Breastfeeding: the first six months

Six months ago today Orson Red appeared in the world somewhat earlier than expected. Having had a magical four year breastfeeding adventure with his big brother there was no question over whether I wanted to breastfeed again – but, again, getting that journey started has not been without its challenges.

After an all too brief initial feed Orson was whisked away to Special Care, whilst I was left to deal with a retained placenta. It was awful to be separated from him at a time when every pore of my body was crying out for newborn snuggles, even worse when it emerged that I would have to go to theatre and have the placenta manually removed before there was any chance of us being reunited.

By the time we were, Orson was hooked up to optiflow in an incubator being tube fed formula. I was extremely thankful that there were no major complications of his premature arrival, but this was so far from the early hours I had hoped for. I was able to hold him for a few precious minutes, but not to bring him to my breast. Instead I was wheeled empty-handed to the post-natal ward, listening to the cries of newborn babies in the bays around me whilst alternating between attempting to hand express and hooking myself to the hospital grade breast pump in the hope of producing a few drops of colostrum.

My milk began to come in the following day, thankfully – that twenty four hours when I was unable to feed my baby felt like an eternity. And even once I was producing milk it took a while before he was able to properly suckle from the breast as opposed to just going through the motions.

His mouth was tiny against my nipple, and it seemed impossible to imagine he would have any hope of a decent latch. His gape was hindered further by tongue tie – fortunately after my experience with Arthur I was highly attuned to the possibility of this being an issue again, and the anterior tongue tie was snipped by the specialist midwife when he was a few days old.

For the first two weeks, we were mainly in hospital – save a blissful 24 hours of skin to skin snuggles at home. Orson’s jaundice levels kept creeping into the treatment zone and he’d have to spend hours under the blue lights. I was so grateful we were breastfeeding then – it made cuddle time obligatory, essential to his physical health and not just my emotional sustenance.

Once we were eventually discharged I wanted nothing else but to hole up in bed, to properly get to know this tiny creature. But his big brother needed me, too – especially since Leigh’s paternity leave had been exhausted almost entirely by the time spent in SCBU. By this point Orson seemed to be getting the hang of feeding – he was super quick, which Arthur had never been, and still managed to put on weight.

And then one evening I began to experience increasing amounts of pain in my breasts, the world spinning as I sought refuge under the duvet. My temperature soared to over 40 degrees: mastitis.

I had it twice over those few weeks, searing pain only eased by hot baths and hand expression, watching white strings dance in the water as I winced back tears, exhaling with relief when they were finally followed by clouds of milk. I didn’t stop feeding Orson – I knew that was essential. The most effective position (both physically and in its tendency to end up with me dissolving in giggles) used gravity to help release the milk, me on all fours with this tiny bemused baby looking up at me from the bed.

We had help from outside too – a midwife and lactation consultant at the hospital who on two separate occasions sat and talked me through the process I thought I knew inside out. And the Max Fax surgeon who specialised in tongue tie, working with us through a posterior tie that in many places would have gone undiagnosed. I don’t know exactly how many mother and baby dyads this team has helped, but I am sure that many, many more women would collapse under the impossible pressure of trying to breastfeed with hidden challenges if it were not for the essential work they do.

Gradually the path that Orson and I were on became less and less bumpy. The pain disappeared, the positioning became effortless. I was able to feed him in the sling, to feed him in company without focusing all my attention self-consciously on the task in hand. It’s hard to say exactly when looking back on it now, but I’m sure it coincided with the end of the fourth trimester, the coming up for air from that wonderful and breathless newborn phase.

There were still new challenges, even then. In his first few months Orson slept, well, most unlike a baby. He went through the night from the start, waking to feed but sated after ten minutes or so and falling straight back to sleep when he was done. This was so far from my experience with Arthur I didn’t know what to make of it, but I was soon lulled into a place where I really, really enjoyed being able to get some rest.

And then around four months old, he woke up. Nights became fractured; feeds became longer, more insistent. There was nothing unusual about it – nothing I hadn’t expected when I was pregnant – but having tasted the deliciousness of sleep it hit me hard. It still does. I am trying to focus on the specialness of those hours after midnight, on the fact that they will not last forever and that a part of me will miss them when they’re gone. It’s so hard, though, when you’re tired. So… Tired…

The other thing we’ve had to deal with in the last couple of months is Orson’s allergies. Nothing has been ‘officially’ confirmed (yet), but after a tortuous process of trial and error in the face of eczema and congestion and digestive difficulties we have decided he is almost certainly allergic to dairy and soya, both of which I’ve cut out of my diet in addition to the nuts I am allergic to myself.

It’s relatively manageable, but definitely adds another dimension to fuelling the insatiable appetite of a breastfeeding mother. Now that we are on the verge of weaning we’ll have to be even more careful – having seen the effect on his skin when I dared to try a soya flat white I dread to think how strong his reaction would be if he ingested the allergen himself.

So much for breastfeeding being protective against allergies… But with the atopic profile Leigh and I have gifted him coupled with hefty doses of prophylactic antibiotics as a newborn it’s no wonder that Orson is fighting an uphill battle. Here’s to a near-future of free from foods and probiotics as we work out the best way forward!

Despite all these challenges though I know that one thing the next few months will most definitely hold is lots more nursing. We are there now, with our reduced sleep and restricted diet, deep in the zone where the ease of breastfeeding far outweighs any niggling difficulties. And I know from experience that will only become more true in the months to come.

This second breastfeeding journey has taught me much more about the reasons why people might choose another path than I ever anticipated. For us, though, it is the beginning of an adventure which shows no signs of ending any time soon. And for that I am very thankful.


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