Note: This post is part our series in observance of World Breastfeeding Week and is sponsored by Woman’s Hospital.
My Breastfeeding Evolution
When I was pregnant for the first time in 2005, I remember always knowing that I would breastfeed. Somehow it was just a given that it was what I would do. I think at that time, it was more in a nutritional sense than a relational one. I knew it was healthy and I knew my body was designed to do it, so it just made sense. I researched and read and felt prepared in the academic sense.
It’s Go Time!
But when my son Ben unexpectedly came early, I was thrust into a challenging breastfeeding experience for which I was unprepared. He was tiny and jaundiced, couldn’t suck, and stayed at the hospital for two weeks. On the night of his birth, someone brought me a pump and told me to start pumping for him. I don’t think I realized what I was missing because I had never nursed an infant. Those first 14 days were about survival, but I pumped and he was fed by gavage at 8:00, 11:00, 2:00 and 5:00 on the dot. By the time he came home, I had a better nursing bond with the pump than I did with Ben.
Work was not an option then and I knew maternity leave would be ending soon after he came home. Scheduling became priority. We were already on a schedule from the NICU so I tried to maintain that, thinking it was best. But so much scheduling and pumping and not enough actual nursing took its toll on both of us. My supply was never quite enough. (In retrospect I know that was most likely due to dehydration and stress, and the inefficiency of a pump.) I went back to my full time job as an attorney, feeling stressed and dragging that pump along for a few months. Pretty soon, it just didn’t feel doable anymore. I went to formula at about 5 months. I was a bit discouraged, but I still felt the nursing relationship was more between me and the pump and I didn’t mind giving that up one bit. My little guy’s tummy did struggle with formula though, and for that I was not happy.
Breastfeeding: Take Two!
Two years later my second son was born and I was determined to nurse six months! At that point I had the blessing of not working outside the home and I was really able to establish a good nursing relationship with Jack. Nursing came pretty easy to us. We still kept a loose schedule, but not so rigid as the first time. I also didn’t pump as much. That allowed he and I to develop a near-perfect supply and demand that kept him satisfied, and me comfortably producing but not tied to a pump. He was a ravenous baby though, and by six months, I was weary. We switched to formula around the same time he began solids and overall, I felt good about reaching my goal.
The Grand Finale
Fast forward six more years. My boys were 8 and 6 and our baby girl was born. At that point I was 34 and more mature in so many ways. This time I looked at nursing as a privilege. Something sacred that only I could do for my daughter and only at this very moment. I think we tend to think that way about many things when we know it is our last baby. On paper, nursing number three should have been hardest. I had two other children to care for. We had swim meets and T-ball games. I had just finished a degree and was launching a new career. There was always somewhere to be and staying home to nurse in private was not an option.
But nursing number three was truly the easiest. More than ever before, I wanted nursing to be about us. It was not about pumping or nursing cover-ups or freezer stashes or the ability to say I was EBF or whether anyone else was comfortable. When people talked to me about breastfeeding, I told them that my theory was to “just nurse.” By that, I meant I fed my baby when she needed, anywhere we were, and I just let the rest take care of itself.
That became my breastfeeding worldview. Being able to strip away all the anxieties and expectations was so freeing! If she needed to nurse, I nursed. There was no regard for the clock or where we were or who cared. We nursed everywhere from Chick-fil-a to the ball field to Disneyworld. I rarely pumped, but that was fine because Lauren was with me about 95% of the time. On those one or two feedings a month where I wasn’t there, I would try to work in some pumping, but if it didn’t happen and she had an occasional formula bottle, it didn’t matter. There are no trophies in heaven with an engraved EBF on them! So I didn’t obsess over bags of milk in the freezer, or how many months I could feed her. We just nursed. Every day.
The fact that we “just nursed” without all the obsession, stress, and pressure made this final stretch of the journey a very positive and affirming experience. This had the effect of me nursing longer than I even expected. I truly looked forward to retiring to her room in the evenings and sitting in the cozy rocker in a dark, quiet room and just nursing. It was our time. Mother and daughter. She needed me and I was honored to provide. We did that for 12 months. I never would have thought that I was capable of holding out that long.
My daughter is now four years old and my breastfeeding days are forever over. As I look back over how my practices and beliefs changed, I can recognize a few things. First, I know that not everyone can “just nurse” when work or even physical challenges get in the way. That’s not the point. The point is that every woman needs to find the right fit for herself and the baby she is currently nursing. Being rigid in our beliefs about how it should be only serves to cause stress and discouragement.
Second, I firmly believe that the key to successful breastfeeding is to let go of expectations. Letting go of our own unreasonable expectations of ourselves and even more so, the expectations of others, provides the freedom to enjoy the process.
Finally, educating ourselves on breastfeeding is important. Books, blogs, and support groups can all give us knowledge to empower us. But it should always be a foundation that we build upon. When it begins to add more stress and difficulty, it may be time to step back. No one theory or practice fits every mother and every infant. The ability to adjust to what fits our baby and our family is what will lead to success.