Mothering at the breast

July 18, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Back in January, my baby was admitted to the hospital with a bizarre rash and swelling.  During his illness and our hospital stay, I’d say he was at my breast at least 70% of the time.  When the nurse wanted to give him an I.V. for fluids, fortunately I asked, “Are you worried he’s becoming dehydrated?”  After assuring her that he was breastfeeding almost constantly, they agreed to hold off on the I.V. as long as I kept track of all his feedings and he continued to have lots of wet diapers. So they gave me a chart to mark all his “feedings.”  It was kind of a joke.  When a baby is almost constantly nursing both day and night?  Ha.

One of the mornings, when the nurse asked about the feeding chart, I mentioned that it was hard to keep track in the middle of the night because he was nursing so often and sometimes I fell asleep mid-feeding and wasn’t sure when it officially “ended.” It was clear from her facial expression that my nursing style was totally foreign to her.  She replied, “Well, then that’s not breastfeeding… that’s just for comfort.”

I was perplexed by her response.  What’s the difference? Of course he wanted extra comfort… he was very sick, sleeping in a foreign place, being awakened repeatedly (after finally, blessedly falling asleep) for nurses and doctors to “take a peek” at his rash, being poked multiple times for blood draws and tests… of course he wanted and needed extra comfort!  But that “comfort” and my breastmilk were inseparable. Even if a baby is suckling only for comfort, the breast doesn’t know the difference.  The breast responds to suckling by giving milk.

And how grateful I was that the only thing he wanted to do was nurse!  While many babies with his illness develop gastro-intestinal discomfort, blood in the stools, and other more serious problems, he never did, and I attribute that to the vast amounts of breastmilk he consumed during that time.

In my mind, nursing is so much more than “feeding.”  I have never wanted to restrict my babies’ suckling time to conform to when they “should” be hungry.  When one of my babies becomes distressed, the first thing I almost always offer is my breast, even if they just “ate” two minutes before.  If they don’t seem interested or aren’t calmed by suckling, then I try other ways to soothe them.

I am his pacifier.  I am the only answer to his deepest cries.  Nothing and no one else can give him what I can give.  Call it “just for comfort” if you want, but it’s all the same to me.  In my mind you cannot separate breastfeeding, nursing, and soothing… they are all one.

There are many who would say my son no longer “needs” breastmilk or night-feedings because he’s 14-months-old.  There are some who would have said he didn’t need them when he was in the hospital at 9-months-old.  I say that the time when I am able to provide this gift to him will pass in the blink of an eye.  This time when only my body can comfort him is precious and fleeting.  If it means I will lose a few years of uninterrupted sleep, so be it.  If he’s three years old before he’s able to soothe himself back to sleep on his own, so be it.

Because of my own history and struggles with abandonment issues, there is almost nothing more important to me than establishing a secure, unbreakable attachment with my babies… telling them with my every touch and action that I will always be here… that I will never abandon them, especially when they need me the most, no matter what time of day or night.  I’ve never regretted one moment of nurse-comforting my children, and I feel confident that I will look back when I’m past my childbearing years with gratitude that I didn’t push those precious nursing relationships away for the sake of independence or convenience.  (P.S. Moms who don’t continue nursing through the second year are really missing out on the best trick up their sleeves for dealing with those daily toddler tantrums.)

Me and my almost 15-month-old nursling last weekend

I appreciate these words (shared by Sarah, one of my facebook fans) from lactation consultant, Diane Wiessinger:

Easy, long-term breastfeeding involves forgetting about the “breast” and the “feeding” (and the duration, and the interval, and the transmission of the right nutrients in the right amounts, and the difference between nutritive and non-nutritive suckling needs, all of which form the focus of artificial milk pamphlets) and focusing instead on the relationship. . . . [T]he real joys and satisfactions of the experience begin when they stop “breastfeeding” and start mothering at the breast. (Source)

Maybe that nurse in the hospital was right, after all.  I wasn’t really “breastfeeding” in that hospital, I was mothering at the breast.