Next week marks a 15 month breastfeeding anniversary for me, and I’d like to take a few moments to pat myself on the back. It has been a journey chalked full of emotions… from fear and doubt to empowerment and pride. When I first became a mom, my goal was to make it to one year, and then see what happens. It was so difficult in the beginning that I was extremely proud and relieved just to make it to three and then six months. There was no stopping us after that. A few friends of mine began weaning their babies at six months or one year. As I was approaching Tommy’s first birthday, I just didn’t see how either of us was ready for it to end. I will fully admit that I have some selfish reasons for continuing to breastfeed. Even though I loathed pumping at work for a full year and have slowly weaned myself off of the pump, (which was not an easy decision to make) I still adore nursing and the exclusive cuddling time it gives us. Especially since Tommy is so active now and would rather play than eat or snuggle with Mommy or Daddy. I find that he still seems to need it sometimes. My plan now is to let him decide when to wean. Of course, if he is still nursing as we approach his second or perhaps third birthdays, I will reevaluate that plan. I’m not against extended nursing, but I’m keeping an open mind to how I may feel if my son is old enough to lift up my shirt and get the milk himself.
One topic that comes up often on the online baby forum I frequent is a term we have coined “milk worry.” A constant thought that was always going through my head when Tommy was a newborn (and continued to plague me until seven months or so) was whether I was making enough milk for him. I had a pretty severe oversupply, so it wasn’t really an issue, but it was still a huge worry. It was as if my ability to produce enough milk was a direct analogy of my abilities as a mother. If I could make enough milk for him, then I must be a good mom. It’s a completely irrational concept, but with post-pardum hormones surging, my mind was full of irrational thoughts. Somewhere in there, I found the voice of my instinct and was finally able to trust that my body knew what it was doing. I mean, my superhuman self was able to grow and birth a human being, where did I come off thinking that it couldn’t continue to feed and nurture said human being?
Along the lines of irrational emotional behavior, it came as a surprise to me just how emotionally attached I am to my milk. One time while at work, I dropped about eight ounces of milk down the drain; my hand just slipped while closing the ziplock baggie. I broke down in giant sobs right there in my office bathroom feeling like an epic failure as a mother. I still had plenty of milk in the freezer at home and I knew I would be able to pump another eight ounces in a few hours, but it didn’t quell the tears from falling. And I know that many husbands and partners never really have an understanding why their spouses are so emotionally attached to their milk. Bill just knows to ask me before dumping ANY milk. Now I understand that not all women have this emotional attachment. Many can go have a night out with their girlfriends with a few mixed drinks. They can simply pump when they get home and dump the milk that has alcohol in it. I can’t understand how they do it, I am perfectly happy to wait until we’re done breastfeeding before going out for margaritas.
It has been interesting reading the many articles friends have shared about breastfeeding. From articles on pumping in the workplace, the “booby-traps” still in place in many hospitals, infant growth patterns in breastfed babies vs. formula fed babies and all of the random news stories about women being criticized for nursing in public. It’s a very emotional topic for many women, and there’s no shortage of judgment from one mom to another on the decisions you make regarding breastfeeding… and no shortage of people happy to tell you what you’re doing wrong. I will admit that I have caught myself judging other moms, but I only do it in my head! I understand why some of these women who are called “lactivists” are quick to tell a woman all of the mistakes she made that led to her feeding her baby formula instead of breastmilk. Many can be downright mean and preachy about it. Which is sad since they are ultimately trying to get women to understand how wonderful feeding their children the way mother nature designed us to is, and to reap the joy and satisfaction they felt when nursing their babies. Yes, our bodies and our babies are designed to do this, but it’s HARD and it takes a lot of work and patience to get it right. Babies may be born with a natural instinct to seek out the breast, but they aren’t always born with the ability to do it right. There were many nights where I found myself, in tears, and at a point where I understood why many so many women give up.
I count myself lucky to have a very successful breastfeeding relationship with my son and I get so much joy from it. When someone I know has a baby, I want them to know the kind of joy I have felt. So when I hear of someone who has struggled or given up, it makes me really sad. I have to remind myself that not everyone has the same support structure I had. My husband and my mom knew important breastfeeding was to me… and they both understood the benefits of it. So they never once suggested I take a break and give Tommy a bottle of formula. It sounds like such a small thing, but it is huge when you are exhausted, sleep-deprived, in pain and trying to feed a hungry baby who just can’t quite get it right. One friend of mine told me that if her mom and aunts had been more supportive, she would have stuck it out longer than just two months and quite possibly been able to exclusively breastfeed her son. None of the women in her family had ever breastfed their babies. She doesn’t blame them, but she believes she gave up too easily, and could have used someone encouraging her to stay strong rather than take a break with formula. I’m learning that this is a common occurrence among women of my generation. Our moms and aunts were having babies during the 70s ad 80s where hospitals and doctors were telling new moms that formula was better than breastmilk. So they often hear advice like, “it’s not the end of the world if you switch to formula.” or “breastfeeding is wearing you out, just take a break” Many mom’s are giving up when they think they aren’t producing enough milk, which is rarely the case. So one bottle of formula leads to another and before she knows it, her milk has dried up and she’s shelling out hundreds each month for formula… sometimes even more when other factors are considered. Sure, her son is happy and healthy, and lots of formula fed babies are. But it just takes some patience, endurance, a strong, educated support structure and the ability to trust that your body can do this… to breastfeed as long as you want to.
To end, these are some tips I offer any mom-to-be who’s about to embark on a breastfeeding relationship. These are just tips that helped me be successful… and still keep my sanity. They are in no way going to be perfect for everyone.
1. Once you make the decision to breastfeed, educate yourself on why. Why is breastmilk best? Learn how magic breastmilk is and how it adapts to your baby’s nutritional needs and changes as they get older. Learn about the way a baby should properly latch on and the different ways to hold a newborn while nursing. Learn about the supply & demand aspect of breastfeeding about how to maintain your supply. Learn everything you can about it so you can make informed decisions, even when you’re hormonal. If there are no breastfeeding classes in your area, seek out your local La Leche League and attend a meeting or two while you’re still pregnant.
2. Surround yourself with people who will support your decision. Also make sure your husband or partner is just as educated as you are on the subject. Their unwavering support is an excellent foundation for your breastfeeding relationship. At 4am when you are hormonal, in tears and don’t know what to do when your hungry baby won’t latch properly, they will be there with a suggestion on how to hold the baby differently or to rub your shoulders to help you relax. Something as simple as your husband staying up with you and encouraging you to keep going can speak volumes.
3. Take each feeding, one at a time. The struggles you had at 9am won’t be the same ones you face at 9pm, nor the successes.
4. Never give up or make a decision about breastfeeding in the middle of the night. All of the negative, hopeless and irrational thoughts brewing in my head would disappear once the sun came up. I don’t know if I was happy to have made it through another sleepless night or what. But there was something to be said about seeing the sun rise that gives new hope and energy to the day.
5. If you are struggling, seek out help. Most hospitals have lactation consultants on staff who will visit you if you give birth in a hospital. But, most of the time, they can’t or don’t give you enough advice or spend enough time with you to really help. (a common hospital booby trap) You can attend a La Leche League meeting even before you give birth to ask and questions you might have and to connect with fellow nursing moms. You can usually get contact info for lactation consultants there too. You can also find LCs online who will come to your house to offer support. Some may seem too expensive, but spending $100 on some help can prevent you from spending thousands on formula. Even if things seem to be going alright, it can’t hurt to get some reassurance that you’re doing everything right.
6. If you’ve met with a LC and you’re still struggling, go see another one, and another one… until you and your little one are getting it right. They will all have a different bag of tricks and if one LC doesn’t have a solution for you, someone else will.
The LC at my hospital stopped by for all of three minutes while my son was asleep on the day I was being discharged. She said to give her a call when he woke up and she’d let us know if we were doing anything wrong. About an hour later he woke up and we called her. She wasn’t available before we were leaving. So she was absolutely no help to us. A week later when my son spent a few nights in the NICU for severe jaundice, the LC on-call those nights was absolutely wonderful in helping me understand what was wrong with his latch. She met with me multiple times to make sure we got it right. Her patience and advice pretty much saved us from giving up.
7. I had no formula, bottles or pacifiers in the house at the beginning. I figured if they weren’t there, then they weren’t an option to fall back on.
8. When EVER in doubt, nurse nurse nurse nurse nurse. If you are ever worried about your supply, waiting for it to come in, or think it’s doing anything funky, nursing will always be the best way to keep up a good supply… even if it feels like you are nursing 24/7. There are herbs and foods that can help, but nursing is and always will be the best. Having a good breast pump can help too, but remember that your breasts are designed to feed a baby, not a machine. Your baby will always be better at expressing milk than the pump. And never, ever use pump output to judge how much milk you are producing. It will never be accurate.
9. Try your best to RELAX! I know it’s way easier said than done, especially if your baby has reflux, a bad latch, gas, anything! Babies will often sense when mommy is tense, stressed out or upset and respond in time.
10. There are a ton of books and experts who are happy to tell you about the perfect routine to follow or a method for calming a colicky baby or how to get your little one sleeping though the night. But in the end, you eventually have to tune out all of the books and experts and listen to your instinct and your baby and do what works for you and your family.