ in a debate with a pro bottle feeding, glamorous mum, who had comments like “my boobs are just for my pleasure….I didn’t like the idea of breast feeding”. I was mortified! It portrayed anti-breast feeding mums as selfish and vain. It was so biased. I had to keep reassuring myself that I had tried my best. I wasn’t being selfish. I questioned myself constantly. It was only when I went to collect a prescription for the specialized formula milk and bumped into my original midwife that I found any kind of reassurance. She made a point of telling me that she was so sorry to hear about my little man’s heart and she could not believe that the hospital had insisted I breast feed for so long. She was convinced that if his heart condition had been detected at birth he “would have been whipped to special care babies and they wouldn’t hesitate to give him a bottle”. The relief was immense. To hear one medical professional support my choice to bottle feed was all I needed.
I now realise how the health authority and the government legislation being so pro-breast feeding let me and my son down. I have a whole stack of photographs of my baby which are hidden away in a drawer as I cannot bare to look at them because he was so skinny and emaciated. The guilt I feel when I look at those photographs is overwhelming, not because he was born with a heart defect but because I made the wrong choice and listened to the blinkered and biased Dr’s instead of following my maternal instincts. I desperately wanted to breast feed and give him the best start in life, but because of a congenital defect, breast feeding wasn’t the best start in life for him. It was too much hard work for his tiny body. Thankfully we realised before it was too late.
The health authorities have a responsibility and duty of care to give people balanced, correct advice. I was a new mum, I was naïve and I followed Dr’s advice, which was to my sons’ detriment. They took the chance that my baby may have to face open heart surgery in an emaciated state. A choice that wasn’t theirs to make and they should have provided me with enough information to make that choice in an informed way. Having spoken to our local Children’s Centre and other mums I was informed that they are not allowed to give information on bottle feeding as they HAVE to promote breast feeding. I cannot be alone in thinking this is ridiculous. Not offering new mums information on bottle feeding is like not giving teenagers sex education; it won’t stop them doing it, but it just means they just won’t do it safely or properly. I remember a hospital nurse saying to me that if they can breast feed in the 3rd world, all mums should give it a go here. That is SO WRONG. If our little man had been born in the 3rd world he probably would have died from a relatively common birth defect. We have the facilities to sterilise and boil our water correctly in this country and thousands of babies not only survive but thrive on formula milk.
I am not anti-breast feeding. In fact, I’m pro-breast feeding and cannot wait to try it with my next child. There should definitely be a lot of support to encourage new mums to breast feed. There are numerous health benefits to breast feeding BUT remember there are no health warnings with formula. Mums who choose to bottle feed shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed, selfish, or as if they have failed. There should be more support for mums who decide to bottle feed. As new mums we should be guided and supported in our new role, not dictated to that breast feeding is the only way. The health authority needs to recognise the INDIVIDUAL health needs of each child and parent.
I feel robbed of that early joy you should have from your 1st child, but instead I am left with guilt and photographs of my new baby that I cannot look at. I can never get that time back, but I HAVE learnt a valuable parenting lesson. There is no such thing as “by-the-book” when it comes to parenting. What is right for one child is NOT always right for another. Parenting is all about guilt and responsibility as we struggle to make life choices our little ones are too young to make for themselves, and we all (including health authorities) need to adapt to the individual needs of our unique child.
Post script: I wrote this article before I had my second child. My second child was such a joy to breast feed. She fed every 45 minutes for about 45 minutes!! It worked! She gained weight and was a happy and healthy baby. But after a few months of breast feeding I found it difficult to be sat on the sofa feeding, with my now, two year old son to look after and no family and friends to help (my husband had re-deployed!) So I gave my daughter a bottle…. And guess what!! – She CONTINUED to thrive and gain weight! I thought having this success with my second child would have somehow healed me of the pain and shame I felt from failing to breastfeed my son successfully, but sadly it hasn’t. It is something I just have to learn to live with, a part of my parenting journey. I had to watch a friend recently go through a similar struggle recently- She is an ‘attachment parent’ (I will blog on this at a later date!) and prides herself and breast feeding but her baby was lactose intolerant and had numerous food allergies. She spend 15 weeks, amending her diet, watching his weight see-saw and struggling so much to breast feed before she finally decided to give him a bottle and I feel her pain. I understand her sense of failure, but can only reassure her that as long as we try our best, and learn from our mistakes that is all our children can ask of us; the same as we ask of them- to TRY OUR BEST! xx