Tuesday, May 23, 2017

On Feeding Babies

10 years ago when I was pregnant with my first child, I used to throw out the question to veteran moms I knew: "Are you breastfeeding?" "Did you breastfeed?" It was purely out of innocent curiosity; I had no agenda. I did not yet know about mommy wars or that lactivism was a thing. I noticed the way my sister's eyes seemed to skip guiltily away as she explained that she'd pumped for her preemie for a few weeks, but then her supply had dried up. I didn't think much about it at the time. In the coming months and years, I would learn to tread more carefully when bringing up the subject of breastfeeding, because as I was to learn it is a hot button topic. There are so many emotions, so much angst, so much guilt. There are people defending their right to breastfeed, people defending their right not to. I was blissfully unaware of all that, but soon I would find out, there is a "right" and "wrong" way to do everything when it comes to babies.

My husband and I were so excited to become parents. I wanted us to take all the classes together, to be as prepared as we could possibly be. In addition to childbirth and newborn care, we took the breastfeeding class. Walking into that classroom at about 8 months along, my intention was to try breastfeeding and see how it goes; and hopefully get some useful advice from this class. Then that instructor in her no nonsense way completely indoctrinated Tim and me into all the ways that breastfeeding was superior to formula. It was natural; it was readily available and and the right temperature; it was free; it strengthened the baby's immunity; it's good for my postpartum recovery and health. Nutritionally, she presented the choice between breastmilk and formula as the choice between wholesome home cooked meals versus McDonald's all the time (maybe an exaggeration). It left us wondering why anyone would decide not to breastfeed. My attitude changed from 'I'll try' to 'do or die', and Tim was fully in support. I didn't know it at the time, but it was going to take exactly that level of gritty determination to get me through those rocky weeks ahead. If I had set out to try, I would not have succeeded.

Delaney arrived over two weeks ahead of her due date after an uncomplicated 11-hour labor, weighing seven pounds eight ounces. We had an undisturbed hour of skin-to-skin immediately afterward, that the breastfeeding and childbirth instructors had said was critical to establishing breastfeeding. She was reluctant to latch at first, drowsy from the Nubain. Once I did succeed in getting her latched on and taking her first meal of colustrum, my feeling of victory was short-lived as she nodded off soon after. During that session, as he would with many more to follow, Tim had looked on trying to be helpful. "Is she latched on? Is she getting anything? Is she done?" I had no idea because I didn't know how this was supposed to feel.
Days passed in a blur. I was sore, so sore -- both from the third degree tear I'd sustained during the birth as well as from the initial nipple pain would be par for the course the first days of breastfeeding each of my kids. For being the natural way of feeding a baby, breastfeeding did not come naturally to me. It was so much work with a baby who seemed not want to be bothered with it most of the time. (I would learn later that this was probably the result of my taking Tylenol with codeine which is now a big no-no when you're breastfeeding and should have been then too.) She would wake up from her long slumbers hungry, then hangry -- arms and legs pumping furiously as I tried coaxing her onto the breast. Finally she would give in, nurse for a few minutes and pass right back out. I would feel sweet relief and get a short break before it was time to start the process all over again. I did not feel like myself. I was tearful a lot. After several sleepless days and nights I found myself feeling desperately tired and looking for a lifeline. All I needed was for Tim to feed her a bottle and let me sleep for a few hours. The formula samples were in the kitchen just in case. Tim, wishing to do whatever it was I needed him to do at that moment, saw the unspoken request on my weary face. He said to me gently, "I could give her a bottle, but do you really want to start down that slippery slope?" We had learned in breastfeeding class that giving a baby anything besides the breast would undermine my supply and the nursing relationship. I sighed. Darn Tim for making me think about what it is I really want! I knew the answer to that: no to even one bottle of formula. I forged on.

At one of those first pediatrician appointments when her bilirubin levels were checked and she was weighed and measured, I mentioned to the doctor what a difficult time I was having getting her to nurse. He asked me if I'd been supplementing with formula. When I said I hadn't, he told me, "Well, whatever you're doing, it's working because she's gaining." He suggested that I look into getting a lactation consultant if I still felt I needed help, but his parting words were, "Keep up the good work." I would learn that most pediatricians know very little about breastfeeding, but that the numbers on the scale tell them everything they need to know. I was considerably relieved to know that Delaney was thriving even if I felt like a mess. I had a glimmer of hope. It might not be pretty but it's working.

"What's been the hardest thing about being a mom so far?" my brother-in-law asked me one day soon after that while at a family gathering. Without hesitation I answered, "Breastfeeding!" With a shrug, he bowed out of the conversation and his wife said, not unkindly, "You know, you don't have to breastfeed." What? No cheering me on in my noble endeavor? No 'hang in there, it gets better'? It came as a surprise to learn that not everyone around me saw breastfeeding as a must; certainly not worth any amount of suffering on the mom's part.
Through sheer stubbornness, I finally wore Delaney down and made a happy nursling out of her. The two of us were a happy and inseparable pair, just the way we were meant to be. I felt such tender love and pride as I looked down at her in my arms in our glider rocker. I gave it my all and for my reward I enjoyed many easy and blissful months of breastfeeding until I got pregnant with her sister, my supply started to dwindle and it seemed like a good time to take a break before I had another newborn.

It had taken no less than my all -- days and nights and weeks devoted exclusively to learning the natural way to feed a baby. I am ashamed to say I secretly believed that women who hadn't succeeded at breastfeeding had just not tried as hard as me. The ones who didn't try at all just didn't care enough about giving their baby the best, or just didn't know any better. But life is the best teacher, and I would yet learn not to see it in such black and white terms.

We all hear "breast is best", but our society is still hostile to nursing moms in so many ways. We still hear all the time about mothers who nurse in public being asked to cover up or leave even as no one bats an eye at the amount of cleavage on TV or magazine covers. One of my other sisters, once she returned to work as a nurse after having her baby, had to find a comfy janitor's closet to pump in. At a hospital. There are many women who don't have the luxury of days and nights and weeks devoted exclusively to getting to know their babies and establishing the breastfeeding relationship, maybe because of their other children or because of their jobs. Many don't make it through the first couple weeks because adequate resources are often not available to a woman once she and the baby are home from the hospital. I remember a young Navy wife who used to live next door, who called a lactation consultant asking for help with nursing her days-old baby, and got just one piece of advice in lieu of a house call and hands-on help: "Take a warm bath with her." She'd had a c-section and really, that was the best the lactation consultant good do for her?

I am of course still an enthusiastic believer in all the benefits of breastfeeding, and I'll encourage and support other moms in any way I can; but along the way I have come to understand that the question of breast versus formula is more complicated than it seemed at first. There are those who, for reasons I can't relate to, make a different choice than me and that's OK too. No one should ever be made to feel guilty or like a failure for not breastfeeding.

I am profoundly grateful to have made it work for me. I am 17 months into nursing my fourth baby and am happy to say that the last three times were much easier to begin with than with the first, albeit still painful in the beginning. Now that this last one's a toddler we have begun the natural, gradual decline of weaning as he becomes a champion eater at the table, but I expect we'll continue on a few more months until we're ready to be done.

10 years have mellowed me out from the zealous new mom determined to everything the "right" way when it came to babies, who was painfully insecure at the idea of failing in any aspect and judgmental about the choices of others. I've been humbled by the many ways I've messed up and I know I'll continue to be. The right way to feed a child, just like the right way to get them to sleep, get them to do their homework, stop fighting, is to do the best you can and do it with love. I've got an almost-10-year-old, 8-year-old, 5-year-old, a 17-month-old, and about a thousand more gray hairs. If my brother-in-law were to ask me today what the hardest part about being a mom is, he'd get a much different answer. Feeding a baby is only the beginning.

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