By Sarah Haile
2:00am My almost three-week-old son, Jasper, is hungry and crying for milk. I’ve been sat up in bed, sobbing, holding him in my arms trying to find the strength within me to feed him again. Finally I bring him to my breast, he latches on, my toes curl, my body stiffens and I fight the urge to cry out in pain.
Satisfied, he falls back to sleep, I place him down, wipe the tears from my eyes and attend to my bleeding nipples. A tentative but generous smearing of lanolin cream. Then gently, I apply the dressing the midwife had given me after she winced at seeing my abused nipples. I had been told to let the air get to my nipples to help them heal, which I did, but our room was cold and the bitterness in that air brought more pain.
This isn’t how they said it would be. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard.
During pregnancy, we had attended antenatal classes and it was clear that breast was the only way to feed. Bottles were hardly talked about, only mentioned with an air of judgement, failure. This didn’t worry me though, I wanted to breastfeed and the midwives made it look so easy! In hindsight, I realise that it’s much easier to breastfeed a newborn when said newborn is actually a doll and you’re using a knitted boob to demonstrate.
3:00am Jasper is awake again and looking for milk. I immediately begin to cry. My husband, Jonathan, picks up our son, tries to soothe him but it’s no good, baby needs milk. So we begin the dance again, holding baby, peeling off the dressings, taking deep breathes, latch, toes curl, body stiffens. This time I don’t fight the urge to cry out, I wail, “I can’t! It hurts!”. With that, Jonathan rings the delivery ward asking for help. But I had been discharged from their care that day, so they couldn’t help. They tell us to give baby a bottle. This is the first time that a bottle has been suggested but of course we don’t have any! The sympathetic midwife hears baby and Mum crying and tells Jonathan take us to A&E.
I had had a fantastic birth in the birthing pool, unassisted and simply wonderful. But I had to stay the night simply because Jasper had been born late in the evening. I knew I wasn’t getting the latch right, but couldn’t figure it out for myself. So with every feed, I called for help, a midwife would rush in, put him on my boob then rush out again. I would think, “but you did that, not me. I still don’t know what I’m doing”.
It was the same with my at-home visits. I would say, “I’m in a lot of pain, I can’t get the latch right. I’ve watched the videos, followed the diagrams, read all the advice. But I still can’t get it”. So the midwife would grab Jasper and put him on my breast, “viola! Correct latch”. Then before I knew it, they were gone and I was still clueless. I felt stupid. I felt guilty for taking up the time of these women who had such important jobs to do for so many women in such little time. Mostly though, I felt a failure.