My experience of breastfeeding for a year has – as many women find – not an easy one.
From an incredibly wobbly start, to an experience I now genuinely enjoy, feeding Olive has been a physical and emotional rollercoaster.
Far from simply offering my baby my boob minutes after birth and watching her latch with ease, Olive was not the least bit interested in my nipples when she first joined the world. Instead, our feeding journey was slow, tough and filled with moments of wanting to give up (more on that later).
You see – and as I’ve come to realise – breastfeeding is a skill that needs to be learned by both Mum and baby; a complicated dance between two people who have never met. Furthermore, and if this wasn’t hard enough, the support given to women (particularly during the pandemic) around breastfeeding is woefully poor; something that makes things even harder.
Indeed, I’ve no doubt that had I not been in the more fortunate position to pay privately for support during those early days, my breastfeeding journey would have been over before it had even begun.
Although I can only recount my own journey, I hope that my year’s experience of breastfeeding might help another Mum stuck in those tough early days. Below, I’ve therefore put together an overview of my experience of breastfeeding for a year. Breaking it down into three month chunks, I’ve detailed feeding routines, difficulties by stage, and the products and tricks that have helped me along the way.
When writing this blog, I’ve been painfully aware of the many women who tried incredibly hard to breastfeed, but were unable to. The book – Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter – was recommended to me by a friend and I wanted to link to this incase it’s of help to anyone dealing with these incredibly difficult emotions.
How I Prepared for Breastfeeding
Although I was very open-minded as to how I’d feed Olive once she was born, I also wanted to prepare for the possibility of breastfeeding as much as possible. As such, I did the following:
Read breastfeeding books: by far, my favourite was The Positive Breastfeeding Book.
Joined my local breastfeeding support group: this was hugely beneficial and allowed me to be allocated a mentor to chat to, as well as face-to-face meet ups and access to a Facebook group. For those local to Milton Keynes, I used the very wonderful Milk Mentors.
Identified a local lactation consultant: read below for more information on this.
Invested in a good feeding cushion: if I was going to spend hours on end feeding, I was going to do it in comfort. I therefore bought the bbhugme Nursing Pillow, but also frequently used the bbhugme Pregnancy Pillow to help support my back as I fed (you can read our full review of the pillow here).
When I came across the concept of ‘harvesting colostrum’ ahead of birth, I was completely mystified. Staring down at my boobs, which had remained mostly unchanged throughout my pregnancy, I was skeptical as to whether my body was even going to produce the stuff.
Colostrum is the first milk created by the body during pregnancy and birth. Thick and golden in colour, this initial milk is packed full of antibodies and protein for your baby. While harvesting it can be very useful, it’s not advised you try this until you’re at least 36 weeks pregnant. This is to prevent the (very small) chance of inducing labour.
Having dutifully watched a few YouTube videos on how to coax this golden elixir from my boob, I set myself up on the sofa with a tiny beaker and colostrum syringe. Pushing down on my boob, I waited for the liquid to squirt copiously from my nipple. Nothing happened.
As it turns out, harvesting colostrum is quite the skill.
Eventually, I found a technique that worked for me, which focused less on pressing downwards and instead compressing inwards around my nipple, using finger and thumb. Over time, I became pretty efficient at this and after a week or so, I’d managed to collect 15 syringes’ worth.
You can take your colostrum syringes to hospital with you, where the midwives will store it in the freezer until you need it (do remember to label it clearly – adding the date you collected it). When I was initially struggling to breastfeed, it was a huge reassurance to know that I could still feed Olive this pre-prepared golden goodness.
My First Week of Breastfeeding
My first week of breastfeeding was a rollercoaster of emotions.
Although I didn’t go into motherhood determined to breastfeed, it was something I was keen to try. As I’ve mentioned, it wasn’t something that came naturally to me – or Olive – and I almost gave up five days after giving birth.
Breastfeeding Support in Hospital
My experience of breastfeeding support in the hospital was definitely mixed.
When I initially arrived for my planned c-section, I was introduced to Jenni (an Infant Feeding Maternity Care Assistant), who would be my breastfeeding support while I was there. Jenni was incredibly friendly and introduced herself to me before I went down to theatre. She also took my harvested colostrum to put in the freezer.
Jenni was also the first person I saw when I came out of theatre into recovery. Very gently, she helped me to put newborn Olive to my nipple to see what she would do. As it turns out, Olive didn’t do a whole lot, but it was reassuring to have someone there who knew what they were doing.
Over the course of my four days in hospital, Jenni continued to try and coax Olive to feed. She taught me various breastfeeding positions and also worked on improving Olive’s latch. When Olive wasn’t feeding very well, she also bought me a hospital grade pump to help me continue feeding her with my own milk.
Sadly, Jenni wasn’t around all the time and my other breastfeeding support was limited, particularly overnight. I don’t blame the midwives or support staff for this; during a pandemic they were stuck in an almost constant marathon visiting new mum after new mum. With our partners only allowed to visit for one hour a day, we relied on them more than ever.
I do remember one particular night, however, when I tearfully rang the bell to get some support feeding Olive. A midwife came into my room and promptly squashed Olive’s head against my boob, while I lay crying from sleep deprivation. Amongst the tears, I realised that Olive had latched, but by the time the midwife had left, she’d stopped feeding and I had no idea how to recreate the feeding position.
It was hugely frustrating and disheartening.
On reflection, learning to breastfeed alone in a room, whilst paralysed and/or with limited mobility, was never going to be a huge success. In fact, Olive lived off colostrum and pumped milk for the entire time I was there. Not once did I manage to feed her over those four days, despite trying over and over again.
I consequently left hospital mentally prepared to make the switch to formula. This wasn’t helped by catching sight of my hospital notes as I was leaving, which said: ‘Will need a lot of support feeding once home’.
Ironically, of course, the only problem with this was that there was no feeding support, whatsoever, suggested or arranged once I did leave the ward.
How Did a Lactation Consultant Help me to Breastfeed?
Waking up on my first morning back at home, my milk had well and truly arrived.
Stood in the shower, watching it drip out of my now rock-hard boobs, it seemed that I had all the gear, but no idea.
It was maddening.
In that moment, I decided it was worth just one more try breastfeeding Olive. Now that I was home, I felt more relaxed and clear headed, and wanted to make sure that I’d given it my best shot.
In the lead up to birth, I’d read a tip about saving the number of a local lactation consultant in your phone, should you need it. This turned out to be one of the best tips I’d been given. With no time to start searching for support just four days into motherhood, I could quickly scroll to find the lovely Lauren in my phonebook and call her up.
By some miracle, she was available that day and within just a few hours, she arrived on my doorstep with a bag of tips and tricks to get Olive feeding.
That first morning mostly entailed me sat entirely naked from the waist upwards, whilst Lauren teased Olive onto my cement boobs. The midwife, who had also come to do her checks, worked around us, not blinking an eye at the drama unfolding.
With my little team surrounding me, we managed to get Olive to latch using nipple shields, just two hours later. As I watched her feed, I remember feeling complete relief. Although it was by no means perfect – and we had only mastered one boob – it was enough to show me that I was capable of feeding my baby.
Using Nipple Shields when Breastfeeding
While Lauren was watching me attempt to feed Olive, she identified that I was dealing with a common issue.
As a first time Mum with (and I don’t mean to boast) small, pert(ish) boobs, my now very stretched and full breasts meant it was hard for Olive to latch. Until my boobs had softened and my nipples became more ‘accessible’, Lauren suggested I try nipple shields.
A nipple shield is a small silicone teat that goes over your nipple, to help a baby feed a little easier. For Olive, it meant that she could learn to feed by putting her mouth over something a bit more tangible. Nipple shields can be used to help teach a baby to feed, or to help breastfeeding to continue, i.e. if your nipples become particularly sore or damaged.
Funnily enough, because I used nipple shields from very early on, and didn’t wean off them for quit a few months, my nipples were spared pain or discomfort during feeding.
How to Wean Off Nipple Shields
Although I owe a lot to my little silicone friends, they aren’t the most convenient things to use and I was keen to wean off them as soon as possible.
Indeed, attempting to stick a tiny teat over your nipple in a cafe isn’t the easiest of tasks. I remember on one occasion dropping the shield on the floor, next to an elderly man. Gingerly, I retrieved it from the floor, dunked it in my boiling hot tea and hoped for the best.
In the end, weaning off nipple shields didn’t happen particularly fast and – from what I can remember – I wasn’t fully off them until Olive was around 10-12 weeks old.
Here’s some tips for how I finally stopped using them:
Master one boob at a time: most baby’s have a boob preference and so it makes sense to master feeding without a shield on your baby’s favourite mammary gland.
Try removing the nipple shield halfway through feeding: the theory is that your baby will be more settled mid-feed and so will be less likely to notice the nipple shield has gone.
Remove the nipple shield when the baby is sleeping (i.e. dream feed): similar to the above, if you try feeding a baby without shields during a dream feed, they’re less likely to notice they’re latched to a ‘real life’ nipple.
Things People Don’t Prepare you for When Breastfeeding (the Early Weeks)
Cramping During Breastfeeding
One of the most uncomfortable parts of breastfeeding during those early weeks were the stomach cramps. The body is an incredibly clever thing and when you breastfeed, it encourages your uterus to begin contracting down.
These cramps were like painful period pains and made me feel quite sick. Thankfully, however, this didn’t last longer than a few days and by the time I’d returned home, they’d largely subsided.
Intense Thirst and Hunger
I’ve always been the hungry sort, but I’ve never experienced thirst or hunger like I have during those early months of breastfeeding. I was ravenously hungry and desperately thirsty every hour of every day.
At night, I’d load up my bedside table with Jaffa cakes, croissants, sweets and the occasional slice of bread. Alongside this would sit two large bottles of orange squash. By morning, it would all be gone and I’d be ready for some tea and toast.
The Feeling of ‘Let Down’
‘Let down’ is the reflex that (apparently) makes the milk flow quickly and easily from your boobs. Prior to breastfeeding, I had no idea this reflex existed and presumed babies just ‘sucked’ at your nipple and milk came out. Apparently not.
The ‘let down’ is a bizarre feeling, which to me, feels like my boobs rapidly swelling. In the early days, it was also actually quite painful.
As my boobs were still ‘learning’ the ropes at the start of my breastfeeding journey, this reflex would randomly kick in even when I wasn’t feeding. Wind blowing? My excited boobs would release milk. Coat brushed my nipple? My breasts would produce the goods. Fortunately, my body eventually learned to tell the difference between Olive’s mouth and a gust of wind, and the rogue leaking eventually stopped.
The other odd sensation was the intense feeling of thirst that would happen when let down started – and this still happens now from time to time. This wave of thirst is quite unpleasant and if I haven’t got a drink nearby, it can feel quite tortuous. I’m not entirely sure of the reasoning behind this, but presume it’s your body’s way of reminding you to stay hydrated.
Pumping When Breastfeeding
I’m usually a stickler for rules, but there’s one ‘rule’ that I broke as soon as I started breastfeeding – and that’s that we offered Olive both the bottle and the boob from the get go.
As I mentioned, for the first four days in hospital, I was unsuccessful in breastfeeding Olive and so was also using a bottle of pumped milk. She seemed content using it and once we’d mastered breastfeeding, she didn’t appear to have any issue switching between the two.
The theory behind not introducing the bottle when establishing breastfeeding is an important one. To avoid ‘nipple confusion’ and causing issues with latch, it’s suggested you avoid giving pumped milk in a bottle during those early weeks.
If a baby needs to have pumped milk, it’s instead suggested that you use a small beaker for the baby to sip from.
I knew very early on, however, that if I was going to continue breastfeeding, I would really need the support of James in terms of feeding. As someone who has suffered with anxiety in the past, I knew I needed to carve out part of the day where James could feed Olive while I slept.
Thankfully, we were fortunate that Olive took to both the bottle and the boob, and pumping and bottle feeding is something we’ve done ever since. Even now, I’ll pump my evening bottle, so James can do bath and bed once he’s home from work.
Pumping has also meant I’ve had more freedom in terms of leaving Olive for a few hours or going away for a night. Knowing I have this option, rather than being the ‘sole provider’ of my baby’s food, has been hugely important for my mental health. If I wasn’t able to pump, I’m not sure I’d have carried on with breastfeeding for as long as I have.
In terms of pumps, I have used (and continue to use) the following:
Medela Swing Pump: this electric pump is brilliant and really easy to use. I use this most frequently now my milk supply has regulated, as it encourages my ‘let down’.
Haakaa Manual Breast Pump: this unassuming, silicone manual pump was an essential in my ‘early days’ breastfeeding kit. Designed to catch the let down from the other boob, this was an easy way to save up extra milk when my oversupply was still in full force. As an aside, the Haakkaa pump is also brilliant if you feel a blockage or lump in your boob. If you fill the pump with hot water and Epsom Salts, it encourages the milk to flow and remove any blockages.
MAM Manual Breast Pump: this is a brilliant little manual pump for using on the go. If I’m going somewhere where I think I might need to pump (although this is less and less frequent these days), then the MAM manual breast pump works really well. Small enough to fit in my bag, I can easily add a teat and bottle lid to it once I’ve finished, so I have milk ready to go once I’m home.
My Experience of Breastfeeding for a Year: Monthly Breakdown
Breastfeeding months 0 – 3
The first three months of breastfeeding were a complete slog and during those early months, it felt like I barely moved from the sofa.
Breastfeeding routine: I was feeding every 2 hours during the day and every 2-3 hours overnight.
On top of this, I was using nipple shields, which made everything a bit more awkward and time consuming. At this point, Olive wasn’t the most natural feeder and would bob her head around like a little bird, hopelessly trying to find my nipple.
Most of my days were spent on the sofa, with my boobs hanging out. Longingly looking at the spring weather outside, I’d sit surrounded by breastfeeding paraphernalia, literally counting down the months until I felt it appropriate to stop breastfeeding.
I found the loss of freedom (despite the odd pumped bottle) incredibly hard and vividly remember arguing with James one afternoon because he could clean his car outside, while I continued to be held hostage inside.
If I had my time again, I’d try to embrace this period a little more. Although it’s easy to say this now that I (mostly) have my freedom back, I’d try to remember that this really is a phase that passes very quickly.
Curiously, Olive didn’t really cluster feed. In fact, I only remember one occasion when she did so, when she was around two weeks old. This was a mammoth feeding session lasting five hours, which left me vaguely deranged.
I’m not sure if her lack of cluster feeding was because I had such a huge over supply, or because she also had pumped bottles, but it was something I was (thankfully) spared.
Breastfeeding, Hunger and Thirst
As I’ve mentioned, although I was expecting to feel hungry during breastfeeding, I didn’t expect the insane hunger and thirst levels that I experienced. This continued for the first three months and I ate like a horse – all day, every day.
Breastfeeding from One Boob
During the first three months, I really struggled to feed Olive from my left boob. Although most baby’s have a preference, Olive appeared to have a complete aversion to my left breast. I’m not sure what the boob had ever done to her, but she hated it.
Looking back, I’ve no idea how I had the patience to persist, but I continued to pump my left boob 3-4 times a day. Determined not to let it wither away and die, I’d pump my little boob religiously, while continuing to coax Olive onto it.
I finally got her feeding regularly from my leftie at around 3-4 months old and it felt like a huge victory.
Breastfeeding and Reflux
One thing I didn’t expect from breastfeeding was the general discomfort and agitation Olive experienced following it. Rather than being a serene experience, Olive was often more like an angry, wild animal. Screaming and punching my boob, she was hugely unsettled feeding from me during the early months. In fact, she would only feed if I bounced on a ball or I stood up and bobbed her.
I spent so much time researching the cause of her discomfort, but never really got to the bottom of it. Perhaps it was oversupply making feeding uncomfortable, perhaps it was reflux or perhaps it was just Olive being difficult – I’ll never really know.
I found that time very demoralising, especially when I saw other women calmly feeding their sleepy newborn in a cafe. While their baby quietly suckled and their Mum enjoyed a coffee, I was bouncing Olive around public toilets, trying to keep a slippery nipple shield attached.
It goes without saying that during those first three months of breastfeeding, I had no plans of continuing past the six month milestone.
Breastfeeding Months 4- 6
Months 4-6 months of breastfeeding were a turning point for me (and Olive).
Feeding routine: Olive was still feeding every 2-3 hours during the day and was feeding on and off overnight. I would give her a dream feed at 9.30-10pm, which seemed to see her through most nights.
At around 4 months, Olive settled down and her boob rage disappeared. Having also lost the nipple shields by this point, feeding in public was much easier and breastfeeding finally became the quick and easy task I’d read about.
My Milk Supply Regulated
It was around five months that my milk supply suddenly dropped, causing a big panic. I was so used to being able to pump a seemingly endless supply of milk that the sudden drop was something I found really stressful.
I’d presumed that your milk regulated after just a few weeks of breastfeeding, but this isn’t actually the case. Many women, instead, see a drop around the five month mark.
Quickly, my prized stash of frozen milk was used up and if I was going away, I now needed to plan ahead so that I could slowly stock up again. This made the admin around feeding a little more difficult, but it hasn’t caused any major issues. If I plan ahead, I can usually save enough milk for an extra bottle or two.
Breastfeeding Months 6 – 9
In the early months, I had my heart set on stopping breastfeeding at six months. When this milestone quickly rolled around, however, I decided that I wanted to continue. Having put so much blood, sweat and tears into those early months, I would be damned if I was going to stop so soon – just when it was becoming more enjoyable.
Feeding routine: Every 3 hours during the day and I dropped Olive’s dream feed when she started solids at 6 months.
When Olive started weaning, her breastfeeding during the day slowed down a little, but not as much as I’d expected. I was still feeding her 5/6 times a day and she seemed just as keen to breastfeed, even though she was also now enjoying her food.
Around this time, Olive was also getting her first two teeth through and we did experience a few weeks of biting. Although it was painful, it wan’t terrible (more like a nip) and it seemed to resolve itself fairly quickly once the teeth were cut.
The Return of my Period
The return of my old friend, the period, happened 7 months postpartum. Arriving suddenly and unannounced, I was initially confused as to what I was looking at. Periods were a murky, distant memory and I’d almost forgotten women had them.
The biggest change to breastfeeding once my period returned was the difference in my milk supply over the course of my cycle. My supply drops quite significantly a few days before my period is due – and for a few days during it.
During this time of the month, I avoid all mirrors. The sight of my sad, shrivelled boobs is too much and, I fear, offers a glimpse into my future once my breastfeeding journey comes to an end.
Breastfeeding Months 9 – 12
The past three months of feeding have been the easiest and most enjoyable yet. I’ve really begun to savour my feeds with Olive, especially now she is feeding less and less. Strangely, it’s only in the last few months that I’ve really felt that oxytocin, feel good hormone hit when feeding. Perhaps it’s because I’m more relaxed that I’m now finally reaping the full biological benefits of breastfeeding.
Feeding routine: feeds every 4-5 hours over the day ( 3-4 feeds a day) and I’ll still feed occasionally overnight if she’s teething or unwell.
Does Breastfeeding Really Get Easier Over Time?
In short, yes.
Breastfeeding really does become easier and easier, but perhaps not as quickly as I’d initially presumed. According to forums such as Mumsnet (groan), breastfeeding ‘should’ become easier after just the first few weeks – yet I was still struggling three months on.
The fact that I can now barely remember those difficult months, however, is probably a sign that things really do get better – and quickly. Looking back, I would say breastfeeding became ‘easy’ around the 4-month mark, and has continued to get easier and easier ever since. This is not to say it was awful for the entirety of the first four months, but it certainly felt like hard work.
In complete contrast, feeding Olive now is something I look forward to. Settling down in my nursing chair, Olive snuggled in my arms, I soak up those quiet, sleepy moments. Far from wrestling a screaming baby onto my boob, both Olive and I are now relaxed and happy in our little feeding bubble.
The chart below really helped me during those early days (however I think my ‘effort’ line remained higher than the graph suggests, until we hit around 16-week mark at least).
What I Have Learned Not To Worry About When Breastfeeding
There are so many things that I would not worry about if I breastfed a second time round.
Of course, you shouldn’t entirely ignore your baby’s weight; ensuring they’re gaining is incredibly important. It’s something, however, that I worried and panicked about far too much when initially feeding Olive. The classic weight chart thrust upon you from the moment your baby is born is actually based on formula fed babies, who naturally tend to put on weight a little quicker.
Once I’d discovered this brilliant article on KellyMom, I felt much more confident with Olive’s weight. Provided she was feeding, had wet nappies and seemed content, I was happy.
How Often my Baby Feeds
Alongside the anxiety around Olive’s weight during the first few months, I was also obsessed by how often she should feed. Having read many guides, and even on the recommendation of my midwife, it was suggested that I try to feed Olive every 3 hours. Although initially elated by the thought of less time with my boobs out, it ended up causing far more anxiety than it was worth. Olive was, and still is, a ‘little and often’ baby and trying to string out feeds resulted in an angry baby who then struggled to settle.
In the end, I decided to ignore all advice and feed Olive on demand. This turned out to be every 2 hours during the day for months, before eventually settling at every 3-4 hours.
How Quickly My Baby Breastfeeds
Another element of breastfeeding that I was completely consumed by was how long Olive would feed for. Going off random articles on Google, I’d read that a baby should be feeding for a minimum of 20 minutes from each boob to ensure they were getting enough milk. In stark contrast, Olive would feed for 5-7 minutes (I would time it on my phone) from just one boob per feed.
This caused me huge amounts of worry and stress, which really wasn’t necessary. Every baby feeds differently and every woman’s let down is different. Unfortunately for Olive, every time she fed, she was met with firehose force milk hitting the back of her throat. As such, feeds were short and sweet.
Other Peoples’ Opinions or Agendas
Unsurprisingly, it turns out there is just as much pressure to stop breastfeeding as there is to start. No sooner has a woman finally grown confident and happy breastfeeding than the questions begin around when she’ll stop. “It’s best to stop when they have teeth,” “You’ll ruin your boobs,” “It’ll be easier for others to look after her if you stop,” are just a few of the comments I’ve received since I continued feeding Olive past six months.
What I’ve come to realise, however, is as long as it’s your boobs doing the feeding and your baby doing the drinking, then it really is no one else’s business.
My Experience of Breastfeeding for a Year: What Happens Next?
I currently have no definitive plans as to how much longer I’ll feed Olive. I feel an unexpected sense of sadness at the thought of stopping, whilst also feeling very eager to regain more of my freedom.
For now, I’ve put no pressure on myself either way and will see what the coming months bring. With approximately 1,800 hours of feeds under my belt (that’s more than a full time job), I feel thrilled to have made it this far and anything else is a bonus.