Friday, December 14, 2007

Why nursing is surprisingly difficult

I just love breastfeeding. I know it is THE best way of beginning le Petit's gastronomic education -- only the very best for this kid! -- but it also one of my very favorite parts of the mother-baby bond we share right now. It's also darn practical: I barely have to open both eyes when he wakes up for a late-night feeding, and a bottle is one less thing I have to worry about forgetting when we leave the house.

In other words, I couldn't imagine feeding him otherwise. It seems so simple and natural, I find myself sometimes wondering why more moms don't do it, and why some give up after mere weeks.

And then I remember the beginning. I had a relatively easy start: neither of us was too tired out from labor, and le Petit understood right away how to latch on. I had the full, enthusiastic support of my husband and my mother-in-law. I was at a hospital that had decent lactation support, and was committed to helping moms breastfeed. And yet.

No one warned me that newborns often want to feed twenty-four seven in their first few weeks of life. Or if anyone did tell me before le Petit arrived, I didn't hear them. For the first six weeks I was sleep deprived and miserable, shell-shocked and a bit resentful of this little being who wouldn't sleep anywhere but in my arms, couldn't be left alone in his crib for more than twenty minutes, and wanted to nurse ALL DAY LONG.

And I was lucky. I didn't have milk supply issues or sore nipples. Le Petit wasn't colicky and didn't have any gastrointestinal problems. I didn't have to go back to work right away, and my husband, mother-in-law, or my husband's aunt were able to stay with me every day during the first month.

Still, being a mother those first weeks was the hardest thing I've ever tried to do in my life. If someone had told me that giving le Petit formula would have made him sleep through the night, I would have caved right then and there. I might not have even felt guilty.

Sometimes I secretly wondered if giving him formula would turn him into the mythical "easy" baby, the one everyone seems to have except you. The one who stays in his baby chair and only cries to eat every three or four hours. The one who sleeps through the night at the maternity ward. The one who doesn't transform his parents into quivering basket cases with dark circles like shiners.

When your instincts start breaking through the static of extreme sleep deprivation and you start getting that most babies are just not what our industrialized world tells us they should be, well-meaning friends and relatives give you all sorts of bad advice to throw you back off course. The key is to find the people who give you good advice and call them as often as they're willing to talk to you. Luckily, I had a good friend who talked me through those first weeks and who encouraged me to follow le Petit's lead, to hang in there and things would get easier faster than I feared.

When this friend told me a month or so before le Petit's birth that if I had any problems with breastfeeding, I shouldn't hesitate to call her day or night, I thought it was sweet but unnecessary. What was so hard that I'd have to bother her at some ungodly hour of the morning? My breasts would make milk, the baby would nurse at my breast, simple as that.

Suffice it to say that her number is now the only one I have on speed-dial. She talked me through tears and guilt when, faced with slow weight-gain at his ten day weigh-in, I had to decide whether or not to follow advice to supplement with formula. She stopped me from panicking when le Petit cried hysterically during a feeding because (I thought at least) my breasts were empty and I had no idea how to get him to sleep. She's given me advice on pumping, on how and when to introduce solids, and has helped me become a confident breastfeeding mom.

Without her, and without the moral support of my mother-in-law (who breastfed her children herself, but thirty years later doesn't remember enough details to give practical advice), I don't know where I'd be. Probably in the kitchen at four in the morning mixing up bottles of formula.

This woman-to-woman support is crucial for breastfeeding moms. La Leche League and other mothers' groups aim to provide this and the work they do is wonderful, but somehow, nothing replaces having some good friend on the other end of the phone talking you through the hard stuff like a sister.

So I've made it my goal to try and support all the moms I know who want to breastfeed through those first difficult weeks. I'm no expert, but I've discovered how to find information when I need to, and I can at the very least lend a sympathetic ear. I understand well why some moms decide not to breastfeed, since it isn't always easy today and few of us know what to expect. I've heard of so many moms who wanted breastfeeding to work, but lacking support and punctual advice, couldn't continue. It is now so wonderful for me and for le Petit that I'd like every mom and baby to find their way through the tough part to the payoff.

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