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Lessons from Breastfeeding

Beth Ratledge
Maryville TN USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 6, November-December 2001, p. 210

I breastfed my son, Alex, from the time of his birth until he chose to stop nursing at 17 months old. He is almost four now. Breastfeeding my child was a very profound experience that has touched me deeply and been a catalyst for me to discover new facets of myself. The many difficulties I experienced during breastfeeding make the lessons I have learned that much sweeter. I am thankful for the entire experience and I wish to share my journey.

Breastfeeding seemed to get off to a good start. Although Alex had to be taken from me immediately after his birth because of concerns about his health, he was shortly back in my arms and ready to eat. The lactation consultant told me that he latched on beautifully and was obviously going to be naturally good at breastfeeding. I took her at her word, because I had no idea what to expect. However, before leaving the hospital two days later I had concerns. The consultant returned and spoke with me again. I was worried about whether or not Alex was getting enough to eat because he nursed frequently and for long periods of time. In addition, he had developed a cranky side and nursing didn't calm him when he was upset. The consultant again told me that he was nursing beautifully, gave me some lanolin for my nipples, and wished me the best. So, we headed home.

That evening, we made a trip to the emergency room, due to Alex's unwillingness to nurse for any length of time before detaching from my breast and screaming as if he were hungry. In addition, his mouth was dry and sticky, which worried both the nurses on duty and myself that maybe he was becoming dehydrated. I was blessed to have a breastfeeding mother as the pediatrician on call. She was able to calmly deal with my fears and wasn't alarmed by my tearful, incoherent description of the problem. She watched me nurse (Alex must have only needed a change of scenery, because he ate hungrily and for a long period of time in front of the doctor) and repeated what the lactation consultant had said, that my son was a natural. She also told me something else that I needed to hear: breastfeeding can be hard at first. She rated breastfeeding up there with new parenting as one of the hardest things we will probably do in our lives. Although I had read ideas like this over and over in the many books and magazines I absorbed during my pregnancy, hearing it from another real mother sitting in front of me was completely different. She told me about her own experience, and she encouraged me to stay focused and committed to what we had started.

We visited another pediatrician in her office the next day. Again I was blessed to see the only breastfeeding doctor in the group. She watched me nurse, told me that my milk had come in, and shared her experiences with me. She encouraged me in the same way the previous doctor had the evening before. I am so thankful for those two women. I often drew on their encouragement in order to continue with breastfeeding while things were tough.

Alex continued breastfeeding with some obstacles and consultations along the way. Each time I talked with the doctor, the on-call nurse, or a La Leche League Leader, I received lots of encouragement, which helped give me the determination to continue. For example, a nurse who was treating me for sore nipples told me about her similar experience, what to expect, and what to do about it. On another occasion, my La Leche League Leader listened to my symptoms over the phone and suggested that I might have thrush. She was right. She had also had thrush and kept breastfeeding during that time. She told me some ways to cope with it. These women were such blessings. In addition, my mother listened to all my uncertainties, helped me during the difficult periods, and accepted every decision I made about breastfeeding in a wonderfully supportive fashion.

I've learned a lot from the entire experience, but it has taken some time pondering these events to see how they have become part of who I am today. First and foremost, I grew spiritually, as it seemed helpful people came into my life just when I was at my most vulnerable and distraught.

I learned that I was able to offer physical sustenance to Alex at the same time I was nurturing him as his mother. Although I don't feel that breastfeeding was necessary for the strong bond we have today to exist, I know it was right for us. Breastfeeding became a stepping stone for the next level of bonding with us. Physical closeness and touch quickly became emotional closeness and connection.

I've always known that I am determined and persistent, but I don't think I ever really knew to what extent. I think my experience breastfeeding Alex gave me a better understanding of this part of myself. I think this recognition of my own inner strength developed along with my changing perception of and appreciation for my body.

I value my body and my breasts differently now, too. I see the beauty in their natural abilities, rather than focusing only on their appearance. Through the breastfeeding experience, I became and am still becoming more comfortable in my own skin. It has become increasingly clear to me that I probably nurtured myself as much as my son during the time we nursed.

I also know that these are only the first of many lessons I will be learning about life, love, mothering, and myself as both Alex and I grow.

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