Breast, bottle, whatever: How You Feed is a shame-free series on how babies eat.
Because I knew so many mothers who had struggled to breastfeed, I kept my own expectations low. I'd give nursing a go, but I also wouldn't beat myself up if my baby didn't latch on, or I had a low milk supply or any of the other seemingly endless complications that can disrupt feeding. Maybe it wouldn't work out. Maybe it would, but only for a month. Maybe I'd make it three months, or even six.
When a lactation consultant told me — then just a few days into motherhood and fresh from my first experience of up-all-night cluster feeding — that there was no reason I couldn't carry on nursing for two years and beyond, I scoffed. TWO YEARS? It seemed unthinkable. And yet, it was about three weeks shy of my son's second birthday when I was finally able to deliver the bad (to him) news: "Mama's out of milk."
I don't consider my ability to knuckle down and nurse that long — though still just shy of the "two years or beyond" recommendation released this summer by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this summer — as a testament to my resilience or passion for being the 24/7, on-demand food source for my son, who by that time I'd taken to calling the Vampire Lestat. If anything, it's an indictment on the reality of being a solo parent amid a pandemic and childcare crisis. There was nobody to help with late-night feeds or bottles — not that my son would take them anyway — and my March 2020 plans to fully wean once and for all by holing up in a nearby hotel and stuffing cabbage leaves into my bra for a weekend were waylaid thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns and fears about leaving home or having my mom babysit.
While there were parts of nursing that I did enjoy — namely, the cuddles — I was ready to reclaim my body back from an increasingly grabby and toothy toddler. I was sleep-deprived, mentally drained and, according to my primary care physician, very dehydrated. In search of moral support and weaning advice, I sought out online mom groups and my local La Leche League board. Some extolled the virtues of Suckerbuster, a foul-tasting nipple balm designed to turn off tots (except mine, who initially scowled but decided he wasn't quite disgusted enough to stop nursing). Most credited their husbands and boyfriends with taking over bedtime routines or serving as accountability partners on the weaning front, which sounded helpful but didn't apply to my solo situation. But the most frustrating responses were the ones that suggested that I didn't need to wean at all. "Keep going!" I was urged by one commenter and consultant after another. The consensus was that it was perfectly natural for me to carry on nursing for as long as I wanted, without anyone twigging, or caring, that I no longer wanted to. Even the doctor who had fretted over my fluid and nutrient levels months before waved off my concerns about the toll it was taking. The goalposts kept moving, and the guilt that I felt about wanting to move on from my nursing experience nearly two years in deepened.
As a registered nurse, international board-certified lactation consultant and a mom of four who has been candid about her own nursing struggles with her youngest baby, Hillary Sadler of Baby Settler says she'd like to see mothers get more support across every step of their feeding journey — including weaning. Sadler tells Yahoo Life that while the majority of her consultancy clients are looking to improve their lactation and overall breastfeeding experience, some need help with transitioning out of exclusive nursing, whether that means combo feeding by introducing formula, or weaning full stop.
"We have lots of moms that are looking for permission to change course on their feeding journey," Sadler says. "And I think it's really important that as health care professionals that we listen, number one, and not try to put our subjective opinions and thoughts on them. We listen to what they really want and then also validate their feelings and give them the permission that they need to like change course. ... That is really missing from a lot of people that help moms with feeding and lactation."
She makes it a priority to take a mom's mental well-being into consideration when guiding her through that transition.
"We look at the whole picture, and we hear moms say things like 'I feel like all I'm doing is feeding my baby and pumping'" she says. "I've had multiple moms say to me that they're anxious and society is telling them 'breast is best' and breast milk is best thing for your baby, and so they're killing themselves, pumping all the time, but they're not enjoying their baby. They feel like they haven't made a connection with their baby because all they're doing is pumping ... and that happens so often."
As I discovered first-hand, weaning can be a fraught, emotional process. While my cold turkey strategy of a weekend away and an arsenal of cabbage leaves and decongestant to dry me out — eventually accomplished six months after my March 2020 deadline — did the trick, most women require a gentler transition to account for any hormonal shifts, Sadler says. It's also important that a mom go into the weaning process feeling committed and confident in the decision to phase out breastfeeding, as opposed to just reacting to a bad experience and wanting to throw in the towel.
"I always tell moms, 'if you're having a bad day — let's say today, you're like, OK, I'm done, I don't want to do this anymore — wait at least another day,'" says Sadler, who admits that her own struggles nursing her newborn have provided plenty of "I quit!" urges. "Wait at least another day and then reassess tomorrow. It's easy to make emotional decisions. ... And if they've taken that approach where they've had several days [in which] they're saying they're done, when they do wean, they don't really have any regrets."
While the updated AAP breastfeeding recommendations have been accused of putting more strain on moms, Sadler has a more sanguine view. She sees the new two-year benchmark as a sign of more acceptance of the oft-stigmatized extended breastfeeding, and feels like the language used in the recommendation ("the AAP supports continued breastfeeding, along with appropriate complementary foods introduced at about 6 months, as long as mutually desired by mother and child for 2 years or beyond") leaves room for individual choice.
"I do like the wording where it says 'as long as it's beneficial for both mom and baby,'" she points out. "Whether that is three days or three years ... I think that it's really a personal decision."
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