My son Conan is pretty much weaned now, at 13 months. It’s been about a week since he last nursed, and he’s perfectly happy without it. I have mixed emotions about it — on the one hand, it is SO liberating, but on the other hand it’s the end of a really close part of our relationship, a connection we will never have again. But time moves on, and my little guy is rapidly metamorphosing from a baby into a toddler.
Thinking back on my early experience of breastfeeding, the thing that really jumps out is that I never, NEVER believed that we would make it through a whole year. For the first 2.5 months nursing was excruciatingly painful for me. Besides the physical pain, I felt like a total failure because I was constantly in a state of dread regarding the next feeding. A good mama would WANT to feed her baby, right?
That special one-on-one nurturing bonding time that I had so hoped for during pregnancy sure took a LONG time to materialize. I nearly gave up on so many different occasions. In retrospect, only my sheer stubbornness and a sort of twisted sense of maternal self-sacrifice kept me going. Now, a year later, I’m glad I did. Because as horrible as the first couple months were, the later months really did make up for it.
In all my obsessive pre-birth reading and preparation, I didn’t really spend any time at all thinking about breastfeeding. Oh, I looked at a couple of diagrams, knew that colostrum came first and that it was common to experience a little nipple tenderness, etc, etc, but I just sort of assumed it would be easy. I never questioned whether I would or wouldn’t breastfeed, it was just the natural choice — why wouldn’t I? I’m a mammal. I don’t have any body hangups or physical conditions that would prevent it, so how hard could it be?
The answer: Really, really hard.
A big part of the problem (I think) was that we got off to a bad start. Because Conan’s birth was so hard and because I lost a lot of blood, my milk didn’t come in for almost a week. He got pretty grumpy about that, so we started giving him formula from a little syringe-tube thingy that was taped to my nipple. The idea was that he’d think he was getting the milk from the boob (not a bottle) and the nursing action would help stimulate my milk to come in.
Well, you can’t trick a baby, not even a newborn. Within just a few days he knew the good flow came from the little tube taped to the nipple, and he’d wait for it. (That little tube was a serious pain to mess with in the middle of the night, too.) So, as soon as my milk supply seemed to be solid, we went cold turkey off the tube.
Things seemed to be working out OK at first, but Conan was really, really aggressive when it came to nursing. He’d turn his head and snap his jaws down hard on the nipple like a predator pouncing on unsuspecting prey, and he’d jerk back and turn his head without letting go. He’d suck so hard the nipple would be deformed and bloodless after a feeding. My nipples cracked, bruised and bled. Even with tons of pumping, I could only sit out one or maybe two feedings a day — never enough to really recover.
Bad as it was, the pain from the nipple damage was nothing compared to the pain of the milk let-down though. Have you ever run barefoot through the snow and then jumped into a hot tub? You know that burning sensation as the capillaries in your feet expand to allow blood to rush back into them when you hit the hot water? Well, that’s not unlike the burning sensation I experienced every time the milk ducts and milk tubes in my breasts activated and expanded to carry milk to my hungry boy. It felt like being stabbed with burning knives.
I consulted with lactation experts, my midwife, trusted friends, family, la leche league, online breastfeeding forums, and everyone I could think of that might have a solution for us. I tried every possible way of holding Conan, adjusting his latch, nipple shields and creams and pads. Eventually with the help of a prescription cream I was able to heal the surface of the nipples, but the let-down pain persisted. I cried nearly every time Conan nursed. I made fomula bottles for him and then steeled my nerves and cried while I poured them out.
And then one day, in early February, it stopped. It just didn’t hurt anymore. My body finally got used to the flux and flow of the milk through my breasts and it was OK. There was no solution, only time. It was wonderful. Finally, I could nurse my baby and just enjoy how sweet he looked in my arms, greedily gulping milk.
Now, maybe I should end my narrative there, on that happy note. Unfortunately, just a few weeks after we finally got breastfeeding under control, we found out that Conan had stopped gaining weight. He wasn’t getting enough to eat. Arggg! I tried herbs (teas, extracts, caplets, the works), and when that didn’t help enough, even a prescription medication to increase my milk supply but it made me crazy (as in twitchy-and-bug-eyed-insomniac-on-speed crazy). And so, after many weeks of putting myself through hell in order to AVOID giving my boy formula, I ended up giving him formula. That was an emotional wrencher, let me tell you.
So from about three months of age, Conan would nurse first and then we’d offer him a bottle with formula to top him off. It worked out really well. I went back to work full time last spring and pumped three times a day for many months. I even took a pump with me when I traveled to Chicago for a conference, thought I can’t recommend a pump as a traveling companion, nor airport bathrooms as pumping locations. Pumping is quite a hassle in general, so gradually I cut back. Sometime in the late summer I stopped pumping entirely. It was tough at first to make it all the way through the day without relieving the pressure, but eventually my body adjusted again.
By November we were only nursing once a day, as part of the bedtime routine. I wondered how or if we would ever eliminate nursing from that without completely wrecking bedtime (NOT something to trifle with!) or Conan’s good sleep habits. But it just sort of handled itself. He really started to cut back the amount of time he spent nursing before asking for his bottle and eventually he just wanted the bottle.
It’s been a week now since the last time he nursed, and he’s sleeping just fine and my body is fine with it.
Like I said earlier, I’m really glad I stuck with nursing through those first awful months. But I also learned a LOT about myself (like, wow, I am REALLY stubborn) and had to examine some of my assumptions and judgements around what it means to be a good mom because of the difficulty we had. I’m sure it won’t be the last parenting obstacle that comes along, and maybe it will help me handle the next ones with a bit more grace.
But probably not.