"I'm Fine." - A Journey Through Breast Feeding And PND
Here are WeAreASSIF we thinks it's extremely important to share peoples stories and experiences with mental health struggles. Talking is so important as it normalises the conversations around mental health, which we believe will help to break the stigma surrounding it. *Hannah Wilkinson* a member of the ASSIF community has decided to share her experiences with Postnatal Depression and breast feeding.
Here is Hannah's Story:
Throughout my pregnancy I was monitored closely by my GP for stress, anxiety and depression symptoms. My mother died 9 months before I got pregnant and I was involved in legal proceedings with her partner regarding her estate. I also lost my Nan, Aunt and Uncle before I gave birth. I was introduced to the health visitor in the later stages of pregnancy so that she'd be a familiar face once the baby was born. I was doing well, the pregnancy progressed easily in spite of the stressful situations and my grief. Everything looked ok.
I gave birth to my beloved baby girl and my world turned upside down. All of a sudden I was responsible for this tiny human being who was solely dependant on me. I was besotted and terrified, and I felt extremely alone. I didn't sleep that first night in the hospital, I was too scared to. I was in a private room, there was only me to watch her and check that she kept breathing. I don't know if that's the same for every new mother, or if it was the start of my anxiety. I was so relieved the next morning when my partner came in and could share this responsibility.
The next few days were a whirlwind of exhaustion and discomfort. I was hurting from the birth, the baby wanted to breastfeed constantly and she screamed every time I put her down or even moved her from the breast. Midwives flew in and out, checking stitches, weighing the baby, doing this test and that test. There was this inward expectation of myself that I should be up and about, smiling and hosting visitors; when all I wanted was a dark room and to cry and lick my wounds.
I had a feeling that something wasn't right with my baby, but the midwives didn't really listen. I was sure she shouldn't be screaming like that. Then she was readmitted to hospital with dehydration and the loss of too much birth weight. That came as some relief, to be somewhere where we weren't alone with her. She was given a bottle of formula, they did some blood tests and once she'd had a wee they sent us home.
Then began my battle to protect my breastfeeding journey. I was lucky enough to have two breastfeeding support groups close by. Baby was found to have a tongue tie which meant she wasn't transferring milk from the breast. We had an appointment and got this cut which was a simple procedure and it helped immediately. My health visitor insisted I kept increasing the formula, while the breastfeeding support were trying to find ways to increase my milk supply. It felt like a vicious circle.
My instincts told me that the formula wasn't agreeing with my baby, she was snotty and the more she had the more upset she got. The screaming resumed but I couldn't get anyone to listen to me. I doubted myself as a mother, I felt that I wasn't doing right by my child. I still couldn't put her down. My partner and myself took it in turns to sleep for a couple of hours while the other held the baby.
We were exhausted. But if anyone asked, I was fine.
Car journeys were awful, the screaming was just too much to bear, so I only went out to the breastfeeding support groups. These became my lifeline. The constant holding the baby was having a horrible effect on my chronic pain syndrome. I was in agony. I spent so many nights holding her and silently crying so as not to wake my partner from his precious two hours of sleep.
Lack of support in general was something that I struggled with. Having no family and no close friends nearby, I definitely felt the strain as a result.
Sleep deprivation, the increase in pain levels along with a lack of support and understanding from the undermining of my health visitor were all definite contributing factors that triggered my Postnatal Depression.
Lack of support in general was something that I struggled with. Having no family and no close friends nearby, I definitely felt the strain as a result. I wouldn't admit to anyone how I was feeling, I don't think I really admitted it myself. "I'm fine" became like a mantra to me; say it often enough and it might come true. I remember the health visitor giving me a form to complete to check my mental health. I think it was around the six week check time. I filled it in so that I looked fine, but not too fine. I was scared of what would happen if I admitted it, and I didn't trust her.
Things got slightly better when a GP diagnosed baby with silent reflux and a cow milk allergy. I gave up cows milk and we were prescribed a cow milk free formula. I finally felt like someone had heard me and I wasn't going mad thinking there was something wrong with my baby screaming all the time. Within 4 days she was calmer and happier and that helped me feel a little better too. Around this time I also discovered babywearing slings. I had a session with a trained babywearing consultant and she showed me how to use different slings to carry baby. This was a real life changer! I could now make a cup of tea and butter some toast without having to listen to her screaming because I'd put her down. It also helped with her reflux symptoms as she was kept upright. This consultant also gave me a leaflet about a PND support group, which obviously I tucked away because I was “fine”.
We muddled on for a few weeks. Going to breastfeeding support groups and hospital appointments and not really doing much else. It was a case of getting through each day, and then each night. Once the baby was happier I didn't feel as bad, but I wasn't right. We attended a 'mum and me' group at the local children's centre, a special group for mums and their new babies. 12 mums in a room, and I hated it. I couldn't sit on the floor with the others because of my pain. My baby wouldn't lie on the mat cooing and gurgling like theirs. And some of them already knew of each other because of the weigh in clinic (which we missed because the hospital did it). I felt extremely self conscious and couldn't wait to get out. I didn't finish the course. I still didn't really associate this with depression though.
I spent a lot of time trying to increase my milk supply and stop the formula bottles. I desperately wanted baby to be exclusively breastfed. I took supplements and expressed as much as I could. I was obsessed by it. My baby was coming up to 6 months old when a breastfeeding peer supporter; who'd supported us throughout, told me for the good of my mental health to let it go. I remember her words, and how relieved I felt to hear them. But that was another pointer that I refused to see.
The sleep deprivation has to be the hardest part of all of this. There is a reason it's used as torture. I'd just fall asleep and she'd wake again. Every night, more than once. I'd heard some mention of bedsharing and how if it was done safely it could help everyone get better sleep. So I did some research and tried it out. The baby still had to be touching me, curled up in my armpit usually but I actually started getting better chunks of sleep, as did my partner. I learned how to breastfeed lying down and eventually I could half sleep if not fully sleep through her night feeds.
She would scream and cry and it felt like someone was driving stakes through my head
Unfortunately with sleep came anxiety dreams. The worst and most vivid was the baby falling from the top of the stairs, through the bannister and landing with a sickening thud on the hallway floor. I still feel sick remembering it. My anxiety was quite bad through the day too, I just didn't have a name for it. I was convinced that we'd be in a car crash. If my partner took baby out for a walk so I could get some sleep I thought something would happen to them, they'd be attacked or hit by a car.
Baby was around 7/8 months old when I really hit rock bottom. She was sitting up, exploring food, trying to crawl. I needed to be on the floor with her. I was trying to enjoy some summer time. I hurt. I was exhausted. She was growing and moving on from being a baby and I suddenly didn't know what to do with her, how to entertain her. I was getting more stressed and I think she was picking up on that and my unhappiness. She would scream and cry and it felt like someone was driving stakes through my head, and I would scream and cry too.
I'd put her screaming into her cot and go downstairs (as per advice given so that you don't harm the baby) but it made no difference, I just felt guilty for leaving her screaming alone. I wanted to stop her screaming. I wanted to put something over her to stop her. And that scared me. At night she still didn't sleep. On and off the breast, waking every hour or two. One night around 4am she wouldn't let me go and I fell apart. I couldn't stop crying and I finally admitted to my partner how I was feeling.
I saw a GP that day. He was brilliant. He encouraged me to go to the local PND support group, put some physio in place for my pain and referred me for CBT. I was also referred to social services as I was afraid I was going to hurt my baby. I felt so relieved to have told someone, but worried about what would come next. Especially with social services, there are so many horror stories in the media.
I went to the PND support group. The first couple of times were ok. Daunting, but good to get out of the house. I didn't talk about how I felt. I did feel a bit out of place. On the third or fourth visit my baby started playing. On her own. Away from me. This was a serious breakthrough. I was stunned. And totally overwhelmed. And then a toddler picked her up and threw her to the ground. I couldn't get to her fast enough. She screamed and howled. I fell apart and left. I didn't go back. I did however join their online group. I never said much but it was good to know it was there and to read the things they posted. On a Sunday evening they have a chat hour in a closed group and I join in that when I can. It always makes me feel better.
I didn't talk about how I felt. I did feel a bit out of place.
The physio appointment came through first. A 40 minute drive away with a baby who hated the car. Not ideal. But we went and she was ok. He went through my history and when I got to why I was there and said about the PND he asked if it was depression, "or just sleep deprivation". My faith in him dwindled and I felt belittled. He told me that he could help reduce if not get rid of my pain and gave me some exercises to do, very small changes of habit. I found the exercises a real struggle as having any time apart from baby was still quite rare. And my mind wasn't really in the right place to focus and remember to do them. After my third visit he said he couldn't help me and discharged me. I felt like I'd been kicked. I know they can't keep you in the system if you don't do the exercises but it still felt like a blow.
Social services were amazing. I was terrified of what the outcome would be but one of the first things that the social worker said was that they're there to keep families together and support them in times of difficulty. I had an hour long appointment and again it felt really good to tell someone how I was feeling, to get it out of me. The social worker said that she wasn't worried that I would harm my baby. People who do don't come for help. This was a huge relief for me to hear. She did have to refer me to a psychiatrist because of that though. They put in place the CBT and organised someone to come to the house and chat with me.
I started the CBT just before the baby turned one, and it was the most helpful thing I did. It taught me a different way of seeing things.
The counsellor was great, I really liked her. She put so much into perspective for me. She encouraged me to try some groups, and to do something that I enjoyed every day. I saw the psychiatrist part way through this, it was a long appointment and he asked a lot of questions. I had to admit that I'd contemplated suicide; twice, the first time some years ago. I've not attempted it as I've seen the devastation it causes.
I know how it feels to grieve for your mother and I couldn't do that to my baby girl. And I couldn't put my partner through it twice. The psychiatrist was a very lovely man and once again it felt like a relief to talk about everything, and his report helped me too. Again it was stated that he didn't think I was a risk to my baby and as the CBT was working well he didn't think I needed medication. This was really positive for me. I started to feel like I was getting better.
The person who came to visit me at home wasn't as successful. The first lady who came quite obviously didn't agree with my parenting choices. I told her that one of the things I found hardest was not being able to do what I wanted when I wanted anymore. She told me I could, I just had to make baby fit in with me. On her second visit she arrived early, I was doing a nappy change. She pushed a card through the letter box and left. Not helpful to a new mother who's struggling.
Through my baby wearing I had met a group of like minded mums and I'd joined their Facebook groups for babywearing and gentle parenting support. These had helped immensely in making me feel less alone in my parenting choices. People are very quick to judge your parenting which is very hard to deal with on top of depression and anxiety. These groups were another life line. The parenting group had set up a play group and the CBT gave me the confidence to reach out and start going. We still go now and it's still very helpful.
My anxiety is more managed now but I still have dreams in which I'm losing her.
My little girl is now approaching her third birthday. I still have bad days/weeks. I am still caught up in legalities and waiting to inherit my late mother's estate. These added stresses have not helped my mental health, but I wouldn't say they are the sole cause. My anxiety is more managed now but I still have dreams in which I'm losing her. And occasional car accident worries. This is when I know I'm slipping again.
Since becoming a mother I have learned so much about myself and I've had my eyes opened to a society whose actions and beliefs really worry me. I do think a lot of my depression could have been eased by a more understanding society, less mum shaming. You can't win. You're wrong to breastfeed, you're wrong to formula feed. You're wrong to stay at home, you're wrong to go back to work. etc. As a new mother you're on overdrive, worrying whether you're doing the right thing. Very few people will tell you that you are. I don't like the way that society sees children as burden, an inconvenience.
More worrying is the attitude of health professionals and the outdated advice, information and personal opinion that's still being given. The media also gives an unhelpful view, babies being pushed around in prams while mum chats and has coffee with friends; babies lying in a cot sleeping peacefully while mum does housework/talks on the phone/has coffee with friends etc. My baby didn't go in a pram without screaming until she was 10 months old. She still shares my bed. Learning about babies sleep, age appropriate behaviour and schemas has been really helpful too.
I now realise that I've suffered depression and anxiety on and off for years. I have had treatment a couple of times in the past. I also now realise that I have to constantly work at keeping myself well. I have to challenge my thoughts and reactions. I have to revisit my CBT. I need to get my rest. I need to work on having time for me.
My advice to anyone who is struggling is to find someone that you trust and talk to them. Before you hit a crisis point. Find what works for you. I'm no good in groups but online chats have really helped. Do what you need to do to feel better. Listen to your instincts, don't let anyone tell you they're wrong.
*The interviewee wished to remain anonymous so we have used a pseudonym to protect her identity.*