Friday, 9 October 2009

Breast is Best

13th-15th of September, 2009.

Given how important it is to the whole survival of the human race thing, you'd think breast feeding would be easier.  I really don't understand how something that has been this critical to our species for so long can possibly be so stupidly difficult.

Like a lot of men (and I suspect women), my pre-baby understanding of bosoms and their uses could best be described as cosmetic.  I was aware that they were used for feeding infants, but only in the same way in which I am aware Mars is a planet or that Antarctica is cold.  (The media assure me it's true, but I have yet to see any physical proof for myself.)  But I had never considered the actual, practical implications of this.  I mean, baby + breast = nosh.  How hard could it be?

Yeah, well, ok.  Pretty damn hard, it turned out.  The problems are essentially three fold.  Firstly, there's Alex.  Basically he doesn't have a clue what he's doing.  Babies are born with a "rooting" (casting their head around for food) instinct and a basic "sucking" instinct.  Only the sucking one sucks.  They're just not very good at it.  Alex persistently gets his tongue in the wrong place during his first few days.  Rather than placing it under the nipple and sucking, he gets it on top of the nipple and chews.  It is unpleasant and frustrating for both Nic and Alex.  Nic because it hurts, Alex because it means he doesn't get enough milk.

Then there's Nic's body.  At the start of motherhood you produce colostrum (a sort of thick milk) for a few days, then main milk thereafter.  But Nic's not producing huge amounts of colostrum because Alex is not suckling well.  Supply follows demand in breastfeeding, so if Alex doesn't suck and so gets less food, then Nic doesn't produce as much milk, which means Alex gets less food, which means he doesn't have the energy to suck well which means and so on.  It's a vicious circle.

Lastly, there's positioning.  Nic and I are struggling just to work out how to hold this 7lb 5.5oz bundle of squirming, screaming humanity, never mind how to hold him in such a way that he can clamp on to Nic's nipples.  Think about it for a second.  Alex can't even support his own head, never mind sit or stand on his own.  He has no real volitional control over his limbs and even if he did, he couldn't understand what we want him to do anyway.  And he's surprisingly heavy if you hold him for any length of time.  Now imagine trying to get this thing attached halfway up your chest.

The upshot of this is that Alex is hungry a lot of the time and takes (literally) hours on one feed.  At some point in the first night we crack and I get a bottle of formula that the hospital gave us and stuff him so full of milk that he can't move.  (He can't move anyway of course, but at least he stops screaming and goes to sleep.)  It feels like a failure.

The next day the community midwife weighs him.  He's dropped in weight from 3.335kg (and yes, I know we all think about babies in pounds and ounces, but trust me, this bit is MUCH easier in metric) down to 3kg exactly.  The midwife looks a touch concerned.

"That's more of a drop than we like to see.  He's just over the 10% of birth weight ," she tells us.  (See, told you it was easier in metric.  Could you do 10% of 7lbs 5.5oz in your head?)  "It's not really worrying, but..." she trails off.  Nic's main milk still hasn't come in and Alex is still struggling with feeding.  She says to see how it goes for the rest of the day and we'll re-assess the next day.

Suffice to say, it goes badly.  Alex feeds for hours but still seems unsatisfied.  We call the midwife up.

"OK.  Come over to the health centre and I'll give you a couple of syringes.  Use them to top him up with formula after a feed until Nicola's milk comes in."

So for the next two days Alex is fed by a combination of breasts and the magic finger.  The magic finger is my pinky, which is stuffed into his mouth.  Once he starts sucking it we have to squeeze milk into his mouth using the syringe.  It sounds deeply tedious, but I really enjoy it.  Feeding is the only thing newborns really seem to enjoy and, until now, it has been Nic's preserve.  Here, I get to hold my son and provide him with sustenance.  I get to feel his mouth and tongue slurping away at my finger.  He is surprisingly strong.  After a while my pinky really hurts, but it's worth it for the bonding alone.

What it does to Nicola is another matter.  Even if you're not a breastfeeding mum, it's impossible to avoid the omnipresent "Breast is Best" message.  Harder still if you're an educated, middle-class new mum keen to provide the best for your child.  Every top up feed is a damning indictment on Nic's motherhood (or at least that's how she feels).  She needed all the pain relief the hospital could provide and now she is failing in her only role as a new mum.  I know she feels like this.  I sympathise, but, in my heart of hearts, I am still glad for the time with Alex.  Had I any spare mental capacity this would undoubtedly make me feel guilty and conflicted.  Thankfully it's all taken up with worrying about stuff, so I'm spared that at least.

On the 15th, Nic's milk comes in.  Her breasts suddenly leap up three cups sizes overnight.  Alex gets the hang of suckling and goes at it with a vengeance.  We step down then stop the top up feeds.  It's a good day.  Still, I find myself missing that link I got from feeding him.  I guess I'll just have to wait until Nic starts expressing breast milk, at which point I can take over on few feeds.  I am looking forwards to it immensely.

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