On Thursday, 25th February, at around 5:30 am (yes, really), I nursed Theo for the final time. He was almost 14 months old. I fed him exclusively breastmilk for 6 months, then breastmilk plus some solids until 10 months, then breastmilk, solids and formula until he turned a year old, then breastmilk solids and cows milk until last week.
Before he was born, I was adamant that I wanted to breastfeed until he was 6 months old. Then, I thought naively, we’d wean him on to solids and I’d be done. I didn’t realise that it takes sooooooooooo long to fully wean a baby off milk. I also didn’t realise how hard it would be to start the process off. I never, at any point, thought I would still be feeding him so far along.
I remember when Theo was about a week old, my cousin came over to see me. I had a little cry to her, saying that I wanted to do it, but that it was so painful, I didn’t understand how it was possible to do it for 6 months. I was using nipple shields to stop my nipples from bleeding, and my face was set into a sort of grimace whenever he fed (which, at that age, was pretty much all the time). “Give it time – you’ll both settle into it and I promise, there will come a time when you love feeding him and you can’t bear the idea of giving it up.”
Ha! I thought, she’s clearly deluded. How could I EVER enjoy this?
Well, she was right.
A few days after I saw her, Theo had his tongue tie operation, and after a couple of days where we both struggled to work out his new latch, it was like a completely different experience. It didn’t hurt at all. I felt comfortable doing it in public now and although it was exhausting because it was so constant, it became approximately one million times easier.
About half of my NCT group ended up going down the formula route, and sometimes I envied them the ease of pulling out a bottle when they were out and about. I couldn’t really express more than a few ml at a time, and when I did manage to fill one, more often than not, Theo would refuse it and the whole thing would end up going down the drain. I now completely understand why someone would cry over spilled milk. I started feeling really emotional if we had to throw away cow’s milk we’d bought, too. “Some poor cow was hooked up to a machine for ages to express that milk! We can’t just throw it away!” was something I definitely said more than once about milk that had started to go a bit funny.
I definitely still struggled with other aspects, too. The urge to feed him every time he cried was constant, and I found it incredibly stressful. I eventually put him on a routine, which seemed to make him much more content (and it definitely made me a happier mum!). The nights were still really hard – he would only ever sleep for a couple of hours at a time, and then feeding took forever. Then, when he got older, feeding him in public became so hard I had to get one of those weird nursing covers, which are the least subtle covers imaginable. But he was so easily distracted, bobbing up and down, trying to see what was going on around him, fidgeting non-stop.
But those things were so minor in the grand scheme of things. The routine made me feel way more relaxed about feeding times, he did eventually start sleeping better (well, most of the time), and at around 10 months (when I went back to work) I moved him on to formula during the day, so the boob exposure in public risk dropped to zero.
The plusses of breastfeeding far outweighed the minuses for me. I didn’t have to carry around bottles. I didn’t have to sterilise anything or make up formula. We must have saved hundreds of pounds – free boob versus fairly expensive formula will always win that argument! I loved the feel of his little hands holding on to my skin or pulling on my top. When he was little, I loved how he’d get ‘milk drunk’ and his little head would loll back when he was finished, dozy or already asleep. I loved how, when he was ill, giving him breastmilk could make him feel better almost instantly. I loved our mornings together toward the end, when we would be lying in bed with him feeding, both of us with our eyes closed hoping to get a few more moments of sleep (although maybe that was just me).
But, all this time later, I’m ready to move on. Because I was only feeding once a day, I started to feel as though my milk production had gone down a lot. He’d be starving hungry for food so soon after I’d fed him. Rather than being a relaxing morning experience, it was increasingly stressful, with him bobbing on and off the boob crying, like he did when we were learning how to do it. Sometimes he bit me and that was NEVER a nice experience. Plus, to be honest, I just kind of want my body back. After 9 months of pregnancy and 14 months of breastfeeding, I’m enjoying the feeling of my body actually being my own, and not being at the beck and call of another tiny human.
Although that said, it’s not quite my own yet. I’m still dealing with the aftermath of stopping. I’ve got cabbage leaves down my top as my boobs have become tender and lumpy (and leaky!) again. I know that whenever you stop breastfeeding, there’s an adjustment period, but I really didn’t think it would happen given how little I was actually nursing in the end!
Giving it up has been a bit emotional for me, and probably for Theo, too. There’s a fair amount of clawing at my top still going on, even while his other hand is firmly on the bottle. But it was time to stop, so stop I did.
If any new mums out there are just starting out, thinking that it’s too painful, and it’s not for them, keep going. Even if tongue tie is not your issue, see a lactation consultant or go to a La Leche League meeting. From my experience, and those of the other two in my NCT group who did carry on nursing, most helpers in these groups are not the crazy breastfeeding militants you hear about so often online, but just people who are keen to help. They can offer some really great support for new mums, and can really be the difference between carrying on with the boob or not. There’s nothing wrong with going down the forumla route, but if you want to breastfeed, and are struggling, there is a lot of free help out there – you just need to go out and get it! Easier said than done, perhaps, in those exhausting first few weeks, but worth it if it’s important to you!