I swear that I’ve written this post before, but I can’t seem to find it. Hmmm. Maybe I just imagined that I did.
Though we have been out of it for a while, I still feel very strongly about breastfeeding. While I don’t go around screeching “breast is best”, I do think that if you can nurse, you should at least give it a fighting chance. I know that there are some people who really can’t, for whatever reason, but I also believe that we don’t provide enough support and assistance to help new moms through the ups and downs that come with breast feeding.
Honestly? I never thought that I would be a passionate advocate for breastfeeding. When I was pregnant, I felt a bit squicky at the thought of it. I knew a few people who did it, but no one in my circle at that time was actively nursing or was anyone I could really talk to about it. I was scared, wondered how on earth I was going to feed this little person solely from my body, but determined to try. Then Q was born and he weighed only 4lbs 9 ozs. Less than your average sized ham. He was so small, and needed to be whisked off to the NICU right away, so we never got that moment of bonding, that skin to skin contact that you always hear about. He didn’t get to root and suckle right after birth because he was being tended to, having IV’s and monitors and a feeding tube put in. I didn’t get to hold or touch, or really even see him until the next day. The nurses, however, came to me, set me up with the pump and told me to go to it. This teeny tiny boy fighting in the NICU needed my milk, and damnit, he was going to get it. I pumped and sent it down to the NICU so that it could be fed to him with a syringe, into his feeding tube. The first few days there was not enough, so it got mixed with a bit of formula, but I was determined that if I had to spend every hour of every day pumping to make sure that he had enough milk, I would.
The next 9 days were pretty much a blur of pumping, trying to get him to nurse, feeding him through the tube and then pumping again. We tried nipple shields, finger feeding, kangaroo bonding, lactation assistance from the NICU nurses and our doula. There were tears, bleeding, anger and frustration but eventually he got the hang of it enough to get a full feed in just from me. Even after he came home, we struggled and fought. I remember the day that I called the health unit in tears because he wouldn’t eat and they told me that I shouldn’t stress, because when he was hungry, he would eventually nurse. He weighed barely 5lbs at that time and there was NO way that I was going to do that. With the support of my family and my doula I kept going. Being so small, it took him a long time to nurse and he had to eat a lot. I had to pump to get my supply up and keep it up, as well as have a stock for bottles. My husband or I would feed him in the middle of the night and I would then go sit on the bathroom floor with a blanket and book and my pump. I had it down to an art.
All except the actual breastfeeding part, that is. For the first 4 months of Q’s life, every single feeding was like going into battle for me. I bled, I had blisters and cracks and latching on hurt so much that I would often nurse him and cry. And cry and cry. Sometimes I wanted to scream. It hurt so bad that I would literally clench up my hands and curl my toes and bite my lips till they bled too. But everytime I wanted to quit, I heard the voice of my doula in my head, saying “Never quit on your worst day. If you make it through to a better day and you still want to quit, then ok, but never quit on your worst day. You’ll regret it.” Every day, every single feeding of every single day was my worst day. So I didn’t quit. People around me told me that it was ok if I stopped, that I had tried my best and gone to great lengths to try and do it. But I just couldn’t quit on my worst day, I just couldn’t. So we kept going.
At about 4 months, something changed. I don’t know if it was around that time that Q was finally more like a “normal or full term” sized baby, I don’t know if we had finally found the proper way to latch, I don’t know if the stars aligned in the right way, but one day it hurt a little less and got a little easier. And then a little easier still. And a bit less painful and even easier. It finally felt a bit more natural and right and ok. We had made it. I had hung on through my worst days and had come out the other side.
After that, we were able to establish more of a nursing relationship. I wasn’t so stressed and in pain and could relax and just let it happen. Yeah, I still had to pump, but whatever. It just gave me some quiet time to read or play on my iPad and listen to music. I went back to work when he was 10 months old, and I wondered how we’d be able to keep it up. With the support of my boss at the time and my family, we were able to continue to nurse even after I went back to work. There were early morning feedings, pumping at lunchtime, after work feedings, and the like. It was doable though and we were all ok with it. After all the work and struggle and fight that we went through to get there, I made it my goal to try to nurse him to the age of 2. I had done a lot of reading and knew that the research was strongly in favour of breastfeeding until at least the age of 2, if not beyond and I was good with that.
Q loved his “mama milk” and I found it a good excuse to have some quiet cuddles and actually force myself to relax, no matter what had gone on during the day. This was our time. As he got bigger, and over the age of 1, the looks and comments began to trickle in. At the age of 18 months, I had a lot of people question our decision to continue to breastfeed. I usually retorted that it was the recommendation of the World Health Organization to nurse until the age of 2, or thanked them for their concern, but that we were just fine. I had people tell me that I was going to turn my child into a pervert or a serial killer (say what?!?) or that he was going to be completely messed up in the head from nursing at that age. I had people call me a pervert. We endured stares and tsks and judgemental glances and comments. I was told by a doctor that Q was pale and anaemic because I chose to breastfeed him past 6 months. But still we persevered.
When Q was 2 1/2, he came down with a horrendous stomach bug. I have never seen a kid so sick in my entire life. My normally bouncy, energetic boy was pale, lethargic and exhausted. He could barely lift his head up and couldn’t keep anything down. He went from 21 lbs to 16 lbs in just a few days. We saw the doctor repeatedly and ended up in the ER twice, only to be sent home. The last time we went to the doctor, I was given 8 hrs to get him to keep something, anything down or he would have to be admitted and put on an IV for dehydration. We were still nursing at the time, but were down to a few times a day. I asked the doctor if he could have breastmilk, because they had told me no milk or dairy products. When the older male doctor found out that we were still nursing, he got very excited and encouraged me to nurse continuously until something stayed in. We did, and to this day, I honestly believe with all of my heart that breastmilk and the fact that we were still nursing is the reason that he turned the corner and didn’t need to be hospitalized.
Eventually, it got to the point where Q only wanted his “mama milk” in the morning and at night. It was part of our bedtime ritual, milk and a story and a cuddle. If he was stressed or not feeling well, he would ask me for more, but understood if I couldn’t do it right away. He could tell me that he was done or that the milk was “all done” on one side. He never demanded and never tried to undress me in a lineup or anything. After all of the struggles we had, after the fights we endured, and the tenacity he showed, I didn’t feel right saying, deciding for him, when it was time to stop. People would tell me that he was just using me for comfort. Of course he was! He is a child and I am his mummy and that is what I am here for. It is part of my commitment to him, to comfort and soothe him when he is scared or sad or stressed.
I really had no set time frame for when he’d wean and that was ok. When his 3rd birthday came and went, for the most part people didn’t ask anymore. I never tried to hide it, and neither did he, but I think that people just assumed that there was no way that we’d still be nursing. Honestly though, while I didn’t hide it, I didn’t offer up the info either, for fear of being judged. Wouldn’t you, if youd been told repeatedly that you were ruining you child’s life by doing something natural and normal? Then, through the magic of online communities, I had found that I was not the only one who was nursing beyond the age of 2 or 3, and it was ok. There were people who didn’t judge me or accuse me of trying to turn my kid into a sex offender (yes, someone actually said that to me). They understood my occasional desire to have my body back but also my desire to allow Q to make the choice of when that happened. The term “extended breastfeeder” no longer felt like something I had to be wary of saying, or admitting that I was. It was great. I heard terms like “normal term or full term breastfeeding”. I didn’t feel alone with it anymore. I really wished that I had known people like this when we went through our early struggles.
The end came in the summer of 2012. I was going to be away for a week at a blogging conference in New York City, and since we were down to just once, maybe twice a day, sometimes skipping days, I figured the time was coming soon. I still wanted him to make the decision, but I was pretty sure that if he hadn’t made the decision by the time I went away, it would be made for him when I got back. Slowly, he stopped asking for “mama milk” at night some nights and if I didn’t offer, he didn’t have any. It went one day, then two and then he’d ask again and I’d give it to him. Then it was three days, then four. Then one day he was done. Just like that. He was almost 4. I felt both sadness and relief. It had ended on our terms though, at his choosing, like I wanted it to. It felt right.
I know that not everyone is interested in breastfeeding for an extended period of time, but I share my story to let people know that it is possible to continue a nursing relationship with your child for as long as it works for you. You can do it once you go back to work, you can do it through illness, you can do it if it is right for you. I’m sure that there are people who will be shrinking in horror at my story, and maybe that is why I waited so long to share it, but that’s ok. I just ask that you keep your mind open. And if you are in the midst of, or have had, a lengthy breastfeeding relationship with your child, I tip my hat to you. Virtual fist bumps if you breastfed at all or tried to. If you are struggling and don’t know what to do, reach out. To me, to a friend, to your local La Leche League, to someone. I always tell my pregnant friends that I will do whatever I can to help support them and I mean it.
For some other stories of full-term breastfeeding, please check out my friends Lisa at Spokesmama or Amanda at Lilahbility, Hillary at Hillary with 2 l’s and Andrea at Mama in the City as they share their stories. Please feel free to link up yours too, or leave a comment.