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Something to Be Proud Of

Apryl McLean
From New Beginnings, Vol. 26 No. 1, 2009, pp. 23-25

I can honestly say I always felt I would breastfeed my babies. My neighbor breastfed her youngest; I was five at the time and thought it was amazing how she could feed her baby like that. Her daughter and I were best friends and we used to breastfeed our dolls. Having that exposure to breastfeeding was a benefit to me. I grew up thinking it was the natural and right thing to do.

When I was a teen I spent a summer at the daycare center where my mom worked. I played with the babies and held them, and some of their mothers came at lunchtime to breastfeed, which I always thought was great. I knew one day I wanted to have children and that I would breastfeed them: that is what breasts are for! I had no idea, however, that breastfeeding is a learned skill.

I was 21 years old when I had my first daughter. During my pregnancy I had asked my obstetrician, a man who was probably in his 50s, what I needed to do to prepare myself for breastfeeding. I knew I had flat nipples and I was worried I wouldn't be able to breastfeed. My doctor told me to rub my nipples with a rough washcloth to toughen them up and help raise them!

During my pregnancy I read about the weekly development of my baby, but I never read about the labor and delivery; I was scared and didn't want to know! When I started having painful contractions I waited only three hours before going to the hospital. About five hours after I arrived I had an epidural, and five hours after that I delivered my first baby.

When my daughter was born I didn't hold her until almost an hour later. When I did hold her I aimed my nipple at her mouth and she started to suck right away, to the side of my nipple. I guess I was expecting her to know what to do. She had a fever so they took her to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I remember telling my husband to follow her before I was taken to a recovery room. It bothers me that I don't remember much about the night I had my first daughter.

The next day a nurse wheeled me down to see her and I can't remember trying to feed her. Then, when I was back in my room, a nurse said I needed to pump my milk so they could try to feed my baby. Not knowing any better, I watched the nurse leave with my yellow colostrum.

When my daughter was released from the NICU they brought her to my room. It was about 7 pm on day two. The nurses said my nipples were inverted; they tried to pull on them and twist them trying to get them to stand up. I spent most of our second day in the hospital in a chair with a pillow on my lap and a crying baby, trying to get her to nurse. I'm sad to say that on the second night in the hospital, I left my crying baby in her bassinet and went to the nurse's station for a pacifier to calm her down.

The hospital staff brought me breast shells to wear in my bra and nipple shields for my baby to nurse through since she couldn't latch on easily. They gave me some formula and a manual double breast pump and sent us home. Later I donated the formula. I am proud of the fact that I never used any of it.

I went through horrible engorgement. I pumped my breasts after each time I nursed because they still felt full and uncomfortable. I built up my freezer stash ready for when I'd have to go to work. My nipples cracked and bled, even using the nipple shields, and I leaked through my clothes at night and all day, too. Looking back, I have no idea how I kept breastfeeding, but I was stubborn and liked to win, and to me breastfeeding meant winning.

When my daughter was a month old, my mother-in-law came from Syria. She was a mother of five, had been a wet nurse to goodness knows how many, and she had breastfed all her children to 14 months. She spoke only Arabic so she showed me, taking her own breast, how to massage my breast under warm water. I was losing my shyness over people seeing my breasts by then. I was happy to have her guidance, approval, and help. She even offered to breastfeed my daughter when I was sleeping, though I declined her offer and always fed my baby myself. My mother-in-law would stay up with my baby after I had fed her and take care of her if she was fussy.

When my baby was three months old I went to work nights, five hours a night, five days a week. I was working at a telemarketing place, and had an office to pump in. My husband fed our daughter my milk from a bottle when I was at work. When she was five months old I went back to school in the evenings, and I pumped in the bathroom. I put my milk in little bags and took them home in a cooler. My goal was to breastfeed for six months. When we got to six months my goal became one year. Then we just kept going.

My husband and I separated when our daughter was two and a half. She started preschool a few months later and we kept breastfeeding. I met a mom who said you could continue to breastfeed your baby as long as you and your baby wanted. My daughter was healthy, beautiful, and the smartest person I knew, so I kept breastfeeding her whenever she wanted.

When my daughter was six I met my second husband and became pregnant. By then I was 28 years old. I put together a birth plan and asked my obstetrician to sign it, which she did. I knew what I wanted from my labor and delivery and the day before my due date I let my doctor check for dilation for the first time. She said I was two centimeters and if I didn't go into labor in a week to come back to see her.

I went into labor that night. I labored at home, with my birthing ball, in my bath tub, and while I did the dishes. I napped on the couch, used the computer, and walked around our apartment. When I finally went to the hospital the next morning, I had been in labor for seven hours. After an epidural, my daughter was born five hours later. This time was different, I held my baby before they cut the cord and I nursed her right away. I watched the nurse clean, weigh, and measure her, and then she was with me for the rest of our hospital stay. I did not give her a pacifier; I just nursed her the whole time. The only moment she was not with me in bed was when they took her for the newborn hearing test, and I followed them down the hall to keep her in my sight.

When she was seven weeks old I had an emergency appendectomy. When they did the CAT scan to check my appendix, the radiologist said I could not breastfeed for 24 hours and I was scared our breastfeeding relationship would be ruined. I had a supply of milk at home in the freezer, but I worried anyway. I was in the emergency room of the hospital where I delivered her, so I called the lactation consultant and she said I could still breastfeed. So I nursed my daughter before my surgery.

When I woke up from surgery I asked for the lactation consultant again, trusting only her to tell me if I could or could not feed my baby. She sent me a pump and said to pump and dump every three hours. I was so worried about losing my supply that I pumped and dumped every hour. Later that night she told me it was not necessary, in fact, to throw away my milk and I should get my baby and feed her. My husband brought my daughter to me right away where she spent the evening nursing, then went home, and came back to spend the next day with me. She was so happy to be breastfeeding and she was totally quiet. The nurses asked if they could take her around to show her to people because no one believed there was a seven-week-old baby on the floor. I must have felt comfortable with my nurses because I let them! It was only later that I thought, how crazy I must have been to let them take my baby out of my sight like that.

I didn't leak much, didn't feel many let-downs, but kept on nursing her. I pumped after I fed her because I wanted to trick my breasts into making more milk; I wanted them to replace not only what she drank, but what I pumped as well.

She was a smaller baby than my first but, as the doctor pointed out, she stayed level on the weight charts. Of course her dad was 5'5", and his mother was shorter, so we just figured she would be a smaller person than my elder daughter, whose dad was taller. She mastered all her gross motor skills later than my first baby: she sat at seven and a half months, crawled at 12 months, and walked at 16 months. I would have been more worried if she had not been so happy and smart. When she was about 11 months old, we visited an occupational therapist, who said my daughter had low muscle tone. When she told me I should stop breastfeeding my daughter on demand we decided not to go back again. By the time she was two years old, my daughter had caught up, was still content, secure, and totally comfortable in her environment. She was nursing six to nine times a day.

When my daughter was two years old, I found out I was pregnant. I worried that if I kept breastfeeding I would have a miscarriage. I reluctantly decided to wean my daughter. When she asked to nurse, I would hold her and cuddle her and give her a sippy cup of warmed cows' milk.

For the birth of my third daughter, I labored at home for eight hours. I waited at home as long as I could so I could show up at the hospital so far into labor that they could not send my husband and children home. My girls were 10 and almost three, and we had only lived at our new army base a few months, not long enough for me to have made a friend I'd be happy to leave my children with. So, even though the rule was that you could not bring other children to the delivery room, I had my two girls there with me. My eldest daughter took her little sister into the bathroom at one point, but they were there, and that was what I wanted.

When I delivered, there was meconium in my daughter's water and I didn't get to hold her straightaway. They took her behind a curtain, and when I tried to lean forward to see what was going on they pulled the curtain shut. I told my husband to get over there and see what was going on. After 22 minutes of praying and worrying she would end up in the army hospital's NICU, where the midwife said they would have to feed her formula because I wouldn't be allowed in, they brought her to me wrapped in a scratchy towel, wearing a paper shirt and a diaper. What a difference from the civilian hospital where I delivered my first two babies.

I asked the nurse to delay giving any eye drops so that my baby was looking at me clearly when I first held her. I offered her my breast and she fed just fine. The staff required her to go to the nursery for weighing and measuring a few times while I was there. I was very upset and waited outside the nursery window. Parents were required to attend a session about the dangers of shaking a baby before leaving the hospital. I was expected to leave my baby in the nursery for the hour that the session lasted. Why? So she wouldn't be exposed to the other new parents? I was furious, and just wanted to get out of that hospital.

I kept my baby in my room with me. I would put her to my breast and then a frowning member of staff would come in and prick her heel while I nursed her. I was glad they sent us home after only one night. It was my shortest but also worst hospital stay. The nurses would not even give me a second pillow.

When I brought my third baby home, my breasts became more engorged than they ever had been before; they were so painful, swollen, and warm I didn't think I would survive breastfeeding this time despite my years of experience. I spent a lot of time in the shower running warm water on my swollen breasts. I used the manual cylinder pump to express 56 ounces in that first month. I wasn't working but I froze that milk anyway, just in case. My nipples were sore again, and there were times when I didn't want to feed her because I was so sore and so tired.

I made it though. I kept nursing her, and today she is 20 months old and she loves her milk. When I ask her if she wants to nurse, she says, "Mick! Mick! Mick!" as many times in a row as she can until we sit down. She is healthy, and so far has only been sick twice in her life.

When I look at the last 12 years of my life, I am proud of two things: finishing college when I was a single mom and breastfeeding three children without the use of formula. Sometimes I think of the cost of formula and I think how much these old breasts of mine are worth now! Not including the savings from not buying baby bottles and not using our health care system more often.

I hope my youngest breastfeeds for a long time, and I expect I will be sad when she weans. I hope one day I can find a way to reach other mothers, not just those who seek out La Leche League, but those who may not know where to go for help. I want to see breastfeeding education in health classes in high school and breastfeeding educators in OB/GYN practices so each pregnant woman learns about the best way to feed her baby. Breastfeeding has been wonderful for me, and I want that wonder to be shared with mothers everywhere!

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