My belly is filled with nervousness and dread at the thought of laying this all out on the table for the world to read. What I’m beginning to realize though is that the things that I am afraid to write about are the things that are likely to have the most impact - because if I’m afraid to talk about it, so is someone else. That person needs to know that it’s ok.
Flynn was born in the middle of March. I had a pretty ‘perfect’ labour (in the ‘oh my god this is the most effed up thing I’ve ever had to do, get him out of me’ sense of the word ‘perfect’ that can only be attributed to labour of course). He was placed on my chest and my husband and I thought he was the most unbelievably perfect thing we had ever seen. I frequently think back to that moment and try to remember every little detail so that it will be clearly etched in my memory forever.
The midwife placed him on my chest and told me it was time to feed. He latched on immediately and went for it and I said ‘Oh my goodness look at you, you’re winning at life already!’ Everything was just wonderful. We went back to our room and Flynn slept for most of the night. Dan and I? We were peering at Flynn and each other through the clear bassinet every five minutes to make sure he was ok. He was. Beautiful memories.
Thinking we had this parenting thing nailed already, we were about to get a massive dose of reality. The next night things got hard. Flynn was feeding constantly and it hurt so so much. I was in tears, Flynn was screaming , I had midwives coming in every five minutes giving their own slightly different version of what I should be doing and how I should be doing it and we were losing our minds! We kept going, morning came and we were assured that this was all completely normal until my milk came in, which it thankfully did that day.
We stayed in hospital for the full four nights, happy to be getting fed, seen to and looked after. As frustrating as the varying opinions were, I was happy to get some more help with breastfeeding – was it really meant to be this hard?! No one spoke about this!
Home we went - a cute as a button, healthy baby boy, a tired husband who had been sleeping in his swag on the hospital floor, and me, sore everywhere and wondering how on earth they were letting me take this baby home on my own without a clue what I was doing?!
Days passed and my nipples were so so horrendously sore and broken. I had bought the chemist out of every remedy that they had and I spent all of my spare time googling how to make it better. Flynn would spend up to three hours straight feeding in the evenings and one hour every three hours during the day. Every time he came towards me I was half bringing him in, half pushing him away, really not wanting to do it. I can remember in the middle of the night putting him down next to me half way through feeding and just beginning to cry. I was breaking.
Two weeks in I was feeling particularly flat and unwell, I had breast pain and a bit of a fever. I just thought I was tired. I had a follow up appointment with my Obstetrician the next day so I mentioned it to him then, he checked out my breast and saw the redness and instantly gave me a script for antibiotics. He said "take these if it starts to get worse" and I took my first one that night. Thankfully the mastitis settled but the nipple pain went on. Horrible pain every three hours for four weeks, and the worst thing? Flynn wasn’t putting on enough weight! All of this effort, hours spent feeding and I still wasn’t doing it properly!! I was struggling, I couldn’t hold Flynn to my chest because it hurt too much so I was missing precious cuddling time. I was waiting for that instant mother, son bond to happen and it just wasn’t happening! I loved him with all my heart but he just didn’t feel like mine. What was wrong with me?!
I decided to call in the help of a lactation consultant. He was great, he came around and gave me more help with technique. Could it really be that I was THAT bad at breastfeeding?! After more advice on how to treat my shredded nipples, and feeling happier for having talked about things, we kept trying.
That week Dan got the flu and we had to clear out of the house. Flynn and I went to stay with mum and I spent the first night there writhing in toe curling pain during the night trying to feed Flynn. My baby needed me, he needed to be fed, he wasn’t gaining enough weight and I couldn’t do what I naturally as a mum was meant to be doing. The only thing he really needed from me while he was that tiny and I couldn’t do it right! Now even after I fed him I had burning pain in my breast for an hour afterwards, only for it to finally go away and then have to start all over again. By this point I avoided holding him sometimes so that he didn’t smell my milk and want to feed because it hurt too much. I avoided feeding him whenever I could. I want to cry even thinking about it.
I felt sick the next day, my nipple was looking dreadful and it was so sore even to have fabric lightly brush over it, let alone trying to feed Flynn from it. Then I felt it. That dreaded feeling that anyone who has ever had mastitis would know well - a firm, warm lump that made me feel ill to touch. I gave the lactation consultant an emergency call and he came out to mums to have a look. He said he thought we’d caught it early enough so not to take antibiotics just yet, to keep feeding and massaging out the lump… and MORE technique tweaks. He assessed Flynn’s mouth further and questioned whether he might have a tongue-tie. He wasn’t sure and was going to refer us on for a second opinion.
I woke up the next morning in a pool of sweat. I felt absolutely awful and wondered if I actually just had Dan’s flu. Mum very apologetically had to go in to work but assured me she was just a phone call away. I sat on the couch with Flynn next to me and that was it… I couldn’t move, I couldn’t function, I felt lifeless. I was staring at the kitchen willing a glass of water to walk my way. I had to keep Flynn within arms reach because I was too scared to walk with him in case I fell. I was becoming vague and confused, I had started taking my antibiotics as well as some panadol and nurofen but I I didn’t trust myself to know how many I’d taken and at what interval so I stopped. I couldn’t remember the order of Flynn’s routine… I was feeding him when he needed sleep and trying to put him to sleep hungry. I called the breastfeeding help line and parenting help lines who told me to hang in there, take panadol and rest. I was beside myself in tears on the phone and at the end of the conversation the lady said to me, “Now I need to ask this - How are you going emotionally?” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Terribly!! Did you not just hear that whole conversation??
I made an emergency call to mum who got home and read my temperature at 39.8, we called the hospital who told me to go straight in. When I arrived my temperature remained extremely high and my blood pressure had dropped dangerously low. I could barely string a sentence together. I was immediately put on an IV for saline and high dose antibiotics and felt almost instantly better with some hydration. Beautiful little Flynn tagged along un-phased and slept beside me in a bassinet. The nurses encouraged me to express to give my nipples a chance to heal which was such a relief. I did that for my three nights in hospital which meant that all I was doing was expressing, bottle feeding and putting Flynn to sleep. I felt extreme guilt that I was so unwell and so consumed with my breast feeding issues that Flynn was missing out on the love, care and attention that I would have otherwise been able to give him.
On discharge from the hospital one of the doctors came in to find me on the verge of tears with a crying Flynn. She sat down on the bed and said, “You know you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to put so much pressure on yourself to breast feed.” I broke down. I was so confused. I knew I wanted to breast feed, I was struggling with my bond with Flynn and I thought if I didn’t have breast feeding I wouldn’t have anything to offer him at all. I didn’t say that. I never said that out loud.
I went home and there was no improvement, breast-feeding was still excruciating. The lactation consultant referred me to an oral surgeon who looked at Flynn’s mouth for all of five seconds and said yep he has a tongue-tie and snipped it then and there. Flynn coped well with the release and fed a bit better after wards. He fell straight to sleep and I was feeling elated, maybe that was it?! Could it really be as easy as that?? I called my mum, Dan, brother and mother in law to tell them the good news.
Then we got home, Flynn woke up and refused to feed from me. He wasn’t able to latch on to my breast, he couldn’t work out how to use his mouth. I called the surgeon who said, “Oh sorry I don’t know, I’ve never heard of that before.” That was it. I had put myself through absolute hell for five weeks and now suddenly it was going to be all over, Flynn couldn’t breast feed! I called Dan at work hysterical. He obviously couldn’t help me from there so ten minutes later his mum walked in to find me topless, sobbing, sitting on a fit ball holding Flynn. “He won’t feed!!” I lost it. We called the lactation consultant and he assured me that this was normal. Thankfully I had some expressed milk in the fridge, bottle fed him and kept trying. Flynn worked out how to use his new mouth the very next feed.
Was it all over?? Unfortunately not. The next week I had an appointment with the community midwife. I told her my story, said I thought things were on the improve, went and grabbed a coffee, came home and brushed my handbag over my right breast. No no no… that feeling again. Straight to the chemist for antibiotics, I wasn’t waiting this time. I still wasn’t quick enough, it hit me like a truck. An hour later my temperature was up to 39. That night I was up feeding Flynn and had to call out to Dan to bring me a bucket and hold Flynn while I vomited from the pain. We had an appointment with our Obstetrician again the next day who was so so kind, going above and beyond to give me continuing care until it was under control. He looked me over apologetically and said “you’re going back to hospital.” They arranged me a physio appointment for some ultrasound therapy, a scan to check for an abscess and a hospital bed.
I arrived in hospital that night, Dan dropped Flynn and I there and went home to grab some clothes for us. We were left to wait in the waiting room for an hour, and as soon as we got to the room I said I needed to feed. The physio told me to feed straight after the treatment and I wasn’t confident doing it in public yet. I sat down and fed Flynn while the nurse took my obs. She left without a word and minutes later an entire medical emergency team rushed in to the room. They frantically put me on the bed, snatched Flynn away from me and started taking blood and doing tests. No one was talking to me about what was going on, Flynn had been part way through his feed and was screaming. The nurses asked if they could give him formula and I of course said no, I was here because I was so desperate to exclusively breast feed him! My temperate was 40, my blood pressure was extremely low again and they were concerned I may have sepsis.
Another four days in hospital, another huge dose of antibiotics which Flynn’s belly was clearly not coping with. I saw two more lactation consultants while in hospital, both lovely ladies, with completely varied opinions and advice. One said to focus on my own wellbeing, that I wasn’t looking after myself enough so my body couldn’t cope to fight the infections which is why I was getting so sick. Made sense, I was so all consumed with breastfeeding and the newborn fog that I was barely remembering to eat. The other was more medically focussed, saying there must be something underlying, lets take some samples and get to the bottom of this. I think they were both right.
Dan had been such a rock for me, he stayed in hospital with me and made sure I was eating properly and getting rest once we got home. He did all that he could but I know he felt helpless. He had googled so much and listened to all of the lactation consultants and had been helping me with correct technique – I think he’s more of an expert on breastfeeding than most women now! He was booked in the next week for knee surgery which I knew was going to knock us around again. I was concentrating on getting myself well so that I could cope for the day or two while he was recovering.
A few days later Dan woke in the middle of the night with sharp abdominal pain. I pressed on the lower right of his abdomen, released pressure and he hit the roof. With my bit of medical knowledge from my career as a sonographer I knew it straight away – appendicitis. You have got to be kidding me. Down to Flinders we went for Dan to be admitted and await surgery which finally happened two days later. The knee surgery was postponed and he now had abdominal surgery to recover from. Trying to cope with the cooking, housework, Flynn and ongoing feeding issues I wasn’t able to give him the care and attention I would have liked to during this time. I didn’t even get in to hospital to see him... More guilt. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.
Feeling like we’d been through just about enough, I was desperately trying to find an answer, move on from this phase and enjoy motherhood. I called yet another lactation consultant. This time one specialized in tongue-ties, which from all my research seemed to be a contentious subject. She took one look in his mouth and said “Oh I can see exactly what’s going on here.” She showed us a tongue-tie, upper lip tie and cheek ties and did a full assessment of Flynn’s range of movement, which was not a lot at all. The release that we had done previously had only fixed part of the problem and the resultant scarring had actually made it worse. I researched and researched what to do, no one could give me a definite answer. There were journal articles about the implications of tongue ties going untreated with future speech, behavioral, health and dental issues which was my main concern. I could live with the breastfeeding pain but I wanted to give Flynn the best possible future. Our pediatrician didn’t believe in tongue-ties (whatever that means), GP didn’t want to hear about it, Obstetrician said ‘oh yeah I’ve just been learning about these that makes total sense’. Someone just give me a clear answer!!
It was going to have to rest on our shoulders. We made the decision to take Flynn to Melbourne to see the ‘guru’ of laser tongue-tie releases. We entered what we were expecting to be a state of the art facility but was actually a run down dental clinic. My gut said no, but we’d travelled all the way to Melbourne! We had to trust. There was another assessment of Flynn’s tongue with the same advice, and again it was put to us that they could give no definite answers on what we should do. We decided to go ahead. I left the room for the procedure, I couldn’t do it. Dan stayed in and had to sit on the dentist chair, one arm pinning Flynn down and the other covering his eyes and holding his head still while they started with the laser. Flynn was screaming and gurgling to the point that Dan was very nearly going to tell them to stop. I can’t bring myself to give much more detail than this but it was horrendous. Our gorgeous boy came out of the room swollen and puffy from crying and gave us a little smile. Bless him.
It still wasn’t over. So that the tissues don’t heal together and scar, we had to do a routine of stretches. Every four hours for two weeks we had to put our fingers in Flynn’s mouth and stretch out the wounds. It was a two man job as he needed to be held down to do it. Every four hours someone had to come to my house while Dan was at work and help me to torture my poor baby boy. I will be forever grateful to those who helped me through that time. Those were the hardest weeks of my life. I was Flynn’s mother who was meant to be his protector and I was coming at him every four hours to hurt him, it was tearing me up inside. I drew up a big chart so that I could cross off every lot of stretches as they happened and eventually we got there. We had to send photos through for assessment after the two weeks and thankfully we got the all clear.
Unfortunately there was no quick fix. Things gradually and very slowly improved. I am still breastfeeding Flynn after nine months, which I am of course proud of, but as I write this now I do think to myself – who did I do this for? Was it really that important for me to keep breastfeeding him at the expense of my own health and at the expense of those early months of bonding time? More guilt.
I know this was a long story but I feel that this is an important journey for me to share. I absolutely understand that there are people worse off than me and I said it repeatedly throughout that period, but looking back what I went through was hard and comparison wasn't helpful. I have no magic advice for anyone going through this now but here are some things I would have told myself knowing what I know now.