In the months after giving birth, there are many changes a new mum needs to adapt to. It’s a steep learning curve, often with unique struggles for each woman. Two mums share their inspiring stories of how they overcame their difficulties and found equilibrium.
For Liyann, 32, the journey towards becoming a mum was not an easy one. She and her husband had been battling infertility for over two years before they received the happy news that they were, finally, expecting a child! As one might expect, the young mum-to-be was thrilled, and went all out to ensure that they were adequately prepared for the little one’s arrival. She devoured baby and parenting literature, debated the pros and cons of attachment parenting, and did her prenatal exercises faithfully.
Her pregnancy progressed smoothly, but it was during labour that Liyann’s plans began to go ‘wrong’. She had hoped so much for a natural, drug-free delivery; she had prepared herself and her husband mentally and emotionally, and had attended talks and read books. But after almost 30 hours of labour, and with the baby’s heart rate fluctuating alarmingly, her only option was to have an emergency caesarean section. She was disappointed, but the joy of finally having her newborn son safe and healthy in her arms more than made up for it.
However, the journey ahead was going to be rough. In the months following her son Aidan’s birth, Liyann found herself sinking into what felt like depression. It started when Aidan was almost three weeks old. He suddenly stopped sleeping in the day, and no amount of rocking, walking, singing, or cuddling would get him to take a nap for longer than 30 minutes. And yet he was tired and cranky, so they would keep trying to soothe him to sleep more, sleep longer.
At night he would sometimes scream for hours on end. Liyann and her husband would spend two, sometimes three, hours just putting him to bed. And when he finally slept, he would wake up frequently and cry. She and her husband were utterly overwhelmed, completely exhausted.
There were days when she would ring up her husband at work, sobbing over the phone in frustration and helplessness. Many times, she would feel lost, unsure of herself. All the books she had read, all the ‘expert’ opinions, didn’t seem to fit, didn’t seem to work the way they should. Often she ‘broke’ the rules because they just didn’t work for her little man. Her mantra became “Do whatever works”.
Some days, she would visit her mother who would help to look after Aidan for a couple of hours, so she could get a break. When he was home, her husband was indeed her pillar of support, for which Liyann is especially thankful. He wasn’t shaken by her tears, but stayed strong and supportive of her decisions in raising Aidan throughout that time, and even now.
She loved her son – she really did – but she felt consumed by the fatigue, unpredictability and frustrations of her new role as his mother. Sometimes she felt like she was a shadow of her former self – a confident, go-getter, passionate woman.
Her turning point came when Aidan was around 10 weeks old. One day, Liyann just decided to try something new. She would take Aidan out every day – get out of the house, go somewhere with him alone or make a date with a friend. She brought him for walks around the neighbourhood, breakfasts at Ikea , shopped at Orchard Road, and visited her husband at work.
After a while, she discovered that this plan worked out extremely well for them both. Aidan would take his naps, albeit short ones, in her Boba wrap on the go. Meanwhile, she could enjoy the company of friends, shop, drink coffee etc – it became her happy time with him.
Slowly, she began to let go of many of her expectations and goals, and learnt to follow his lead and trust her instincts. She still read widely, but she took things with a pinch of salt. She and her husband began to carve out their own unique way of caring for and relating to their son, and to enjoy the moments with him more.
Today, Aidan is a talkative and friendly little boy, a splitting image of his father, with the vivacious personality of his mother. He loves good food (like his parents) and enjoys running in the park. His sleep patterns are still less than desirable, and attempts at sleep training have not yielded much improvement. Some nights, Liyann still finds herself in tears, begging him to sleep so she can get the rest she needs.
And yet, every morning, the smile on his face and that tousled mop of curly hair is all that she needs to keep going another day, to fuel her with enough joy and love for the next 24 hours. One day, she knows, this will all be a distant memory, and so she is treasuring all the moments with her son – the good and the bad.
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If you go to town a lot, you might have run into Sara, 44, and her two-year old princess, Tasha, along one of the stores in Orchard Road. That’s because this spunky mum and her daughter love being out and about, and spend most days a week in town, meeting her mummy friends and their kids, or at a playground.
Ask any of Sara’s friends, and they’ll tell you she’s one of the most confident and energetic women they know. As a mum, she carefully researches her options when it comes to kids toiletries, meals and sleep discipline, and prides herself on being informed on cutting-edge parenting philosophies. So it’s no wonder that she had read up considerably on the topic of breastfeeding before deciding to take the plunge.
The scientific evidence on the superiority of breastfeeding was very compelling; it seemed obvious to her that mother’s milk is designed to be perfect for baby. And she also wanted to have that unique bonding relationship with her child.
But nothing she read could have prepared her for what the actual experience of breastfeeding would be like. Even though she’d read about common issues like mastitis and engorgement, she had not taken it too seriously. Her rationale was that “millions of mothers for thousands of years have been doing it for thousands of years, so it must be a fairly natural process, right?”
Not really, she discovered.
In the first few weeks and months after giving birth, Sara found herself coping with the issue of a drastically low milk supply, even though virtually every article or book she had read had stipulated that the mother’s body would produce enough milk to match baby’s demand. This problem was compounded by Tasha having to be supplemented due to jaundice, and other breastfeeding woes like cracked, bleeding and sore nipples.
There was no easy solution to be found. After seeing several lactation consultants (LCs) and spending a lot of money within the first few weeks, taking high doses of domperidone (drug to stimulate lactation), pumping religiously with an industrial strength rented hospital pump (and getting mere drops), and nursing two hourly round the clock, Sara was plain exhausted and at her wit’s end.
At the 8-week mark, she came across an article that said that the mother’s milk supply is “locked-in” by the first 2-3 weeks. Naturally, she panicked, thinking she had passed that point of no return. In a final attempt to make it work, she visited another LC, this time asking for a way to get Tasha to latch more, while still continuing to supplement to meet her need.
For the first time, she was introduced to the Supplemental Nursing System (SLS): You feed formula through a miniature hose taped to your nipple, so the baby drinks the formula while latched to the breast. This makes it possible for the nipples to get the maximum stimulation they need to trigger production increase. As the supply increases, the baby naturally weans herself off the formula.
When she tried it out for the first time, she was shocked by the results. Tasha started drinking the way Sara had seen babies do in videos, i.e. audible and visible swallowing, suck-swallow-suck-swallow – you could tell she was really drinking. It was amazing to watch! At the same time, Sara also felt heartbroken, wondering if her poor baby had been starving at the breast the whole 8 weeks prior to that.
Even with the heartening results of that first SLS session, the nurses cautioned Sara that it could take up to a month to see any positive long-term results. At that point, Sara had to come to terms with the prospect that her supply would never reach an adequate level. She told herself that she had tried her very best. At the very worst, she could still breastfeed Tasha partially, and enjoy the bonding from the time, and that was better than nothing.
Thank God, her perseverance paid off! Within just a few days, Tasha started draining less and less of the formula in the SLS, but her textbook suckling continued, and her nursing times grew shorter. Within two weeks, she’d weaned herself completely from formula, and Sara was able to pack away the SLS. Tasha was finally nursing happily the way she should!
Throughout those few months, Sara credits her husband for his unwavering support of her decision to breastfeed, and even the multiple expensive visits to various LCs. She plans to continue breastfeed Tasha until she is 3 years old, but is open to the possibility of continuing after that if Tasha still insists on having her “mommy’s milk”.
And to other first mums who are planning to breastfeed, Sara has this to say: “If you have even the slightest difficulty, don’t hesitate to go see an LC, even if you think it’s a small problem. I’m serious. Don’t be afraid to be a ‘gancheong-queen’. It’s really better safe than sorry. Little problems can snowball into big ones if you don’t deal with them immediately.”
By Dorothea Chow