The Happy Baby Project

A happy baby needs a happy mum


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Breast is best?

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My happy baby boy doing Calvin & Hobbs – 12 weeks

This week is National Breastfeeding Awareness week and so I thought it time to share my thoughts on the whole thorny issue of feeding.

My baby boy is a healthy wee thing – he sleeps through the night and has done since he was about 8 weeks, he’s a big bouncing boy, holding his head up and smiling lots, and I have no worries at all about his health. I was lucky enough to breastfeed him from birth to now, without many problems, but since he was about 10 days old we have topped him up with formula, now almost daily, for reasons I will explain below.

When my baby boy was born, he couldn’t latch on for a day or two because he was so knackered from the birth and being yanked out after getting stuck. I expressed colostrum (or was expressed like a cow when I was too exhausted) and fed him with that and then on day 2, he latched on and it was wonderful. I’d feed him for as long as he wanted, when he wanted, and then we fed him every 3 or so hours when he came home.

I love feeding him – I do it quietly and calmly on a nursing chair in the nursery and its our time together. He smiles at me, I stroke his head, its a lovely bonding, happy time. I also feed him when he cries sometimes to calm him, and before he goes for a nap if he’s unsettled. I don’t care if certain people (looking at you Gina F) say this is a bad habit to get into as we both feel happier and calmer when we do.

But we had a problem quite early on. I am VERY annoyed that I got bad advice from the first community midwife who visited, who said I was feeding him too much (!) and that he should only be fed every 4 hours. This was terrible advice (everywhere I read newborns must be fed every 3 hours!) and in hindsight I was so sad to see we followed it to the letter, and in the app where we recorded breastfeeding, I saw we moved from every 3 hours to 4 on her advice.

Poor baby got quieter and quieter, never crying to be fed, and we mistook this for having a chilled out little baby, congratulating ourselves on how relaxed he was. Unbeknownst to us, he was actually weak and dehydrated, and at his first weigh in at the hospital he’d lost 14% of his body weight.

I was devastated, crying my eyes out, especially as he’d been feeding so well and we’d acted on bad advice. We had to go to the children’s wing of the hospital where we pleaded with them to let us take him home and feed him up (the alternative was him staying there on a drip). They said we just had to feed him up and asked us what we thought about formula. Initially we were very against it, but they needed us to feed him up and we would have done anything to make him better – I could hardly bear the guilt that I’d actively caused him to be dehydrated – so we agreed. For the hospital, they didn’t care HOW we fed him, just that he was fed enough.

There began Operation Military Feeding where I had to breastfeed him, then express and feed him that, then feed a top up of formula, every 3 hours. It was exhausting, but so worth it. The formula was a godsend – it gave him the strength he needed to breastfeed better. In 24 hours, our wee boy had gained 200 grams. In 3 days, he was crying to demand to be fed for the first time, hydrated and fighting fit, and discharged from hospital.

While it was a scary and sad experience, it was good in that:

1. It meant I expressed from 2 weeks in and realised the benefits of this – relieving painful engorged boobs, meaning I could feed him out and about by bottle if I didn’t fancy breastfeeding in public, and allowing The Chef to do feeds.

2. It made me get over my initial reluctance to give him formula and to understand the benefits of formula top-ups.

The fact is, the hardcore breastfeeding brigade would have encouraged me to keep breastfeeding him exclusively, and in fact the community midwives wanted me to wean him off formula as soon as I could. Their argument is that formula and bottle-feeding stops milk production, makes babies go off nipple feeding, and adds extra bacteria to babies’ stomachs.

But now, knowing I’d received bad advice before, I stuck to MY instinct as a mother and carried on with top-ups of formula as and when needed. The hospital too just wanted me to feed my baby, full stop, no matter how. In my case, top ups of formula made my baby breastfeed BETTER as it gave him the strength to feed, to cry and demand feeding for the first time, so he fed better than before.

Now, at almost 13 weeks, we top him up with formula almost every day. Either because he’s hungry and my milk is coming out too slow, or its in the evening and I just don’t have enough milk for him and he’s a hungry baby boy, or because I’m out and about and breastfeeding is impossible. I do still breastfeed him 5 times a day and The Chef gives him what I’ve managed to pump for his late night snack, but its never quite enough and he needs formula to satisfy his hunger.

And I’m really, really happy with this. It gives me the freedom to formula feed him now and then, to get The Chef to do a morning formula feed if I’ve had (a very rare) night out, and to make sure he’s getting enough food. As the Baby Whisperer Tracy Hogg says – in the 60s when formula was invented, the medical profession thought it was far BETTER than breastmilk and breastfeeding dropped right down to around 20% of mums as everyone was formula feeding, thinking it was the best thing ever. Nowadays, the medical profession thinks breastfeeding is best, but hey they change their mind about everything all the time (vaccinations, when a baby should be weaned, inductions, etc) so who knows if they will change their mind again, and formula is improving all the time so that one day it might be better for our babies than our own milk.

Breastfeeding is such a personal thing, and I KNOW my milk changes all the time – sometimes my boobs are huge and I am an impressive dairy cow, and other days my boobs are floppy and for no reason I can see I just don’t have enough milk and my baby isn’t satisfied with me alone. In the evening I know I have less milk (I know for a fact as I’ve pumped and seen I don’t have a full feed) – which makes sense as I’m probably tired and a bit dehydrated from feeding a hungry baby all day. Some days my milk is white, other days its translucent. Some days I’ve eaten something the baby doesn’t like or my milk is coming out too slow or fast as he cries and pulls away and he won’t eat unless I feed him from a bottle (expressed or formula).

For me, mixing and matching is great – I KNOW he’s getting nutrients both from me and whatever the formula is giving him, I KNOW he’s getting enough food, and as an added bonus for mummy, it allows me to pass over occasional feeds to The Chef or to have a leisurely pub lunch as I know I don’t have to breastfeed in a busy pub when I’m hot and its noisy, because I have a bottle of formula in my bag instead. I’m a responsible parent and I believe I’m acting as responsibly as I can, while giving myself some freedom and ensuring I’m not stressed or anxious (which is the worst thing for baby anyway).

And the fact is, while I know that he feeds better when it’s just the two of us in his nursery, quiet and calm, I also know my baby boy sleeps better in his cot rather than out and about in the pram, and loves nothing better than when it’s just the two of us alone at home, and if I acquiesced to his wishes all the time I would pretty much NEVER LEAVE THE HOUSE and become a complete hermit. I’m not a robot, I’m not a dairy cow, I’m just HUMAN and I need my baby boy to fit in with me sometimes. And if he gets a bit of formula because I want to meet friends or need a lie in, and if he has to have a longer afternoon nap because we had a nice lunch out and he had to sleep in the pram, then he will be fine, and I’ll be happier for it, which in the long run is better for him.

So my problem with the hardcore breastfeeding brigade is their emphasis on EXCLUSIVE breastfeeding, and continuing with breastfeeding when it’s just not working, to the detriment of both mother and baby. I have a friend who had mastitis and was told to continue breastfeeding by a community midwife, until she ended up in hospital on a drip. I have another friend who thought she wasn’t producing enough milk in the evening, but who was told she should persevere to increase her milk supply, and whose baby cried all evening with hunger (for 3 months!) until a breastfeeding counsellor from the hospital confirmed she wasn’t producing enough milk and said to top up with formula. That little girl slept through the evening for the first time ever.

I do believe women should give breastfeeding a go (and it is such a lovely bonding experience for you and baby), but if it doesn’t work or isn’t enough, then you shouldn’t feel bad about using formula, which, after all, was once hailed as better than breast. One of the happiest, liveliest and biggest babies in my NCT class was formula-fed from birth as breastfeeding didn’t work at all.

The fact is, parenting and breastfeeding theorists are ALWAYS extreme it seems to me – never adopting a relaxed, try it and see approach, but advocating strictly one camp or the other. This just makes it confusing for mums who feel they can’t trust their own instincts, and puts undue pressure on women who are desperately trying to breastfeed and suffering because it’s not enough for their babies. At the end of the day, us mums know best – we do – we HAVE to trust our own instinct and go with what we think right, and not beat ourselves up for topping up with formula, or reverting to formula feeding when breastfeeding won’t do.

Surely as long as our babies are well fed, that will lead to a relaxed and happy baby and happy mum too?

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