I met Wendy through a cloth diapering group I joined when Aram was a couple months old! Wendy and I bonded over our shared experience having babies born around the same gestational week, and both having suffered from Preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome (and subsequently breastfeeding after HELLP syndrome has occurred).
1. Tell us about your personal breastfeeding experience with your children.
No one ever told me that breastfeeding would be the hardest thing I would ever do.
Jack arrived at 32 weeks thanks to pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome. He stayed in the NICU for a month and went from gavage feedings to bottles and was frequently given sugar water on a pacifier. All of these things set us up to fail at breastfeeding. Instead, he was one of the very few preemies who went home exclusively breastfed. During his time in the hospital and those very early months, I absolutely wanted to give up but felt that giving him breastmilk was the one thing I could do for him that absolutely no one else could. So from day one, when I was flat on my back and on pre-e meds and sequestered in a dark room so I didn’t have a seizure, I pumped. I pumped for 20 minutes, every two hours, around the clock, without a single break. And I did it for a month.
Jack was a couple of weeks old when I was actually able to breastfeed him straight from the tap. He had nipple confusion, so we had to use nipple shields. Trying to fumble with a nipple shield while holding a fragile three pound baby with wires everywhere while the nurse is hovering over you with emergency oxygen isn’t really a recipe for breastfeeding success. I cried. A lot.
He ended up having trouble coordinating his breathing when drinking from a bottle, so I convinced the NICU doctors to let me exclusively breastfeed on demand. Believe me when I tell you that this was a rarity in our NICU. The nurses didn’t know what to do with me. One nurse actually had the gall to tell me that I shouldn’t nurse my preemie on demand because there was an obesity epidemic in America. I ignored her. In fact, I ignored a lot of negative people. I stayed by Jack’s side for two days and was able to show the staff that we could breastfeed successfully. They finally decided that he could go home.
Once home, Jack developed breastfeeding apnea, a condition where he would pass out and turn blue when he nursed. We had to revive him on more than one occasion. And the nipple confusion continued. I went from low supply to oversupply to GERD to having to go on a special diet…there was a heck of a lot of crying involved. I developed PPD. At one point, I threw one of the breast pump bottles through a window. True story.
Finally, when Jack was six months old, he finally figured things out. With absolutely no encouragement on my part, he popped off the nipple shield, tossed it to the side, and then latched on like a normal baby. I was elated! It only took six months for us to figure it out!
Things became pretty routine for us after that….sort of. I developed milk blebs, blisters, plugged ducts, cracks, vasospasm, and yeast, but we kept going. He developed preemie caries and two of his teeth chipped, so when he nursed he would leave scratches on my nipples. I constantly looked (and felt) like I was nursing Dracula.
Jack is now nearly four and a half years old, and it’s time to wean. He only nurses in the morning and at bedtime, and it was easy to gradually cut out those sessions. He’s taking the transition very well. I am the only person in my circles who has gone this long, and I’m proud of myself. Despite everything he went through, Jack never consumed an ounce of formula. I used to think that if I could breastfeed in spite of everything I experienced, then so should everyone else. Experience and perspective has changed that attitude. Watching some of my closest friends go through their own breastfeeding battles has taught me that everyone has their limits and people should be supported regardless of whether they breastfeed or not.
2. What is your view of breastfeeding in public, and why?
I used a cover when nursing in public because when you’re nursing with a shield, it’s just about impossible to be discreet (yeah, I’m a bit of a prude). And using a cover blocked out stimuli and helped Jack to focus on the task of nursing. The cover also had a nifty little pocket that I used to stash the shield. I’m hoping I can ditch the stupid cover next time around. I love it when women nurse their babies in public. I work at a children’s museum and a couple weeks ago I stumbled across a group of women who were sitting in one of our galleries, nursing their babies. It was just about the sweetest thing imaginable.
3. What is your view of sustained breastfeeding, and why?
Obviously, I’m on board with it. I absolutely despise it when people scoff or cringe at the idea of sustained (also called biological) breastfeeding. People, don’t knock it until you try it! Our civilization would not exist today were it not for sustained breastfeeding and the benefits are almost endless. It’s what our bodies were made to do. Think about it: sustained breastfeeding was the norm through the entirety of human evolution. By stopping that ingrained practice, what are we really doing to our bodies and our children’s bodies? If you want to read a solid anthropological argument for sustained breastfeeding, check out Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives. It’s excellent. I’ll even send you my copy. I never, ever thought I would go past six months, but it would have been impossible and detrimental to wean Jack at 6 months, 1 year, 2 years or even 3 years. He’s reaped all of the benefits of sustained breastfeeding, and I’m happy with that. Now that we’ve done it, it seems so natural. There’s nothing weird or sexualized about it. We waited to wean until we were both ready, and it has been a great experience overall. I couldn’t imagine forcing him to wean and taking away something that has always been such a huge source of comfort for him. We waited until the time was right for us.
So many people let ill-conceived social norms or bad advice from doctors, friends, parents, etc. influence what they do with their babies. If we just listened to our bodies and let ourselves get in tune with the bodies of our children, I think we’d see a lot more sustained breastfeeding going on and some positive changes in the overall health of our children.
4. What is your view of adoptive breastfeeding, and why?
It’s one of most amazing gifts a mother could possibly give her adopted child. I’ve experienced the benefits of nursing an infant and an older child and can only imagine how it must help the bonding process between a mother and her new child. Adoptive mothers should be educated about adoptive breastfeeding and encouraged to give it a try.
5. Is there anything you find unique about your breastfeeding story with your children?
I like my story because it has a happy ending. There were so many roadblocks and so many challenges and we managed to muddle through it all. And, as my husband puts it, we nursed for a period equal to an entire presidential term!
6. Is there anything you wish you did differently?
I would have saved myself a ton of heartache if I had accepted those darned nipple shields early-on, instead of lamenting their use. I would not have been able to nurse without them and I wish I had spent less time being angry about the shields and more time marveling over the fact that I was actually able to nurse a preemie all the way through toddlerhood.
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