I have shared some of this before, in my post entitled Breastfeeding Excitement: a toddler relatching after a year-long hiatus. I wanted to go over it again in more detail, since it’s World Breastfeeding Week.
There is so much bashing between mothers, mostly on the Internet. “Breast is best!” “Formula is just as good!” I’ve had women tell me that my photos of myself breastfeeding (“brelfies“) are degrading to women who can’t breastfeed. Let me tell you why I’m so proud of the fact that I’m still breastfeeding my son, just 3 days shy of his first birthday. Of my 4 children, this is the longest I’ve been able to breastfeed, even though my goal was to breastfeed at least a year with each of them. In fact, I planned to let my 3rd child self-wean. So please, sit back and listen to my breastfeeding journeys…
My first baby was born 6 days before my 21st birthday. I had kinda-sorta read a few pregnancy and baby care books prior to her birth. I had mistakenly assumed that breastfeeding would be easy. Oh, how wrong I was! The trouble began as soon as I pushed that 8lb, 12oz baby out, sunny side up, after the most horrific back labor. I tore, and was losing a good deal of blood. The midwife was worried that I’d need a transfusion. While she stitched me together and stopped the bleeding, my baby lay, crying, across the room. I couldn’t even see her. It was a good 20 or 30 minutes before I was allowed to hold her. I’m not sure how long it was until I put her to my breast, but it was likely nearing 2 hours post-birth. She wouldn’t latch, she was getting to the point of frantic crying, I was exhausted, and I didn’t know what to do. A nurse offered a sample bottle of formula. By that point, I was crying, too; not wanting to give up, physically and mentally exhausted, and feeling like I had failed and my baby was starving. So I hesitantly accepted the bottle and fed it to my baby, who readily drank it all. Later that evening, a nurse wheeled in this beast of a breast pump, hastily showed me how to use it, and left me to it. I barely managed to get a few drops out. I was devastated. I tried several more times to nurse my baby before leaving the hospital, and while a few people attempted to help, I know in retrospect that there were many things I could have tried that I wasn’t aware of. After going home, my mother in law called a lactation consultant, who offered to talk to me over the phone. I declined, being very self-conscious and unused to saying words like “nipple” and “breast” aloud to my husband, let alone a complete stranger! I tried and tried to get my daughter to latch on. Every failure was like a knife through my heart, every bottle I gave her was a reminder of my failure. I knew the importance and benefits of breastmilk, to a certain extent, and it was killing me inside to know that I was denying my baby the perfect food. I bawled my eyes out. Then, my mom and mother in law bought me a small electric pump. While it was a kind and thoughtful gesture, I hadn’t the slightest knowledge of pumping. I didn’t know that I could pump extra and save it for the middle of the night, so I pumped 2-3 oz every 2 hours, round the clock. I barely slept. To make matters worse, I had no clue that there are different sizes of flanges, or even what flanges were! I began to have very sore, raw nipples from all that pumping with too-large flanges, so I began giving my baby more and more formula. To add insult to injury, my husband had to leave just a few short weeks after our daughter was born, due to him being in the Army (long story), so I was extremely sad and stressed about that. All these things compounded and created a situation completely non-conducive to breastfeeding. Shortly before my husband left, I made the difficult decision to stop pumping. I felt utterly defeated. To make matters worse, my daughter ended up having lactose and soy sensitivities, so I had to switch formulas multiple times before finding one she could tolerate.
It has taken me over 11 years to get to the point of being able to forgive myself for not being better educated back then. For not trying harder, seeking more help, reading more, something. I now realize that I did the very best that I could with the knowledge I had at the time, and I did so out of a deep, undying love for my child. That said, I didn’t fail. Not in the least!
Fast forward a couple years, to the birth of my second baby. I was even more determined to breastfeed this time around. I had done more reading. I had realized that I have flat nipples, and that there were certain challenges attached to this type of nipple. I had read about the importance of immediately placing the baby on my breast to nurse. I had created a birth plan that included my intentions and desire to breastfeed. When she was born, the cord was wrapped tightly around her neck. She was blue; my little blueberry. She was immediately unwrapped and oxygen was made ready, but she cried right away and pinked right up! I held her within minutes of her birth, and remembered that I should let her suckle straight away. To my utter amazement and relief, she latched on, with no hesitation, and nursed with great gusto! I was so happy that I shed tears of joy! I wasn’t a failure after all! I could do this! Soon after taking her home, she began to have reflux. I quickly realized that I had an overactive letdown. It was simply too forceful for her newborn self to handle. So I began popping her off my nipple once I felt my milk let down, and I let it flow into a burp cloth for 30 seconds or so, until the initial letdown had passed. This technique worked wonderfully, and she nursed like a pro! The main problem I encountered was that I had no confidence about nursing in public. I had been shamed into thinking that I had to be fully covered while nursing, though I found covering with a blanket to be ridiculously difficult. So I resorted to retreating to the bathroom to nurse while sitting on the disgusting counter. It was such an inconvenience, and so incredibly dirty! I thought it would be so much easier to be able to just give her a bottle, so I cleaned up the breast pump that I had been given after the birth of my first daughter. Again, I had no idea that there were different size flanges. I had great difficultly in pumping any amount of milk. So I resorted to formula for going out and about, leaving her with my husband, etc. When she was about 10 mo old, I was growing weary of having a baby attached to me several times a day. I didn’t know anyone nursing an older baby, and I was under the impression from family members, friends, and medical professionals that she needed to be weaned by a year old anyway. My husband lacked knowledge of “extended” breastfeeding also, and simply encouraged me to do what I felt most comfortable with. So I decided to wean her. I went through a few days of hellishly rock-hard breasts, but she was already used to taking a bottle, and was a fairly easy-going baby, so she seemed not too bothered by the change.
Six years later, I became unexpectedly pregnant. I had recently begun my transition to a more peaceful life. Positive thinking, peaceful interactions, deep breathing, all these important things. My pregnancy this time was horrific. I had hyperemesis gravidarum. I vomited. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes, up to 10x a day. It was horrible. I could barely keep water down, let alone food. Needless to say, I spent many days in bed. And so, I read! I read about current parenting research, co-sleeping, peaceful parenting, breastfeeding, baby-led weaning…I read everything that I could get my hands on. It passed the time, and it enabled me to make conscious, informed decisions about how I wanted this third child to be raised. I decided right away that natural, child-led weaning made sense. I set my breastfeeding goal again at 1 year, but I was also determined to let this child self-wean. I was so excited to have this new chance at “getting it right”! Her birth was perfect. All-natural, at home with only my husband and my dog present. Born into my husband’s loving hands, placed immediately on my breast, cord still attached, wriggling and slimy. It was the picture of naturalism and beauty. She was a nursing pro! Everything went beautifully until…I became pregnant again at just 3 months postpartum. I knew right away that I was pregnant, though it took me a little while to realize that my milk supply immediately took a nose-dive. I quickly read about tandem nursing once I knew I was pregnant, and read about nursing while pregnant. I knew it could be done, but also that the caloric requirements would be enormous. I snacked on homemade trail mix, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate milk…anything to boost my caloric intake. What I hadn’t taken into account was the difficult pregnancy I had just experienced. My body was tired and depleted. I had lost so much weight, all my fat reserves were gone. I was anemic and probably otherwise experiencing nutrient deficiencies. Once I realized my supply was dipping, I made a list of lactogenic foods to put on my refrigerator. I wanted so desperately to be able to continue nursing my daughter. She began nursing more frequently and being agitated during and after feedings. I tried expressing milk to find that there was none. I cried. I had my husband go buy a can of formula. I hated myself, I hated my body for not being able to do what I thought it should be able to do. Once again, I was incapable of nourishing my child. I felt like such a failure. I resented the fact that I was pregnant again, although I loved my new baby from the moment I knew of his existence. I continued to nurse my daughter as often as I could. I always offered my breast first and then gave a bottle if she was still hungry. I tried pumping in between feedings to boost my supply (finally knowledgeable about flanges, but it mattered little at this point, because my body couldn’t produce enough milk). I cherished each and every time she latched, because I knew it could be the last. She soon began refusing my breast altogether, knowing it didn’t hold the nutrition she needed. I remember clearly the last time she latched on, at just 4 months old. She had refused to nurse for about a week. I had pretty much given up. I offered my breast on a whim, and she took it. She nursed for a few minutes and then was done. I still mourn that loss, but I’m so grateful for the memory. As a small consolation, she refused to take a bottle from anyone but me throughout the rest of her infancy. It was our special time together, our bonding moments. I needed that. I ended up making her goat milk formula, most of the time, because I felt that if I couldn’t give her breastmilk, this was the next-best option. It helped me cope with the situation.
This brings me to my 4th baby, my only son. Born just 4 days before my 3rd daughter’s 1st birthday, he came into this world a whopping 10 lbs, 2 oz. Also born at home, also placed directly at my breast, cord still attached, wriggling and slimy. He had an incredibly strong latch and he loved to nurse! My strong letdown didn’t bother him in the least! I had hoped that my daughter would see him nursing and somehow remember that she used to, and perhaps want to latch again, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I felt a twinge of sadness, but I didn’t want to force the issue, so I let it be. Things were going well with my son, until he began to get horrible eczema all over his body just a week after birth. I thought that it was due to the horrible heat, since we lived in a hot climate and were having problems with our air conditioner. But even when that was fixed, his eczema persisted. He began experiencing other symptoms as well. Lots of spit-up, bad gas, fussiness, weird-looking poop. I did what I always do, I researched. I immediately realized it all fit with a food allergy or intolerance. So I decided to go down the list. I eliminated dairy. Do you realize what dairy is in? We’re not just talking milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, and all the other obvious ones; but all the “hidden dairy“, too! It’s in so many products! I would have never guessed. I began to notice a marked improvement after just a week of dairy elimination, but some symptoms still persisted. So I eliminated soy. That one wasn’t terribly difficult. Avoiding dairy meant avoiding most packaged foods, and soy is an ingredient in almost every packaged food item. Then, I decided to go one step further and eliminate wheat. That one was extremely difficult. It was well worth it when, after just a couple weeks, literally all his symptoms disappeared! I had to get very creative with what to eat, but after so many breastfeeding difficulties over the years, I was more determined than ever to make this work! I was told many times how selfless I was, how others would not have been able to give up so much. In my mind, there was never any question. I would give up everything in order to breastfeed my son. For the first time, I had no supply issues, no latch issues, all the support I needed. If all that stood in my way was giving up some food and reading nutrition labels religiously, then that’s what I would do. And I did! Eventually, I was able to reintroduce each of the offending foods into my and his diet with no problems.
So here I am, after these many years, fulfilling my goal, making my dreams come true. And now you know why I’m so incredibly proud of nursing my son. Why I post “brelfies”. Why I pat myself on the back. And why I “put up with” nursing on demand all through the day and night.
This is also why I will never make a mom feel bad for using formula. Why I won’t judge her before at least knowing her story. Why I will be more supportive and encouraging than judgemental and belittling. Why I will celebrate a mother’s breastfeeding successes, whether she nursed 1 day, 1 month, or 1 year; or whether she only pumped, only used donor milk, or any other success, no matter how small.
P.S. My 3rd daughter eventually did relatch, as I talked about in the aforementioned post! I will be writing a post about that next, so stay tuned!