There seems to be so much literature out there about breastfeeding and an increasing amount about formula feeding. Something that is less talked about is expressing. In fact, expressing breast milk seems to be a fairly new phenomenon (perhaps because pumps have improved over the years). In this blog post I want to discuss my journey into exclusive expressing, something I was wholly unprepared for when my baby was born.

My intention to breastfeed

Before my baby was born I absolutely intended to breastfeed. In fact I was so convinced it would be easy, that I hadn’t bought a single bottle. In my complete naivety I even judged others who seemingly ‘chose’ to formula-feed as I just assumed they had taken an easy option or not tried hard enough to breastfeed. How wrong I was!

The first 24 hours

My baby arrived after a very long and very painful 29 hour labour. Suffice to say everyone involved was knackered when he finally made an appearance! We had some lovely skin-to-skin but breastfeeding didn’t even cross my mind for some time.

As Isaac slept, I was taught to hand-express. This completely baffled me. As I said, I intended to breastfeed so why was I now massaging my own boobs?! The midwives discussed the importance of collecting the ‘liquid gold’ colostrum and saving it in syringes for the baby to have, should breastfeeding not work out. I now realise that maybe this is quite common (as midwives know better than I do that troubles with breastfeeding are also quite common!)

I began to try breastfeeding on the first night. Isaac was super fussy and I think he could sense my awkwardness and stress. I think I felt more stressed due to the environment. I had imagined taking him home the day he was born and having the chance to breastfeed privately and calmly. Instead we were still in hospital and I had multiple hands all over me and all over my baby. I didn’t mind at all as I was desperate to get breastfeeding right and wanted all the help I could get. However, looking back, the atmosphere just wasn’t working for either of us. Isaac was able to take a couple of little sucks but nowhere near enough. Fortunately I was not yet engorged as if I were my breasts would be getting very painful by this point!

Cup feeding

When Isaac was a day old the midwives decided we could give cup feeding a go. This is where Isaac had a little formula in a cup which we carefully tipped into his mouth for him to swallow. I was incredibly reluctant to do this as he just seemed far too little for it. The concern was that if we introduced a bottle at this point he may never take to the nipple so I understood the necessity to try the cup.

Beginning to express

At around Day 3 my milk came in. I was encouraged to start using the hospital breast pump – the Medela Freestyle. I was given my own equipment to use at the hospital and shown how to sterilise everything; where to leave the pump; where the bottles were stored – everything! I learned so much in about 10 minutes about how expressing worked. All this still with none of my own equipment purchased… I wouldn’t need it, right?!

I was very fortunate to have absolutely loads of milk though I did not feel lucky at the time. My hormones were beginning to go wild as the baby blues hit and I was having to spend 20 minutes every 2 hours pumping away like a cow hooked to a machine! When not pumping I was continuing to attempt to breastfeed. For various reasons it still wasn’t working for Isaac and I.

Introducing the bottle

We were in hospital for 9 days in total. This wasn’t due to breastfeeding; Isaac needed to be in for a different reason. I think if we were being discharged earlier Isaac would have been bottle-fed far quicker. We probably also would have used formula in order to get discharged.

Ultimately, after a week of attempting to breastfeed, while pumping and storing milk, the nurses and I decided we would just see how bottle feeding went. Isaac absolutely loved the bottle! We used the hospital disposable bottles with ‘premature’ teats and my expressed milk. He got the hang of it straight away and we were thrilled! We decided that we would bottle feed in hospital (he needed to take milk orally for 24 hours before being allowed to leave) then we would try breastfeeding in the comfort of our own home.

Buying bottles and bits

I was so reluctant to buy bottles, a steriliser and a breast pump. It made me feel really sad and like a failure. Thankfully, my husband bought some of these things anyway “just in case” we might need them for a little while. He bought a Haaka pump, Tommee Tippee bottles, the Tommee Tippee Microwave Steriliser and a simple handheld manual Medela Harmony breast pump. He also bought some nipple shields for breastfeeding as these seemed to help Isaac to latch on a little better.

Breastfeeding support out of hospital

Once we were finally home from hospital we had plenty of frozen breast milk to fill Isaac up while we again dabbled with breastfeeding. I was beginning to lose hope at this point and we bought formula too in case I couldn’t make enough milk by expressing. We sought support in the community and saw my friend’s wonderful mum who is a very experienced midwife. I got a lot of help with latching on and things were almost there just as lockdown hit.

Drying up

I had wrongly assumed that because Isaac was now mostly breastfeeding I no longer needed to express. However, we were not feeding properly. His poo was green as he was not latching on for long or getting enough fat from the breast milk.

Because I had stopped expressing (for literally just 3 days!) my milk had started to completely dry up. I couldn’t believe how quickly my boobs had responded to ‘no longer being needed’. Isaac had to have formula as the stored breast milk had also run out.

I was determined to get my milk supply back up but the handheld pump was not going to be strong enough for the ‘power-pumping’ I would need to do!

Exclusive expressing

Ultimately we decided to buy an electric breast pump. I couldn’t justify the cost of the hospital-grade Medela pumps so we looked for something affordable yet powerful. We bought the BellaBaby double electric breast pump for £40 and it is amazing. I have never looked back! I have reviewed it in detail in another blog post.

In less than a week I was able to get my milk supply back up to previous levels. During that time I ‘power-pumped’ where I pretty much hooked myself up every hour for 10 minutes at a time. This helped to fool my breasts into thinking my baby needed loads of milk.

Now my baby is nearly 5 months old. He is exclusively breastfed (by bottle!) He hasn’t needed formula for 4 months.

I now pump for 10 minutes at a time around 6 times a day. Isaac takes about 850ml a day and I pump about 1000ml a day so there is always plenty for him. I store extra milk in the freezer in Medela storage bags.

Best of both worlds

Although my breastfeeding journey was a far cry from what I expected, I am delighted with how things have turned out for Isaac. For us, expressing breast milk has been the best of both worlds and I would certainly recommend it! My baby is able to have my milk but, as he is bottle-fed, he is not 100% reliant on me. Isaac’s daddy is able to be involved in feeding too which is lovely for him (and me!)

I hope this helps to give some insight into the untold world of exclusive expressing! If you have good milk supply but breastfeeding isn’t working for you, this is a great option you may not have though of. Remember – however you feed your baby, a fed baby is a happy baby! Good luck!