Why I nearly couldn't breastfeed...

Mother and baby nursing

This is the story of my personal breastfeeding journey, that I have had to come to terms with and now share in the hopes that it can help other mothers. Perhaps even help other mothers identify why they couldn't breastfeed and that it may have been something not caused by their bodies failing them (as I believed my body was failing me), that it might have been due to factors they could have changed, had they know about them if our healthcare system did not fail them (as it did me) and we were able to openly share our stories and learn from each other.

This is a very sore subject for some and I know many mothers have many negative feelings about their own breastfeeding journeys, I understand, I had those feelings while struggling. Mom guilt is a real thing! We feel guilty about so many things, this shouldn't be one of those things.

Growing up, we play with dolls that come in cute little boxes with all the "needed" accessories. You receive her nappy, little teddy-bear, bottle and dummy.

We proceed to happily play "house", looking after "baby" and giving her her bottle and dummy when she "cries".

You will rarely see a toddler lifting her top to nurse her "baby" when it's upset or hungry.

This was my experience, this is how I grew up playing. My own mother, who raised 3 children amazingly, believed that she couldn't breastfeed. I was a formula fed baby and I don't see anything wrong with that, it just means that I didn't learn about breastfeeding growing up. This was my reality - my mom couldn't breastfeed us, baby dolls drank bottles and as I grew older, friends with little ones they couldn't breastfeed. So I didn't really give much thought to breastfeeding, other than as something I might try and see how it goes.

I planned the birth perfectly (not that it went perfectly) but breastfeeding...meh...I was going to try it. Maybe I'd see if I can make it till 6 weeks as my mother did.

Then I started researching, like I always do, what would be most beneficial for my baby? (I used to work in the Audit / Chartered Accountant industry so I like numbers and facts, thus my constant need to research and read). Which brand of formula should I buy for her and have in my cupboard, for when breastfeeding doesn't work out. Because believe me, I heard it from everyone; that it probably won't work out and I need that backup tin of formula in the cupboard. So many people said,"I couldn't breastfeed" and I believed that breastfeeding was unobtainable for most.

I stood in the formula aisle at the store, looking at all the tins, wondering which one would be most beneficial for my baby, absentmindedly rubbing my belly, as my little one wiggled around in there.

What I noticed most, was the little phrase printed on every single tin; "Breastmilk is the best milk for babies - this does not contain breastmilk". In South Africa it is required to print this on formula tins due to the aggressive marketing by formula companies, which the government decided was aggressive and thus implemented the regulation. But I have always thought that it must be extremely hurtful for mothers to have to read those words every time they feed their child, even though I understand why the government decided it.

Well, I left the aisle with empty hands but LOTS of questions. Breastmilk is the best milk for my baby? Then I suppose I should at least give it a proper go and try to learn more about it I thought, as I hadn't really taken it seriously until then.

Luckily, a family member had added me to some group on Facebook called La Leche League SA and I decided to go see what it was about.

I quickly learned that this was more than just some Facebook group, it was just one of the many facets to an International Non Profit Organization that has been around since 1956 (61 years!).

They have mothers all over the world who volunteer their time and make the sacrifice of time with their own families and children, to help their fellow mothers succeed on their breastfeeding journeys. To top it off, these are not just mere "mothers" or bored stay at home moms, after successfully nursing their own children these women go through extensive training and complete an in depth training course and accreditation process in order to be a qualified Leader.

These Leaders then serve their community in hosting free monthly meetings for all the nursing and expectant mothers in their area, as well as do one-on-one consultations via house visits,Telephone, Whatsapp, Email, Facebook etc. Where ever and in which ever way you need them, they are there.

To tell you the truth, I'd much rather receive loving support from a fellow nursing mother in my community, who has been through what I'm going through and have completed training by the leading authority on breastfeeding and only organization recognized and consulted by the World Health Organization, than having to go show my breast to some doctor who maybe had one or two chapters on breastfeeding back in the day when he obtained his degree and have him tell me to just give up or some hurtful comment due to him not grasping the bond and what it means to me.

To get back to my personal journey of searching for the most beneficial formula / milk for my baby;

The things I learned via La Leche League truly astounded me, like that the glands around my areola, would analyze my baby's saliva at every feed and then ADAPT my milk to her needs to tailor make it specifically for HER. I was suddenly so impressed with my body and thought I am really going to try this breastfeeding thing.

So I called my local Leader and got the details for the next monthly meeting from her. That Saturday, I picked up my mom and the two of us went to attend the La Leche League meeting. I warned her in the car that we will probably see a lot of boobs, as these women would be some of "those women" who just whip out their breasts everywhere. But we shouldn't judge and try to learn something. (Because before I became a mother and experienced breastfeeding myself, I had many preconceived notions that I now can truly say, you can not judge anyone before walking in their shoes).

Upon arrival, I was greeted so warmly and all the mothers, yes some with babies attached to the boob, made me feel so welcome and the information shared was so helpful. As soon as they saw I was eager to learn and asked them for tips for after I give birth, they started sharing with me to do skin-to-skin, nurse on demand, watch for her hunger signs, that she should have 5 to 6 wet nappies in 24h, that my milk will always be enough for her etc.

I left there feeling so motivated and positive, ready to tackle this breastfeeding thing. I continued to read up and prepare myself.

Then I happen upon an article on Hypoplasia (Insufficient Glandural Tissue) and Lactation Failure. Which reminded me that there are many very real reasons that moms may not be able to feed their babies.

Women may not be able to produce enough milk for their babies if;

  • They have a thyroid condition - Luckily I don't have that.
  • Retained placenta - Hadn't given birth yet so not an issue.
  • Previous breast surgery - Never had one.
  • Have PCOS - Shit, ok I have that.

Hypoplastic Breasts that are;

  • Wide spread - Err not really
  • One breast is bigger than the other - Uhm I thought all women's were, but ok yes, I do have a slacker.
  • Stretchmarks on the breasts in absence of growth, either during pregnancy or puberty - Well yes, they never really grew during pregnancy but I do have my tiger stripes.
  • Tubular breast shape - Luckily not
  • Disproportionately large or bulbous areolae - Check
  • Absence of breast changes in pregnancy, postpartum, or both - They never really changed…

There are women who are physically unable to breastfeed and I may be one of them! Ok well shit, maybe breastfeeding won't work out. So I was back to "we'll see how it goes".

Then my waters broke, labour didn't go as planned, it actually went so far off my carefully planned birth plan that it's laughable...well no...cryable. And I did, I cried A LOT about it. I felt like I completely failed as a mother before even having the chance to start motherhood.

But my baby is healthy and that's all that matters... (This is what everyone told me)

NO! That's not all that matters. I matter. My feelings also matter. What I experienced matters. I'm not ungrateful for being upset about a traumatic birth or suffering birth trauma. For months I felt ungrateful because I have a perfect little baby but I still had grief and birth trauma due to our experience, I didn't know I was allowed to grieve our birth experience until after attending a counselling group.

(Perhaps someday soon I'll share my birth story and then you may also understand my state of mind and outlook better)

My "failed" birth and birth trauma actually made me more determined to succeed at nursing and as the formula tin says, providing my baby with the "best milk" because I felt like it was my way of making it up to my daughter, as I thought our birth experience was my fault and that she went into foetal distress because of my body, something I did wrong.

From the first moment of breastfeeding IT.WAS.HARD! It didn't come naturally, it wasn't idyllic and perfect as I had hoped. But being the person I am and feeling the guilt I felt, I WANTED IT, I wanted so badly to succeed and make it up to her and nature really made me WORK for it. I wasn't going to get it easy as I had hoped.

My daughter couldn't latch, so I had to sit with my breast shaped like a little hamburger placed in her mouth. I had to keep it in her mouth and then vibrate my finger next to my areola to trigger my let-downs. No one taught me that, I had to figure it out on my own because there wasn't enough support for me from the healthcare staff. The highly trained professionals in hospital just kept telling me to rather give formula top-ups and that I wouldn't be able to breastfeed. That was so hard to hear, I just wanted to nurse her so badly and hearing that is cruel, especially to a new (already traumatized) mother. (I have found it a little heartbreaking for me, but also relieved for other moms, to hear that while new moms are often encouraged to "top up" with formula, being told outright that they wouldn't be able to breastfeed is the EXCEPTION and not the rule!)

Luckily I knew that doing skin-to-skin and making sure I empty my breasts often would ensure that I establish my supply and I was adamant on not falling into the top-up trap. I had read that breastmilk is produced on supply and demand, if you remove some of the demand by supplementing with formula, you tell your breasts less milk is needed so they make less. Soon you end up really not having enough milk and having to give formula full time because "your milk just disappeared".

But in spite of all my efforts at not giving formula top-ups, not because it was "evil" or because I hated formula, but because I really wanted to succeed at exclusively breastfeeding, my daughter's blood sugar kept dropping and the nurses and Lactation Consultants kept pushing formula on me. But they didn't understand that succeeding at breastfeeding was my way of redeeming myself as a mother and making the birth experience up to my daughter.

I hadn't known that skin-to-skin would also stabilize her blood sugar, this I only read afterwards, but I had known that I could hand express some colostrum onto a spoon for her and give that as a "top-up". So I found a lovely Lactation Consultants on the day staff that helped me hand express 5ml onto a teaspoon for her.

Her sugar started picking up and I was still doing skin-to-skin and nursing her as much as possible in our own way. But then the shift change came and my lovely helper left...

The night Lactation Consultant wasn't feeling like helping me hand express and after my own failed attempts, she convinced us that we need the formula top-up, so we reluctantly agreed and followed her to the nursery where she proceeded to prepare 15ml of formula.

I wasn't thinking of the brand as I had before, I was thinking of my little baby, who I desperately wanted to nurse...

As she gave the top-up, I felt hopeless watching as my little one struggled to keep up with the fast pace, when we reached 13ml, my heart couldn't take it and my guilt got the better of me and I said enough.

I took my baby from the Lactation Consultant and quietly apologized to my daughter for failing her AGAIN, as we walked back to our room.

That night, my baby aspirated the formula and choked. She turned blue, as I ran with her to the nursery at 3am as foam came from her mouth, nose and bottom. The Lactation Consultant quickly took her from me and started working on her, winding her, wiping away foam.

I asked her why it smells so soapy and she said it's the formula. She proceeded to say that my girl must have been overfed and possibly allergic to formula. I knew she was overfed, since newborns only take 5 to 7ml per feed.

There was nothing wrong with the formula but she had been over-fed and she wouldn't have needed to go through the allergic experience if the night Lactation Consultant had just helped me hand express as I really wanted to.

Luckily she was unharmed but understandably upset after the experience.

Once home, things still wasn't going smoothly. She still wasn't latching and wasn't picking up much weight. I was also not doing well, as I was allergic to the pain medications they sent me home with, not having tested it on me before discharge. (You can probably guess by now how angry I am at the healthcare system that failed me)

To top it off, I experienced postpartum psychosis due to the traumatic birth. My gynecologists prescribed me some medication, a popular sulpiride, over the phone, as the postpartum psychosis and allergic reaction to the medications my husband explained to her over the phone, she chalked up to "Baby Blues". The sulpiride would in any case "make my milk more" she said. (Not that I had a lack of milk once it came in)

Before filling the sulpiride script, I realized the pain medications were not coordinating with me, so I weaned myself off them and dealt with the pain.

I was still having trouble with postpartum psychosis tho, so I drank some of the medication.

As soon as it was in my system, I started to experience adverse effects, which can unfortunately be the case for some women.

I became dizzy, had the most intense headache, my mouth felt dry, my feet was palpitating from increased pressure and made it feel as if my toes were going to burst.

It also affected my emotional state of mind, I felt restless and anxious, in a constant panic, I couldn't sleep because my brain just couldn't switch off and the world felt too bright and noises too loud.

I'm not saying every mother will experience these adverse effects, millions of mothers likely don't. I just want to share my experience so if you should experience them as I did, you might know what was wrong.

I would have appreciated it if my Dr was able to see me and talk to me before prescribing them and not just insisted I continued with them and said, "Many mothers are on this medication and it will in any case make your milk more so just keep using it."

While I was dealing with my personal issues, I was still trying to get the hang of breastfeeding and by Friday morning (born Monday), I was exhausted. So my husband drove us to a breastfeeding clinic, where the Lactation Consultant showed me how to latch and hand express. She also made a big fuss about telling my baby "Shame poor baby, your mommy isn't taking proper care of you. We'll teach her right". NOT what I had to hear right that moment, still fragile, traumatized and riddled with birth guilt!

We went home but after all the help, she still wasn't latching or sucking! I was devastated, I can't breastfeed! I was failing her again I felt!

The fact that I had cracked bleeding nipples due to the improper latch, as well as undiagnosed / untreated Thrush that made me cringe and cry every time I had to nurse also made it so much worse.

I begged my husband to go and buy me a tin of formula, to ask the pharmacist for the best one that she won't be allergic to. I cried and cried, saying over and over; "It shouldn't be this hard to feed my baby!" I was giving up, I wasn't going to put my baby through this much pain and struggle to latch just in order to breastfeed. She came first and I would find a way to deal with my own issues, not making her suffer just so that I can say I breastfed her. I could not stand the sound of her crying, the desperate expression on her face as she tried to get milk from me. No mother or baby should go through that! It is torture on the heart.

My husband knew how important nursing was to me and that I had told him I really want to succeed and need his support to do so, so instead of going to the pharmacy as I had asked him to, he reminded me of the meeting I had attended; "Why don't you call the La Leche League Leader you met?"

So there I sat, in the middle of the bed, with my crying baby on my lap, boob that she doesn't want hanging out, crying and feeling yucky from not sleeping or showering. AND I CALLED HER. I called the Leader and sobbed into the phone that my baby can't nurse, I can't breastfeed, my baby is going to die because my body is failing her!

She calmly said to me; "Give me your address, I'm on my way". And she came, late on a Friday evening, she came.

She listed to my story and held me as I sobbed into her shoulder. She reassured me and asked me if I want to nurse my baby and let her have a look? I agreed and she proceeded to observe our nursing technique, helping me practice the latch. Then she identified that my little girl can't sufficiently suck and transfer milk, there was something wrong and she knew who can fix it.

She called the IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) that came to my house that same evening. The Leader, now considered MY Leader, sat with me on the side of my bed, chatting to me and listening to me, while we waited for the IBCLC to arrive.

The IBCLC confirmed that my girl had an underdeveloped suck reflex, making it impossible for her to latch, suck and transfer milk. She also had a tongue-tie and was losing weight but all hope was not lost. We were given exercises to do with our girl for her oral development and while I was still giving her ample opportunity to latch, I also had to hand express and give breastmilk top-ups.

I also had to increase the frequency of feeding to every 1h30min instead of every 2h during the day and every 3h at night.

After 3 days of hand expressing, syringe-and-finger-feeding, breastfeeding every 1h30min day and night, she was latching and nursing! By 3 weeks she was back at birth weight and we didn't even have to have the tongue-tie cut,  as the exercises had loosened and stretched it sufficiently.

We have now celebrated 14months of breastfeeding and we are still very much enjoying our breastfeeding journey. And yes, I am now "one of those women" who respond to my baby's needs and nurse her when she cries. I couldn't begin to understand the bond that breastfeeding would bring us before experiencing it myself, after learning to do it properly.

I don't know why I was dealt such a "bad hand" and had to almost experience every single issue under the sun. Why me?

But one thing I am truly grateful for is that La Leche League saved my baby's life!

Why am I sharing my story?

Because our girls are growing up with dolls that have bottles and often not told that there's another option as well. Many women are told they can't breastfeed and don't get the support they need if breastfeeding is something they are passionate about.

I would have been a formula feeding mother and NO ONE would have had the right to blame or shame me after what I'd been through. More importantly, no one should blame you. My baby came first. I could have given up at any stage during my journey and I actually did, not having the courage to climb the next boulder rolled into my way. I would have had to read that little line every time I made my girl's bottle. I know how it would have made me feel and I don't want any mother to go through that if that isn't a choice she made herself. If I had only been educated on breastfeeding beforehand and had proper support from the healthcare system, I would not have had to have gone through that and my baby would not have had to have gone through that.

But I didn't give up. My reasons were my own. This was something that I NEEDED to do for myself. If there is any other mother out there who desperately wants to do everything possible to breastfeed their baby, I hope my story helps. Breastfeeding can be hard and we shouldn't be left without support. We shouldn't be shamed or feel guilty, we SHOULD be helped and supported.

As I said, I didn't do it for anyone else, I did it for my baby, our breastfeeding relationship is just that, a relationship between my baby and I. Just as any other relationship is between that mother and her baby. I am proud of what we have accomplished and that I'm breastfeeding her.

When we are faced with people constantly telling us we can't do something, including the doctors and nurses who are actively trained to guide and support us and "know best", we are being set up for failure. Because this is what happened to me.

If mothers were able to better understand the obstacles they may face, some of them may be able to overcome them. And for the mothers who face things they weren't able to overcome, their stories have value too, because another mother might feel the same way and be feeling completely alone in it. I would have been able to learn from my fellow mothers and we would be able to uplift and educate each other. I for one would have loved the opportunity to learn.

Too many mothers never know why they weren't able to breastfeed. Here are some possibilities;

  • Your breasts may not have been emptied frequently enough due to a feeding schedule (e.g. every 4h) or introducing a dummy too early - I did this, I didn't know better.
  • You might not have had access to support or information - Yes, clearly I didn't.
  • You believed that your body wasn't making enough milk for your baby or that it wasn't healthy enough?
  • You might have mistaken normal infant behavior (such as frequent night waking, cluster feeding or increased feeding and fussiness during growth spurts and wonder weeks) for not having enough milk? - I know I doubted myself.
  • Your baby may have been sensitive to dairy or had a milk protein allergy and you didn't know to wait the 6 weeks for it to be excluded from your diet?
  • Were you afraid of the old wives tales of breastfeeding causing saggy boobs or hair loss? - I did give this some thought during pregnancy.
  • Or that breastmilk loses its nutritional value over time?
  • Perhaps you had to go onto a medication that was unsafe for breastfeeding and didn't know there might be other options (there is almost always a safe alternative I've been told) - I hadn't known this.
  • Maybe your baby was crying all the time and couldn't effectively nurse due to a tongue tie? - As my girl did.
  • Or did your baby not want to nurse due to a nursing strike or because of nipple confusion due to early introduction of artificial teats or not doing Paced Bottle Feeding which you hadn't known about?
  • Or you were one of the mothers who truly could not breastfeed because you had one of the conditions listed in the lactation failure article or circumstances beyond your control; like your baby coming much earlier than expected or your own health complications from childbirth or not being able to take maternity leave or any of the other unexpected things life throws at us?

These are real issues many mothers face, not knowing there might have been help to alter their journeys, and then experiencing immense guilt or disappointment because of it. Feeling like your body could not provide for your baby is an awful feeling, I know.

My own mother was told that her milk wasn't nutritious enough by her doctor and for years and years she believed she couldn't breastfeed. She was so shocked to hear that had she had access to information, she might well have been able to. She always tells me that in her time, no one talked about breastfeeding and her only resource was the local magazine.  She didn't have fellow mothers to learn from and now she is relieved to finally understand what went wrong. Her thinking "I couldn't breastfeed" is not her reality anymore and perhaps it doesn't have to be for other mothers as well.

If we are able to say, I couldn't breastfeed because I didn't have the proper support and information (or whatever your reason), our women and daughters would know to seek the support and information in order to succeed and we'll be able to learn from each other and truly create a village of understanding and motherhood.

Furthermore, sharing your story and saying "I couldn't breastfeed because...", does not make you a bad mother, it just makes you an informed mother with knowledge to share with other women. Even if you are not able to breastfeed your child, it does not mean you have failed. All mothers want what is best for her children and every mother is the expert on her own family. Breastmilk may be the most beneficial for babies, as it is produced by nature, but it is not the only form of nutrition available and using alternatives does not take away any part of the immense love you have for your child.

That is why I am so grateful for knowing about La Leche League and receiving help when I needed it so desperately. Many mothers may also not know that breastfeeding is not an all or nothing thing, there are also many mothers who aren't able to pump at work and who only nurse when reunited with their babies. Every drop of breastmilk counts and that's what is so wonderful about La Leche League, they support all mothers, however frequent, long or short their breastfeeding journey may be.

If we are able to share our stories rather than just saying or thinking that breastfeeding is a battle that can't be won, we can change the cultural belief that breastfeeding is something that you are far more likely to fail at than succeed (as I thought), changing the narrative for future generations.

I understand that this is a very controversial subject but I wish we could openly talk about it and support and learn from each other rather than just judging each other and shouting slogans at each other. No one benefits from slogans, we only benefit from shared experiences, acceptance, support and knowledge.

La Leche League SA Facebook Group;


La Leche League SA Website with Leader contact details;


Additional Information;