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The Immediate Comfort

Margo Trueman
From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 5, 2008, pp. 21-22

I've had the misfortune to have my children go through surgery: the first two more than once. I breastfed my older two children after they underwent heart defect repair when they were infants. However, I cannot describe the helplessness I felt when, very recently, I faced a surgery when breastfeeding was no longer part of the post-op equation.

In the past 10 days, my oldest (aged seven) and my youngest (aged 22 months) both had outpatient surgical procedures done -- a strabismus repair for my son and a kidney reflux repair for my toddler. Coming round from the anesthetic my seven-year-old was scared, combative, and tried to get out of bed. It was so difficult for me to reassure him, provide comfort, and help him feel secure. It made me sad to realize that my number one "go to" method of comfort was no longer an option. I did snuggle up and provide him with as much physical contact as I could.

The following week, my toddler's turn came around. Despite having fasted, she was calm and happy before surgery -- even to the point of playing "peek a boo" with the staff at the nurse's station by opening and closing the curtain by the bed. She was in the sling and content despite my refusal to nurse her when she tried to dive into my shirt. I carried her in the sling into the operating theater and stayed with her until she was completely anesthetized. (I had stayed with my son as well; however, they gave him some pre-op medication so he was pretty much asleep before I carried him down to the theater. I am certain he knew I was with him and would have known if I had left him before he was anesthetized.) My toddler cried when they put the mask on her but only for a minute and I'm quite sure it was harder on me watching than it was for her drifting off into the twilight.

I was brought into the recovery room just as she was waking up and I immediately sat down and nursed her. What a calm, quiet, different experience from the previous week. I brought a book and sat for 45 minutes reading while she nursed. She played as usual in the afternoon, then we went out for supper and she ate so well that no one would have guessed she had been in the operating room five hours earlier.

Both before and after the surgery I overheard nurses talking to each other about my daughter, commenting on how quiet and happy she was and what an easy patient she was. I think it helped that I had been through this before, was calm and didn't need to ask a lot of questions. I'm sure most of it had to do with my daughter's demeanor and the fact that her attachment to me, and the comfort she receives from nursing, made a world of difference to how calm she felt in a strange environment. The only evidence of a post-op patient was the monitor rhythmically beating -- showing a nice, relaxed pulse and heart rate.

Breastfeeding after surgery has been a wonderful way for me to provide immediate comfort and something really gentle for my children's tummies to digest. There may be another surgery in the future for both of these children. I would prefer not to have to put my daughter through another procedure, but I know that she and I will handle it just fine together. I am not so sanguine about being able to calm my son.

It's just a fact of life that as children get older, nurse less often, and eventually wean, we mothers have to find other ways to provide that same sense of security and comfort for our children. It takes a lot more effort and this recent surgical experience has made me realize that I need to be better prepared when I no longer have the breastfeeding tool in my arsenal.

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