Overcoming Painful Breastfeeding - Catherine's Story

My journey of overcoming painful breastfeeding started from day one of Freya Holmes’ life. The first week was emotional pain as Freya could not latch at all. She would get distraught and frustrated at not being able to get it and I just as frustrated and concerned. I found that first week to be challenging, not aware that the breastfeeding experience would continue to be just as frustrating and hard.

My baby Freya, beautiful girl, arrived into the world on the 28th March this year at 2.12 am. It was in the birth Centre at the Royal Brisbane Womens’ Hospital. We had skin to skin for hours and as she tried her best to attach to my breast it wasn’t easy. The following hours saw her striving to attach and with little luck. I tried and tried to help her on, with of course little experience being it my first child. With not having any outcome I was encouraged to start expressing, syringing the colostrum out and feeding her. This was the beginning of a journey in itself.

It started at 11am. My midwife sat with me very patiently and helped me start the process. I started to massage the milk down toward the nipple. What we did get out of my right breast after 15 minutes or so as I remember was 0.25 mls. It seemed so insignificant. Better than nothing. Then at 1pm we got 0.15mls with my husband helping me. At 1.57pm we only got 0.05 mls. This continued throughout the day. By 4pm I was in the birth suite for a couple of days to rest, learn breastfeeding and hopefully take home good knowledge and an attached baby. Not to be.

Freya did seem to find attaching hard. I did too. We just could not quite get it. With all the help in the world sometimes it is just not ready. We had many different ways of approaching it taught to us. I asked every one I met as my husband will tell you. I asked the cleaner, the hearing test professional, other mothers. I was determined to find out how others experienced it. Did they have challenges too! What I learnt was that most did.

Our two nights passed and I had managed to have one good attachment. I was assisted with it by a wonderful night nurse who had time for me. I still wasn’t confident completely but decided to go home as my midwife from the birth centre was going to do home visits regularly in the first two weeks. I was feeling better knowing this.

Off we went home, a daunting but exciting experience. I managed to get a good number of syringes to keep going with the expressing. The expressing however just did not seem enough. I was recording every feed to keep a memory as I was exhausted. My husband and I became quite a team at this syringing. I would express and he would collect. Of course I got pretty good at it myself over the next few days also. My midwife visited and could see how difficult attaching was. She tried to help us with no success. My baby was upset and frustrated. We even tried a nipple shield however it felt weird and did not stay on well. My baby was upset and nothing was going to work. At this stage we were encouraged to get a breast pump. I was tired and worn out. The emotion of it all made it all very overwhelming.

My husband that afternoon went around to my ABA contact person, who had pumps to hire and that night we started the next journey. It was day four and she needed more nourishment. Using the pump became my work. I would do twenty minutes on each at two hour intervals. At first I only got 20mls from each breast. It seemed more than we had been getting though which made me happy. Freya was happy too. However she needed more. I kept practicing the breastfeeding and still we had no luck until my aunty came over and assisted both Freya and I. She literally moved Freya right into my breast at perfect timing. It worked, she was on. It hurt, but you know what, I kept her there, happy that she and I had found this connection. She fed in a frenzy understandably. It was day five.

Day six came around and I was feeling really tired and rather distraught that Freya was sleeping a lot. What did this mean, is she giving me a sign that she is giving up on trying to feed because she isn’t getting enough. We had had that attachment with my aunt however it was still a trial the next times. It was frightening me and I just wanted her to wake up and try to feed. Then my challenge to keep it all together came. I noticed that she had not done a wee for about 8 hours and found what I would learn to be urates in her nappy. Apple juice like discolouration that means she is dehydrated. I got onto the midwife with fear. She told me it would be better to feel happier and calmer knowing she was fed and get some formula. It was late at night on a Saturday and I had my husband driving around to try and find some S-26. We needed to feed her fast raced around in my head. I was in tears. I thought I was a terrible mother.

The formula came. My husband was able to get it from the local night owl. Freya drank it like there was no tomorrow and from memory slept well. Another part of this story that had me worried was that Freya had not pooed for a good 4 days. All was well though not long after we had her on formula. She pooed and it was a really happy moment. I never thought I would love poo so much.

Days passed and I was still expressing, and feeding Freya the formula. The midwife was still visiting and we were still practicing breastfeeding. It still hurt but I had to give it a go. On a blessed day I had my ABA contact person come to visit and her serenity and calm paid off as she watched me with a baby led attachment. This realy helped. However, what we all started noticing was that Freya was getting used to the bottle very quickly and I had heard that babies who are fed by the bottle can get lazy with the breast. My husband really felt it important to start training Freya back onto the breast. It was something we wanted for her. So I persevered with the breastfeeding and before long we had her realizing the breast is best. It was by week two and a half that we were on breast milk only and even though it was still hurting I was happy. We were able to give back the pump and breastfeeding with comfort would be the next goal.

I had a lactation consultant not long after this to try and right the attachment. I was naturally massaging my breasts a lot when feeding and it seemed to ease the pain. It did seem like Freya had a small mouth and I believed she was doing her best. The lactation consultant said that our position was beautiful and that my supply could be increased.

The journey then went down the path of increasing supply with fenugreek and nettle tea and other such herbs and fenugreek tablets to really get it going. When I weighed Freya that week she had only put on 100 g and I was concerned. I rang the ABA and had a reassuring conversation with a mum who had me feeling positive again. I was in tears as I was to believe that 200grams was optimal. Following the herbal remedies and even acupuncture the supply improved and the following week Freya put on more than 200 grams. I was quietly surprised and overjoyed.

The pain with breastfeeding continued however and I noticed that my nipples would go white after feeding and would burn. My nipples would get really sore and stingy during and after feeds. I talked to my lactation consultant about it who told me it was vasospasm; a constriction of the blood vessels. Another journey presented itself. I would have to keep them warm, no airing the nipples like I had been doing. I researched this and found it can be to do with bad attachment so I tried to work on it. My lactation consultant gave me a new position to put Freya in and I practiced from there. Still pain persisted as time went on but I would not give up.

Then to add to the misery was the white spots that could be very painful. They are like pimples at the end of the nipple and have milk backed up behind them. I was encouraged to take a nurofen and I read in the ‘Breastfeeding Naturally’ to use a needle and pop it. I did this with success, getting out of one of them a string of dried milk that had been backed up. It was sore for a few days though and I had to go to the doctor just to check there was no infection. Thankfully there wasn’t. The white spot pain was more intense than the vasospasm. Then just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse I had thrush although I am happy to say the pain did get remarkably better after treating it.

It has all been a trial. However, after changing my mind set about the whole journey and letting go of the thinking around it all has made for a better journey. I have meditated for many years and the zen of breastfeeding as I call it is actually what saved me. I decided to just let go of thinking about the pain and move to visualizing it being pain free. I am now still experiencing a small amount of pain from the vasospasm however I know that the warmer months will see this improve. In fact there are many pain free times now which gives me a chance to really enjoy my baby feeding. I gaze into her eyes and she looks back, often smiling at me and giggling. She feels my pleasure now too.

What I am proud of is that none of it has beaten me. As hard as it may have been, even after trying a medication that is used to help vasospasm, and having dizzy spells and headaches, I did not give up. I stopped the medication and just trusted it would improve with my positive attitude. My baby is now three and a half months old and with the support of the ABA and oh, magnesium and calcium and acupuncture, it has all improved and is more peaceful.