Friday 3 August 2012

Sustaining a Breastfeeding Relationship

~by Kendal

‘Ideally, the breastfeeding relationship will continue until the baby outgrows the need.’ La Leche League

I have been breastfeeding Ava for nearly two years. Two years. In all that time, I have never once had to use the pithy speeches I’ve practised in my head to rude passersby who complain about me nursing my child in public. In fact, on the whole, my general feeling is that people are quite supportive and, at worst, don’t really care one way or another.

The longer I breastfeed though, the more people seem curious about my decision to carry on nursing a toddler. After all, if the average age of weaning a baby from breastmilk (for those who breastfed at all) is six weeks old, I am well and truly beyond the norm.

In my speech, I tell people how it is, in fact, biologically normal for a child to feed for several years. That none of us would be here if our ancestral mothers hadn’t done just that, protecting their offspring from innumerable diseases by their amazing immunising breast milk. I also like to add that the longer a mother breastfeeds, the more her risk of getting breast, ovarian and uterine cancer decreases. It’s a pretty well informed speech.

But all too often I get caught up with the FACTS about breastfeeding, because they are so incredible, so mind-blowing and so often unknown. I forget, sometimes, to talk about the other side of breastfeeding; the quiet, intimate, spectacular connection that it forges between you and your Little. The soft and warm and loving emotions that it produces (of course, biologically necessary too) that are so wonderful and so overlooked.

When I started nursing Ava, I was fairly well informed of these FACTS. I’d read enough to be able to navigate, somewhat successfully, all the misinformation out there about breastfeeding. But I was not prepared for the full brunt of what is involved in breastfeeding your newborn. I was overwhelmed anyway, tired beyond tired, and clambering to get through those initial days (we call them the ‘red’ days here). Feeling steadily more mad, more emotional and terrified, it is a strange thing to suddenly be so very needed by another human being.

To know that you bear the sole responsibility of not only caring and loving for your child, but also feeding and nourishing her. Athough I was grateful for the support I did have, I still felt fairly lacking in that area, having no one around me who was able to guide me by their own experiences in nursing, to offer advice and to simply encourage me that it would, definitely, get easier. Armed with a stack of books and google, I read as much as I could about breastfeeding during those lengthy, seemingly endless night feeds.

There were several times, particularly in the first six weeks, where I seriously considered adding in formula, mainly because Ava fed more than any other baby I had ever (or have since met). It was usual for her to feed for two or three hours in a row, breaking for fifteen minutes here and there and then returning. I was flumaxed, and worried that maybe there was something wrong with my milk supply.

Speaking to three heatlth visitors, one midwife and one doctor (who told me in no uncertain terms the biggest fallacy I’ve heard yet – that breastfeeding mothers usually find their milk dries up at 4 months!) I decided that no one, medical degree or not, really knew what they were talking about unless they had nursed a child themselves.

It wasn’t until I finally spoke to a La Leche League breastfeeding counsellor that I felt any sort of comfort whatsoever. Yes, it was perhaps more unusual for a baby to feed so much, but no, it wasn’t abnormal at all. In fact, in many countries where women carry their babies in slings all day long, their babies are more or less constantly attached to their nipples. As for those never-ending nighttime feeds - those were normal. I learned that the hormones that stimulate milk production are highest at night, therefore your baby is deliberately feeding more during this time as a signal to your body to keep on making the good stuff. 

Thankfully, we’d done enough research about bedsharing within those initial two weeks to feel satisfied that this was, for us, the best way to enable Ava to feed as much as she wanted, without me simultaneously going (pardon the expression) batshit crazy from lack of shut-eye.

It was only at about eight weeks in that we began to see it was getting a little easier, after all. We started to feel as if we had perhaps come to some sort of acceptance and understanding of what a breastfeeding relationship entails. Near constant access to breasts for Ava, a huge increase in my appetite and feeling a little mentally, emotionally and physically drained all the time. And let's not forget generally feeling a bit like a bloated dairy cow.

Beautiful? Maybe not in the Time magazine cover way, but spectacular, yes. Somewhere in amongst those red days, there were moments, usually in the dead of night when I was sitting half naked in a rocker, holding a sizeable nursing newborn whilst I slipped in and out of sleep, where I felt a clarity – an awareness that we had something really special going on. We needed each other. That symbiotic, miraculous in utero relationship was not over, it had merely transformed into another, equally interdependent relationship on the outside.

And the funny thing is, those first few weeks, as much as they were one long, blurry, breastfeeding bonanza, really did pass quickly. And it did get so much easier. So. Much. Easier. Feeds got somewhat shorter. Sleeping got more consistent and somewhat longer. (Not that it mattered, bedsharing is a truly blissful and loved up way to sleep and nurse at the same time. Multitasking at its best.)

My goal to nurse Ava for at least six months grew to one year, then from one to two years and now, on the brink of turning two, I still feel like it may be another year or so before we stop. Because she still needs it in some very essential ways, and I am still happy to give that to her.

That's not to say that extended, or 'sustained breastfeeding' as I prefer (more accurate, surely) does not have its own set of challenges. Even though Ava doesn't need it in the way she did at the beginning, I still can't be away from her for too long because I know she would miss both me and my breasts. That means no wild or crazy nights out, no staying anywhere overnight. And on days when I am feeling particularly 'touched out', I am all too eager for my husband to get back from work so I can take a very real leave of absence where I can sob quietly into a bag of crisps or scream into a pillow for half an hour. 

And let’s not pull any punches. This is a walking, talking, joking child I am nursing, in no way still a baby. This is a child who will squeel ‘boobies!’ whenever she sees me getting changed or having a shower. A child who tells me ‘away’ when she is done with one breast and wants the other. A child who calls her favourite breast (the right, by the way) ‘big milk’, because that’s the one she likes to stay on for a while.

I know some people are a little freaked out by the thought of nursing a child so competent and so un-baby like. There’s the idea that once a child can ask for milk, it’s too old to be getting it. Well, Ava was signing for milk from 6 months old so that makes no sense, and as a newborn, she had very specific cries to ask for milk.

It is a different thing entirely – feeding a little person who can position themselves just so on your lap and who would gladly get your ‘boobies out’ themselves if they could. But, if anything, I prefer it now, because it is such a sweet, funny and lovely thing, for both of us. It is such a source of comfort, and just as breasts are like magic wands to little babies, so are they the perfect antidote to a great deal of things now – the frustrations and upsets of a near-two year old.

There are times now when Ava wakes up angry. When the world, so huge and interesting and beguiling, clearly just gets on top of her. On days like these, she nurses a little more than usual, and it seems to calm her right down. Most of the time, she is too busy to nurse much during the day, and only nurses once or twice during the night. I no longer have to nurse her to sleep at night, even though I usually do. And although she no longer nurses for food, on days when she is being picky it is a great comfort to remember that at this stage, breastmilk can still provide nearly half of a two year old’s protein requirements, amongst many other things.

In the beginning, breastfeeding was a choice we made, (in those early, challenging weeks, it was a choice we had to make every day), but now it is not simply something that I do; it is part of who I am, part of who we are as a family. Despite societal pressures to wean much earlier, I have no desire whatsoever to wean Ava at the moment, and I know in my heart that doing so would devastate her to some degree.

Although some may say that treating breastfeeding as a panacea is giving it too much emphasis, we believed from the beginning, as we still do, with nearly two years of proof under our belts, that it really is conducive to incredibly good health in a child, and that it is, and more to the point, should be, the ultimate comfort for your developing Little. As mothers, we were given this tremendous, mind-blowing gift for a reason. Why not use it?

As a presently non-vaccing family, I rely on the immunological benefits of breastfeeding completely. But ultimately, I can think of no other way to explain why nursing is still such an important part of our relationship with Ava, both mine and my husband’s, than to simply say that it gives us all such a feeling of love. Elemental, connected, adoring love.

The closeness of my relationship with my daughter is incredible, and I believe that breastfeeding has been a huge part in that. When she looks up at me with those huge, just-been-fed eyes, and a milky contentment settles on her face, I feel immensely happy and grateful that I can still provide such an easy and primal source of comfort for her. I am ready for that to continue for another year or more, through another pregnancy, perhaps, until both of us are ready for it to stop. And, as so much of my parenting experience thus far has proven, I trust that she will know best when that time is.

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  1. Love this so much, and is exactly the reason I intend on breastfeeding for as long as my child needs it. Wonderful writing.

  2. It's kind of funny as a mum also an almost 2 year old it's never occured to me it's extended or sustained or any of those things really. I guess it's because I still have a nursing relationship with his big bro who is 4. That is kept behind closed doors and pushing boundaries. That was a rough journey but he paves the way for 'Tiny' in so many ways. Long may it continue. For all of us x

  3. My oldest nursling was four when she weaned, and my goodness nursing her in that last year has its challenges, but the next one down is three right now and we're not having any of the same angst. I am glad the ups and downs didn't result in me feeling I needed to wean DD2, and I am wishing for many more ups than downs for DD3 before she self-weans. Full-term breastfeeding can be REALLY hard - as you say, it's less important to know a lot about it than it is to have real life emotional support!

  4. This was really interesting to read <3

    And this is a great argument for veganism: 'And let's not forget generally feeling a bit like a bloated dairy cow'!

  5. Beautifully written, eloquent and insightful. Thank you.

  6. Fantastic post, have shared it with my Mummy friends. Love xxx

  7. Thank you for sharing, I hope you are able to continue for as long as she needs too. My youngest is still nursing occassionally at three, I have never viewed it as extended breastfeeding more as meeting her need.

  8. Really well written well done, makes me want to breastfeed forver tho! :) xx

  9. Non-vaccing. Really???

  10. I hope you know that you are in no way 'judging' other Mums by writing this. You are a beautiful writer.