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From Midwife to Mummy: How Not Breastfeeding Taught Me To Be A Gentle Parent

Please note that I am not endorsing any of the following practices or philosophies as a professional. The beliefs I have, and the choices I have made are as a mother, not as a midwife.

For years I was a career midwife. I loved my job and liked babies but had no desire to have one of my own. I’d seen just how much they disrupted life and I was quite happy with my uninterrupted sleep and leisurely days off. When I got married, my husband had other ideas! When I got pregnant I started reading up on birth and parenting. You’d think a midwife would know it all, but I wanted to do things a bit differently from conventional parenting. Besides, midwives only work with babies up to four weeks of age, and I wanted to have an idea of what to do AFTER that. A cousin of mine was into baby wearing and had tandem fed her toddler and newborn baby, which had intrigued me. Added to this were years of seeing parents whose instincts told them to lift their unsettled babies and comfort them, but were worried that doing so would “spoil” the baby, or make life difficult for them. I don’t know why in our society we believe that babies have to be independent from the moment they are born, that they will conform to a routine from day one, sleeping through the night and feeding the exact same amount every three hours. As much as I hadn’t wanted a baby, I was prepared to put up with the “inconvenience” rather than expect a baby to conform to my routines. I expected to have a baby that would want constant contact with me, would want to feed frequently and to no set pattern and I didn’t expect to get much sleep at night. I read several books about breastfeeding and attachment parenting during my pregnancy. I decided that I would breastfeed for at least 2 years, and probably let my child stop breastfeeding when he/she wanted to. For the first time, I was exposed to the concept of elimination communication (I debated whether I should try this, but then decided I’d probably use cloth rather than disposable nappies, to at least do something for the environment). I read about baby led weaning, and using sign language to communicate with a baby before they could speak. After all this preparation, I felt I was ready to be a baby wearing, breastfeeding, attachment-parenting mum…

Our struggles started on day 1. When my daughter was born we started skin to skin as soon as possible but she showed no interest in breastfeeding. I wasn’t worried, I was prepared for this. I’d had gestational diabetes during my pregnancy so I had expressed antenatally and had 100 mls (over 3 oz) of colostrum carefully stored in the freezer in little feeding syringes, so that if her blood sugars fell she could get my milk rather than formula. Over the next 24 hours, she showed no signs of wanting to feed and her blood sugars fell. In spite of carefully syringe feeding her colostrum every 2-3 hours, we couldn’t get her blood sugars up. She eventually got some high energy formula via bottle because by this stage she was stuffed to the gills and just spitting out that precious colostrum I had expressed for her. Her blood sugars stabilised and we went home, alternating between syringe feeding and bottle feeding her breastmilk. She became quite sleepy and was jaundiced (due to a blood group incompatibility) and was nearly readmitted to hospital for treatment, so for the next two weeks trying to get her to breastfeed wasn’t a big priority, as we needed to get milk in to her to get rid of the jaundice. I continued to express and we fed her every 2-3 hours. My husband was amazing. We’d set the alarm clock and overnight we woke every three hours. He’d feed her to let me pump for the next feed. On top of this I was spending most of the day doing skin to skin with her to encourage her to breastfeed. I’d sit with her lying on my chest, with her back exposed to daylight to try to reduce the jaundice even further. After days of skin to skin, she finally latched on. She was 9 days old. From then on, she would latch sometimes, other times she would just refuse point blank. I tried biological nurturing, laid back feeding, and did hours and hours (and hours) of skin to skin with her. I was doing everything I was supposed to, to get my baby to breastfeed. Eventually I discovered that she had a sneaky, subtle tongue tie which was making it difficult to latch and to stay attached at the breast. Bottlefeeding was easier for her but she tried SO hard to breastfeed. We had days of euphoria where she latched several times and other days of tears, frustration and anger (for both of us) when she just screamed and arched away when I tried to feed her. My first few weeks of motherhood disintegrated into a cycle of: bottlefeed baby, put baby down on bouncy chair, rock bouncy chair with foot and talk to unsettled baby while pumping milk for next feed, lift and cuddle baby, do skin to skin and try to breastfeed, bottlefeed baby (again), pump (again), maybe get breakfast around 12 pm, maybe get a shower around 2 pm, get the bare minimum done around the house, go to bed at 8 pm and wake every 2-3 hours during the night and spend an hour bottlefeeding and pumping each time. The last time she ever breastfed was when she was 9 weeks old. A week later we got her tongue tie revised but by that stage it was too late, she had given up on breastfeeding. I hadn’t given up though, and so for another 2 months I continued to try. I used nipple shields, I tried finger feeding, bathing with her in a process called “rebirthing”, more biological nurturing, attempting more laid back feeding, and yes… more skin to skin. Finally, when she was four months old I accepted that she probably wasn’t going to breastfeed. I was heartbroken. My ideal of being a babywearing, breastfeeding “perfect” mother seemed to be slipping away.

And then two things happened which helped me put things into perspective. My husband and I got really sick with a horrible flu, and since we were both sick at the same time we couldn’t avoid contact with our daughter. I was so worried she’d get sick too, but she sailed through it unscathed, thanks to the lovely antibodies I was giving her in my milk. A few weeks later, we travelled to India to visit my husband’s family. I pumped and bottlefed her breastmilk for the journey there (a 16 hour journey), the two weeks we were there, and the trip back. Although I took formula with me just in case I ran out of breastmilk, she never needed a drop of it. I realised that I had achieved something pretty amazing. Most women don’t even get to 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and I had managed to give her breastmilk for six months even though she couldn’t breastfeed. I never thought I’d be able to get to six months of pumping and now I am planning to continue giving her breastmilk till she is at least a year old. I also realised that breastfeeding had become more about what I needed rather than what she needed. For a start, it was a blow to my professional ego (“What? A midwife that couldn’t breastfeed?!”). But there was another reason why I was so desperate to breastfeed. To this day, I do not feel like she is really my daughter. I know she was inside me for 9 months but I do not FEEL like she was inside me, like she was part of me. For the first few weeks she was just a very cute baby that I was looking after for someone else. The desperate need I had to breastfeed had more to do with creating a physical, biological link with her that I didn’t (and still don’t) feel. In spite of this, I have bonded with my daughter, I love her dearly. Many of the activities I did in an effort to get her to breastfeed helped me bond with her; spending hours doing skin to skin with her and bathing with her made me fall in love with her. And it was only when I fell in love with her totally and completely, that I no longer felt a strong compulsion to breastfeed.

I also believe that the physical contact we have had throughout the process of trying to breastfeed has had a positive impact on her physical and neurological development. When she was born, she was an unsettled, irritable, unhappy baby. I have photos of her in the first few days and when I see her little anxious, worried face it breaks my heart. Others have written more eloquently about this than I can, but basically sucking is one of the first ways in which a baby calms and sooths himself. Because my daughter had a tongue tie, sucking was uncomfortable and even bottlefeeding was difficult (although not as hard as breastfeeding). She gulped, choked, spluttered and every feed was a struggle. While having her tongue tie revised helped make bottlefeeding easier for her, it was the other things I did – the constant contact and reassurance – that helped soothe and settle her. I genuinely believe that she wouldn’t be the happy, contented relaxed baby that she is today if I had left her in a cot and only lifted her every 3 hours for feeding. So… not being able to breastfeed made me carry out activities that would both help me bond with my daughter AND helped calm her and turn her into a happy baby.

But not being able to breastfeed also taught me important lessons about gentle parenting. I had choices to make when she wouldn’t breastfeed. I occasionally did try to “force” her to the breast, I am not proud of that and I regret it bitterly, but I learned that gentle persuasion is a much better way to work with babies. So even now, six months down the line I still try from time to time to breastfeed, but we keep it casual and light-hearted, with lots of hugs and cuddles. If she roots or tries to latch, I say “Yay!” and give her a kiss and a cuddle and if she doesn’t want to try, she still gets a kiss and a cuddle. My love for her is not a reward for “good” behaviour, it is unconditional. I could have taken her refusal to breastfeed personally (and at times it did feel SO personal) but I learned that she COULDN’T breastfeed properly. It wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t being bad, or manipulative, or stubborn, as some “baby training” books would have us believe. Gentle parenting is about recognising that babies have needs that must be met, and they communicate these needs to us, it is our job and responsibility to respond sensitively to them, NOT to try to train babies to accommodate to our needs. Crucially, I believe that the way I responded to her refusal to breastfeed is an important lesson for me as a parent. At some point I was going to have to ask the question (as we all do as parents): What am I going to do when she does something I don’t agree with, or she does something I don’t want her to do? Am I going to carry on regardless and insist she does it my way, or am I going to sit down, listen to her and try to understand what it is she wants to do, why she wants to do it, and learn to respect her as an individual? OBVIOUSLY, sometimes as a parent I have to go against her wishes if she wants to do something harmful or dangerous, and sometimes gentle persuasion is necessary to get a child to do something they don’t want to do, for their own good. However, central to gentle parenting is the concept of respect. If we show our children respect and attempt to understand them, then we end up working with them, not against them.

I learned a few other important lessons as well. An important one was compromise (also known as: Doing The Best I Can). I had this ideal picture of motherhood: I was going to carry my baby in a sling constantly, I was going to breastfeed, use cloth nappies, take her to baby yoga and baby massage, read her books when she was few weeks old, teach her sign language so she could communicate her needs easily with me, and generally just be the best damn mother around. I felt I had a choice: keep giving her breastmilk and give up all those extra activities I wanted to do, or feed her formula and have a bit of a life. I don’t regret pumping, as it definitely does get easier as time goes on, and it was something I needed to do for me as well as for her, but I learned you can be a gentle parent without all the “extra” stuff. It felt counter-intuitive to put my baby down in a bouncy chair to make her milk, but I made up for it in other ways. I DID wear her in a sling. I talked to her, cuddled her and we pretty much were inseperable 24 hours a day. While I think we would have bonded quicker if I had breastfed, I love my daughter deeply and anybody who sees us says that we are most definitely attached to each other. One of the hardest things for me was bottlefeeding in public because I felt people would immediately judge me and assume I hadn’t tried to breastfeed, that I didn’t want what was best for my daughter. But I’ve learned to put things in to perspective. I’ve learned to not care so much what people think, because I KNOW I’ve done the best I can for my daughter. And since we can’t be gentle parents without being gentle with those around us, let me put this out as a challenge. Let’s not try to outdo each other in the “attachment parenting” stakes. The mother who breastfeeds her child till the age of 5 is not better than the mother who breastfeeds to 6 months or doesn’t breastfeed at all. The same goes for discipline methods, using a push chair instead of a sling, baby led weaning versus traditional weaning… You don’t know the resources that that mother has, or the struggles she has had, to make those choices. I have seen some horribly judgemental and negative comments on some so called “gentle parenting” websites. How can we possibly be gentle parents if we are not gentle with those around us? What lesson does that teach our children? We all want what is best for our children but we all have different resources to hand, and we ALL need to find that balance that works for us.

And the last lesson I learned is this: the value of support. I have always been independent and self-reliant but I discovered that I am a much better mother when I accept a bit of help! Through the last six months, my husband has been the strong one, always sensible and rational, encouraging me to keep trying to breastfeed, and telling me all the right things about how healthy she is because she has had breastmilk. He has also been great at helping around the house and is a pretty fantastic cook. I honestly would not be coping so well with motherhood without him. I will also be eternally grateful to some really wonderful individuals who helped me through a difficult time. I joined a forum called MOBI (Mothers Overcoming Breastfeeding Issues) and the advice, support and kindness I got from other mums helped me through my darkest days. Talking to other mums whose babies have tongue ties has led me to make some really good friends from around the world. Closer to home I became friends with Anne Harper, a mum of two who went through a similar situation, and who patiently and kindly listened to me as I vented my self-pity, despair and longing to breastfeed, and offered me practical and non-judgemental advice. I will humbly admit that I have learned MORE about breastfeeding and dealing with breastfeeding problems from non-professionals, like Anne, in the last six months, than I have EVER learned as a midwife. Joining “gentle parenting” groups has also helped tremendously. It is when I chat to other mothers who want to be gentle parents that I am encouraged and reassured that these choices are the ones that feel right for my family, and the ones that will make my daughter happy, content and secure.

And so, I am a mummy to a beautiful, happy, healthy little girl. Once upon a time I was a midwife and thought I knew everything there was to know about babies and breastfeeding. I have discovered that being a mother requires much more than knowledge or the ability to physically care for a baby. Being a mother requires persistence, an ability to accept difficult situations, an ability to forgive yourself for not being perfect, and above all, a lot of patience, love, and time spent with an amazing little person.