My Unique Breastfeeding Experience
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2008, pp. 16-18
I had my first child when I was very young, at 16 years old. Even then I knew something about the importance of breastfeeding. At the hospital, when the nurses came to take my baby boy to the nursery for the night, I begged to keep him with me so we could learn how to breastfeed in the quiet of our room. Rooming in was not a common practice at that hospital at that time, but I knew that I needed to be able to respond to my baby's hunger cues, and not try to put him on a schedule. I didn't nurse my first born for as long as I might have now that I know even more about breastfeeding.
When my baby was a few months old, he cried often. A well-meaning family member suggested that I must no longer have been making enough milk and to supplement with formula. This began the weaning process and my baby was on bottles full-time not long thereafter. Over the years, however, I've told anyone who'll listen that I'm sure his lack of many common childhood illnesses is due to the time that he received at least some of that great mother's milk! He's now a healthy 20-year-old in his second year at university.
After he was weaned, when I was in my early twenties, the doctor at my regular check-up was concerned about a lump in my breast and recommended that we look into it further. The initial tests were inconclusive and biopsy surgery was considered to be the next step. Instantly I felt protective of my ability to breastfeed in the future should I have more children. I met with numerous doctors, including one who specialized in breastfeeding, to seek advice with regard to maintaining my ability to breastfeed, while making sure the lump wasn't anything serious. Ultimately it wasn't. It was a benign fibroid that was easily removed. I thought my troubles were over.
A few weeks after surgery I developed an infection. I was prescribed many courses of antibiotics, but the infection persevered. For over two years this continued. One health professional told me that breastfeeding would probably have been the best thing to help cure the problem, but I didn't have a child to oblige! Finally I had another minor operation to remove the tissue that was thought to be causing the infection. I didn't do as much research this time, but was confident things would go well. They didn't. Not only was much more tissue removed than had been planned, the infection started up again before the stitches were even removed. This then went on for a few more years. It became a normal part of my life and I didn't want to risk more surgery, possibly causing even more damage.
At the age of 34 I was finally ready to bring a second child into the world. Of course I knew I'd breastfeed him, too. This time I was armed with much more information about the supply and demand way that milk is created, and I swore to nurse for much longer. I did not know if the breast that had been operated on would produce any milk. When my son was born I nursed him early and often. I put him to both breasts, not knowing what would happen. Both breasts did seem to be filling up with milk, but it soon became obvious that the milk couldn't find its way out of the left breast. The ducts had been damaged, preventing the milk from coming out. I continued to put my son to both breasts at each nursing session hoping that the severed milk ducts would reconnect or "recanalize." After a few weeks of this I found myself suffering from a massive infection in my left breast again. I went to see a surgeon to see if there was anything we could do to help things along. The surgeon suggested that I start to supplement my son with formula, since she believed that if I was unable to nurse from the left breast my milk production would drop in the breast that was working fine and my baby would go hungry. This was when I made my first call to a La Leche League Leader. She assured me that it was possible for my baby to get enough milk from only one breast, if that was what I had to do. She told me that as long as I continued to nurse him at his every request my body would simply adjust to his needs. She also told me that there was an LLL meeting that very evening and invited me to attend. It was the most wonderful thing that could have happened to us! Everyone showed support and genuine caring for us, and told me again and again that one sided nursing was indeed possible. Of course, they told me how to watch for signs that my son might not be getting enough milk, but as the days wore on everything just seemed to fall into place and my son was doing just fine. We've since attended as many monthly meetings as we possibly can.
I continued to nurse my son exclusively with one breast until he was about eight months old when he showed an interest in solids. By coincidence, that month I became pregnant again. He was too young to be ready to wean, so we continued to nurse throughout my pregnancy. At one point I went back to a surgeon because I had heard that there might be some way to reconnect the damaged ducts. She was not very receptive to my idea and when I told her that I felt it was imperative that I try to do something more because I was expecting another baby, she told me that I'd have to wean my son because there would never be enough milk for two. How wrong she was! I went back to LLL for some information and support. I continued to nurse my son throughout my pregnancy through milk production decreases, sore nipples, colostrum production, and finding a way to comfortably fit him over my pregnant belly! I also went back to work full-time once he was a year old, and we still continued to nurse whenever we were together.
When my daughter was born in the comfort of our home, I began to nurse her right away. She latched on immediately and I knew then that things were going to be just fine! I nursed her as often as she was willing. My then 17-month-old waited (somewhat) patiently for his turn, which came always after his sister had had her fill. The look on his face a day or two later when he popped off the breast, looked up at me and made our sign for "nurse" made every bit of discomfort I'd experienced while nursing through pregnancy worth it!
The infection did return again. I wasn't attempting to nurse with the left breast this time. It went on for a few months but now seems to be gone, forever I hope!
There are some unique challenges and benefits accompanying tandem nursing, and in particular with only one breast to nurse from. My toddler's first real question was, "My turn nurse?" as he peeked over my shoulder at his sister for the first few months of her life. She was obviously getting lots of milk as she grew and met every milestone. She is still, at almost 10 months old, an avid nurser who shows very little interest in solids. Her brother still nurses a few times a day, and we'll continue for as long as both babies want to. What a wonderful way for siblings to learn to share. Although I don't have the advantage of being able to nurse both babies at once, being able to spend a few quiet moments alone with my older baby each day is an experience I wish all mothers could have -- and I have found that continuing to nurse has really helped to maintain the closeness we've developed.
I've learned so much from my breastfeeding experiences. Breastfeeding has taught me to trust my instincts, to trust that my body knows what to do. It taught me to keep searching for support and help until I found it. It taught me that even though my body is far from perfect, it was not only able to bring my children life, but to nourish and nurture them in the most natural of ways. I've learned that breastfeeding is about so much more than milk. It's made me a happy mother, and all of my children happy, healthy people.