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July 13, 2012

Along about four months, the most amazing thing happened. Alban got hungry, and I fed him. Voila. No fuss. No big production. No pillows. No pain. No tears. Just a happy baby and a happy momma.

It was a few days later when I realized what had happened. We had finally achieved an easy breastfeeding relationship, something I wasn’t sure was ever going to happen, and about which I had copious amounts of anxiety for months, practically from the point I found out I was pregnant. One month later, I was able to donate 72 oz. of frozen milk to a brand new family who had gotten off to a rocky start with dehydration. If ever there was something to be grateful for, this is it.

In recent years, there has been more and more of a push to breastfeed. “Breast is best,” as they say. And it is, but although we are a nation of breeders, we are not exactly a nation of breastfeeding supporters.  There are plenty of places where you’d be hard pressed to find a nursing mom in public, and there is a reason that the “attachment parenting” cover of Time stirred up so much controversy. For many of us, seeing a baby, much less a toddler, eating “the way nature intended” is downright weird.

Even five-plus months in, it’s still a little weird for me. This little person gets ALL his calories and nutrition from milk I make. How is that possible? How does a human subsist, nay, thrive, on only milk? And he is enormous! (OK, that’s an exaggeration. He’s still on the growth chart, but he’s closing in on the 90th percentile.)

But, given all the research about how it helps with immunity and nutrition and obesity and, yes, bonding, I was determined to give it a go. I think we have succeeded because I went in absolutely dedicated to it, I had the luxury of mostly staying home past six or eight weeks postpartum, and everyone around me was fully supportive. No one told me it was weird or wrong, or my milk was bad, or I didn’t have enough milk.

Frankly, the only time anyone has ever said anything remotely negative was a church one Sunday. The usher (a woman), asked me to cover up despite the fact that I was nursing in a carrier (so pretty much covered), sitting in a pew, and had even covered my shoulders by wearing a sweater that day. It happened to be Passion week, and I neglected to remember that the service would be way longer than usual, but don’t I get points just for showing up with my still-practically-a-fetus-and-counting-age-by-weeks-baby, oh Church-that-endorses-and-encourages-procreation? Anyway, I now nurse in public whenever Alban is hungry. It is legal to feed your baby wherever it’s legal to have your baby with you, and if you’ve ever heard Big A when he’s hungry, you’d be urging me to hurry it up, possible boob-flashing be damned.

Yet, our nursing relationship didn’t start out so smoothly. As I said, it took four months before I noticed it had become really easy. Here’s a little thing not many people talk about: inverted nipples. You just assume if a woman has breasts, she’s got Hollywood-style  nipples. I have never seen a naked breast with inverted nipples on screen. But it’s not that uncommon to have one or both inverted or “flat.” Sometimes they can evert, sometimes not. I had one that was more or less flat, and one that was pretty inverted, but could still evert. Ladies, if you have this particular biological variation, ask your health care providers about it before you get pregnant and are worried about nursing! Not one doctor had ever talked to me about my future breastfeeding potential before I got pregnant. I find this both appalling and sadly unsurprising given how few people seem to know what they’re talking about when it comes to this subject.

Fortunately for me, my midwife took an immediate interest in helping give me the best chance for successful nursing. She developed a protocol that involved several weeks of wearing breast shells during the day towards the end of my pregnancy, manual stimulation, and using a “latch assist” device once my milk came in. These all worked to varying degrees, but the La Leche League lady who said a baby could pull a nipple out of your neck was right – the best everter ever was Alban.

As I may have mentioned, my baby is a good eater. We never had any nipple confusion, or trouble giving him a bottle. If he is hungry, it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from, as long as it’s coming NOW. Thank. Goodness. The real lifesaver once my milk came in was the nipple shield. Now, if you read much about breastfeeding, you will probably come across a bit of information about using these, all of it contradictory. “Use it, it’s great” to “avoid at all costs.” Baloney. I think in parenting there are levels of success and “rightness.” On the breastfeeding spectrum, zero breast milk is not ideal, and on-demand perfect-latch with no pain until your baby self-weans after at least a year can seem at the beginning like the stuff of legend. However, real life rarely lives up to our expectations. In my case, on the scale of rightness, I required a shield for a few weeks until Alban learned to control his head, and my nips decided to cooperate and evert enough for him to get a good latch every time. He was getting plenty of milk, so it wasn’t a matter of me being stubborn for the sake of pride. I just really wanted to be able to leave the house without panicking that he would get hungry and I would not be able to feed him, despite having two fully functioning breasts right there.

The thing about using a breast shield for nursing is that it is super messy. Milk gathers in the shield. The baby unlatches. Milk goes everywhere. Baby decides he’s done, but your milk keeps flowing. Milk goes everywhere. Milk comes out too fast and baby gags. Milk goes everywhere. As he got better head control, I was able to sometimes nurse without the shield. Then more often without it than with it, until one day I realized that we hadn’t needed it in weeks.

The same process occurred with the nursing pillow I finally got after three weeks of cross-cradling Big A’s giant head gave me major pain in both wrists. The My Brest Friend pillow was indispensable for several weeks, and then suddenly seemed unnecessary.

For us, six weeks was the milestone when I noticed he could control his head better; eight weeks felt like we mostly knew what we were doing; ten weeks felt like we were in a pretty good rhythm; three months seemed like I had a baby rather than a fetus; four months things finally felt good and like we had achieved a new normal.

One big drawback to not having a breastfeeding culture is that no one told me breastfeeding would mean constantly being covered in milk, and having your whole house smell like it. I thought it would be this beautifully efficient thing where I would feed my baby, we would get a few minutes of QT, and life would go on. As we approach something more or less approximating this ideal, I still smell like milk 85% of the time because leaking, dammit. Oh, and spit-up. My baby is a spitter. Make no mistake. If you spend a lot of time with an infant, you will touch, smell, clean up, and get milk/pee/poop on you on a regular basis. Fact.

But back to leaking. The double let-down is the second stupidest reflex in the history of human reflexes after that moronic Moro reflex that makes infants think they are falling off of their hairy ape mommas and flail their arms, waking themselves in the process. Seriously, why does my body think both breasts need to release milk at the same time? I am only nursing one baby. And, why doesn’t my body know not to make so much during the night? As Alban sleeps better and longer, I am often awakened not by his crying, but by my laughably full breasts and a puddle of milk in my bed. [Confidential to expectant parents: don’t invest in a new bed or fancy bedding until after the baby is weaned and potty trained. 2015: I’m looking at you.] Needless to say, supply is not an issue for me. I recently read that typically supply regulates after 6-12 weeks, but if you have oversupply it can take 6-9 months. So I guess there is more milky laundry in my future.

As for all the bonding, it’s not so great to be seen as a 24-hour buffet. Babies eat quite often, as it turns out, and stuff still needs to get done, people. I have seen my husband, parents, in-laws, brother, and friends feed Alban with a bottle, and he seems perfectly content to “bond” with them over his plastic BPA-free milk delivery system. I officially don’t think breastfeeding moms get extra bonding credits. Most of the time when I’m feeding him, I’m doing at least one other thing besides just staring at his cute little nose or pudgy thighs, or gazing into his eyes. He might as well be taking a milk bong hit from a hamster cage feeder set-up. Does that make me a terrible mom? I vote no, because I still take time every day to marvel at his antics and admire his growing parts and notice his new tricks, just not when he’s eating. Eating is so much business in this house.

I think breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do for your baby, health-wise. Whether from you or from a bottle, if you can stand the agony of engorgement, the annoyance of pumping, and get over the initial weirdness, I highly recommend lactation. Plus, when you nurse, it’s always the right temperature, you never run out, and it’s cheaper than buying formula. However, it is also hard. Really hard. Not many moms do it for the recommended time hard. Some moms only pump hard. Never do it in public hard. I’m incredibly fortunate to have had the time to figure it out and a lot of support hard. Thankful I never got mastitis or thrush or cracked nipples or a supply problem hard.

I never considered not doing it, but I’m really looking forward to the day when Alban starts solids because he will be that much closer to the day he decides he’s done. That will not be a sad day.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2012 8:46 am

    I’m doing the on-line lactation course for doulas. What you say is sooo right on. Can I share this with the couples in my childbirth class? We don’t think about our bodies be ‘productive’–making something. So birth and making milk were startling to me as I got to know the capabilities of my own physical being!

    • Betsy permalink*
      July 27, 2012 9:35 am

      Of course! Anything I post here is shareable. Just be sure to attribute. 🙂

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