I had breastfed for over two years total (combined between two babies) before anyone ever shamed me for doing it publicly. For many months I’d nursed in parks, at friends’ homes, in stores, in parking lots, in restaurants and cafes, in libraries, zoos, beaches, in my car, whenever and wherever Baby got hungry, he ate. And people seemed to get it. No one ever batted an eyelid. (Okay, there was one creepy landscaper who would often crane his neck to get a glimpse of us in the car just before I dropped Baby #1 at daycare in the morning, but that’s about it.) I suppose it’s a testament to a Hawaiian culture that’s both laid-back and accepting of babies and children. Hopefully breastfeeding is becoming normalized all over the country too.
Still, the single shaming incident stung. The young woman looked like a stereotypical Honeymooner – in her 20s with her manicure and trendy shoes, out of place in Maui’s beach culture. She and her new groom were seated a few tables away from us in a casual restaurant. My 10-month old (Baby #2) got fussy, so when it became clear that nothing else would do, I offered what I knew he really wanted. When I was brand new to nursing, I was shy about doing it in public, running to my car or messing with nursing covers. But I quickly discovered that in Hawaii eating in cars or under a blanket is extremely hot and uncomfortable. In fact, the cover ends up being LESS discrete, because Baby just bats it away, making everything a lot more awkward and exposed. These days I’m a seasoned veteran, and Baby’s head and my shirt keep everything pretty well hidden.
So when I saw the young woman gasping in scandalized horror, and then pointing me out to her new husband (who apparently is the mature one of the two and refrained from indulging her by turning around to look), I almost couldn’t believe it was happening. Seriously, if this new bride can’t handle a baby breastfeeding in a cafe, then I don’t know how she’s going to handle family life when shit gets really real. Like literally real shit. In the delivery room. But I realize now that the reason her response stung is because while she temporarily shamed me for doing something natural and frankly necessary, the journey to breastfeeding was one that I fought hard for. In the moment, my reaction was to feel color rise to my face in shame and anger, but I didn’t react. I was more intent on soothing my baby than meeting her eyes with a what-the-fuck-is-your-problem glare (which I should’ve done). But what I really wish is that that naive young bride with a lifetime of family struggles ahead of her could know the journey that led me to breastfeed my baby that day. She can’t, but I can still get it out, and share it with anyone who might be interested, or who might be having struggles of their own.
Our first son was born after a very long labor, lots of pushing, and finally a C-section. When it was time to meet we were both exhausted. I held his soft, tiny body to my bare chest, but he wasn’t yet interested in sucking. The nurses encouraged us to get to the business of nursing quickly, and before long I held his tiny head against my nipple. He seemed to know what to do, opening his little mouth like a hungry bird, but he just couldn’t seem to get a latch. Over and over we tried, with different nurses and lactation consultants pinching, squeezing, shoving my nipples into his mouth, trying to help him get a hold on it. But nothing. A few times he would get a hold on it, and a suck or two, but lose it within a few seconds. I was in a great deal of abdominal pain from the surgery, confined to the bed, but still I held him in my lap and pulled and prodded my breasts and nipples, trying to help him get a grasp. His perfect little face would crumple in frustration as he grew hungrier and more determined, yet couldn’t quite get it. This happened over and over for hours.
He was born in the morning. By the wee hours of the next morning, the nurses convinced me to give him formula. While I kept trying to nurse, they continued to give him bottles of formula throughout our hospital stay, not always telling me when they did so. He grew less determined to suck from me. The chances we had of nursing were certainly compromised once that easy bottle was introduced, though I’m not sure what, if anything, I would’ve done differently in retrospect. It’s easy for lactivists to give woulda, coulda, shoulda’s, but any mother who witnesses her tiny baby in his first day in the world shrieking in frustration for nourishment will give it to him any way she can.
Yet I was determined to provide him with breastmilk. I called the number of a lactation consultant/RN I’d found in a pamphlet, and on her day off the busy mother met me at the hospital to show me how to use my breast pump and provide me with parts I was missing. Jessica was Angel #1. That began the stressful journey of (mostly) exclusively pumping and bottle feeding, so he could get breastmilk. (I continued working on his latch using a nipple shield. But he was sucking literally around the clock without appearing to get satiated at all. So after an exhausting first 10 days I gave in to the pump 100%.) To someone who hasn’t been through it, replacing nursing with pumping might not seem like such a big deal. You pump, you bottle feed, so what? But, to a new mother, it was a very big stressful deal, and here’s why:
- Newborns feed around the clock. Every 1.5 to 3 hours. Since the pump sometimes doesn’t stimulate milk production as effectively as a baby, I decided to pump at least as frequently as my baby wanted to eat. I lived by the clock. Every hour and a half everything stopped for that pump. After pumping, then came feeding. Then cleaning the bottles/pump parts. I sometimes felt the pump was a twin. There was very little time for anything else, because everything was about feeding. Although some do it, I can’t imagine any mother with multiple children trying to exclusively pump for a newborn.
- One of three things happen, and none are that great: A. Baby wants to eat at the same time as you have to pump, in which case you try to pull double duty, which is awkward/uncomfortable/even bordering on dangerous if you’re having a hard time safely holding both baby and pump. B. Baby decides he wants to eat WHILE you’re pumping in which case you either have to stop prematurely or he has to cry and wait. C. You manage to space it out so they’re not overlapping, in which case you will feel you are nearly always doing one of the two (the twin feeling).
- Because Baby isn’t stimulating production, but pump is, you become extremely stressed and paranoid about production.
- Unless you want to pump while you’re out and about in public and walk around with a cooler, you are stuck at home. all. the. time. I absolutely hate the feeling of never being able to take more than an hour away from home, and later learned it plays a big role in my mental health. Homebody I am not.
None of these things ease that vulnerable early postpartum stage. Bottom line, I found exclusive pumping awfully stressful. Besides this, our son spent much of those weeks distressed and in discomfort. He didn’t sleep well. He spit up frequently and large quantities. He was hard to console, needing near constant bouncing. I was never diagnosed, but I believe I had at least a mild case of postpartum anxiety, and much of it was due to feeding troubles.
When our first baby was only about five weeks old, and I was firmly entrenched in the pumping conveyer belt, I went to a friend’s house to talk story. She was a new mother herself, with a 7 month-old. It was nice to see another adult (which was rare and very missed in those days). But within moments of arriving, I was already obsessively checking the clock. That pump was anxiously awaiting my return home. Plus, I had nothing to give my son should he get hungry or need comforting.
During the hour or so I was there (no time at all! I needed so much more!), my friend’s 7 month-old went twice for her breast, and each time she leisurely offered it, easily returning her attention back to the conversation within moments. It seemed the most natural thing in the world, and so utterly foreign to me. But that’s what it’s supposed to be like, I thought. I told her how easy she made it look, how much I wanted that too, how much I hated that I was stressing about the “twin” at home and how terrible I felt that that was the best I could do for my son. Her response: “Oh girl! Get help!” I called my healthcare provider as soon as I got home and made an appointment with a lactation consultant.
I went in to the clinic, expecting a repeat of the hospital experience. Pulling, prodding, sweating, yanking, squeezing, and no latching. The lactation consultant Juliet (Angel #2) was everything the hospital nurses weren’t: warm, patient, relaxed. She didn’t have any checklist to mark off or other patients to juggle. She took a few minutes to try shoving my nipple into his mouth and watch what he did with it, but it was almost just as a diagnosis. She didn’t mess around forcing anything, or getting anybody all worked up with frustration. Instead, she busted out a “supplemental nursing system.” In all my late-night googling, distressed breastfeeding forum messages, phone calls and emails to experienced mama sisters, I never came across mention of this tool. Juliet explained that it was invented to help exceptionally determined adoptive mothers who want the bonding experience of breastfeeding. But, it turns out it can be a godsend to struggling mothers like me too. It gave our little one the incentive by giving him some “easy” food through the tube, but also trained his little mouth to latch onto my nipple. In our case, the bottle really had spoiled him from working through the hard work of latching. (Maybe in the five weeks he grew, his mouth/tongue strengthened?)
In any case, it took about three sessions with the supplemental nursing system, one with Juliet and two at home, and he was able to latch on his own – my nipple was enough for him! Then followed the painful days (nearly two weeks) of raw and blistered nipples (around the second or third day pretty excruciating but gradually subsiding), but it was worth it for the blissful freedom being able to nurse afforded.
Those first weeks of motherhood were spent under a cloud of exhaustion and stress. Juliet lifted our cloud, and I was finally able to get to the business of enjoying my son, adopting a new realistic lifestyle that involved a new tiny human (and didn’t involve being kept captive at home strapped to a breast pump). Our son’s tummy troubles and colic seemed to greatly improve (he was a “happy spitter” for a good nine months, but the grumpiness and crying greatly improved when he could nurse), and he was able to return to sleep much quicker after middle-of-the-night feedings.
Now in a much happier mental place, it was time to go back to work and back to the pump part-time. Thanks to the support of my employer and coworkers, we were able to continue breastfeeding for over a year. Pumping at work was not like pumping at home. There was no baby to juggle. Yes, it was inconvenient, and cut into my lunchtime, but it was manageable, and nowhere near as stressful as in those first weeks. It was rewarding to drop the baby off at daycare every morning with two fresh, full bottles. I’d go home, clean everything up, and do it all over again the next day. We went on like this until he was 15 months. By then, he had become less and less interested in the breast, and more and more interested in whatever we were eating. We gradually cut down on daytime feeds, and then nighttime feeds tapered off as well. It was a mutual and natural ending. One evening at bed time, I realized he probably didn’t care one way or the other if he nursed. With a twinge of sadness I rocked him to sleep without it, and quietly, gently set him down in his crib. It was over.
He’d still wake up through the night, but we began giving him bottles of organic whole milk. (I know this is a huge no-no, but please let me know if you’ve got a better idea of how to soothe a baby demanding food.) Before long we started cutting the milk with water, eventually blaming the “dentist’s orders” on the 100% water cups we finally gave him. (He didn’t sleep through the night until after his younger brother was born, so I’m at 3.5 years and counting without a full 8 hours of sleep. Sounds bad, but you adapt.)
After the battle to breastfeed we’d been through with Baby #1, my mind was completely open about #2. I know every baby is different. Would there be more latch problems? Supply issues? Infection? Thrush? What curve ball would we be thrown this time? Turns out, none! It was smooth sailing from Day One. He knew what to do. I knew what to do. (I actually credit Baby #1 for paving the way, because I swear my nipples had become…. easier to grab onto after over a year of nursing.) So it’s been another 14 months and there’s not much to add to the story. After my experience with Baby #2 I can see where the “breast is best” sanctimony can come from. But thanks to our experience with Baby #1, as with all things related to babies, children, and parenting, I know we’re all presented with unique tools and challenges. I am glad we were able to persevere for my own sanity, but not everyone would find the breastfeeding path as beneficial as I did, nor does everyone even have the option to try.
A friend recently asked how long I plan to keep going. I don’t have a plan. With #1 stopping was pretty seamless. It was time for both of us. #2 is also showing all the preferences for “real food” as his brother did and less and less need for the comfort of nursing, so hopefully it can be another gradual, smooth farewell. But who knows? All I know is that when our breastfeeding days are over, it will be on our own terms. And to the young woman on her Honeymoon: I don’t know what challenges lay in store for you as you embark on your new life as a wife and possibly mother, but I do know there will be challenges. The way you’ll get through them is with the support of your friends, family, and community. I’m grateful that by and large my community has always supported my choice to breastfeed.
Below is Baby #1 nursing the day we got married and Baby #2 nursing a few weeks ago.