Before I gave birth, I assumed I would breastfeed and that everything would just work. I knew it wouldn’t necessarily be easy, but I naively thought that it would be a case of mind over matter and I would be able to do it. I was so wrong!
Breastfeeding doesn’t come easily
After Ripley was born, I didn’t get to hold her for very long before she was taken away. Because I needed to have my placenta manually removed as it wouldn’t come out. It was several hours after her birth that I finally got to hold her properly. By then I was so exhausted from being in theatre that I couldn’t get her to latch and I was pretty out of it, so she was given formula.
I had to stay in hospital for several days, and during this time I was unable to sleep. At the time I felt like I was failing so badly, because I couldn’t get her to latch and when she did, it was clear she wasn’t getting anything from me.
When I did manage to get Ripley to latch, she quickly gave up as I had no milk or colostrum for her. She lost a lot of weight very quickly during these first couple of days, and we ended up being given formula to feed her in bottles with very fast flowing teats. This conditioned her early on to get used to that flow of milk, which meant my supply, when it did start to come in, didn’t really satisfy her.
Those first few days in the hospital were so upsetting I developed PTSD, mainly around the issues of not being able to feed her myself. Looking back on this time now, I can understand why breastfeeding was so difficult: I didn’t get the support I needed, and no one explained to me that having a retained placenta can mean that milk is delayed coming in as the body doesn’t realise it's not pregnant. I just felt like a terrible failure.
When I came out of hospital, I continued to try to breastfeed alongside giving formula to help bring her weight back up. I am very lucky to have a fantastic health visitor who not only encouraged me to keep trying, but she referred me to one of the local infant feeding specialists who helped me establish combination feeding through the use of nipple shields. Alongside this I also saw a fantastic IBLC breastfeeding consultant who gave me a lot of support and guidance in how to use a breast pump and the regime I needed to follow to boost my milk supply.
Pumping was painful
In my first couple of weeks expressing I was using a cheap breast pump I bought off Amazon. I bought it before Ripley was born thinking naively that it was something I might use occasionally, so that my husband could feed our little one. The pump damaged one of my breasts leaving me in so much pain I was nearly diagnosed with mastitis. Following this incident, I tried 5 other electric breast pumps, and 3 manual pumps, none of which suited me very well. I remember feeling utterly exhausted and dismayed at how long it would take to make very little milk, and how uncomfortable it was. It was also deeply sad as I longed to just be able to breastfeed and I felt like a failure because Ripley was still mainly fed on formula.
After going to a breastfeeding group, I heard about Domperidome (a medication that can be prescribed) which stimulates breastmilk production. I spoke to my doctor about it and was prescribed a course which alongside my expressing regimen did boost my supply.
Learn more: Ask Lola&Lykke Lactation Experts
Fortunately, by the time Ripley was 2.5 months old I managed to switch her to be exclusively fed on breastmilk, mainly through expressed breastmilk, but also some breastfeeds. She is now 11 months old and has had no formula whatsoever for over 9 months! She decided to stop breastfeeding at about 4 months old, which was incredibly sad for me, but I kept expressing so she could continue to have breastmilk and all the benefits that come with it.
The game-changer breast pump
Around the time I took the course of Domperidome, I received a pre-release Lola&Lykke breast pump to test as part of the Made for Mums awards and it absolutely was a game changer for me. Straight away I was so much more comfortable as the pump didn’t hurt me, so I was able to pump for longer and more frequently. The design of the flexible breast shield also manages to extract more milk than the other pumps I have used. I think because it stimulates more breast tissue when it is expressing which mimics a baby’s method of feeding more closely. This meant my supply shot up rapidly as I pumped 8 times a day.
Before switching to exclusively using the Lola&Lykke pump, I had some problems with blocked ducts, as my milk was not being fully drained when I pumped. I’ve not had any blocked ducts since using this pump though, which is a great relief because I have been very worried about developing mastitis.
One of the things that I love about this pump is that I’m not tied down by tubes or cables when I am using it, and I can have one hand free to do breast compressions to ensure I drain the milk effectively. I believe this helped to stimulate my supply too.
The pump has been all over the place with me too, I’ve expressed in cafes, and restaurants and even in the park! It fits into my changing bag easily and is really simple to recharge with the USB cable.
Donating milk has been rewarding for me
Once I had built up my milk supply, I actually found myself with a surplus that exceeded what Ripley needed. This meant I could build up a supply of frozen milk, and I now have two small chest freezers full. I never would have believed that would be possible in those sad few weeks after birth, where I thought I was broken because I couldn’t make the milk I wanted to feed my baby with.
Having felt like that made me want to help other mothers who might feel the same because they couldn’t produce the milk their babies needed, like those who have premature babies in NICUs. I searched online for information about becoming a milk donor and found the South West Milk Bank (which is my local Milk Bank).
How I started to donate milk
Before I could become a donor, I had to speak to the milk bank coordinator, who explained the process of collecting and storing milk for donations and get a blood test. It was very straight forward, and I was given the bottles, labels and a thermometer to collect and store the milk with. When donating milk it is very important to follow strict hygiene procedures in how the milk is collected and handled, and not to have caffeine and alcohol as premature babies are more affected by it than full-term babies.
I set myself a goal of donating 10 litres to the milk bank, but I actually managed to donate 30 litres which I am incredibly proud of! When I stopped donating, I was given a little certificate as a thank you from the milk bank which I will keep forever as a memento.
Learn more: Where to donate milk in the UK.
To mums struggling with breastfeeding
For any mums out there that are struggling with breastfeeding or expressing milk, I would say the best advice I can give is to speak to an IBCLC accredited breastfeeding consultant as they really do know their stuff above and beyond what other breastfeeding ‘experts’ know. I would have saved myself several weeks of feeling like I was failing if I had done this sooner.
For anyone struggling to establish their supply of milk, the best way to do this is to pump regularly, following the frequent feeding pattern newborns have that stimulate milk supply. There is a technique called ‘power pumping’ which I did several times that mimics cluster feeding. To do this you just need to pump for ten minutes on each breast then stop for 10 minutes and repeat again several times. Supply = demand. So you want to create a strong demand to encourage the supply to catch up. Once you have established a supply, switching to a regular pattern with expressing makes it more manageable (at least it did for me!). I pumped approximately every three hours, so at 6am, 9am, 12noon, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm and then twice during the night depending on when Ripley woke up.
I store milk in the fridge in milk tubs and freeze excess milk straight away in milk bags. The milk bags can be frozen flat so that stack neatly in the freezer. Tubs don’t freeze well as they distort and can leak as they freeze, plus they are difficult to label.
Expressing milk can be quite demanding and mentally challenging to stick with. I have tried to make the time I spend expressing as positive as possible. I’ve found the more relaxed I am, the better I am at producing milk. I also got a small fridge for our bedroom, so that I could store milk I pump at night easily without having to go downstairs to put it away - when it's 4am these little things really help!
Although my breastfeeding journey was far from what I had thought it would be, I am so pleased I stuck with it. I feel immensely grateful that I have fed my little girl and had so much help along the way. The experience has taught me a lot about myself and I feel like I can do anything I set my mind to now!
Read more: Best Tips and Advice for Nursing your Baby