I wrote this article to share my honest experience and perhaps help other mothers who have struggled with breastfeeding feel normal should they encounter any of the same challenges.
Before becoming a mother, breasts were simply a part of my anatomy. After giving birth, however, they became an uncomfortable center of focus. They required minute-by-minute attention. They became tools for an important life-sustaining trade. I was unapprenticed. Precious son at my chest, he loudly requested that I learn what do to...and fast. The responsibility was both exciting and daunting.
As a physical therapist, I am predisposed to think that the body is trainable. There were things I could do to assist my body for a safe pregnancy and delivery. But no exercise or nutrition program could prepare me for nursing. I’d read about it. Watched instructional videos. Talked to doulas, midwives, lactation consultants, and other mothers. These were all valuable. But none of that prepared my body for how breastfeeding felt. To me, it felt like repetitive mini-shark bites. And then there was sustaining awkward positions. Practicing patience as I was immobilized for over 40 minutes. I feared disrupting the latch once achieved. That was enough to glue me in place as if by rubber cement.
This was my life. Every 45 minutes around the clock for weeks.
The raw, searing, burning, can’t- even-let-gentle shower-water-touch-me discomfort between feedings. And, beyond physical pain... was the pang of feeling inadequate.
Out of curiosity, I looked through scholarly articles. I wanted to know hoe many new mothers struggle with breastfeeding. I wanted to feel normal.
That means a whopping 87% of mothers must’ve faced some pretty significant challenges.
The phenomenon of breastfeeding was not immediately a nurturing or bonding. Although most women intend to breastfeed, rates decrease “quickly” in the first 4-8 weeks postpartum.
The majority of women do not breastfeed for the recommended period of 6–12 months. I can now understand why. Breastfeeding. Is. Tough.
I had no idea how helpless I’d feel when in-laws were visiting, and my son wouldn’t latch. Or how uncomfortable it would be to attempt letting tender places air-dry in the middle of winter. Or how distracting the ebb and flow of empty to full breasts would be. Or how it would feel to nurse with raw nipples that looked like “sliced butter” (my pediatrician’s words). This was countered by a primal determination to provide the best nutrition for my son.
Creating the proper latch symbiosis was a personal challenge. For it to work, I had to be still. I had to let go of external agendas. I had to put my independent nature on hold. It required patience and even, for me, a little bit of fight instead of flight.
When my son and I were both exhausted from unsuccessful latch attempts, I’d take a deep breath. I'd pull back my hair, cradle him behind his tiny shoulders, gaze into his eyes, and repeat, “We are OK. We are OK,” and keep trying until the latch happened. For the first few weeks, those three words became our nursing mantra. Our subtle fight song. Words I used to guide and comfort us both.
Only then, with occasional bottle feedings, did nursing gradually become better. It allowed me to heal.
During these hard times my friends never let me define myself as a failure. They reminded me that I could keep nursing if I wanted to (it really, truly does get better).
I remember my closest friends saying that they nursed their kids from anywhere from 6 to 40 months old. I couldn’t fathom it at the time. My first goal was to make it 6 months. Once we reached that, my second goal was to a year. Now, he is 20 months old, and I am open to continuing nursing as long as he’s still interested and I’m able
Studies have shown that the antibodies and immunities in a mother’s milk are more concentrated the longer she nurses. This is to make up for the fact that the child does not nurse as often. Recent studies state that extended periods of breastfeeding offer mothers protection against breast cancer.
According to Elizabeth N. Baldwin and her article on “Extended Breastfeeding and the Law”
(from Breastfeeding Abstracts, February 2001, Volume 20, Number 3, pp. 19-20.)
“Children who nurse past infancy have their own way of doing it. Many nurse for only a few minutes at bedtime, upon waking, or at nap time. Some may go days or even weeks without asking to nurse. Some wean only to resume nursing when stressful events occur in their lives, such as the birth of a sibling. When little ones get sick, most mothers find that the amount of nursing increases. Breastfeeding is primarily for comfort as children pass their first birthday, and there is nothing wrong with that. Some people may assume that if a child is nursing past infancy, it must be influenced by the mother ’s desires or wishes. To the contrary, the child is the one who determines if breastfeeding is going to continue. It is well known in the field of lactation that it is very difficult to make a child breastfeed.”
My local La Leche League, turned me on to the fascinating work of biocultural anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, phD. She has studied breastfeeding across the globe. More than any other person in the world.
Her research concludes that the normal and natural duration of breastfeeding for modern humans falls between 2.5 years and 7 years. Some children nurse less than 2.5 years, and some nurse longer than 7 years. It is quite common for children in many cultures around the world to be breastfed for 3-4-5-6-7 years, including quite a few in the U.S.
The introduction of solids doesn't always occur naturally. I've used the incorporated Baby Lead Weaning (BLW) approach. It's worked well for us.
It's helpful to set goals. But at the same time... be open to being flexible. Give yourself (and your baby) grace with those goals.
I recommend the Feeding Littles Course if you want more guidance on baby-led weaning!
If you are determined to feed as naturally as possible, know that it gets better. Don’t fear giving your baby a bottle occasionally. It may be beneficial for you, the baby, and your entire family.
Women’s bodies somehow have the potential to magically produce enough milk to sustain a sweet, tiny, voraciously hungry little human. Yet successful nursing is the outcome of surmounted obstacles. These obstacles are different for every mother. But perhaps you can relate to my story.
Nursing did not come naturally for me. For some it does not happen at all. Sustaining an infant is an act of heroism. But it's not talked about in that way. Not the way helping a senior cross the street is. I think it should be.
The magnitude of early motherhood responsibility and adaptation is significant.
It doesn't matter how you feed your baby. Determination and self-sacrifice are involved every time. The experience of feeding a newborn turns each day into a hard-earned victory. Celebrate each time.
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