Hell hath no fury like a breast vs bottle debate… and nothing can quicker make a Mum feel like shit than deliberating the way in which they keep their baby alive, because, DUH, it’s pretty fucking important.
Whatever anyone tells you about feeding, just do what’s right for you and your family. What was right for me wasn’t atypical, so after a few requests, I’m sharing my story here. I exclusively pumped (EP) for 5 months, so my son was technically breastfed for 6 months – without ever having been ‘on the boob’.
I’d not been keen on the idea of breastfeeding while pregnant; no doubt part of the whole mental whirlwind that had ensued in my very short period of actually knowing I was having a baby.
When I had my son, I was pretty swiftly whisked off to theatre, so his first feed was from a miniature Cow & Gate bottle, given to him by his Dad. I didn’t question this, or feel bad about it, and feeding wasn’t discussed at the time. We headed on over to a ward and stayed put, bottle formula feeding, throughout the first week of his life. When asked about feeding the day after birth, I mentioned to a Midwife that “if I had any”, I’d express. I even made a joke-y comment about having tiny boobs… but not really a joke, because I had assumed that I wouldn’t produce much milk as a result of being a member of the itty bitty titty committee. But no one commented or told me otherwise, and on we plodded. We were given loads of paperwork to tell us all the reasons that we should have chosen breastfeeding over bottle and we had to sign a piece of paper to say we understood that we weren’t doing what was made out to be the ‘right’ thing; but hey, we didn’t have any choice at the time, so whatever.
On day three post-birth, my milk came in. And it was fucking horrible. I won’t go into details (real talk: I have post-natal PTSD and this is a memory I’m still working through with a mental health professional) but it was painful and I had no knowledge of how to express to make myself more comfortable. I was still on a post-natal ward, but confusion with medical staff meant I was never talked to about expressing, and never shown how to use a pump. That meant that I spent two days walking about a hospital ward heavily leaking milk, and I felt humiliated and unclean.
When we got home, I set about googling and tried out a manual pump for the first time. As any Mumma who’s expressed will tell you, it can be really deflating to see how little milk you actually produce: especially when you’ve given yourself hand cramp from pumping for the best part of an hour and just want to sleep. But I felt like I should continue anyway – it made me feel a little less engorged for a while, and I was constantly being faced by reports on the magic properties of breast milk: from friends, the press, targeted advertising on social media and suddenly every healthcare professional we saw (which was a lot: we had daily Midwife, NICU Nurse and Health Visitor visits).
I eventually invested in an electric pump and I have to admit that now, part of the reason I started this blog is because of the advertising that I’ve seen on them since. I spent £80 on my first electric pump, and to be frank, it was pretty shit. Now, £80 isn’t a great deal of cash when it comes to pumps, but it was a lot of money to me and to discover that a, it only did one boob at a time and my other would spurt out like a leaky pipe while I used it; wasting loads of milk, and b, that it took forever to get anything out, meant that it was a total waste of money. I persevered for a week or so, as there was no way I could afford a double pump, but I was lucky enough to then be gifted one (by a mate, not a brand). My new, double pump, was worth a total of £35, and not made by a big baby-business brand name. It was absolutely brilliant. I was pumping every 3hrs (yep, even in the night) and in a few days could express 11oz in about 20mins. Result.
(The ads that piss me off so much now are linked to one specific company who sell ‘hands-free’ pumps for c£250 PER BOOB. Now these are nothing new; pump bras are about a fiver on eBay and you can trot about your day expressing with no mess. I have no doubt that this particular brand is the Ferrari of Tit Pumps, and I get that, but I resent influencer advertising telling you it’s critical to spend £500 on pumps targeted at those post-natally vulnerable physically, mentally and financially. I saw a blogger recently refer to these pumps as “feeding essentials”, and I’m here to tell you: that’s bullshit. Owning a pump may be essential for feeding, but you can do it cheaply and you should never feel like you need to break the bank to do so. If a £500 pump is your bag, great. If a £30 one is, even better. Do what fits your bank balance and your boobs. Also, the genuine unpaid reviews for this brand are terrible. So research before you buy!)
Unfortunately, pumping isn’t often easy even when you find ‘the one’. Regularity is key, so you’re frequently sleep-deprived because of alarms set through the night to pump; and you experience the same hormone rush as breastfeeding, only your baby’s not there, so it’s not unheard of to sit sobbing the whole time. You feel like a cow and if you ever experience spilling a bottle of expressed milk, you will feel like your world has ended. Sometimes all that can really help is perseverance, and sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. And that’s OK. Nothing about parenthood is easy, least of all straining your nipples like they’re udders for little reward.
I sat crying into my pumps on a three-hourly schedule for months. But I found inspiration online, by researching relevant hashtags and accounts on Instagram. Whilst it seems like exclusively pumping isn’t common in the UK, it certainly is elsewhere; particularly in areas where new mamas have to go back to work pretty soon. Photos of freezer stashes, reviews of lactation cookies and people’s technique tips made me begin to not completely dread my time hooked up to a pump, and rather, I started to see it as a time to connect online to others doing the same.
That all said, despite feeling more positive about my choice, I had some real frustrations with exclusively pumping. The first was that I didn’t feel like I ‘fit in’ anywhere offline. I got snotty comments in public for bottle feeding, even though the bottle had tit milk in, and I wasn’t considered a ‘proper breastfeeder’ to be involved in events aimed at that group of mothers. On the few occasions I pumped in public (yes, I’ve done it down the pub), people didn’t understand what I was doing – unlike when people see a baby being fed by bottle or boob. Not that this deterred me: I just wore a baggy jumper and pump bra and did it all hands-free. I also found myself wound up by the amount of people telling me how difficult it was. They weren’t wrong, and EP’ing may well be the most demanding way to feed your baby, but it worked for me and I didn’t need constant reminders of the time it took, as well as the mental and physical effects it was having. If you meet an EP mother, congratulate her – she’s doing a great job, and it’s huge, and believe me, she’ll need the words of encouragement at some point.
I couldn’t always produce enough milk to feed my son wholly, and so I combination fed at times. Pumping made me lose a lot of weight, and when my health began to be compromised (I lost over three dress sizes in 5 months), I stopped and relied on my freezer stash for feeding. At 6 months, my son transitioned entirely to formula and is still a happy and healthy little lad. With no fancy equipment, but a lot of determination, I managed to give him the best of both worlds as best I could for as long as I could.
I don’t regret a thing… although I’d like my B-cups back!
The budget-busting boob benevolence kit:
NB: These are not recommendations or ads, they’re just what worked for me.
My proud pumping mama pin is by MilkMakingMama.co.uk
If you wanna chat pumping/expressing, drop me a message. I love a good tit chat!