When Breastfeeding Goes Wrong: What No One Tells You About Exclusively Pumping

“Women who don’t breastfeed are lazy, uneducated and neglectful.”

As Baby Girl's due date approached more than a year ago, my mum came round with a pack of ready-made formula bottles which she proclaimed was "just in case". I remember feeling so insulted, that my own mother didn't believe I would breastfeed - of course I would, why on earth wouldn't I want my baby to have the best? I begrudgingly put away the bottles in the back of the cupboard, confidently exclaiming they wouldn't be needed.

I'd written in my birth plan that I wanted to breastfeed straight away after the birth and when Baby Girl latched on to me for the first time it felt so wonderful, so natural and I never thought you could get it wrong. After 24 hours, I'd started to feel a little sore but was told this was normal and we were doing perfectly fine. We came home and I settled on the bed to feed Baby Girl. She fed. And fed. And fed. Everytime she'd fall asleep and I'd lay her down she'd start screaming for more. Everything that came up on Google indicated this was normal cluster feeding and would pass. By the morning, I'd started bleeding but I thought again, this was normal. Within a week Baby Girl had dropped more than 10% of her birth weight but every midwife and health visitor that came to see us couldn't pinpoint why this was the case. My latch was, apparently, fine and Baby Girl was, apparently, fine. I had plenty of milk but for some reason, despite feeding around the clock, she kept losing weight.

At this point I looked and felt like someone had taken a grater to me (sorry for the graphic image). Skin was literally hanging off and I sobbed everytime she fed because I had to clench every part of my body to get through the pain. She was always crying and hungry, I was always crying and in pain and my husband was at a loss how to help us. We frantically Googled day and night as clearly the medical professionals were at a loss. Finally, I came across a forum where women were discussing similar issues to mine and the reason for this was because their baby had a tongue tie. For some reason, despite being such a common occurrence and so simple to spot, newborns aren't checked for this unless asked to.

I begged the midwife who came to visit on day 14 to get this checked, as at this point, my mental health was deteriorating from the pain that I was in 24/7, the guilt that I couldn't bond with Baby Girl because of this, and the emotional strain I was under. At this point, I'd been advised to top up each feed with expressed breast milk but this was still not enough for her. She was always hungry and had become so frail and small. The first time I fed her formula milk I broke down, thinking I'd failed her and was so ashamed of it. I apologised again and again through my sobs to this tiny little baby who Allah had placed under my care until my husband tried to make me understand that formula milk is not the enemy. If we didn't give her this then she would continue starving and he gave me hope that we would pinpoint the reason for the struggle and she would continue nursing from me successfully.

We finally received an appointment for the tongue tie clinic and by this point I had started resenting Baby Girl. I now know this was the reason for the onset of PND but at the time I felt like a monster. I loved her, sure, but when it was time to feed her I just wanted to run away rather than go through the turmoil for the umpteenth time in the day. Her tongue tie was confirmed as being the reason she was unable to latch correctly and as a result, the inability to transfer milk efficiently. By this point, I was following the guidelines given by the midwife on how to express but was producing very little milk, fuelling my feelings of failure.

We then had to make a choice. The procedure to correct her tongue tie was very simple and could be arranged for the following week. But by this point, she'd developed a preference to the bottle and grew very frustrated when trying to nurse, making things even harder for me. When the tongue tie specialist wanted to observe a feed to assess the latch, she took one look at me and was taken aback at how I'd persevered through nursing for 3 weeks through "deep tissue trauma" - skin was missing and all you could see was blood and raw skin. Definitely not normal and she admitted herself she would have given up a long time ago if the same happened to her.

I came home in tears and discussed with my husband for a very long time how to proceed. Do we get her tongue tie snipped and teach her to latch, potentially putting myself through more emotional trauma? Or do we try to feed her expressed breast milk for however long I can manage?

I Googled some more and came across "exclusively pumping mums" - some had managed to give their child exclusive breast milk via bottle for more than 2 years! Most had faced similar problems and were going through the same feelings of guilt as me. I realised I literally could not face trying to nurse one more time, I was scared about how I had started feeling about Baby Girl and knew it was not healthy or normal.

Since Baby Girl was 3 weeks old I have been giving her breast milk via a bottle. It was liberating being able to enjoy the cuddles without flinching at what was to come, but difficult in the beginning - very difficult. I was given completely wrong, damaging advice from the health professionals that pretty much killed my milk supply. I found a small community of women in the UK who were going through exactly the same thing as me and followed their advice to up my supply - and it worked! Gradually I was able to give her more and more breast milk in a day by pumping a minimum of 3 hours every single day. Around the clock. Even in the dead of the night I would set an alarm and sit and pump for an hour as that's when the hormone levels are highest. Yes, when other mums would celebrate their baby sleeping through the night, I was still awake as I couldn't afford to risk my supply.

Pumping mums are the strongest women I know, it's a huge huge sacrifice day in day out.

For a year, I chose to hook myself up to a bit of plastic every 3 hours around the clock, day and night, just so I could provide my daughter with what I believe is the best nutrition for her. I took a bowling ball sized hospital grade pump with me whenever I went out for longer than an hour, no matter where I was - events, classes, family gatherings or anything - every few hours around the clock I had to sit somewhere for 45 mins and pump. I've pumped in the most random of places and got very good at hiding it all so most people never even had a clue!

Everyday was a worry of if I would make enough milk for my baby. When I went out, I felt judged when I pulled out a bottle for Baby Girl - I felt like I needed to walk around with a sign saying "It's breastmillk!" I was exhausted all the time, my life became a monotonous routine of pump, log the amount, feed, change, wash/sterilize bottles and pump parts, organise milk, prepare next feed, pump again and so on. I remember my husband getting loads of pillows one night and propping me up so I could sleep and pump at the same time - that felt like luxury! I had to relactate at 3 months postpartum because going for Umrah meant I couldn't stick to my pumping schedule as strictly - by the time we came back I had almost dried up but alhamdullilah within a couple of weeks of pumping non-stop with the support of my husband and best friend, (my favourite term became "cluster pumping" whereby I pumped every 30 mins for 3 hours daily) whilst organising the rest of life's tasks, I managed to relactate.

Misunderstood by nursing mums and not quite fitting in with formula feeding mums either. Lack of support or understanding from healthcare professionals. Insensitive comments from people who have NO IDEA how hard I tried to give my 110% to what I felt strongly about, at the cost of my emotional wellbeing. I still don't know how I did it alongside juggling everything else. It's crazy subhan'Allah how I managed it, going back to work when Baby Girl was 6 weeks old.

I calculated the other day that I've actually spent the equivalent of 61 DAYS pumping. That's two whole months of being chained to plastic rather than living my dream of nursing and snuggling my daughter the idyllic way. But alhamdullilah I'm so happy with this Qadr. No one can say Baby Girl loves me any less for the way I ended up feeding her and I believe I gave her my all and then some. No doubt breastmilk is best but I realised I had to stop beating myself up about the WAY she was being fed - if you had a can of Coke and drank from a glass rather than the can, it really makes no difference!

Ultimately, I feel like there's such dangerous misinformation and ignorance about breastfeeding in general, that no wonder breastfeeding rates are so low. I have absolutely nothing against formula - Baby Girl had it herself - but there definitely needs to be more education on the feeding choices a woman has. Some women I know CHOOSE to not nurse but exclusively express for various reasons - it's sad that when they have to tick a box, the medical professional is unsure whether to tick "breastfed" or "formula fed" because we only associate breastfeeding with nursing. Informed is definitely best and if women were educated on their choices before the birth - nursing, exclusively pumping or formula - I genuinely believe breastfeeding rates would be a lot higher. I received more advice and support from a group of strangers and anecdotal evidence on the internet rather than the healthcare professionals, which is very sad.

If you've read this far and I've painted a horrible impression of a pumping mums life, then I'm sorry! That definitely wasn't my intention - as I mentioned, pumping for months and years is definitely doable with the correct support! The only reason I had such a horrible time in the beginning was because of my initial experiences with the whole feeding journey but once we found our feet and got into a routine, pumping became part and parcel of my life. I just feel like if someone had been there to guide me from the beginning, my impressions would have been different.

To this end, if there's any mums or expectant mums reading this who would like more information about this feeding choice, please don't be afraid to get in touch. Despite what you might hear, this is a viable, long-term option that doesn't mean you'll lose any connection or bond with your baby, and in most cases may save your breastfeeding journey in'sha'Allah.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – comment below if you would like more specific help/advice/support!