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Playing Favorites

Lynn Mulvihill
Waterford, Ireland
From New Beginnings, Vol. 28 No. 3, 2009, pp. 14-15

Before my first son, Neal, was born, my plan was to breastfeed for six months, as per the guidelines in the general health leaflets I'd collected. Back then, it was completely foreign to me that mothers went beyond this time frame and even continued to breastfeed their children into toddlerhood. I remember attending my first La Leche League meeting when Neal was two months old. Inspired by the like-minded women I met, with their beautiful, healthy children, I felt sad that I only had four more meetings to go.

Over those following four months, I came to understand the benefits of long-term breastfeeding. Breastfeeding had become more than a way of nourishing my baby. Having come out of those challenging days of round-the-clock feeds, I was at the stage where I was enjoying our special bonding time -- not to mention the convenience of rarely having to deal with an inconsolable baby. I'd also started training as a breastfeeding counselor with Cuidiú, the Irish Childbirth Trust. By the time Neal hit six months, neither of us was ready to stop breastfeeding, and I felt I had the support I needed for as long as we would continue.

Apart from a rocky start over the first day in hospital -- when I was told my nipples "aren't great" by one midwife, while another predicted that I would be "going the express route" -- Neal and I had an easy time breastfeeding over our first six months together. I didn't suffer any problems and managed to escape the nipple soreness that so many mothers get in the early days.

It was when Neal turned seven months that something began to change. At each feeding, he would latch on eagerly, but quickly pull back with the breast in his mouth and feed right from the end of the nipple. He would also pull and beat the breast with his hands. I knew this would lead to sore nipples, and I was struggling to fix it. After a few days of this behavior, I called Maura, my local LLL Leader, for help. Talking through the possibilities, we concluded it was due to teething. Some discomfort was preventing Neal from drawing more of the breast tissue into his mouth. There was little I could do other than persevere with my attempts to get him to open wider while I tried to ease more of my breast into his mouth.

Refusing One Side

Around this time, Neal also started resisting most of the feeds I offered from the left breast. When put to this side, he would latch on, but pull off after a few seconds and wriggle restlessly in my arms. Only when I'd shift him to the right breast would he relax. This resistance to the left breast didn't come as much of a surprise. From early on, Neal seemed to favor the right side. I believe this was a combination of a faster let-down on the right and the fact that the nipple on that side protrudes more. (Throughout my pregnancy, I'd had my doubts as to whether I would even be capable of feeding him on the flatter left side.) Over the following weeks, his rejection of the left side became stronger, and it felt as though we were fighting whenever I put him to that side.

About a month later, I was starting to feel sore on the right breast, where a small surface wound had appeared on the areola. I saw a lactation consultant who explained that this had resulted from the poor latch, and, now infected, would require treatment to heal. I asked the lactation consultant to observe my attempted feeding on the left. As expected, Neal wouldn't latch on. Her advice was to give it up. I had heard of mothers continuing to feed successfully on one side. And, not wanting to put either myself or Neal through further struggles, I decided to take her recommendation on board. It took some days for the infection in my right breast to clear up. During this time, feeding was painful and I missed the ability to feed from the left.

But, following that small hurdle, one-sided feeding was not as challenging as I'd expected. Neal was well established on solids at the time and never seemed dissatisfied with the milk supply. Nor -- as I've often been asked by other moms -- did I end up with a lopsided chest. I began to focus on the advantages of feeding from one side: no more groggy shuffles around the bed when it was time to swap sides during night feeds; boxes of breast pads that lasted twice as long; and never having to remember which breast had been fed from last. Once I'd made the decision to stop attempting left-sided feeds, I was careful to express from that side to prevent engorgement. Not a drop of milk emerged: Neal had gradually self-weaned from his less favorite side.

A month before Neal's first birthday, I became pregnant with our second baby. One of my first thoughts about breastfeeding a newborn was how I would try harder to make it work with both sides. Deep down, I still harbored some disappointment about not nursing with the left breast. I continued to breastfeed Neal through my pregnancy. I had no plans to stop, but understood that many children wean during pregnancy due to a change in the taste of the milk, the diminishing supply, or by natural progression. I was prepared for whatever lay ahead, but strongly hoped he would continue. And, despite the occasional disgusted look and rubbing of his tongue after a feed, he seemed unfazed -- hanging in through months of little supply.

My Second Baby

Our second son, Éanna, was born at home on a sunny January afternoon. He was handed to me straight away and, following the wishes expressed in my birth plan, allowed to breastfeed before any routine examination. It was an amazing experience to watch him crawl to the breast, his little head bobbing, and -- with a little help from me -- latch right on. After a short time on the right breast, I transferred him to the left, where he stayed sucking away for the next hour. Later that evening, Neal came home to meet his new brother. Since I hadn't been comfortable feeding Neal through my contractions that morning, I was delighted to be able to hold him close again for his bedtime feed.

During pregnancy, my husband, Dara, had asked whether I would retry feeding Neal on the left breast once the milk came in. Remembering the previous battles, I dreaded the thought of trying to encourage an independent 20-month-old back on the rejected side. My biggest hope was that I could feed Éanna on both sides -- especially important if I needed to feed both boys at the same time. On the day my milk came in, Dara suggested that I try Neal on the left. It was just before bed, when Neal was that extra bit fussy and I was tired. When it didn't work, I felt upset and defeated -- determined to just let it go.

The following morning, when Neal joined us in bed for his morning feed, I decided it was time for a second attempt. In the darkness, with less awareness of what was happening -- and maybe helped by his little brother's diligent work in drawing out that flatter nipple -- Neal eventually stayed latched on and fell into a sleepy feed for the next hour. That night, at his bedtime feed, I put him to the left again. When he pulled back and pointed to the right breast, I simply told him it was his turn to drink from this side. He accepted and launched into another long feed on the left. I could hardly believe that, a whole year of right-sided feeds later, Neal was once again nursing on both sides. With my two sons settled into football position, I sat proudly looking into the two pairs of bright eyes that peered up at me.

While I know I could have gone on exclusively feeding Neal from the right, I am grateful to have two breasts in action. Now that I'm busy tandem feeding two hungry boys, I realize it would have been difficult to keep the balance, and I would probably have ended up feeding Éanna more from the left, which may have had its repercussions further down the line.

Two months on, Neal still plays favorites. When put on the left, he will often point to the right, but -- once he sees Éanna take up the opposite station -- accepts that sometimes, it's the left or nothing.

Adapted from a story in LLLGB's Breastfeeding Matters.

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