“How does that make you feel?” asked my physician. My eyes suddenly burned and I gulped before speaking, my voice hoarse with emotion.
“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that,” I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.
After 25 years of pregnancy and breastfeeding, my youngest child has weaned.
I also cried when learning to nurse my first baby. Sobbed really. Sitting in a rocking chair, I begged my infant to latch on, tears on my face, breast milk everywhere except my baby’s mouth.
“Just 6 weeks, do this for just 6 weeks, and you can stop,” I repeated to myself.
Before breast milk, there is colostrum. A thick, serum-like liquid, colostrum is newborn super food. It is high in nutrients, antibodies, secretory immunoglobulins (protects mucous membranes), leukocytes (protects against bad bacteria and viruses) and a mild laxative to help eliminate the first stool (tar-like stuff called meconium). It also helps clear out excess bilirubin, which reduces the risk of jaundice, and it establishes beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract.
Whew! That’s a lot of heavy lifting. And because newborns have very small digestive systems, colostrum is super-duper concentrated. A little bit does the job. After two to three days, colostrum’s work is done and the milk arrives.
Whoa, Nelly! If a first-time nursing mother was getting a handle on breastfeeding during the colostrum days, she might still give up when her milk comes in.
Breasts often swell with the arrival of milk, making them taut and cartoonishly large (many a new dad has been told in no uncertain terms to put that camera away). This can make it harder for newborns to nurse, which is exactly what ta-tahs need to get back to a manageable size.
First-time nursing mothers and their babies are both rookies. Sure, babies come with instincts, but many struggle to figure it out. My second through fifth newborns all nursed like champs within an hour of birth. That’s because after nursing my first baby for over two years, I had the hang of it.
Zealots Not Wanted
Yes, breastfeeding is very healthy for babies. It also helps a mother’s uterus return to its regular size and reduce postpartum bleeding. Long-term, due to a reduction in estrogen production while lactating, breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
But not everyone can or wants to breastfeed.
I read an article by a woman who regularly endured quips and comments from strangers, usually other women, about how breastfeeding would be better for her baby than formula. Besides the fact that it was nobody’s business what this woman fed her baby, breastfeeding was never an option for her. Her breasts had been removed years earlier to save her from the cancer they contained.
Other women find it difficult to return to work and pump their milk. I get it. I leaked like crazy the first year of my babies’ lives and can think of many jobs in which I might have chosen formula over the struggle to keep my shirts dry.
And some women just don’t want to breastfeed. That does not make them bad people or mothers. We live in a time and place where healthy alternatives abound.
On the flip side, women who breastfeed their babies in public may also feel harassed by strangers.
An editorial cartoon I once saw sums up the folly of this harassment: mall cops badgering nursing mothers who are seated in front of a lingerie store window featuring a 10-foot-square photo of a bra filled with a buxom bosom.
Currently, laws allow women to publicly breastfeed in 47 states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands. In South Dakota and Virginia, nursing mothers are exempt from public indecency or nudity laws (in effect little different than the other 47 states). Only Idaho has nothing on the books regarding public breastfeeding.
If a woman nursing her baby in public makes you uncomfortable, just move along.
Six weeks later
My midwives convinced me if I nursed my first baby for six weeks, it would benefit his health lifelong. But also after six weeks, nursing becomes much easier. Swelling is usually gone, nipple pain or sensitivity fades as breasts become accustomed to their new role.
And after six weeks, mom and babe are no longer rookies.
But the primary reason why I breastfed my children long term is whenever there is an easier way to do something, I’ll sign up. Breast milk is always ready, the right temperature, and the perfect formulation for your child. Yep, I breastfed because I’m a little lazy.
How long is normal?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) both recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies until they are 6 months old. The AAP recommends continued breastfeeding along with appropriate foods until age 1 year or longer. The WHO recommends breastfeeding up to 2 years or longer.
But when does long-term breastfeeding become Last Emperor weird?
Katherine Dettwyler, a University of Delaware anthropologist has researched breastfeeding habits across cultures. According to Dettwyler, large-bodied mammals nurse until the first permanent teeth erupt, or 5.5 to 6 years of age for humans. Most European languages call the first set of teeth “milk teeth.”
I weaned Claude, Hugo and Leif when they were 2 years old because I was pregnant with the next baby. Pregnancy leaves me bone-weary and I needed to maintain as much of my bodily resources as possible.
Jules, who was 8 when I became pregnant with my next child, gradually weaned somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4.
Difference with Lyra
I nursed Lyra as soon as the midwife handed her to me. Red and screaming, Lyra’s eyes were scrunched shut until she began to suckle. When she finally looked at me, I thought her eyes looked “Downsy.” Three days later, her diagnosis of Down syndrome (DS) was confirmed.
Overwhelming evidence indicates that breast milk improves brain health in infants. Knowing DS impacts cognitive functioning, it was important to me to feed Lyra’s brain best by nursing her for as long as possible.
There is also growing evidence that long-term breastfeeding decreases the risk of childhood leukemia. While rare in the typical population, children with Down syndrome have a heightened risk of developing both types of childhood leukemia, particularly acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). This risk is greatest during the first four years of life. (Interestingly, kids with DS also have higher survival and lower relapse rates than typical children.)
Lyra nursed multiple times a day until she was between 3 and 4. Whenever I was away from Lyra for more than 24 hours, I pumped to keep my milk established. Then, for about a year, she nursed first thing in the morning and last thing before bed.
For the past year, Lyra’s morning routine has been to get up, go to the bathroom, then run to my side of the bed, crawl in and nurse. As she has since she was an infant, she wraps her thumb and fingers around one of my thumbs and I close my hand over hers.
This February, when Lyra was exactly 5 1/2, she abruptly weaned. The end of nursing means my hair becomes blonder (hormones do strange things) and I lose a few pounds, things I quite like.
But gone, too, are the sweet morning snuggles with my girl.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 6, 2018.