My first experience with breast feeding came in the office of my OB/GYN at a prenatal check-up nearly 8 years ago. I was 18 years old and had no idea what I was getting myself into. But as I lay there on the table while the doctor took his measurements, he asked me the question that would change the course of my life forever. "Do you plan on nursing? It's the best thing for your baby, you know."
That was the question that stopped the world spinning, if only for a moment. I remember thinking in my head Do people actually still do that? Looking back on that moment in time, I have to laugh. But the truth is... we live in a bottle feeding culture. And as it happens, I came from a bottle feeding family. My grandmother bottle fed all 4 of her kids. They were born in 1960's when formula was all the rage and only poor mothers fed from the breast. My own mother tried nursing me for a torturous 6 days in 1985. From her stories, I know that she and I suffered from a bad latch. But no one would help her. Doctors and nurses alike would tell her to "just keep trying" and lactation consultants were basically unheard at the time. She put me on formula on day 7 of my life and told me how I went from a "screaming, angry baby to a happy, smiling baby overnight." So when my sister was born 4 years later, my mother never even tried.
So back to that moment in time. After the initial shock to my system, I looked at my doctor and said "Sure, I'll give it a try. I want to do what's best for my baby." Of course I did. Doesn't every mother? Interestingly enough, even with that in mind, I went home and really didn't give it any more thought.
Fast forward a few months. My beautiful daughter, Maia, was born in June of 2004. I put her to the breast for the first time within an hour after she came into the world. There were 2 lactation consultants on staff as well as a couple of helpful nurses who really came through to get her latched on. We had a nice, strong beginning in the hospital and I am grateful for that.
Going home was a somewhat different story. My milk came in on day 5. I was engorged and sore. I just wanted Maia to empty those poor, aching globes! She fed constantly, but it seemed like she couldn't keep up -- almost as if she were choking! And soon after each feeding, she would projectile vomit all over the room. I called the nurse's station at the hospital crying and asking if my poor daughter was allergic to my milk. Was formula the answer? Did I already fail at giving her what was best? The nurse kind of chuckled at my question. She assured me that this was normal. She told me I probably had what was called "over-active letdown." She recommended that I buy a small hand pump to empty just a bit of milk off the top and then offer the breast to Maia afterward. Miraculously, it really helped! Although it didn't eliminate the spitting up completely, it was now at much less alarming quantities!
With this initial hurdle put behind us, I set myself a new goal. I was going to "try" to nurse to 6 weeks. It's amazing how quickly 6 weeks flies by. During this time we had very few issues, though I quickly learned that both Maia and I got a lot more sleep if we slept together. I became a believer in the power of co-sleeping for a nursing baby from a couple of weeks old on. After 6 weeks, I again set a new goal of 3 months. At 3 months I was going to be returning to work and college, so I would re-evaluate then.
Maia was 3 months old before I knew it. I went to a WIC appointment around this time and was made to feel like a complete superstar for making it that point with breast feeding and NO supplementation. I was encouraged to continue nursing even with my return to work and was given a double electric breast pump to help me express my milk for Maia to drink while I was away.
My return to school and work was very emotional for me. Although I was never away from her for more than 6 hours at a time, I missed her a lot. Luckily, my college campus had a room in one of the buildings set aside for nursing and pumping mothers, so I was able to express without an issue. I ran into very few issues at all from 3 months on. My 3 month goal became 6 months and then 6 months became a year. However, around the 9 month mark, I began noticing a substantial dip in my milk supply. I wasn't able to keep up with how much she was drinking and the freezer supply was dwindling.
About this time, I turned to a breast feeding community on Live Journal for some answers. The ladies of the group recommended that I increase my water intake and begin taking Fenugreek capsules to re-establish my milk supply. To my surprise, the suggestions worked -- and I didn't at all mind walking around smelling like maple syrup while on the supplements either! The Live Journal group became my saving grace through Maia's biting stage and plugged milk ducts and blebs. Soon enough, I'd reached my goal of 12 months. And like most breast feeding moms in this country... I weaned my daughter.
Okay. No I didn't. The truth there is... I got to 12 months and said, "What reason is there to stop now?" Over the course of a year, I'd learned that breast milk cures a lot more than hunger and thirst. It cures fear, anxiety, boo boos, sleeplessness and illness... among other things. What an amazing tool. What an amazing bond. My biggest challenge at this point was dealing with friends and family who loved to ask me constantly when I was planning on weaning. Most seemed confused and even sometimes disgusted that we would nurse past a year. The reactions got stronger the longer we nursed, but eventually -- the question stopped coming. People learned that they were not going to change my mind. Maia would wean when she was ready.
When Maia was 18 months old, she began staying overnight twice a month with her father. I was concerned this might make her wean prematurely, but she always came back to the breast and it was often the first thing she asked for upon returning home to me. Over time, twice a month became every other weekend for the full weekend. She did start to taper off and in frequency of nursings, but she still loved her "num nums." Then one weekend when she was 3 years, 7 months old, that changed. She returned from her dad's and did not ask to nurse. She did not ask that night. Or the next day. Or for four days after that. On the fifth day, I knew. She had weaned herself with no help from me. My baby was a big girl now.
I cried. I cried like a baby. I cried for a long time in mourning the end of this stage of my little girl's life. And then I rejoiced that she was given the opportunity to decide when she was ready to let go and take the next step into independence. It's a choice the vast majority of children, in this country especially, will never get. This is not to say anything negative about the mothers who don't buy into child-led weaning. It's not for everyone, but it was right for us, no doubt.
I am now mom to a son as well. Eli will soon be 15 months old. I don't know where the time has gone. The journey has been very different with him as I'm a stay-at-home mom now. Apart from a bad latch in the beginning and one plugged duct a few weeks ago, our obstacles have been very few. Sometimes I wonder how long he'll decide to nurse for or what lays on the road of nursing fun ahead!
Maia loves to watch her brother nurse and laugh at his toddler nursing acrobatics. And sometimes, she'll snuggle up beside me and tell me that she remembers when she used to drink milk from me. How special. I can only hope that she'll remember her own nursing experience and that of her little brother's. And if some day she has children of her own, I pray that they will be blessed with a beautiful nursing relationship like the ones I have enjoyed with my children.
So that's my story. I've come a long way from "They still do that?" Of course they do. That's what breasts are for.