Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mothering at the breast

Back in January, my baby was admitted to the hospital with a bizarre rash and swelling.  During his illness and our hospital stay, I'd say he was at my breast at least 70% of the time.  When the nurse wanted to give him an I.V. for fluids, fortunately I asked, "Are you worried he's becoming dehydrated?"  After assuring her that he was breastfeeding almost constantly, they agreed to hold off on the I.V. as long as I kept track of all his feedings and he continued to have lots of wet diapers. So they gave me a chart to mark all his "feedings."  It was kind of a joke.  When a baby is almost constantly nursing both day and night?  Ha.

One of the mornings, when the nurse asked about the feeding chart, I mentioned that it was hard to keep track in the middle of the night because he was nursing so often and sometimes I fell asleep mid-feeding and wasn't sure when it officially "ended." It was clear from her facial expression that my nursing style was totally foreign to her.  She replied, "Well, then that's not breastfeeding... that's just for comfort."

I was perplexed by her response.  What's the difference? Of course he wanted extra comfort... he was very sick, sleeping in a foreign place, being awakened repeatedly (after finally, blessedly falling asleep) for nurses and doctors to "take a peek" at his rash, being poked multiple times for blood draws and tests... of course he wanted and needed extra comfort!  But that "comfort" and my breastmilk were inseparable. Even if a baby is suckling only for comfort, the breast doesn't know the difference.  The breast responds to suckling by giving milk.

And how grateful I was that the only thing he wanted to do was nurse!  While many babies with his illness develop gastro-intestinal discomfort, blood in the stools, and other more serious problems, he never did, and I attribute that to the vast amounts of breastmilk he consumed during that time.

In my mind, nursing is so much more than "feeding."  I have never wanted to restrict my babies' suckling time to conform to when they "should" be hungry.  When one of my babies becomes distressed, the first thing I almost always offer is my breast, even if they just "ate" two minutes before.  If they don't seem interested or aren't calmed by suckling, then I try other ways to soothe them.

I was talking with a friend last week about how my babies have never taken to bottles or pacifiers.  I mentioned that my baby boy will happily drink water from a bottle when he's thirsty, and he would probably even drink milk from a bottle (though we've never tried).  The other day he found an old pacifier and sucked on it for a bit for fun.  But if someone tried to stick a bottle or pacifier in his mouth when he was grumpy, tired, afraid, or distressed, he would cast them away and only scream harder.

I am his pacifier.  I am the only answer to his deepest cries.  Nothing and no one else can give him what I can give.  Call it "just for comfort" if you want, but it's all the same to me.  In my mind you cannot separate breastfeeding, nursing, and soothing... they are all one.

There are many who would say my son no longer "needs" breastmilk or night-feedings because he's 14-months-old.  There are some who would have said he didn't need them when he was in the hospital at 9-months-old.  I say that the time when I am able to provide this gift to him will pass in the blink of an eye.  This time when only my body can comfort him is precious and fleeting.  If it means I will lose a few years of uninterrupted sleep, so be it.  If he's three years old before he's able to soothe himself back to sleep on his own, so be it.

Because of my own history and struggles with abandonment issues, there is almost nothing more important to me than establishing a secure, unbreakable attachment with my babies... telling them with my every touch and action that I will always be here... that I will never abandon them, especially when they need me the most, no matter what time of day or night.  I've never regretted one moment of nurse-comforting my children, and I feel confident that I will look back when I'm past my childbearing years with gratitude that I didn't push those precious nursing relationships away for the sake of independence or convenience.  (P.S. Moms who don't continue nursing through the second year are really missing out on the best trick up their sleeves for dealing with those daily toddler tantrums.)
Me and my almost 15-month-old nursling last weekend

I appreciate these words (shared by Sarah, one of my facebook fans) from lactation consultant, Diane Wiessinger:
Easy, long-term breastfeeding involves forgetting about the "breast" and the "feeding" (and the duration, and the interval, and the transmission of the right nutrients in the right amounts, and the difference between nutritive and non-nutritive suckling needs, all of which form the focus of artificial milk pamphlets) and focusing instead on the relationship. . . . [T]he real joys and satisfactions of the experience begin when they stop "breastfeeding" and start mothering at the breast.  (Source)
Maybe that nurse in the hospital was right, after all.  I wasn't really "breastfeeding" in that hospital, I was mothering at the breast.


Buscando la Luz said...

And, coincidentally, I wrote half of this post with that little nursling at my breast! :-)

Hilary said...

It's funny, 'cause with Annie I (at times) became almost bitter because I was a 'human pacifier' to my cranky, colicky baby -- nearly around the clock. It 'wasn't supposed to' be that way, she should take a binkie or something to alleviate some of the pressure from me or something. But, nothing worked but nursing. After a little more time and distance from those long, horrible, colicky days and nights, I came to see that time as a huge blessing for us. I needed to be her pacifier. I had this poor little upset, hurting, uncomfortable baby who could only find peace and comfort with Mom. I was able to provide her with the one thing we were fighting for . . . relief. At the same time, I was running on almost no sleep and hormones that I can't even describe, and yet I had a near flow of mood stabilizing and comforting chemicals and hormones flowing through my own system released by nursing. Nursing together is what got us through that most difficult time.
I wish I'd had more people tell me BEFORE my first that it was 'okay' to be a pacifier. Even desirable. :-) I would've been less stressed and been able to enjoy the connection from earlier on, instead of the months it took me to appreciate the relationship we'd developed. When my second came around, I was perfectly fine being a pacifier. I was Mom, and I made her happy and helped her to feel safe. There was nothing I'd rather be.
(Annie also had a HORRIBLE parasite for a month when she was around 16 months old -- she went back up to nursing around the clock, from like once a day, and getting almost all of her nutrition from breastmilk, since she couldn't keep anything down. The doctor told me repeatedly what a miracle it was this child wasn't in the hospital on an IV, and that all of her blood work consistently came back as perfectly normal, with nothing 'lacking'.)

Anonymous said...

Hear! Hear!
...mom of 3 kids who got mommymilk for 2 to 4 years each

Diana J. said...

Amen!! And thanks for the encouragement!! :)

Sarah Cleary said...

I love Annie's story, and hers and yours both, Busca, are very encouraging to me right now. My very-nearly-two-year-old still LOVES her some "nee nee" at bedtime, when she gets hurt, when she wakes crying in the middle of the night, etc. I'm expecting another baby in a few months and have been worried about breastfeeding two children at once and thinking things like, "shouldn't my toddler be more independent by now," "boy is this going to be tricky when there's two of them," and other negatives. I try to get over it by reminding myself that I'm doing what seems to be best for my own family right now, and that's all anyone can do. Plus, the nursing years are fleeting–might as well make the most of them!

Faithful Lurker said...

Love this! I am also a pacifier. I have been for 3+ years straight through two children. I wouldn't have it any other way. It is a great blessing to be able to bond with our children while comforting and nourishing them.

Faithful Lurker said...

Sarah, I tandem nursed with a 2.5 year old and newborn. The bond between those two cannot be put into words. My little girl loves to share "side" with her brother and rarely gets jealous of his alone time with me. Good luck with that transition. It is a wonderful experience!

Heatherlady said...

Thank you for this and for Hilary's comment. I've been feeling frustrated lately that, because my girl is teething, I am her pacifier. I find myself wishing she'd take her binky-- which we abandoned about about 3 months-- so I could go do "important stuff." Thanks for reminding me that this is the important stuff.

You know, my mother never breastfed me and somtimes I can't help but wonder if I would be a different person if she did. How it would have affected me? Would I feel more of a connection and love for her? Will my daughter, when she is my age, feel more love and connection to me because of the time we spend together. When, someday, she is breastfeeding her babies will it trigger memories of me in her mind? It is something I wonder about alot.

Heather said...

@Sarah Cleary:
Don't worry. The baby you're carrying will get all the nourishment he needs. And tandem breastfeeding isn't difficult. My kids are 17 months apart, and I just weaned my eldest last month, shortly after her 3rd birthday.

Here's a chuckle: We buy raw milk, and took the kids last weekend out to visit the farm we buy from. They got to watch our milk being milked out of the cow--a procedure which kids that are breastfed into toddlerhood have NO trouble understanding. Milk is cow "mem", and cows have 4 "mems". so sayeth my 3 year-old girlie. No problems figuring that out at all!

Barbara said...

Great post! I breastfeed my first while she has a bout of the flu when she was 6 months old and am familiar with those crazy charts. I got a little more encouragement at my hospital however. Also, I became known as "mommy pacifier" in my family - and somehow everyone ended up accepting it in the end (even though my mother tried not to). Best wishes!

Mother Earth said...

I miss nursing. My baby quit at age 3, but I would have kept on for another year if she wanted. Nursing through the toddler years was the best thing I ever did for her. Every time we were separated and reunited (because of ridiculous custody orders) she would want to nurse constantly, and so I let her. I know it is why she is so secure now despite all she has been through.