“I didn’t have a birth plan. I was quite sure I didn’t want to set my heart on laboring a certain way, only for things to not go the way I wanted on the day. I knew I would find it far more stressful than just winging it when the time came. However, the only thing I was absolutely certain about was I wanted to breastfeed my baby. I’d read so many books and online articles, as well as hounding family and friends for advice. I felt confident it would just come naturally, and I was really looking forward to it. Once we arrived at the labor ward, I told the midwives I wanted him placed immediately on my chest, skin to skin, after the birth and they agreed. The infamous ‘golden hour.’ But sadly, that’s not really how it worked out.
After a very long and slow-progressing labor, I ended up going for a cesarean. It wasn’t what we wanted, but we were just keen for the baby to be delivered safely. George Brodie Shooter arrived at 4:37 a.m. on December 2, 42 hours after my water broke, and gave us a healthy cry. We were so relieved. But as the surgeons carried on working on me, Brodie was whisked away to be weighed and I didn’t actually see him for 7 minutes. James, my partner, went to check on him. I watched the clock on the wall, and time seemed to tick by so slowly. When they eventually brought him over, I was still stuck to the table and couldn’t even move my arms. They held him so close to my face my eyes couldn’t focus and then rested him there beside me. He was just a blanketed blur in my peripheral vision.
This wasn’t the golden hour I’d begged for. The hour referred to as ‘so important’ in any literature I’d read regarding breastfeeding, and I was desperate to get back to a hospital bed so we could finally have some skin to skin time. Around an hour after his delivery, we arrived on the ward. I was still completely numb from the spinal tap, and absolutely exhausted, but I couldn’t wait to get to know our baby son. At the first opportunity, the nurse placed him on my chest and we attempted the first feed. She angled his head for the right latch and then left us to it. I had read you might feel some discomfort initially, but I felt nothing. I was elated. I thought naively, ‘Well, this is easy!’ I was so happy we’d at least managed to get this bit right.
We carried on like this for the next four or five feeds, before I started to feel little twinges. Before long, every time he latched on, my nipples were so sensitive it felt like I was being stabbed in the chest. Over the next 2 days on the ward, the pain became so unbearable I had to scream into a pillow or bite on my fist every time my husband lifted him onto me. The nurses all tried to help, but every one of them showed me something different. One of them explained to me the spinal tap had probably gone too high, and I had been unable to feel the sensation initially, which meant I wasn’t able to establish a comfortable position or help Brodie with his latch. Instead, he had just been gnawing on me for nearly 24 hours, and now I could feel everything.
It soon became obvious I was blistered and bleeding, but I was so desperate for him to have breast milk. Formula just wasn’t even an option. In my mind, I just had to carry on. Maybe all new moms went through this, I thought. I’d read breastfeeding could be difficult, so I reassured myself this would pass. Over the next week or so, we continued to struggle with feeding. I could only manage 15-minute periods at a time before I felt like I would pass out, and Brodie just wasn’t getting enough of the fatty milk that comes a bit later during the feed. What was worse, he was so hungry when he did latch on, he would suckle so ferociously—chewing on me with his hard gums and the bony plate at the top of his mouth. It felt like I was feeding a piranha.
Labor pains, which had seemed quite extreme only days before, now felt like a walk in the park. One positive was I barely noticed my cesarean wound because, in comparison, it was painless. I had never experienced anything like this. Despite us begging our midwives and health visitors for advice on what to do, they just kept telling us to ‘persevere’—a word that soon started to enrage me. They acknowledged the problem and even observed me feeding him several times, but they just told me to keep taking the pain killers and using gauze with nipple cream in between feeds. Unfortunately, because he was feeding so regularly, I just wasn’t healing. It was so stressful and frustrating. I was advised to express milk into a sipping cup we could pour into his mouth, but he absolutely hated this and it gave him terrible wind.
They also checked him for tongue-tie, which can be one reason babies struggle to feed. We soon asked about pumping, but we were told (quite firmly) not to do it, as it would confuse my milk supply and if we bottle fed him, he may not go back on the breast. This frightened us, and we agreed we’d leave it well alone. However, his weight eventually dropped to 12% below his birth weight, and the health visitor was finally concerned. Her advice was simply for me to try to feed him more often and for longer—advice that just made me burst into tears. She also increased her visits every day to monitor him more closely. I knew they were all trying to help, but it was obvious to me they had no idea how much pain I was in, or how little milk he was actually managing to take each time.
The guilt I felt for not being able to feed my hungry baby made the situation all the more excruciating. Finally, one night, in the very early hours, all three of us were crying. I was absolutely distraught because I couldn’t bear for James to lift him onto me. James was at a loss because he didn’t know how to help. He just had to cradle the screaming bundle and try to soothe him as best as he could. We both knew it was me or nothing. We had no formula in the house and we live in a remote area of the Scottish Highlands, with no shops open overnight. I couldn’t let Brodie starve, but what we were doing just wasn’t working. I felt so much pressure to remedy the situation but my aching, bleeding chest just couldn’t endure one more feed…
This was the night it all changed. I caved. I remember saying, ‘That’s it. This is absolutely ridiculous,’ and I marched into the spare room, grabbing the box we’d been told to ignore until at least 6 weeks into feeding. Despite all advice from the professionals, I stuck the breast pump on my sore, engorged breast and turned it on. Although it was still painful, it was much more bearable than Brodie, and relatively quickly, I had a bottle of enough milk for his feed. His hungry screams had been tearing through the house for weeks, and now, silence. Just the quiet bubbles of excitable suckling. We were lucky he took to the bottle straight away, and unlike every tense, stressful feed prior to this, he had a full tummy and slept for hours afterward. The best part was just watching how satisfied he was and knowing I had finally given him the precious fat and nutrition his poor little body had been craving for weeks.
James and I decided we would alternate pumping and putting him on me, and just hope he was happy with that arrangement. The next day, the combination approach seemed to be working for us, as I successfully breastfed him in between pumping sessions. I was so nervous he would prefer the bottle to me, but thankfully, he seemed perfectly comfortable with both. Our health visitor was noticeably concerned when she arrived in the afternoon and warned us this might not be a long-term solution. She advised us to try to increase the number of breastfeeds and just use the pump if/when we had to, eventually removing it altogether. We did take her comments on board, but it was hard to argue with the fact feeding had become much less stressful and Brodie was finally content. It became even harder to doubt our new method as I gradually began to heal, due to the longer breaks between his feeding.
Over the following few weeks, his latch remained poor, but because I was more comfortable, the breastfeeding experience was far more pleasant and I finally started to enjoy the closeness with my baby I had dreamed of since pregnancy. We made sure he had bottled breast milk just before bed to give him a more settled night, and we quickly realized how much better we all felt with more sleep. That being said, I should point out it wasn’t all a breeze. I still had to pump vigilantly. Every 2 hours, in fact. I was terrified, as I’d been repeatedly told pumping during the early stages of breastfeeding would throw my supply off and it’d be difficult to maintain. It was exhausting, as it often took longer than feeding him and I had to contort myself into weird positions to make sure I drained all the milk out. Plus, I had to do all the usual new-mom stuff on top of it and still try to feed him in between.
We live far away from our families, so it was a lot to manage, but thankfully, James was really hands-on and we just about coped with it altogether. Meanwhile, just in case, I started looking at options in case my milk dried up. I found out, through the power of Google, lots of (health-checked) women donated breast milk to various banks. I never realized this was even an option! Although we would have probably had to pay for it, to me, it would have been worth every penny. We appreciate to some parents it would seem odd to order milk from moms we don’t even know, but for us personally, we wanted to do everything we could to ensure Brodie was fed breast milk, one way or another. Knowing this was an option really eased the pressure I felt, and immediately made me feel better.
Luckily, we needn’t have worried so much. My milk supply not only kept up, but it was more than Brodie could drink. In fact, I produced so much I started storing it in case my ample supply didn’t last. Although I felt like a dairy cow, we were just so happy we had managed to find a solution that worked for us. Brodie fed four or five times a day on the breast, and then was bottle-fed the rest. He started gaining plenty of weight, and the health visitor was delighted with our progress and became very supportive of it thereafter. One of my happiest moments was when I realized he had finally developed the little baby bracelets of fat, they were so cute and it really was a milestone for us.
As the months passed, we ended up with so much extra milk we were running out of space in the freezer. My confidence started to build that my supply wouldn’t drop and we had finally found our own rhythm. Instead, it occurred to me we could put our extra milk to good use. I remembered those late night, panicked online searches for breast milk, and the relief I felt knowing there was an insurance option… I realized I wanted to do the same for someone else. With a little more research, I soon found out you could donate to NHS milk banks for premature or poorly babies in hospitals in the UK. This milk was obviously provided free and supported these little babies, who were unable to feed and stimulate their mother’s own production, during that very vulnerable time in their lives. I immediately knew this was the right place for our milk to go, and the sign-up process and health check was very straight forward.
The milk bank provides everything you need (with the exception of a breast pump) and they send volunteers to your door to collect your donations. So, aside from pumping a little extra a day, there is no additional effort on the donor mom’s part, which is brilliant because, well, let’s face it—we’re all exhausted! After my first donor box arrived, I began topping up the little bottles they provided and froze them immediately after each session. I felt so proud watching the bottles fill over time—it really did feel like an achievement. When the milk is collected, it’s screened and prepared before being given to neonatal wards, so you know it’s perfectly safe. Over the following 6 months, I managed to donate in excess of 12 liters of milk to Milk Bank Scotland and Brodie didn’t miss a drop. He still had all his feeds, and thankfully, we have never had to resort to formula.
On this note, I do want to make it clear we don’t think there is anything wrong with a mom choosing formula over breast milk. Every mom knows what is best for her and her baby. Breast milk was just something we decided we wanted for our son. The bottom line is ‘fed is best.’ This was just a personal choice for our family. Donating milk to the local milk bank has been incredibly therapeutic for me. It eased some of the inevitable ‘mom-guilt’ I felt for not being able to conquer breastfeeding in the way I had hoped. Breastfeeding is not always easy. I’ve spoken to so many other moms about this, and even those who took to it straight away still have their moments of despair. It can be so draining, literally, and it puts a lot of pressure on news moms, as it’s something our partners sadly can’t help with!
For those of us who desperately want to do it but struggle, it can also cause mental trauma—you feel like you’ve failed your child. I felt like less of a woman, especially as I was repeatedly told it’s ‘the most natural thing in the world.’ Like others before me, I battled all these horrible emotions when I honestly believed we were watching our baby starve and no one was listening to us. At one point, he looked like skin and bone in the bath, and it was absolutely devastating. Despite all this, I’m so glad we found a way to make breastfeeding work for us. Logically, I now understand our journey was affected by those first 24 hours, having had an overly effective spinal tap resulting in Brodie developing bad habits and then the subsequent lack of consistent advice. I want to stress that is not the case for many, and I hope my experience doesn’t deter anyone from considering breastfeeding their babies. Once I healed and Brodie was much more settled, the experience was amazing, and it was worth all of our pain and stress to get there.
My main advice to any new moms would be to insist on a breastfeeding specialist for advice at the beginning, I have since found out most hospitals have them, and if not, you can find them privately. I’m not saying our combi-method is advisable for everyone but listen to your gut. Every baby is different, and you’ll know instinctively what your baby needs. In regard to donating, I can’t shout loud enough about it. At a time when I felt quite low, it gave me something to feel good about and be proud of my body for. More importantly, it helped babies who needed breast milk more than most. If I ever find myself blessed with a premature or poorly baby, it would make that incredibly difficult time somewhat easier to know the hospital could provide my baby with the vital antibodies and all the nutrients their little body might need, through the wonder that is breast milk. It really is liquid gold.
Writing this, I can’t believe this all happened over a year ago. It still feels so fresh in my mind. All those low moments feel somewhat insignificant now, as we’re so lucky to have such a happy, healthy baby boy. I actually wouldn’t change a moment of it, because it’s made us so much stronger as a family. Now that I’ve gone back to work, I’ve reduced the amount I pump quite dramatically, so naturally, my supply has dropped and I’ve had to stop donating. For now, at least. I’m actually really excited to (hopefully) get the chance to breastfeed again, and I know if and when I do, I’ll be sure to start donating whatever I can.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Gemma Shooter of Scottish Highlands, UK. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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