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October 18, 2008

Breastfeeding: A Parasitic Relationship Turned Symbiotic

2 My son’s first birthday is quickly approaching at the end of this month. While he was still in my womb, I had made a commitment to breastfeed for one full year. I made that promise to my baby before I knew how difficult breastfeeding would be. During the first three months of breastfeeding hell, I kept saying to myself, “only eleven more months . . . only ten more months . . . only nine more months . . . Lord, help me!”

I could not understand why women actually enjoyed nursing their babies and even toddlers. Were they crazy? Was I just missing out on some glorious part of this seemingly one-sided parasitic relationship? Back then, I never would have imagined that I would even consider extending breastfeeding beyond one year. But now I find myself contemplating that very thought.

When I was pregnant (and ignorant of all things regarding motherhood), I knew that breastfeeding was tough for a lot of women, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be one of those moms. Hey, I had read the books. Therefore, book knowledge translated to vast wisdom that could assuage any curve ball thrown my way.

Well, if reading a book worked for me in other situations, it definitely did NOT help with motherhood. In fact, it may have made things worse by giving me a false sense of thinking I knew what the heck was going on.

Breastfeeding began rather horribly for me. First, there were the cracked and bleeding nipples—my son spit up blood he had ingested from me until a lactation consultant suggested I use warm washcloths and lanolin on my breasts prior to feedings to help prevent irritation. So, every two to three hours around the clock for three weeks straight, I warmed up washcloths before each feeding. Even though the warm, moist washcloths helped, it was a long preparation process—especially long in the wee hours of the morning. During those dark nights, I pondered how I was going to last a full year of putting up with this.

When my son did nurse, he took FOR-EV-ER (and he’d fall asleep while nursing). I had to break his latch after forty minutes on each side. I worried if my milk supply was sufficient, because he’d give me his hungry cry two hours later, if not sooner. It turns out, he just happened to have a significant growth spurt that lasted several weeks (by six weeks of age, my son had grown five inches).

At some point, even if it was still occasionally painful, we both figured out the nursing thing. He started to unlatch by himself after about forty minutes per side, and he was even decreasing to thirty minutes per side at each feeding. Things were starting to look up! Then, my son went from sleeping three hours at night before waking to suddenly going five-or-six hour stretches, and then along with some serious engorgement, I got a plugged duct. A week later, that same area turned into full-blown mastitis which affected half of my breast and radiated to the skin under my armpit.  The symptoms hit hard and fast—I had to hand off my baby to another relative because I feared if I tried to stand up while holding him, I’d pass out on the floor.

Mastitis was more painful than natural child birth—and it lasted much longer. I was feverish, incoherent, miserable, and I dreaded the pain of nursing my son. But, to get through the mastitis naturally and to avoid taking antibiotics, I had to nurse him every two hours around the clock. For two weeks, I suffered more than I had physically suffered in my life. With the help and support of my husband and other family members, I did get better, and my son and I did nurse through it. If there was a time when I wanted to quit breastfeeding, suffering from mastitis was that moment of defining truth for my resolve. But, I knew that my son needed the breast milk and I needed him to nurse to help me clear the ducts and glands. I hated and despised the experience, but that breastfeeding relationship had turned from my son relying on me for sustenance, nourishment, and comfort to me needing him to help me get rid of the infection.

Eventually, the mastitis cleared up without the intervention of antibiotics. Suddenly, nursing got easier. Sure, there were growth spurts, teething, and colds which caused my son to demand more frequent feedings to help him get through the rough times. But, I had survived the most trying months of breastfeeding, and now I am more than happy to help my son remain hydrated at night when he’s congested from a cold.

Sometime over this past year, I’ve warmly grown attached to the experience of bonding with my son through breastfeeding. Just before he nurses, my son’s face will light up with a smile and sometimes he’ll laugh. When he’s latched on, he’ll stroke my cheek or gently tug a lock of my hair. Suddenly, I find myself considering extending breastfeeding beyond a year—something I NEVER thought I would do.

Sure, I’m convinced that there are numerous benefits to breastfeeding beyond a year based on articles I’ve read.  But instead of adhering to a commitment out of sheer willpower and determination, this is actually something I want to do.  I’ll continue nursing for the next six months as long as my son wants to keep going.  Once we reach eighteen months, who knows?  At that point I may even consider extending for a longer period of time.  Until then, I’m going to take motherhood and breastfeeding one blessed day at a time.

An Original Deep South Moms Blog post. Dr. Dolly also blogs about motherhood learning curves at Traveling with Baby.

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