This is the long overdue continuation of my last breastfeeding post….
It took me a long time to appreciate the advice that my friend gave me: that I didn’t have to be perfect at breastfeeding; I just had to do what worked best for me and Baby Boy.
At various (many!) times throughout my 10+ months of breastfeeding, I have felt inadequate and ashamed due to my breastfeeding failings, some of which are probably unavoidable, but many of which I suspect I could have fixed if only I’d worked hard enough. I have often worried that other moms were judging me when in a group setting, I was the only one who pulled out a bottle to feed my baby while everyone else pulled out their breast (even as I told myself that the fancy Medela bottle I was using should clearly signify that I was feeding my baby breastmilk which was just as good as what their babies were getting).
When comparing breastfeeding notes with the “true” breastfeeding moms [i.e. those women who can pop a breast out at a moments notice, insert baby and go; those who can feed their baby anywhere and in any position (I can feed him on a plane! I can feed him on a train! I can feed him on a boat! I can feed him with a goat!); mothers whose little ones have never tasted formula; those for whom bottle feeding is a foreign concept; etc. etc. etc.], I always made sure that I slipped in a casual comment about some common issue that I’ve experienced while breastfeeding (see, I can do it too!), while carefully guarding the extent to which I continued to rely on work arounds, even many months into the breastfeeding experience.
Even as I write this post, I feel like I am exposing myself to ridicule by some nameless, faceless woman who managed to perfect the art of breastfeeding. After breastfeeding for over ten months, my dirty secrets include the following:
1. I have never breastfed Baby Boy in public (unless you count my mother’s or my in laws’ couch). I have no issue with the idea of public breastfeeding; I was just never able to figure out a position that worked for us without the aid of a breastfeeding pillow.
2. Until Baby Boy was six months old (aside from some clumsy fumbling with lactation consultants as we struggled to find a comfortable breastfeeding position for us and a few early feeds using the football hold), I only ever breastfed using the trusty beginner friendly cross cradle hold position. At six months, I figured out how to breastfeed lying down, increasing my position repertoire to its current grand total of two.
3. For a period of about five months, I only breastfed Baby Boy from my right breast.
4. I pumped at least once a day every day of Baby Boy’s life until he was ten and a half months.
5. For the first eight months, I only fed Baby Boy from one breast per feed.
6. I introduced the bottle at two weeks.
7. I have never had a day (24 hour period) where every one of Baby Boy’s feeds was directly at the breast.
8. From about five months on, I have regularly supplemented with formula.
For a long time, I was worried that I was some sort of breastfeeding fraud, because what I was doing was not “normal” for someone who continued to breastfeed as long as I did. However, as time went on, I slowly realized that while not perfect or ideal, my version of breastfeeding worked for me and Gus.
It used to bother me that Gus continued to require long feeds even as he got older. I kept hearing that as babies got to two months or so, they would suddenly be satisfied with feeds of ten or twenty minutes at a time. Gus eventually got down from his hour+ feeds at the breast to 40 minute feeds, however it wasn’t until he was seven months or so (and enjoying lots of solids) that his feeds stopped being 40 minutes each.
I wondered and worried why our feeds took so long, until I noticed that most women who breastfed fed their babies very frequently. I, on the other hand typically fed every three hours during the day, with an eight to ten hour stretch overnight. This pattern started when Gus was very young, and stayed very consistent until about seven months, remaining consistent regardless of whether he got bottle or boob, breastmilk or formula.
It finally dawned on me that since Gus was not constantly at the boob, when he was ready to eat, he would need to consume higher volumes at a time than a baby who was breastfeeding every hour or two during the day, or every three hours around the clock. When I did the math, it actually made perfect sense: when bottle fed, Gus took 250 ml (8 oz) at a time; this was the higher end of what I would typically pump from both breasts in 20 minutes. Therefore, it should take about 40 minutes for Gus to consume 250 ml directly from the breast.
As this became apparent to me, I also realized that fewer, longer feeds were actually less disruptive than frequent short feeds, and I started to really look forward to the feeds that Gus and I did at home where I was able to spirit him up to his room for a 40 session at the breast. Given the choice, I realized that I actually preferred our pattern to the constant disruption of a frequent feeding schedule.
Once Gus started consuming more calories through solids and cut back on the frequency of his milk feeds, I came to really cherish the cuddle time and bonding that came so easily with the act of breastfeeding. I also started to use breastfeeding more as a strategic tool (for myself, when I was tired and knew that a breastfeeding session would take longer and be more relaxing for me than a bottle feed would, and also for Gus when I knew that he needed comfort and not necessarily just food). It was only in the last four months or so that I truly came to appreciate these tangential benefits of breastfeeding.
For the longest time, since I felt very tuned in to the various ways that women struggle with breastfeeding (both due to my own personal experience, and also due to the many stories I’d heard from my close friends), whenever I spoke to a new mom who was struggling, I made sure to communicate that breastfeeding was tough and that there were so many different ways that it could go wrong. I made sure she understood that if it was too much, stopping was a perfectly valid choice, despite the overwhelming message that bombards new moms that breast is best. I took pains to communicate that her experience was not necessarily the same as my experience and therefore it was reasonable for her to make different choices than I had.
However, recently when someone I know was struggling with the early days of breastfeeding, I was surprised to find myself encouraging her to keep at it. I was worried that if she stopped too early, she would miss out on the possibility of a truly rewarding, pleasurable experience that was probably waiting for her if she just fought through the initial obstacles. I tried to communicate how much I’ve benefited from the flexibility that a mix of bottle and breastfeeding have given me, and how I am glad that I did not have to sacrifice one for the other. In the end though, breastfeeding did not work for her and she stopped after a few weeks.
As for me, my milk is drying up. I stopped pumping two weeks ago, and have packed away my nursing bras and tops. Baby Boy is down to a few minutes at the breast in the morning, and even that is quickly slipping away. My final thoughts on my breastfeeding experience? Frustrating……challenging…….soul crushing…..but 100% worth it.