by Claire C. McKiernan
I was sitting on a futon in a back room of the WBWC boutique on a particularly busy afternoon. Nancy Albrecht, the lactation nurse, had squeezed us (my husband, baby, and me) into her busy schedule for a nursing consultation. I was holding back tears as I tried unsuccessfully to get my newborn daughter to nurse. She latched on eagerly, but after 20 minutes of “nursing”, she wasn’t gaining an ounce and my breast had not softened. This simply couldn’t be happening. I knew how to nurse; after all, Rosemary was not my first baby: she was my fourth!
Nancy looked at me reassuringly and stated matter-of-factly: “Every baby has something new to teach you.”
I suppose it was a magical combination of her tone, my mental/emotional state, having my concerned and loving husband by my side, and the innocent sweetness of my newborn nuzzled against me, but Nancy’s words had an immediate relaxing effect. Those words wafted past me like a warm, gentle breeze.
It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment and helped me to look past my emotional state and tune into the methods we would need to correct Rosie’s tongue-thrusting habit. This included tongue exercises, and lacing a tube through a nipple guard to squirt expressed breast milk or formula into the baby’s mouth while she was latched on. The latter would ensure she received enough milk while she was still learning to nurse properly. I can’t say I wasn’t in tears over this awkward and unnatural set up, but the problem was corrected within two weeks. Rosie and I soon became the relaxed nursing duo that I hoped, and ultimately knew, we would be.
Nancy’s words, however, stayed curiously and contemplatively in my mind. It was true: each of my nursing experiences had been different, yet with time, effort, and faith in my baby and myself, they had all been successful and enjoyable.
My first baby, Christina, had been a natural, nursing before her umbilical cord was even cut. Her latch-on was perfect and she nursed fully and contentedly. I was not prepared, however, for the colic that would soon keep her screaming in seeming distress for hours every evening. The only time she stopped was when she was nursing. I recruited my husband and parents whenever possible to walk her around and give me a 10-20 minute break before her cries pierced my heart so that I would nurse her again. This, somewhat predictably, led to dry, cracked, sore, and bleeding nipples. I dubbed her the vampire baby and sheer determination drove me on. When the colic subsided within a couple of months, the two of us were left with breastfeeding times that were blissfully quiet and precious. She nursed for a total of 14 months, giving us far more happy times than stressful ones.
Christina taught me that the true beauty of a rainbow can only be appreciated after a storm.
Nearly three years later, Thomas was born, and he, too, took to the breast easily and well. The nurse who came for the home visit after his birth weighed him before and after he nursed and was shocked to find that at two days old, he took in a full 7 oz of milk in a single feeding! His eagerness to nurse came at a price. Tom had the delightful habit of reliably spitting up some milk after nursing. It didn’t cause him any distress but led to lots and lots of wet cloth diapers, bibs, clothes, and sheets. Additionally, he nursed in bed with me from 10pm until 5am every hour on the hour for 20 minutes at a clip for the entire first month of his life! In his second month he gave me a break by nursing every two hours. This time I was more prepared for sore nipples, though I was sleep-deprived beyond expectation. Fortunately, during the day he was a content little boy and he began sleeping through the night by four months. I had nothing to complain about.
Tommy nursed for 11 months, which was half-way through my third pregnancy. I especially cherished those quiet evenings of nursing and singing to him before bedtime, feeling the closeness of the three of us, the youngest of whom we had yet to meet.
Thomas taught me that there may be hiccups (or spit-ups and wake-ups, as the case may be) along the way, but time is precious and you should soak up every relaxing moment you have.
When my third child, Peter, arrived, he didn’t have colic or spit-up issues, and “only” nursed three times per night, on average. Life with three kids all born within four years was…exciting. The relaxing moments were far and few between, and I didn’t take the time to air out my nipples after feedings as I had in the past. The outcome of a rushed and hectic life was an excruciating infection, for which the midwives prescribed a nipple cream. Nursing that week had me wincing and literally brought me to tears at times. But again, we survived it. I had no fears that I would need to stop nursing entirely, I just desperately needed to get past this.
I remember remarking to my husband that I couldn’t wait for Pete to be three-months-old. I knew that, right around three months nursing, would be less around-the-clock, have a more predictable, settled-in sort of feel to it, and that’s when it would become a truly enjoyable and relaxing series of breaks in the day. I had read that more American women were opting to breastfeed, but I wondered how many give up just when they were about to turn that crucial corner? Pete also nursed for 11 months.
Peter taught me to slow down, prioritize, and look forward to the future.
Rosemary came along three years later. Within a week of her birth I was visiting Nancy with nursing issues that I never thought I’d have.
“Every baby has something new to teach you,” Nancy said.
Weeks and then months passed and I found those words continuing to settle comfortably and deeply in my heart. I doubt she realized at the time the meaning I would attribute to those words. It is true of every baby, every child, at every stage. It is a very freeing reminder to any responsible and dedicated parent to occasionally sit back and instead of being the teacher, be the student.
So, what did Rosemary teach me through breastfeeding? Well, she just turned two-years-old this month and she’s still nursing before bedtime. She taught me that the more kids you have, the more you realize you don’t know as much as you thought.
Breastfeeding, as with life, can be unpredictable, uncontrollable, and ever-changing, but if you hang in there it can also be vastly rewarding, edifying, and very, very sweet.