Medela’s Lactation Consultant, Sioned Shares her Breastfeeding Story
“Listening to one of the speakers, psychologist Robin Grille, discuss how mums, partners, extended families and the media saw us as health professionals and breastfeeding experts, was really interesting. We have been given names such as the breastfeeding ‘mafia’ and ’gestapo,’ labelled as if we are on a witch hunt to promote breastfeeding at all costs and hearing this, made me question my role and ask myself, do I have all the answers?
When I first became a children’s nurse in the late ’80s/early 90’s I had one brief afternoon on infant feeding, amongst hours upon hours of theory and clinical placements on the sick child. Over several years I supported many parents and gained invaluable skills in supporting breastfeeding mothers in hospital while gaining further qualifications:- specialist neonatal nursing, health visitor and public health nursing and international certification as a lactation consultant – which we have to recertify every 5 years and sit an exam every 10 years. I had all the knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding, including its ability to boost a baby’s immunity in the early weeks after birth. However, a thought that frequently crossed my mind was can I truly understand the journey these mothers are going through and in fact, I believe my learning only truly began when I had my own children.
Don’t get me wrong – a good advocate for supporting mums to breastfeed doesn’t need to have breastfed. There are fantastic people out there who have chosen different pathways, as we know every feeding journey is unique. However, personally I do believe my own breastfeeding journey has helped to give me a better understanding.
When I decided 10 years ago to become a Lactation Consultant, in one of our first workshops we were encouraged to write down our own feeding journeys. The aim of this particular activity was to share our personal experience and then put it on ‘the shelf’ and never reflect upon it when supporting other mothers. This would mean as experts we would give evidence based advice and support only rather than drawing from our own experience.
This task was about setting aside our personal experiences so we could become the experts and support mums as best we can. However, does doing this set us apart and come across as superior to mums? I am a qualified Lactation Consultant however even with all the information and experience I have had in supporting mothers over the years, I still had difficulties with my own children when breastfeeding. Here’s my story...
First baby – I was left in a side room because I was a nurse working in NICU the midwives thought I didn’t need any help latching on. Four days later, a jaundiced baby glowing in front of the window getting some winter rays, followed by mastitis –– I felt as though my boobs were going to explode, even having the bed sheet covering was painful never mind getting her on to latch. I was feeding more frequently, resting and taking some pain killers. I wanted to sleep but had no choice, I had a little one nursing every 2 hours day and night but it did get better and by the next morning I was up and about, bruised, sore and exhausted.
I thought it was ok but she started to fall through the percentile lines in the red book at 4 months old which meant the health visitor and baby clinic visits every week with scrutiny on my milk production, saying those awful words you don’t have enough milk, she is not gaining weight, you have to supplement but I hung on. I knew I was back at work and I so wanted to breastfeed until then so her weight gain was slow, we started with weaning under medical advice and it kept us going for a month or so. Returning to work after 6 months I couldn’t click with expressing and had to move over to bottle feeding (this was when breast pumps were daisy the cow milking machines – sitting there on nights crying willing the milk to come off). Refusal to accept a teat and bottle. Oh how I felt guilty going back to work full time asking the mother in law and hubby to become me for 5 days a week, 10 hours at a time, juggling nights and shifts with feeding before and after work.
A few years later baby number 2 arrives and what a shock - ‘after pains.’ They were worse than child birth – I’d sit there putting the relaxation breathing techniques that I didn’t use during labour to great use, breathing through the milk let down. These lasted for a good few days and I couldn’t understand why I had heavier fresh blood loss, this was because of the way that the uterus contracted, much later I got to know this. Three days in sore, engorged and cracked nipples, even though I thought I had a great latch my nipples were raw and bleeding by day 5. My coping mechanism was using nipple cream and just saying, I will just do this feed and then it went on for 2 whole weeks of apprehension taking each feed at a time. But I got through it a day at a time.
Well to say breastfed babies don’t get colic is a taboo! Many a day I’d pace and nurse and baby wear, exhausted, weary and frustrated. I’d tried all the medications but to no avail, I’d catch a quiet 5 minutes only for him to demand more from me. It was only a friend recommended, reducing the dairy in my own diet and looking at what I was eating that made me change what I did. It improved a little when I went dairy free , but I felt it made a difference and by excluding dairy from my diet , he was more settled and less colicky – nowadays he would be explored for dairy intolerance and great support is now available through the Cows milk protein allergy support groups that I wish was around 16 years ago.
Baby number 3 – Well by now 2 babies under my belt, I knew about some of the hurdles and thought this time around it would be a breeze. I had the nipple cream, I watched what I ate, bought a sling to baby wear and had lots of skin to skin but she was a hungry Horace, constantly nursing and then as soon as she was down throwing up. Over a few weeks her weight started to slow down, I was constantly nursing but she kept on throwing up. The health professionals started pushing for using formula because she wasn’t gaining weight and adding medication but this was easier said than done, how do you get the medication in when you breastfeed – on a spoon ? With expressed breastmilk I didn’t have any extra to give, she nursed constantly. It only started to get better when she started weaning and getting upright so for her first year she was always scrawny but a happy little thing.
As mentioned earlier, when supporting other mums I always put my personal experience on ‘the shelf,’ however I do believe that for mums, knowing their health professional may have experienced similar challenges does indeed help. Together as Health Professionals and Breastfeeding Experts we don’t have all the answers – we are indeed human. We may or may not have had the same breastfeeding journey but our goal is to help, to support and to guide. So we are not the ‘breastfeeding mafia’ – we want to help and support in the best way we can to help families achieve their goals and give their babies a great start in life that makes life long differences.