I stopped breastfeeding recently. No, wait…don’t leave! I promise there’s more to this post than that!
It was four weeks ago today actually that he had his last feed. I didn’t make a fuss of it at the time, because I wasn’t sure it would be his last, and anyway I didn’t want to make myself all emotional when in fact I was feeling pretty ok with it all, and seemingly so was he.
I breastfed him for just over 15 months, that’s two months longer than I fed his big brother for. It was my choice both times, on when to stop feeding, neither boy self-weaned, and truly, if I’m honest with myself and anyone reading this, I am not sure they ever would have. Well, of course they would, eventually, but what I mean is, given the choice they’d certainly have kept feeding for quite some time. I know this because despite not being breastfed anymore, Toby continued to have a bottle before his nap and one before bed right up until he was about 22 months old, when he stopped napping. But the bedtime bottle continued until he was 2.5 years old, when he gave it up without issue after we suggested he have a cup of milk downstairs before bed in his new Disney Cars cup instead.
That doesn’t mean either of them were distressed at being weaned off the boob though. One morning about a week after I stopped feeding Rudy he seemed to have a realisation that he’d not had any for aaaages and tried to get at them but I felt committed at that point so refused (gently). He settled for a cuddle instead.
It hasn’t been hard on either of us either time.
And yet. I’d probably have kept going a teensy bit longer with each if it hadn’t been for external factors. When I stopped feeding Toby it was because I was pregnant, although I ended up miscarrying anyway I felt it was the right thing to do, and I stand by that decision. This time, although I was ready to stop anyway, I was also acutely aware that I’m going away next month for a weekend and that he needed to be weaned by then in order to be fair to both him, and to his Dad looking after him, and to me too, as I don’t fancy another bout of mastitis.
So I might have made it a couple more months each time, but I didn’t and I’m ok with that.
The trouble is, I’m caught in the middle. There are people who don’t breastfeed at all, or do for a very short time, or who hope to breastfeed for several months but run into difficulties and so stop. To those people, I am waaaaaay out of their sphere of understanding, far over in “Hippy Land” they’d consider my 13/15 month efforts as extended breastfeeding, if they’d even heard of the term. If they’re feeling charitable they might tell me i’ve done really well to do it for so long, but if not they might tell me about their struggles, suggest I’m crazy, and start asking me questions about teeth and biting. The word “bitty” might even be mentioned. But I don’t watch TV, or indeed participate in mainstream society at all much so I only have a vague awareness of what the hell they’re talking about.
Then there are people who breastfeed for a long time, whose children have never had formula or cow’s milk, or even bottles of breastmilk in some cases and who plan to keep breastfeeding until their children self-wean. And I fall outside of their sphere too, because my children did have other milk variations out of other drinks receptacles, and I actively weaned both of them. To those people I definitely don’t qualify as extended anything.
So feeding for 15 months puts me somewhere in-between those camps. In breastfeeding no-man’s land.
I wasn’t going to do a “I stopped breastfeeding” post because there didn’t seem to be much to say other than exactly that. I do get a wistful feeling when I think that Rudy is probably our last child, and so those are probably my breastfeeding days done with but I get that feeling about lots of other stuff too. If indeed he is our last child that is also my pregnancy and birthing days over with, so there’ll be plenty of wistfulness to go around when I get to the point in time in which our number of children becomes Final and Definite.
But on Thursday night I read this New Statesman article by Glosswitch: Our regressive, insensitive and cultish attitude to breastfeeding
I found it so refreshing and honest, I decided I should share my “End of Breastfeeding” journey on here, because even if no one reads this blog, maybe someone will stumble across it sometime and maybe it will be just what they were looking for.
I have been breastfeeding for 28 months out of the last 40 (i was pregnant and/or miscarrying for the other 12)
So how was it for me?
Well let’s not forget I had some pre-conceived notions about breastfeeding before I even started, as a result of my line of work. Which basically meant I had lots of technical information but very little idea how to implement it into practice, and I had gained a lot of exposure to breastfeeding not working out, as is so often the case on the neonatal unit, because lets face it, everything is harder and more complicated when you have a sick and/or premature baby.
So I said I would “Give breastfeeding a go” but not beat myself up if it didn’t work out (Ha!) and in fact the closer I got to my due date the more sure I was that I wouldn’t be breastfeeding for long. Then he was born. And he knew just what to do. And so did I. And it was easy as pie.
Oh no wait, sorry I fell asleep there for a minute and was writing that from Dream Land.
I never had any major issues with breastfeeding. And there can be major issues with breastfeeding, but I avoided them. That doesn’t mean I didn’t find it toe-curling at first. I’d liken the experience to having a mini Dyson attached to your nipples, which unless you’re into some kinky shit, you’re probably not used to, and neither are your nipples. I got a blister on one of mine from where Toby would jerk his head backwards whilst not breaking suction, in a gesture that it turned out meant “I’m full now!” I later learnt to break the suction pronto using my little finger in his cheek and so the nipple trauma was a short-term issue for me but some people have cracked nipples, bleeding nipples, infected nipples. It can get bad. I didn’t have any of that.
No one told me about growth-spurts. For the un-initiated this is when a normal healthy newborn baby suddenly acts starved, feeds constantly, and the mother eventually assumes she isn’t producing enough milk, feels shit about herself, breaks down and gives the baby a bottle of formula milk. Except although I’m a sucker for feeling shit about myself i’m not very good at admitting defeat, so I did break down but did not give him formula. I fantasised about it. We had “emergency formula” in the kitchen cupboard that I’d sensibly bought in, along with the bottles, “just in case” so I sat on the bed, feeding my apparently starving baby and conjured up the image of said formula carton in my head and daydreamed about pouring it into a bottle and feeding it to my little squish, and then daydreamed about how gutted I’d feel that I hadn’t persevered, sighed and told myself “just one more hour“.
Fourteen hours later Chris returned from work to find me rocking on the bed. Literally. I’d lost all feeling in my butt cheeks. Still feeding the baby. Posting one-handed on an online parenting forum “OMFG is this NORMAL?!” and crying. A lot. He’d been due home about two hours earlier, in which time i had thought up a whole heap of shit to yell at him including “YOU DON’T EVEN CARE ABOUT ME OR THIS BABY” “YOUR LIFE HASN’T EVEN CHANGED AT ALL” and perhaps more pertinently “WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEEN ANYWAY?!” Poor guy. In all the years we’ve been together he chose that night, of all the nights to have a couple of impromptu beers after work to celebrate becoming a Dad, blissfully unaware that back home both his baby and girlfriend have succumbed to demonic possession courtesy of breastfeeding. He was suitably sorry and on discovering that i had not in fact eaten all day, having not left the bed for fourteen hours due to having a baby attached to either one of my breasts at all times, he ordered pizza.
Toby also had reflux. In a practical sense this meant lots of bibs, and lots of washing. On a psychological level it meant I could sit and feed him for literally hours only to move slightly and have everything he’d just drunk regurgitated all down himself and me, and he’d be starving again almost right away. It also meant he liked to suck for comfort to ease the griping and acid pains the reflux gave him. So he was on the boob constantly. And he was sick a lot. And people liked to say “Maybe the problem is that you feed him too much?!” and I liked to fantasise about punching their faces.
He took a bottle without problem at the age of 4 weeks so we congratulated ourselves on having such a smart kid and sensible approach to feeding and didn’t bother trying again until he was about 3 months of age, when he screamed like he was being torn limb from limb and refused point blank to even have the teat in his mouth. He did, eventually, after much stress, and worry and money spent on various types of bottles and teats start taking a bottle just in time for me to go back to work when he was 9 months old.
I had to express at work to keep up my supply, prevent myself getting mastitis and provide milk to leave for him to have the next time I was in work. Working on a neonatal unit this should have been simple, and in some ways it was. But I was told that I had to express in my own time, aka my lunch break, and although I now know that not to be true, I didn’t at the time so I had to choose between food or expressing, often attempting both (eat toast with one hand, express with the other) and not doing particularly well at either.
He didn’t get teeth until the week before his 1st birthday after which I only fed him for a few more weeks anyway, so biting wasn’t an issue, except of course that teeth don’t come from nowhere so he was perfectly capable of biting me without teeth, aka “gumming” down on my poor unsuspecting boobs and triggering a reflex in me that was so violent I was only just able to stop myself from flinging him across the room.
Breastfeeding was much easier second time,because I knew exactly what to expect. But Rudy was new to it. Oh don’t get me wrong, he could latch and feed, but he had colic instead of reflux, which was a refreshing change, except in the way that it wasn’t at all, because reflux we were prepared for, colic, not so much. Also there was the challenge of breastfeeding a newborn on demand whilst entertaining and caring for a toddler.
I got my first ever bout of mastitis when Rudy was 9 weeks old, just in time for my 27th birthday, i didn’t know what it was at first, never having had it before but it soon became clear. I thought i might die, but I didn’t. And when I got it for a second time, almost a year later I again thought I might die, but again I didn’t.
I also decided, for some altruistic reasons that aren’t clear to me now, that life wasn’t quite challenging enough for me so I started expressing for my local human milk bank and donated two litres of my milk to them before I gave up so that I could start harvesting a stash of milk in the freezer for when I went back to work.
Rudy got teeth much earlier than his brother (a whole half a year earlier) and quickly discovered the joys of boobs as teething aids. I flirted with the idea of giving up almost daily, particularly as I approached going back to work, as the idea of expressing in the resource room again didn’t appeal for some strange reason. But I had this notion that I should feed him for as long as I fed his brother for. In the interests of sibling equality or something. Just in case I was ever audited on such a thing. So I did go back to work expressing, and in fact I provided something for Rudy I never managed with Toby- a full year of exclusive breastfeeding. Way to go me. All my colleagues thought think I was am nuts. But that’s ok. And i do feel proud of myself, even though I’m not allowed to celebrate the fact EVER in case I upset someone who didn’t manage it.
Which is a bit like A-level results day, when, not to blow my own trumpet or anything, I achieved two A’s and two B’s and got the university place I wanted, but my (ex) boyfriend and one of our friends didn’t. So instead of celebrating I had to commiserate with them instead. But don’t feel too sorry for me (hard not to, I know) because it turns out that celebrating and commiserating when you’re 18 are basically the same thing as both involve drinking alcohol until losing consciousness.
My point (I think) is that even though I found breastfeeding straightforward, and never had any major difficulties, and even thought when people ask I tell them it was fine, really, when I think about it, it was a labour of love. Literally. It wasn’t easy, not really. But I loved it. I loved all of it. Even all that shit I just bitched about up there. Well, ok, maybe not all of it. But it’s still part of our journey. And there was plenty about it that I did love…
I loved the feeling of closeness, physically and emotionally. The milky smell. The giant boobs. The excuse not to wear underwire for months at a time. The excuse to eat more, even after your pregnancy has ended. Co-sleeping and drifting off together, courtesy of those lovely hormones. The cuddles. The excuse to not let anyone else hold or feed your baby if you don’t want them to. I loved getting both boys weighed at the clinic and knowing that whatever they’d gained was because of me. Squeezing their chubby thighs and blowing raspberries on their fat tums and thinking how fucking amazing the human body is that i could grow an egg and a sperm into a human baby, push it out and feed it milk from the very same body to nourish said baby and make it grow into this heap of deliciousness.
I breastfed because I wanted my boys to be healthy. They still got sick. I breastfed because there’s evidence to suggest it reduces the risk of eczema, asthma and allergies. They still both ended up with eczema, but it’s only mild, and while I hate that they have it at all, I like knowing I reduced the risk, and in the process may have decreased the severity of the condition. I breastfed because I wanted to decrease my own risk of cancer. I breastfed because I am lazy, and the idea of actually leaving the bed in the middle of the night, multiple times, in order to make up bottles to feed a hungry baby horrified me. I breastfed because i know myself well, and I would have found it hard to make up bottles and then remember take them out and about with me. Boobs are handily attached, you can’t forget them. And they don’t require pre-warming or mixing, which I personally found super convenient.
Some people breastfeed because of all the above, or some of the above, or for another reason entirely. Some people don’t breastfeed because of any of the crappy things i mentioned earlier in my post, or all of them, or some other reason entirely.
Some people want to breastfeed but can’t. Some try but it doesn’t work out. Some don’t want to but do anyway. Some don’t want to so don’t. Some people feel good about their choices and some people feel bad. Some people feel good about other people’s choices, some people feel bad about them. Some people don’t care either way.
I support mums breastfeeding at work. I’ve supported mums who never intended to breastfeed but are expressing milk because they feel it’s the right thing to do given their baby’s condition. I support mums who have never considered anything else other than breastfeeding but are having a really hard time with it. I can support anybody with anything, so long as they’re honest with me. And sometimes they’re not, and it’s frustrating to have put so much effort into helping someone establish breastfeeding only for them to stop because they never wanted to in the first place. I’d rather be told the truth. I’m a big girl, I can handle it. But it seems not all health care professionals can and there are definitely a lot of mums I meet who really never wanted to breastfeed but because someone told them “breast is best” they feel they’ll be vilified if they don’t at least be seen to try.
One of those A-Levels that I got a B in was Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. It was like Religious Studies but we yelled at each other a lot and my friend and I doodled pictures of Kant saying funny stuff in speech bubbles like “I think therefore I am…(a) Kunt” Ho ho. Aside from all that we did a module on Deontology and Teleology. Which, as an A-level module is quite complex but for blog purposes boils down to Motives vs Consequences.
Applied to breastfeeding this is like saying, “Does it really matter why someone breastfeeds, as long as they do it?!” Well you could argue no, because the effect for the baby will be the same no matter what their reasons and/or feelings on the matter – same nourishment, same antibodies, same weight gain, same health benefits for mother and baby.
Except it sort of does matter if the Mum is unhappy. If breastfeeding is sucking the very life from her, if she had to come off medication in order to do it safely and now really needs to be back on that medication, if she was a victim of abuse in the past and breastfeeding is causing her to have flashbacks, if she’s got other children she’s struggling to care for because so much of her time and energy is being absorbed by breastfeeding. If she is starting to hate herself, hate her body, hate her baby, dreading every feed. If she just doesn’t want to do it. Then of course it matters.
Yes we can and should be doing things as a society to make breastfeeding the easy choice for everyone, to improve the health of infants and new Mums. But we’re supposed to be supporting mothers to make choices for themselves and their children, not bullying or coercing them into making choices that will then leave them feeling guilty hours/days/weeks/months later when it turns out that wasn’t the right choice for them.
So breastfeeding: it wasn’t always easy. I really loved it. I truly believe it’s awesome. But not everyone feels that way and that’s ok.
Our breastfeeding journey is over but it will always stay with me, and I hope I can use what I’ve learned from it (good and bad) to better support other mums, whether that be at work, online, at friend’s houses’, at playgroup, wherever.
(Feeding Toby, December 2010)
(Feeding Rudy December 2011)