“What you’re doing is really brave, you know that right?” Matt asked abruptly, as he watched me sitting cross-legged on a hospital bed wearing nothing but a back-less gown and calmly reading a book to pass the agonising, hungry hours until my operation.
I stared back at him, considering the question. I hadn’t really thought about it that way – that my decision to have a breast reduction was a brave one. It was simply a necessity.
I looked around the room. White walls, medical equipment, pressed linen. Suddenly I realised that what I was doing was kind of a big deal – a 4 hour operation followed by a 2 month recovery. For the first time since the decision had been made, I considered the pain I was about to go through and I was scared. By the time the surgeons were drawing their blue lines all over me, I was officially terrified.
But then I remembered the pain I had already endured. The sleepless nights, excruciating back pain, dizzy spells, migraines, inability to exercise and the constant self-loathing and humiliation of having size J breasts. I tried to hide it in large, oversized clothing, but nothing would stop people staring at my deformed body.
Brave? No. I wasn’t being brave. I was just doing what had to be done – medically, physically and emotionally. I didn’t think about the repercussions or the dangers. All I wanted was to be normal.
I was 20 years old when I had my breast reduction, and at the time I thought it was the best thing I had ever done. That was, until I became pregnant 10 years later.
In May 2013 I held my beautiful baby Zoe in my arms and I had never before known so much love. I was filled with an all-consuming urge to protect, nurture and care for her. It was a powerful, primal need – beyond anything I had ever felt before. She was so small and helpless, so beautiful and perfect.
But I couldn’t breastfeed her.
At least a dozen different midwives tried to help me – every one telling me conflicting ways to latch my baby. There were no lactation consultants (LCs) on duty for my entire stay in hospital and certainly no one who knew anything about BFAR (Breast Feeding After a Reduction). By day two my nipples were covered in blisters and I was in so much pain I couldn’t even touch them without crying. Yet I persisted.
The second night in hospital nearly broke me. I fed Zoe for four hours straight, and all she would do when I tried to stop was wail with hunger. I had failed her already. I couldn’t fulfil her needs in the normal, natural way that every mother should be able to. We sat there together in the wee hours of the morning, both crying.
By day three, Zoe had lost over 12% of her birth weight. Medical staff insisted she be given a bottle of formula and I was devastated.
This was the beginning of the end for our breastfeeding relationship. I won’t tell you the whole story, but here’s the short version. We experienced constant burning pain from Raynaud’s syndrome of the nipple (a result of nerve damage during the surgery); cracked, blistered and bleeding nipples for over two months; four bouts of mastitis; two rounds of nipple candida; infant nipple confusion; infant failure to thrive; and extremely low milk supply due to severed ducts and impaired milk ejection reflex.
Furthermore, I continued to bleed for 5 months after the birth. After 3 hospital visits, 6 GP consultations and 2 ultrasounds it was finally discovered that I had retained placenta – which can severely affect milk production as it tricks your body into “thinking” it is still pregnant. I later learned that Zoe also had tongue and lip ties which went undiagnosed, and therefore untreated. These were the likely causes and contributors to the cracks, mastitis, reflux and low supply.
Worst of all though, was my Post Natal Depression. I saw myself as a failure as a mother. At my lowest, I truly believed that my family would be better off without me. My depression and suicidal plans eventually led me to be hospitalised in a psychiatric unit when Zoe was five and half months old. It was then that I was forced to face the reality that I must stop breastfeeding. I can still clearly remember our very last feed – Zoe sleeping in my arms, softly sucking while I wept and grieved for the connection we were about to lose.
The one and only truly positive thing to come out of all of this was Zoe’s milk donor, Sarah. When Zoe was just four weeks old, I posted on the “Eats On Feets” Facebook page, asking for a breast milk donor. That is how I found Sarah, a local Mum who had an oversupply of milk and who was willing to sacrifice her precious time twice a day to pump for Zoe.
Sarah was the only person I could talk to about Zoe and about breastfeeding. I had no other family or friends close by and no support network to call on. I don’t know what I would have done without her friendship, understanding and encouragement. Not only that, but she pumped for and wet-nursed Zoe for 4 months. I will always be grateful to her for generously sharing her liquid gold.
In 2014, I fell pregnant with my second child and I was determined to attempt to breastfeed again. After the successful donor relationship I had fostered with Sarah and seeing the powerful connection that she now has with Zoe, I was inspired to seek out more donors this time around, so that Cooper could share the same experience.
The result was astounding. Ten complete strangers, 10 beautiful Mummas, all donated their liquid gold to Cooper. It was thanks to these 10 women that I was able to exclusively feed Cooper breast milk for the first two months of his life. He is now over 10 months old and we are still feeding via a Supplementary Nursing System, topping up with a combination of EBM, donor milk and formula. I never ever thought we’d make it this far!
Over the last nine months I have had more than 60 litres of milk donated! The most was from Hannah (approximately 25L in total!) and the largest single donation was from Jennifer (a whopping 7L in one go). I had precious colostrum donated by Ashleigh, Sally and Melissa, and Sarah again wet nursed my child, which was very special for all of us.
The photo featured here is of seven of the 10 wonderful Mummas that donated their milk to Cooper. I organised this photo so that he would always know who his milk mothers and siblings are. It was so touching to see all these amazing Mums in the same room together! What a special day it was.
Zoe, Cooper and I have been truly blessed by all of your donations. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you.
Note: Please feel free to share this story far and wide. I want everyone else who is struggling with breastfeeding to know that they are not alone and that there is help available – they just need to know where to look.
Some Helpful Links:
Breast Feeding After a Reduction (BFAR) – Great resource for anyone who has had a breast reduction/augmentation or who wants to increase their milk supply.
Eats on Feets – Informed Breast Milk Sharing Community and Resources – you can also find local “Eats on Feets” groups on Facebook to seek or offer donations
Human Milk For Human Babies – informed milk sharing network – find local groups through Facebook to seek or offer donations
Supply Line Breastfeeding Support Group of Australia – Facebook support group offering invaluable advice and encouragement from other mothers about how to use the SNS – includes a beginners resource guide with tips and tricks
Breastfeeding After Reduction (BFAR) – Facebook support group for BFAR Mums – I wish so much I had known about this for my first baby! So much love and support here :)
Some Heplful Books:
Defining Your Own Success: Breastfeeding After Breast Reduction Surgery – by Diana West, BA, IBCLC – This is a MUST READ for any BFAR Mum!
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding – by Diane Wiessinger
The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk – by Diana West and Lisa Marasco