Updated: Mar 28, 2022
As a mother you’re constantly bombarded with advice on what’s best for your child. That in itself, is extremely hard to bear at times. But nothing is more difficult than battling your own need to do what’s best for your beautiful baby. The loudest and most judgemental voice is your own – how you’re doing as a mother and whether you’re meeting the often-unrealistic standards and hopes of the mother you wanted to be. A million people can tell you you’re doing a great job and you won’t truly believe it – at times, it may even feel patronising. But just one bad look from a total stranger, or a “helpful” suggestion, can make you feel like you’re totally failing the mum gig.
Breastfeeding can be the most beautiful and – rewarding, bonding experience for you and your baby. When breastfeeding works well, it’s magical. However, this isn’t always the case. I believe that simply saying “breast is best” isn’t a fair or full statement. We need to talk about this.
Breastfeeding and milk supply…it’s a case of the Goldilocks conundrum. Too much, not enough, or just right. Finding that balance can be hard work and having an oversupply isn’t necessarily better than not having enough. The aim is for supply to meet demand – no more and no less. The truth is not all women will ever have this and learning to accept that- can often be harder than the situation itself.
Having a low milk supply can be a very stressful and time-consuming ordeal. Sometimes it’s completely out of your control and you may feel like a failure. I wish I knew the magic words to help change those feelings and take that burden off your shoulders. What I can say is, it’s not your fault. First things first, we’ll call it stage one, set yourself a realistic time frame to implement the methods available to increase your milk. Then reassess where you’re at, and how you’re feeling. If you’re exhausted and if it’s robbing you from enjoying your baby and sleep, please move on to stage two.
Stage two is accepting what you’re unable to change or maintain - so you can focus on what’s best for nourishing your baby and – you own mental health.
This is a good time to rejoice in the small easy victories you’ve encountered along the way and dust off what hasn’t gone to plan, even accepting it as c’est la vie, que sera sera and that’s life. I know that’s easily said. Remember this is a small chapter of your baby’s life. It does not define you as a mother, or for that matter the rest of your life or your child’s. It would be a shame for this to mean missing out on witnessing the beautiful life that’s growing right in front of you. Loving your baby and yourself, is the best thing you can do for your child. Be kind to yourself, like you would want your children to be kind to themselves one day.
If you’ve done all those things and it hasn’t worked for you, or you simply feel that breastfeeding isn’t a right fit for you, you have my full permission to switch to what works. We live in a world with countless formula options. That support the growth of perfectly healthy humans - at the very least as healthy as those who were breastfed. We’re not talking evolution, or survival of the fittest anymore. Your child won’t turn into a baboon simply because they weren’t breastfed; nor will they become the next Albert Einstein or Chris Martin from Coldplay, just because they were breastfed. In fact, who knows if those two were breastfed or bottle fed - I’m going off track, but you get my flow – or lack thereof.
Repeat after me “Having the perfectly breastfed child does not make me a successful or better mother”
In fact, I have looked after many women who did have ‘the perfect supply’ and perfect ‘breastfeeding baby’ and they detested every minute of it. They felt they had lost all right and control of their body and it was sucking the life out of them. Others felt extremely emotional and hormonal. Breastfeeding isn’t innate or right for every mum and that’s fine.
Common reasons to stop breastfeeding
Illness or the need to take medication - that isn’t safe while breastfeeding.
Ongoing infant weight loss, while breastfeeding.
A baby that hasn’t got a clue how to or just refuses the breast for long periods.
Dreading each breastfeed and feeling trapped or claustrophobic during feeds.
If you feel exhausted - physically cannot keep up and are losing too much weight.
If you’re resenting breastfeeding and your baby.
If it’s making you feel depressed or affecting your mental wellbeing.
If you feel like you have lost control of your body and need it back.
If you feel like you’ve completed that breastfeeding chapter.
If it doesn’t feel like the right or natural thing for you to do.
If you want to stop, please, do. The most important thing is to be true to your needs and to know your limits. That will help you be the best mother you can be.
Closing the milk bar
Many mothers dread the end of their breastfeeding journey. No matter how long you breastfed for, closing that chapter can be a very emotional time. Let’s face it, there’s little about being a mother that isn’t going to pull at your emotional heart strings. And guess what? Once again, hello hormones. It’s going to be okay. Give yourself and your body the time to move on to the next fun chapter of being a mother.
If you loved breastfeeding: don’t be surprised to feel sad and nostalgic about your baby growing up so fast and no longer having that physical connection with them. It’s normal to fear the loss of that bond. Be reassured that you’re more than just breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack to your child, and that bond will continue to grow regardless. Take those beautiful breastfeeding photos and gradually cut back. If your child is under 12 months, please refer to how many milk feeds a day they need. You can either cut one breastfeed out at a time or gradually reduce the time on the breast and offer a bottle after, or offer the bottle first, then the breast. Whichever works well for you both.
If you hated breastfeeding: it doesn’t change the fact that coming to the decision to stop can be hard. Be kind to yourself. What your baby needs the most is you! Not your milk.
For anyone stopping breastfeeding: give your body and hormones time to readjust. Prolactin is the hormone that produces lactation while you’re breastfeeding. The body also releases oxytocin, which is known as the love hormone. It is normal to feel fatigued, emotional, flat or nauseous as you wean. It’s very important to do so slowly and to avoid mastitis. Please look after yourself.
Nutrition is so important right now. Take a good multivitamin. Have those nourishing smoothies and do a little exercise. Get out for a walk – especially if it’s the last thing you want to do – and sleep when you can. Ask your partner, best friend or family member to remind you and give you a little push to look after yourself. If you’re feeling really depressed, please talk to your healthcare professional. If you continue to feel fatigued and flat, have a blood test to check your overall health, including iron level, Vitamin D, thyroid, etc. So, that you can nourish your body with exactly what it needs. It’s also the perfect time to talk to your doctor about your feelings and how to get on the road to improvement. Don’t forget that when your body is run down and undernourished you naturally feel depressed.
The good news is that with the right self-care and steps to wean, you are one step closer to regaining your body’s independence. Once the milk production stops and your hormones rebalance, you’ll feel a little part of your old self come back. Many women say that their mamma bear tendencies relax a little.
Give your baby extra cuddles during this transition and well-done mamma! You’re at the next chapter of parenting.
Real breastfeeding stories
My own – oversupply
My journey started with a huge oversupply of milk. I literally felt like my breasts were going to slide off my body and walk out of the room like Thing 1 & Thing 2 from a Dr Seuss book. It was so painful and a hell of a lot of work. I had to get up and express or ice my breast between feeds all day and night. I was feeling tired and while my baby slept - I couldn’t sleep because my breasts needed attending to. Cry me a river, I know! But my goodness, it was painful in so many ways, including everybody telling me how lucky I was to have too much milk, and how much better that was than not having enough.
My flow was so strong that I often showered my baby with milk, and in return she often had to bite me to slow down the milk flow and boy did that hurt! I understood that she was biting me to protect herself and not to hurt me.
Now, that all sounds very negative and there were some tough times, but we got through them, one feed at a time. It took about three weeks for my breasts to feel like they were part of my body again, and not on separate postcodes. I had an oversupply for four months, but it became much easier to manage and I honestly loved breastfeeding. The love and connection I felt was worth it for me.
Other than pregnancy, it’s the closest bond you have with your child. Although they are no longer in your belly, you still function as one. They cry and your breasts tingle and let down. You wait for the moment that they’re comfortably asleep and yet when they are, you long for them. Like magnets that won’t let go, the pull to each other is so strong. It’s powerful and magical. Mind you, that also exists without breastfeeding.
Bethany’s – low supply
“Breastfeeding was really important for me. It was the one thing I was really sure about. Unfortunately, my baby kept losing weight. I never seemed to have enough milk. The first three months of my daughter’s life was all about milk. How much I expressed, how long I breastfed for, how much formula to top up with, which supplements I could try next, and I just felt like a failure all the time. Why wouldn’t my body do what it was meant to do?
“I tried everything. I remember sitting on the floor breastfeeding because I was so tired and kept falling asleep, so I felt safest on the floor just in case I dropped my baby if I fell asleep. I never did, of course, although I nearly dropped my milk while expressing. I cried every day for six weeks. When you’re in it, it is really hard to see a way out. I felt like stopping was quitting and failing.
“In the end I did stop, gradually reducing my expressing and then breastfeeds. It was really hard. But once I did, I realised that it was the right thing for both of us. I stopped resenting everything and started seeing more colours in our life and less grey. My little girl was thriving and that was very reassuring. I started to feel more like myself again, and my energy levels increased.
“When I had my second child, I still really wanted to breastfeed. As hard as it is, it is also really wonderful. I set myself a timeline of five weeks. That was how long my husband had off work. I breastfed and topped up with formula and expressed when I could. I actually continued to breastfeed for three months, but I was much more relaxed about it. I breastfed for 10 to 15 minutes every second feed, or when it worked well with my toddler, and gave full formula feeds. I expressed when I could and I would accumulate the breastmilk till I had enough for one full feed. This was the plan that worked well for my family and my overall wellbeing.”
Tracy’s – just right
“I was really lucky that breastfeeding was really easy for us. I had the perfect supply for William’s needs. He fed without any trouble and when he had growth spurts my body produced more milk for him. I loved breastfeeding. It was so easy.
“When William was six weeks old, I wanted to be able to have a break from breastfeeding now and then, so I began to express one feed a day so that my husband or my mum could feed him. This allowed me to go out to yoga or shopping without needing to rush back. I also enjoyed a few wines sometimes, so I would express after his night feed for his next feed and pump and dump after a few wines.
“When William was eight months old, I went back to work part-time. I started formula feeds during the day and gradually cut back on my expressing amounts till my breasts were comfortable during the day. I continued a morning and night feed till William turned one.”
Kathy’s – perfect supply and breastfeeding baby but not at all right for mum
“My attitude towards breastfeeding was that I’d give it a go. See what it’s like and then decide. I watched so many of my girlfriends’ struggle with it, and never really understood the need to keep going with something that isn’t working when we live in a country and age where formula is good and so easily available. I was not going to torture myself into getting more milk if I didn’t have enough; and if my baby wasn’t good at breastfeeding, I would give it a bottle. That was my plan – give it a go!
“Luckily, I had a great supply, and a baby that knew exactly what to do – she was settled in between feeds and within a few weeks she was sleeping through the night. So, I plodded along with it. I didn’t get those loved-up feelings or oxytocin from breastfeeding, but it was easy.
“When Hayley was three months old, I felt this growing and overwhelming feeling of just needing my body to be mine again. I didn’t want to be fed from, I missed my normal breasts and felt like each feed was draining the life and all patience out of me. I have battled with depression on and off for many years and my world was beginning to look grey. I felt guilty about stopping, as everything was going so well for Hayley, but emotionally I was no longer coping.
“After quite a few lengthy conversations with PJ (your takeaway midwife) and my psychologist, I was able to make the healthy decision to stop. I realised that I would be healthier, and better equipped to take care of Hayley, if I stopped and looked after myself too. By choosing what was right for both of us. Once I made that very hard decision, I felt a little better. As I weaned from breastfeeding and when my milk finally dried up, I felt a huge sense of relief. I enjoyed feeding Hayley her bottle much more, and funnily enough, she stopped sleeping through the night, but I was still happier. Slowly the colours in my life returned. I continued to see my psychologist and went back on my anti-depressants.
“When we had our second child, I still wanted to breastfeed her. I was going to aim to do the same length of time but found that one month was long enough. Having gone through my first experience, I was able to recognise when things stopped working for us and let myself off the hook, knowing it was the best thing for all of us as a family. There is more to life and being a mother than breastfeeding.”
Put that breathing mask on yourself first, then help your child.
When it comes to stopping breastfeeding or deciding not to breastfeed at all, you need to back yourself. You are the only one who will be breastfeeding your baby. So, forget about your mother, mother-in-law, midwife, friend, husband and especially that inner judgemental voice inside. Please talk to your healthcare professional for advice and support on how to safely close the breastfeeding chapter.
Always check with your own Doctor, midwife or healthcare professional prior to following any information here - to ensure it's safe and adequate for you and your situation. This is not a midwife - patient - client relationship.