On the bottle: why breast wasn’t best for us

Baby BatemanWarning: This blog post is long, and mentions the word “boob” a lot . When a baby pukes up blood from your shredded nipples, opinions start forming. Here they are…

I’ll start from the beginning. I’d always said I’d give breastfeeding a go – it’s free, after all, and supposed to help lose the baby blubber – but pledged if it didn’t work I wouldn’t beat myself up about it. But I never really thought it wouldn’t work, and therein the problem lies.

The NCT breastfeeding lady (for want of a better title) gave us a lovely three-hour talk as part of our antenatal class, in which we kneaded knitted boobs and held dolls with googly eyes to our breasts. And she made it sound utterly wonderful; a joyous way to bond with your baby. And she explicitly said breastfeeding wouldn’t hurt if you got the latch right. So I left with not a fear in the world that feeding my firstborn would be so UTTERLY HORRIFIC.

Chop them off!

Baby H got 10 days of breast milk from me before we hit the bottle. It was either that, or delve further into a pit of depression and pain and, as happy mums equal happy babies, neither of us was particularly cheery at feeding time. We both screamed, me in pain and baby H in hunger and frustration. If someone had handed me a machete I probably would have chopped my boobs off to end the misery.

And you know I said I wouldn’t beat myself up about it not working? Boy, did I. I felt guilty, ashamed and worried I wasn’t giving H the best start in her little life. And I felt pretty alone. And I cried. A lot.

I don’t think I’d have felt this way, mind you, if I’d been just a little bit prepared for the fact it might not work out, and that it would be so bloody painful. I can handle most things if prepared but this was a shock, a big fat painful shock amplified by sleep deprivation, sore ‘bits’ and the inability to even wee in comfort.

Having spoken to my mum friends in those days after H was born, not a single one of them found breastfeeding the blissful event I’d been expecting it to be. They experienced pain, all of them, on levels ranging from mild discomfort to pretty damn uncomfortable to sheer agony. And most of them either squealed or cried when their babies latched on. Mum friends don’t tell you this when you’re pregnant with your first, they don’t want to scare you, but surely midwives and the NCT folk could give you a heads up?

And the survey says…

I get that breastfeeding is actively promoted but I imagine more people would continue to do it if they were prepared in the first place for what was to come.

According to the Infant Feeding Survey 2010, a poll of more than 10,000 women showed 81 in every 100 mums start breastfeeding. But after just one week less than half of those new mums are still exclusively breastfeeding and only one in 100 manages the full reccommended six months. So where is it all going wrong? Is it just too painful, too much of a commitment (you can’t leave your child in case they need a bite – and some cases I mean that literally!) or down to lack of support?

This is where I must point out, I did not suffer alone. I did reach out for support and, in a way, I got it. I called the NCT breastfeeding lady mentioned above and spent nearly two hours on the phone talking and getting advice. I spoke with two midwives who helped H latch on and my husband – in utter despair at my mental and physical deterioration while breastfeeding – called the national breastfeeding hotline to get advice.

But things like “just keep going, in a week you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about” and “take a hot bath before feeding” (like I had the time for that!!), and “you can try nipple shields but we don’t recommend them” just didn’t help. The only advice I got was to just keep going, and it would get easier. But it didn’t. And we tried everything we could to make it work.

Hitting rock bottom

There are breastfeeding support groups too but I didn’t manage to get to one of those – mainly because I was in too much pain up top to even wear clothing and my confidence had hit rock bottom. I didn’t want to leave the house, see visitors or attempt to get dressed. I didn’t cuddle or really bond with my beautiful baby daughter because she inflicted such pain on me every two-and-a-half hours. Imagine someone slicing at your nipples with a razor blade every few hours. Not nice. I couldn’t even cuddle her because I didn’t want her near my chest when she wasn’t feeding. And when feeding, she’d wriggle and kick me in the other boob. Double whammy! So if anyone came too close to me, I’d start crying.

I was in despair, my husband was in despair. The dog had no idea what was going on and baby H lost 9.8 per cent of her body weight in the first five days (lose 10 per cent and you’re back in hospital) and was hungry and upset. No one was happy.

My mood just got worse and worse and we called the midwife out. In fact, my husband did. Nothing was healing – and those of you who’ve been stitched ‘down there’ will know what I’m talking about and as well as the bloody and cracked nipples, tender boobs, no sleep and raging hormones, I’d managed to give myself intense neck and shoulder pain because of the hunched up way I was breastfeeding, and a constant headache from all the crying. “Try and relax when feeding,” I was told. Just. Not. Possible.

No consistency

I was also given conflicting information – NCT said to use the “starter, main course, pudding” approach and switch from breast to breast for each course. Midwives told me to feed from one breast exclusively and then switch to the other for the next feed. Well, which is it? And they all told/showed me different ways for the baby to latch on. Again, which is it?

In floods of tears and with my shredded boobs in plain sight, the midwife basically told me to get on with it. The “bottle” or “formula” words were never mentioned as an option. In fact, one of my midwives – after we’d made the decision to move to formula – said they weren’t really supposed to talk about formula feeding as they were pro-breastfeeding.

There are only two ways to feed your baby- with breast milk or formula – so isn’t it highly irresponsible for healthcare professionals not to tell you about one of the options? One of the reasons I felt so guilty is because I had no idea what formula feeding entailed – What sort of bottles? How do you hold the bottle? Which formula? How do you prepare them? What do you do when you’re out? Lots of questions but no help. In fact, the first time I used a bottle I cried in fear I was drowning baby H as the milk poured out at speed. That day I learned about teets with different flow rates, thanks to a Google search.

The winning formula

Thankfully I have amazing friends who filled me in on bottles and formula, as well as one of the girls from my antenatal classes who’d been bottle feeding from the start. All their help and support was brilliant and I couldn’t have done it without them. We watched YouTube videos on how to hold bottles and used the internet to read up about the impact foruma feeding has on a baby’s digestive system and number and colour of poos. Slowly (and a little too late!), we were being educated and our daughter’s appetite was finally being satisfied.

Our health visitor, who first popped round AFTER we’d made the switch the bottles, was really supportive and sympathetic, understanding the pain that comes with breastfeeding and was the first professional I’d encountered who didn’t make me feel like a failure. It seems that bottle feeding support is offered, but only once you’ve made the decision to do it. And you’ll have to make that decision alone.

So, once we’d got into our bottle feeding stride – and my gorgeous daughter started to bloom as she piled on weight and got never ending cuddles from a happy mummy – my anguish and guilt turned to anger. Why had the first two weeks of being a mum been marred by breastfeeding hell?

Someone, tell us the truth

I was a first time mum and so utterly unprepared for ‘option 2’ to feed my baby. So, tracking back to my antenatal classes, why was there no formula feeding session like there was for breastfeeding? And why weren’t we told the truth about the pain and hard work it takes to make breastfeeding a success? Are people so pro breastfeeding they’d prefer you not to bond with your child and fall into post-natal depression than help with bottle feeding? Madness.

I would give birth any day of the week than return to breastfeeding. Seriously. That’s not to say I won’t try again should I have another child, but I won’t be afraid to hop to formula if it doesn’t work, and this time I’ll know what I’m letting myself in for and how to rectify it if it goes wrong.

I’m sure there are loads of people who take to breastfeeding like a duck to water – and I always was a bit sensitive in the nipple department, and sensitive in a bad way, so maybe it hit me harder – but there are many who don’t. Being a mum is the most challenging (and rewarding!) job in the world and if there’s any way to make their lives easier, like preventing their bloody and scabby nipples from hanging off due to over suction, then it should be promoted.


Baby H starts school this September and I can still, to this day, remember the horrific pain breastfeeding inflicted on my new family. In this post I talk about being willing to give breastfeeding a try second time around but when, to my amazement and with baby number two fresh in my arms, the midwife said to me “you don’t have to if you don’t want to”. I’d hesitated at her breastfeeding question and she openly offered me a way out. And that was all I needed. No effing way was any child ever going near my boobs again. Ever. And you know what? That’s perfectly okay.

Now I have a slightly different take on breastfeeding – everything I read is about getting support. But the support seems to refer to breastfeeding (and that’s great but it’s only part of the story). What about supporting people to have CHOICE about how they feed their babies and that, actually, either option is okay and if you choose formula, you get support too – how to make them up safely, how you prep bottles when you’re on the go, sterilising bottles, teet sizes and all the rest of it.

And the pros of bottle feeding – my husband got to play an active role in the feeding of his children from very early on, helping him to bond with them. Which meant I got some time off (no, I’m not an Earth mother but that doesn’t make me a bad one) and neither of my kids viewed me as a milk machine so we didn’t have trouble weaning them off breast milk. There are downsides, too, of course. My kids did not end up in hospital in their first year (a statistic made more likely if you don’t breastfeed APPARENTLY. They didn’t get ill all the time, in fact they have pretty strong immune systems just like me and their dad did when we were kids. And they won’t up being lesser citizens when they’re older because of the way they were fed as babies. All things I read about and worried about when I was struggling to breastfeed almost five years ago. Irresponsible literature after irresponsible literature.

Aside from the pros and cons of breast versus bottle, it really doesn’t matter. The point is that all parents – and that involves dads too – have a choice about how to feed their children and whichever option they choose, whether a direct choice or because one option didn’t work out, then that’s TOTALLY FINE. Breast, bottle or a bit of both – happy feeding everyone.

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