The traumatic journey mums who struggle to breastfeed face

Dianna Vezich and her son.
Dianna Vezich and her son. Photo credit: Newshub.

Almost six years later, Newshub reporter Dianna Vezich still vividly remembers the exhaustion, worry, shame and despair of trying to breastfeed her baby but being unable to.  

I remember a doctor asking me while I was pregnant with my son whether I would be breastfeeding him. "Yep," I said blissfully unaware that it might not be that simple.   

There's a misconception that "all women can breastfeed".

But that's not true.  

I know, because I'm one of those of that physically can’t.

And I’m not alone.

After giving birth to my son however, I felt very alone. In my head I felt like I was the only person in the entire world who couldn't breastfeed.

Dianna Vezich's baby boy.
Dianna Vezich's baby boy. Photo credit: Newshub.

I worked so hard to do so and at no point in my struggle did anyone tell me: ‘Hey it's okay, some women just don't produce enough milk” or even that “there might a slim chance that may be the case.’” 

Instead, I was given false hope in those first few weeks that I could do it. In the early days after birth, I produced some colostrum, but my milk wasn't coming in.   

I kept being told, "It'll happen. It just may be a little delayed.”  

My son dropped so much weight in the days after he was born that I was told by a medical professional he needed formula.  

But to get the formula in Auckland's Birthcare, I had to sign a consent form. To my exhausted, overwhelmed brain, the consent form made me feel like the formula presented a risk. At the time I don’t think I really had any idea why I had to sign for it. 

I was already sick with worry that my little boy was potentially dehydrated and starved and now I was scared I was doing harm with the formula.  

In fact, in my case the formula was something my boy needed to stay alive - food.  

It's been almost six years and I still vividly remember walking through the corridors with my baby and seeing a large poster on the wall comparing the vast number of components in breastmilk to the significantly smaller amount of ingredients in formula.  

I felt awful.   

Would my baby grow and develop normally on formula? I was a first-time mum. I had no idea. So many scenarios played out through my mind.  

When I left to go home, I was encouraged to "keep going" with breastfeeding but of course do my top-up formula feeds if needed.  

It had long been drummed into me how important breast milk was for my baby and I wanted to breastfeed.

A few days after getting home I saw a private lactation consultant. I was told if I breastfed my baby wouldn't get as sick.    

I was told that if I formula-fed my baby he would be more prone to ear infections. I still remember the exact moment I heard that. I was an emotional wreck imagining this precious, tiny baby with ear infections that would have been my fault because of the formula I had to give him.  

I was also told by a private lactation consultant that some mothers who had had breast cancer could breastfeed and there was no clear reason why it shouldn't work for me.  

While I was so deeply in love with my baby and so happy to be a mum, I cried a lot because I couldn't feed him the way I thought I would.  

It seemed to come so easily for many of my friends. They fed their babies in one simple step by bringing them to their breasts.  

In contrast, I was “triple feeding.”

This included first trying to breastfeed, then giving my son a top-up bottle - which he would guzzle eagerly. Finally, I would plug in the breast pump to try to stimulate milk production and get some milk for his next feed.   

I was pumping drops, enough for half a sip at most. It was exhausting.  

I was also encouraged to feed him a tube of formula that was somehow taped to my breast. So in order to get the formula, he had to suck at the breast. I think that’s how the process went. It seemed a bit complicated to me at the time. 

Not only did I pump around the clock, I ate the lactation cookies, took breastfeeding supplements (hello Fenugreek) and drank the breastfeeding teas.  

Nothing worked. My breasts were still missing the key ingredient - milk. I felt useless and ashamed.  

I thought of one of my grandmothers in Croatia who had tandem fed both her daughter and granddaughter (that's a story for another day) and here was I unable to feed one baby - my precious first-born son. 

I never had to use the breast pads I was given as a baby present. There were no leaks. Ever.

It hit me hard. This is not what I imagined feeding my baby would look like.   

My baby definitely was not “milk drunk” at the breast. It was quite the opposite. He was screaming for more food.

My very kind midwife put me in touch with a new mum who was going through the exact same. We exchanged lots of messages and spoke about our feeding issues. Our conversations made me feel like I wasn’t so alone.

I persisted with triple feeding for three months until it got to the point my son would cry when I put him on the breast.  

"No more breastfeeding," my husband eventually said. We all knew why.   

The traumatic journey mums who struggle to breastfeed face
Photo credit: Newshub.

I'm not alone

While research suggests up to five percent of mothers can't produce enough milk to breastfeed, a lot of the studies are limited and outdated and some question if the figure could be higher.  

Anne-Marie Thompson had an experience frighteningly similar to my own.

She gave birth to her baby boy in 2019 and wanted to breastfeed. But despite trying her hardest, her milk never came in either.    

She tried and tried but after watching her newborn son scream all night because he was "starving”, she called the midwives.  

Her baby was given some formula but Birthcare Auckland made her sign a consent form too, which she said made her feel like she was doing something "unhealthy” and that she wasn't a “good enough” mum. 

"It makes you feel like what you're giving them is bad rather than giving them something to fill their tummy. I don't think the paperwork is necessary," she told me.  

But the paperwork wasn't the only issue. Anne-Marie was also faced with a poster comparing breast milk and formula ingredients which she says added to the shame and guilt.    

"Seeing those posters really impacts you if you have to formula feed because it makes you feel like you've failed and that you're not giving your child the best start in life."  

Anne-Marie kept trying to breastfeed her son after leaving Birthcare, but he ended up dropping so much weight she was nearly admitted back to hospital.

For six weeks she also tried a mix of breastfeeding, formula and pumping milk in a desperate attempt to not to give up on breast milk.

Her son also gobbled up his bottles after every breastfeed.  

"I realise that breast milk is considered best but there are situations that are out of a parent's control.  

For Anne-Marie, the "choice" was taken away from her.  

"It took me months to get over that and forgive myself for not being able to breastfeed. I had never contemplated that I wouldn't be able to breastfeed and our health system doesn't prepare us for what happens if you can't.  

"Things like this can lead to post-natal depression if you feel like you're failing your child."   

'Not every woman can breastfeed'

There are a whole range of reasons why some women can't breastfeed according to Dr Katie Fourie who is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, specialist GP and Waikato Hospital breast physician.

She says these can include conditions that affect the homonal milieu such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes, pre-eclampsia and hypo or hyperthyroidism.

Dr Fourie explains that other causes of low milk production can include insufficient breast development/congenital abnormalities of the breast, previous breast surgery or previous radiation treatment to the breast. 

Fourie, who is also a La Leche League Leader and member of the Breastfeeding Medicine Network Australia/New Zealand, said the grief and pain from being unable to breastfeed can last for decades.   

"I see women in the breast clinic aged in their seventies. I ask them the general question of their breastfeeding history and those that wanted to breastfeed but could not, they remember the grief like it was yesterday."  

She says there's a "woeful" lack of support for women who want to breastfeed as well as women who do breastfeed.  

"Medical and healthcare professionals are not adequately educated or resourced to properly support breastfeeding, leading to women having to take it upon themselves to find the answers and solutions to their feeding difficulties."  

Fourie said it shouldn't be acceptable for women to be told that some 'just can't breastfeed' without a proper work-up or efforts to diagnose the cause.  

"Without working out the cause of low milk production, how can we support and guide women appropriately with strategies that are likely to be beneficial and not going to be a waste of their time and energy?" she said.   

Dr Fourie also questions if posters of breastmilk and formula ingredients should be in postnatal areas arguing they could be placed in educational spaces only. 

 “In the setting of breastfeeding trauma, being around promotional material can only compound the traumatic experience,” she told Newshub.

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life with the introduction of safe solid food at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.

Health New Zealand said all hospitals are required to meet certain guidelines including providing mothers with breastfeeding support in the first couple of days when they are in hospital.  

"The guidelines also require hospitals to protect and promote exclusive breastfeeding," Health NZ Interim National Chief Midwife Deborah Pittam told Newshub.   

Dr Fourie says breastfeeding reduces the risks of a number of issues such as respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, sudden infant death syndrome, and diabetes in children.  

La Leche League said breastfeeding is the normal and natural way for humans to feed their babies with human milk uniquely meeting a baby's changing needs.

Pittam explains that "generally, healthy, well grown term babies do not need formula" but in certain cases they will.   

"Some conditions in pregnancy like diabetes can mean it is more likely babies may need some supplementary feeds, but where possible, babies for whom breastfeeding is their parent's choice of feeding would only be given formula if there was a clinical need for that to happen."   

Pittam confirmed some hospitals require parents to sign consent forms to use formula.   

"This is to both ensure that babies are only given formula if their parents have consented, and that they have been given all the information they need to make an informed decision about their choice."   

It's a view shared by Birthcare Auckland's General Manager Christine Biggs who says breastfeeding has significant benefits for both mothers and babies.  

"Birthcare recognises the important health benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for six months and of continued breastfeeding, with the addition of appropriate complementary foods until two years of age or beyond."    

Biggs told Newshub Birthcare staff do not discriminate against anyone when it comes to how they feed their baby and will "assist them fully when they have made an informed choice."  

She added the consent forms are used because "informed consent is a cornerstone of healthcare in Aotearoa".   

"The risks and benefits of an intervention like formula supplementation are discussed as part of the informed consent process. Any parent who chooses to formula feed their pepi is well supported and given information on how to do so."

Happy & healthy

Both my children are happy, healthy and incredibly loved.  

Anne-Marie's son is four and is also happy, smart, thriving and loved.

I spent years searching for answers about why I couldn't breastfeed. What was the problem? What was wrong with my body?  

I've asked many doctors and midwives for their opinions as to why and I've done many Google searches and read many forums.   

I still have no idea what the issue is. Nor does Anne-Marie.

While an answer wouldn’t lessen the heartbreak, I’d still be interested to know why. 

My very kind midwife helped alleviate some of my guilt while I was struggling to feed my first son.  

The traumatic journey mums who struggle to breastfeed face
Photo credit: Newshub.

She told me, "Your baby just wants to be fed," and that I was "doing my job feeding him."   

But it's what she told me next that I'll never forget. She said I "gave my baby everything I had in terms of my breast milk and that's more than enough".   

This article is not intended to be used for medical advice. If you need medical advice, consult a medical practitioner.  

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