Wednesday, May 19, 2010

the importance of proper support

Over the past several months I've discovered several individuals and organizations through twitter and facebook who work to promote info and support for breastfeeding (I believe they are affectionately referred to as "lactivists").  I've been pro-breastfeeding for a long time, but it's been really interesting to join these communities and read more about how to help others, and also the various barriers new mothers face as they try to breastfeed their babies.  It's amazing and very eye-opening to realize how many mothers today have parents who formula-fed and actively discourage their children from breastfeeding, or how many hospital nurses and doctors sabotage new mothers' attempts to breastfeed through their (often well-meaning) actions.

Recently I came across a blog post on early weaning and the most popular causes of it, and I started thinking just how very lucky I was when I had D.  I had huge amounts of support, and looking back I realize how big a help that was.  I wanted to document here what those things were:

  • When I was still pregnant, I joined a mom group for English-speaking expats who had kids under 2 years old.  The moms in the group were extremely warm and welcoming.  Most of them had breastfed their kids or were still doing so.  They helped prepare me for it by giving me realistic expectations for what the first couple months would be like (while sparing me the terror-inducing horror stories). One piece of advice I remember vividly was a mom who told me that if I was serious about breastfeeding, I should make a promise to myself to stick with it for 2 months.  If after 2 months things were still going badly, I could then re-evaluate, but to not allow myself to quit before then.  But, that for most moms by 2 months you've gotten through the worst of it and are on your way to things being a lot easier.  She was right.
  • Having a natural, intervention-free birth, attended by a midwife.  D was alert and awake as soon as he was born.  He went directly onto my chest as soon as he came out, and he nursed for the first time within the first half hour.  I keep reading how crucial this is, to allow baby to breastfeed as soon as possible after birth.  My midwife visited us at home each day the first couple days (and intermittently for the first 10 days), and made clear the importance of nursing at least every 2-3 hours around the clock (fairly essential for establishing milk supply, and I don't think it's always stressed in hospitals).
  • When D was 3 days old it became clear he needed treatment for jaundice.  The 2 of us spent 3 nights in a hospital while he got treatment.  The jaundice had made him so sleepy that he couldn't latch or nurse effectively.  None of the nurses (2 of which were lactation consultants) ever mentioned formula.  They brought me a breast pump and had me try to nurse, feed him a bottle of (previously pumped) breastmilk, then pump after the feeding, repeating the cycle every 3 hours.  it was utterly exhausting... but worth it. By the time we left he was taking in a good 3-4oz directly off the boob, and while we'd had to introduce bottles early it didn't interfere at all with breastfeeding. I am so glad no one ever pushed for supplementing with formula.
  • Both my mom and Zach's mom breastfed us as babies.  This is kind of huge.  My mom stayed with us for 5 weeks after D was born, and she helped provide support and advice with breastfeeding.  She was also my personal cheerleader, never second-guessing me. 
  • Zach was 110% onboard with breastfeeding.  He was my #1 advocate.  I remember two specific times in those first 2 months when I turned to him and said, "This is too hard, I don't know if I want to do this anymore."  He always listened to me, empathized with me, then reminded me how important this was to us and that we could get through it and it would get better soon.  We did, and it did.  
  • D's pediatrician was pro-breastfeeding. Each time we went in for a check-up he'd ask if I was still exclusively breastfeeding, and when I'd say "yes" he'd grin real big and say, "Good!"
  • At one point, a few weeks in, I remember getting really discouraged because my breasts were so sore and it felt we were still having trouble with D's latch.  I thought of all my female friends who had recently given birth and who had breastfed their babies (and, luckily, there were a few).  I sent out an email asking for advice, and got many encouraging words back.  Those simple words of "Yes, that happened to me, too, but it really does get better after a few weeks" didn't take the pain away, but they helped me feel so, so, so much better.
  • It took me a while to feel comfortable enough with breastfeeding to even attempt it away from home.  After a few months, I gained enough courage and would breastfeed D wherever was needed, and rarely bothered with a cover (seemed a pain to deal with, honestly).  A few times I remember being in a cafe or restaurant and getting the sense that the waiter felt slightly uncomfortable, but no one ever made any remarks to me about it or did anything to make me feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding.  The only reactions I remember getting from strangers were smiles and an occasional encouraging comment (I believe I once heard a woman say, "That's so lovely" about us).  
  • And then there's Donovan.  Precious, sweet, determined Donovan.  He played his own, very large role.  Starting at 2 months of age, he plain refused bottles.  Wouldn't have anything to do with them.  This made things a bit tougher on me, but in the end it was a bit of a blessing.  When he was 5-6 months old his weight started dropping on the charts (even the ones for breastfed babies).  By 7 months, our pediatrician reluctantly recommended supplementing with formula while I tried to build up my supply.  D wouldn't have anything to do with it.  Again at 10 months we went through a period when I thought he needed supplementing, b/c my supply seemed to dip for a week (he was all of a sudden hardly peeing at all).  Again, he wouldn't have anything to do with the bottles or sippy cups with the other milk.  He wanted mommy's boob, and that was that.  After that week or so my supply came back to normal, and it turned out we just had a skinny & active baby.  We went on to nurse for a good 15 months, and I give him a lot of the credit for that.  
It makes me sad to know that few women get this much support and help and resources with breastfeeding.  If at any point in those first weeks someone, especially someone close to me like Zach or my mom, had suggested I give up and go the "easy route" with bottles, I'm not sure what I would have done.  I don't mean to sound like I'm judging moms who use formula-- there are many reasons to stop breastfeeding, and many of them are valid.  Each family has to make the decision that makes the most sense for them.  But every mother, every parent, should get every bit of support we can to help achieve the goals we set for ourselves.  What upsets me is that mothers who want to breastfeed give up because of all the obstacles placed in from of them

All this is much more on my mind these days as I begin to feel the changes in my body that come with pregnancy, and feel that familiar tingling in my breasts that says my body is working to start producing milk (how friggin cool is that??).  I didn't always love breastfeeding, in fact sometimes I didn't like it very much at all.  Other times, it was blissful.  I feel very lucky that I had so much support with breastfeeding, and very glad that we were able to nurse for over a year-- I know it was the best thing for D and I.  And I'm very much looking forward to getting to do it all over again with this new baby.  

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