Here is my experience of how the medical establishment failed us in our struggle to be a breastfeeding family, and how #bressure almost cost me my bond with my newborn twins.
My twin sons were born last October at term. They weighed 6lbs 2oz and 6lbs 6oz and were perfect aside from that they were tongue-tied, a fact that was missed by the midwives that observed us nursing. I hadn’t wanted the caesarean section that I ended up with but my recovery was super and we left the hospital when they were twenty-one hours new.
The community midwife that we expected to visit the next day didn’t show up which seemed a bit odd, but we were used to negligent midwives by then and besides, we were so exhausted managing newborn twins that we didn’t chase it up. She didn’t come by the next day either, but we supposed that was because it was a Sunday. She failed to show up on Monday and after a series of telephone calls to the hospital that we delivered at, where we were passed around departments and accidentally hung up on, we finally got through to somebody who expressed surprise that we were at home with our babies because our discharge papers had mistakenly recorded that we had been sent to the Special Care Baby Unit.
Uh, no. No we had not.
A community midwife was with us within the hour and to her credit, she was lovely. Reassuring and affirmative that we were doing brilliantly. She watched them feed and expressed a little concern at Balthazar’s skin tone – yellow – and sleepiness but told us that newborns did tend to sleep a lot and to call if we had any trouble waking him up.
We called her that evening to report precisely that and was told to head back to the hospital via A&E. Our first hospital trip with a baby. He was four days old.
Whilst Lysander’s tongue tie was only moderate and he had lost just 8% of his bodyweight, Balthazar had lost 11% and was barely conscious. The paediatrician at the Children’s A&E decided that he should be admitted and put him on a strict feeding schedule whereby he had to consume precisely 55mls of breastmilk every three hours. I was horrified that one of my children had starved to the point of needing hospitalisation without my having even noticed, so I decided to pump for both in order to monitor their intake.
Finding ourselves back on the postnatal ward was a difficult experience given that we’d had a traumatic birth experience and didn’t feel safe there. We were loaned a Medela Symphony, a hospital-grade breastpump with two suction cups, the intention being that the mother can pump both breasts at the same time. However, ours had only one suction cup and so could pump just one breast at a time. With my faulty breastpump I was supposed to pump enough milk to feed two babies. I didn’t sleep that night, as Kirsty cradled our children and fed them my milk from a bottle and I pumped one breast and then the other over and again as I cried.
Not only was the breastpump faulty but repeatedly midwives came into our room to ‘borrow’ it. We explained that we had been given a feeding schedule from Balthazar’s paediatrician, that he had been readmitted and was sick, and the midwives promised to bring it back when the other woman was done – only they didn’t. Hours passed. We spent so much time chasing about that ward, introducing ourselves to midwives and asking them to find it and bring it back. Nobody did. The schedule began to look disorganised, with the babies late for feeds or not getting enough milk. It made us look like bad parents. When the paediatrician frowned over it, we felt like the worst parents in the world.
The hormone oxytocin controls breastmilk letdown. Oxytocin is known as a ‘happy hormone’ – it is affected by the mother’s emotions and inhibited by stress. As I cried in that hospital room, hours late to express my milk as I waited for the breastpump to be returned, my supply started to tank. By the next day, physically and emotionally exhausted (and unable to sleep as I tried to produce enough milk to feed two children using my incomplete breastpump) I was no longer producing my 110 mls every three hours to feed my new babies. And anyway – the breastpump had been missing for hours and nobody knew where to find it.
The twins were howling with hunger and we couldn’t console them. Our schedule was looking dreadful. We had been given the (incomplete) breastpump for thirty minutes before it was whisked off again.
Balthazar’s blood tests were still showing that he was dehydrated, that the levels of salt in his blood were too high. They wouldn’t discharge us to allow us to go home and hire our own breastpump with two working suction cups. They couldn’t offer us vegetarian formula.
The supervisor on the ward came in to our room to suggest that we give the babies donor milk, ‘because it’s so much better for babies’ than formula. Of course I wanted the best for them so I agreed, with words that could barely be distinguished through my sobs.
My babies were now drinking somebody else’s milk.
Unable to look at them, I moved to the bathroom to continue my breakdown. Exhausted and wracked with postnatal hormones, I felt like a failure.
I’m not proud of it but I seriously considered walking out of that hospital and leaving them there, to conceive another child ASAP and do it all over again ‘properly’. It’s an animal response, isn’t it? In times of extreme stress, eat your young or abandon them. If Kirsty hadn’t already bonded deeply, if she hadn’t clutched them and cried because she knew what I was thinking, I suspect that I probably would have. They were drinking a stranger’s milk and they didn’t feel like mine. I wanted to do it again. I wanted a home birth somewhere far away from this shitty hospital and a proper breastfeeding experience.
We did get our second suction cup halfway through day two but so much damage had been done by then. And it made me wonder – if there was an available second cup all along, why had we only been given one? It would have been so easy to give us two in the first place and it was so harmful to us that they hadn’t.
We were discharged after three miserable days and tried to seek help from our health visitor. I had rented a breastpump, sought a prescription of domperidone from my GP, and was working on increasing my supply. Whilst my babies snacked occasionally on vegetarian formula (easily sourced, stocked at Tesco) I was spending most of my waking hours – and much of the time that I should have spent sleeping – hooked up to the breastpump.
Our healthcare visitor was unable to make referrals to have tongue ties snipped and neither baby was much good on the breast. Her recommendation? To take three buses across London to a ‘breastfeeding café’ where they would watch me fail to feed and hopefully, no guarantees, make the referral for us to trek BACK across London on a different day for the surgery. A week after a caesarean section. With TWINS. On THREE BUSES.
I couldn’t face it. I don’t know that many would have. I was just so tired and instead of spending my time snuggling my babies I was hooked up to a machine that turned my nipples purple and made them bleed. The journey to the café would have taken hours that I should have spent pumping. It would have fecked up my supply further. And if I wasn’t pumping, I wanted to sleep.
The twins were fed almost exclusively on expressed breastmilk until I returned to work when they were twelve weeks old. Pressure to give my children my breastmilk meant that my maternity leave wasn’t spent cuddling my newborns but rather staring into space, trying not to wince as a machine tugged at my breasts. It meant that some days, I didn’t hold either baby – I was completely touched out. If I wasn’t pumping, I was making dinner or walking the dog or trying to make time for the family members that demanded to see the babies every day. It put so much pressure on us as a family.
I switched to formula when I returned to work and all I felt was relief. The babies seemed not to notice the difference and suddenly I had time in the day to enjoy them and get to know their little personalities.
All I’m saying is that if breast is best – and I haven’t seen any evidence of that in my family – then medical professionals need to enable that. And if they’re unwilling or unable to do so then perhaps it’s time to shut up about it and let mothers do what they can.