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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Retained Placenta & Breastfeeding Mothers' Stories
Maya Magub Heffes, London, UK
Photos: Maya & Clara courtesy of Eric Young


Maya desperately wanted to breastfeed her baby but when her milk failed to come in and three weeks had passed since Clara’s birth, she began to lose hope.

When I was pregnant a friend lent me a number of books. “If you only have time to read one properly, read the breastfeeding one,” she said. “Giving birth was nothing compared to the problems I had breastfeeding.” I thought that was extraordinary but I read the book.

I was clued up enough to know that there might well be a few problems and I primed my husband and my mother to expect I’d need their support. Labor started promisingly but ended in an emergency cesarean section. Afterwards, the surgeon said the placenta had been very strongly embedded and that he’d had to “hack it out a bit.” He told me to watch out for severe bleeding or fever, neither of which I had. Caught up in the momentous occasion, we forgot about it.

Our daughter, Clara, turned out to be healthy and large, and was put onto my chest almost immediately while I was stitched up. We had our first breastfeed 45 minutes later and she knew exactly what to do—I was thrilled. The next few days were some of the worst I can remember.

Clara cried more and more as the days went by. She hardly slept and I remember my husband, Alex, pacing up and down the hospital corridor with her every night. My nipples got more and more sore and nothing seemed to relieve them. The midwives were all lovely and helpful, but we rarely saw the same one twice in succession: each one would see Clara beating my breast, and say, “It will be fine when your milk comes in” or “It’s the positioning.” Each one would leave saying that we were doing fine now. On day five, Clara had begun to scream every time she came near me—there was nothing I could do to comfort her and she seemed to hate me.

Alex was the voice of reason, “It’s just because she knows her milk will come from you, and when it does she’ll love being held by you.”

I remember saying to my mother, “Is this normal?” and the look on her face as she paused, wondering what she could say without worrying me further.

On day six, suddenly, from being told constantly how healthy Clara looked, we were confronted with the fact that she had lost 14% of her birth weight and needed to be fed formula straightaway. I watched Clara taking the bottle as if they were feeding her poison but the look of relief on her face afterwards said it all. And for almost the first time in six days she stopped crying. Then the midwife explained I could breastfeed and top her off from a syringe so that she wouldn’t get used to the bottle.

On day six, suddenly, from being told constantly how healthy Clara looked, we were confronted with the fact that she had lost 14% of her birth weight and needed to be fed formula straightaway.

MothersStories_RetainedPlacenta&Breastfeeding_Maya-MWhen we got home, I plucked up the courage to phone my best friend’s mother, a La Leche League Leader, expecting her to berate me gently for giving in. Instead, I felt a weight lift as she reassured me. Alex and I drove back and forth over the next fortnight to the hospital for support and help. After two weeks, we were shown how to feed Clara at the breast, inserting a tiny tube into the corner of her mouth attached to a syringe of formula so that she would learn how to suck from my breast. (If this hadn’t been my first child maybe I’d have trusted my instincts that she knew perfectly well how to feed.) It was very tricky and we had to do this every two hours. I hit a real low point on the journey home when I realized that as a feed usually lasted an hour and a half, this would give me no more than half an hour’s uninterrupted sleep, without even considering the sterilizing ritual. I realized that I just couldn’t do it. We’d already been sleep deprived for two weeks and Alex was due to go back to work. I felt like a real failure.

As week three came with still no milk, I began to believe that I was one of the possible few percent of women who really cannot produce milk. All the things I’d bought—the breastfeeding cushion, the bed nest for cosleeping, the nursing tops and bras—were all reminders of what should be but wasn’t. In a way, it also felt like a relief to accept that I had done nearly everything I could and that this was some rare abnormality of my body.

We had given up on the syringes and resorted to a bottle as Clara needed more and more formula, though I continued to “breastfeed” at nearly every feed, except when my nipples were so sore that I literally couldn’t do it without screaming. Clara didn’t like the bottle and we always felt that it didn’t help her colic, but she tolerated it.

Meanwhile, I had been postponing the postpartum appointment routinely offered by my hospital. It had seemed far more important to sort out the feeding, and it was a fair drive away for a mere 20-minute appointment. I nearly didn’t bother. When I did go, three weeks after the birth, the therapist examined me and immediately sent me off for a scan. I had “extensive retained placental material.” I had to ask the question, which seemed incidental to the pediatrician, but yes, I had no milk because my placenta was still active and my body still thought I was pregnant!

I had no milk because my placenta was still active and my body still thought I was pregnant!

After an operation to rid my body of the retained placenta and a second bout of labor as I came round, all of a sudden I shrank back to my pre-pregnant shape and, hey presto, I had milk! Not the leaking-all-over-the-bedclothes type I dreamed of, but definitely milk. It was a huge triumph when I squeezed my breast after a feed one morning thinking it was all gone, and nearly squirted Clara in the eye!

Then came the balancing act of cutting down on formula and establishing breastfeeding—no easy task, especially when your baby cries a lot and you are paranoid about your baby being hungry again. I longed for more concrete information on how to pace the switchover and which feeds to begin with. But I guess every baby is different and it depends on how much formula your baby is taking. The only thing to guide you is instinct—and it was hard to trust mine because it was all so new.

MothersStories_RetainedPlacenta&Breastfeeding_Maya-M1In the end it happened quite naturally as we chain fed through one of the bottle times. The last bottle was the hardest to drop, but finally we were exclusively breastfeeding in just under three weeks. I am eternally grateful for my husband’s unwavering support and trust in my instincts, and also to my mother, who probably thought, but never once said, “I bottle-fed you, and you’ve turned out fine—why are you putting yourself through all this?” But my daughter Clara deserves nearly all the credit: she always loved breastfeeding (despite getting so little from it for so long); she never liked the bottle and she never gave up on me.

When Clara was four months, I had a recurrence of a back problem that left me bed-bound and unable to carry her. Breastfeeding truly came into its own at that point, allowing us to cuddle up together on the bed and giving us real and immensely valuable bonding time. At first it was difficult feeding her lying down, but luckily we developed our own position, with her head in the crook of my arm, feeding from the higher breast and this still works beautifully for us.

Clara is now six months old and is a delightful, happy baby with huge character and determination. She likes to do things her own way, including breastfeeding, which she often does holding one leg up in the air. This is not something I have seen illustrated in the breastfeeding books but it is obvious to her that those other babies are missing out.


At-Breast Supplementing

At-Breast Supplementer Nursing

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