When I was pregnant with Grace, it was my sincere desire to breastfeed my baby when he or she was born and also my sincere hope that I would like breastfeeding. This was before knowing anything about the actual baby, who wonderfully turned out to be Grace, or knowing anything about actual breastfeeding. I had read a list of things you should and shouldn't do to help breastfeeding go well and, while I had heard a few positive "breastfeeding was easy" stories, most of the stories I had heard were full of challenges and tears and mastitis and stress and dislike so I went into the whole experience with two things: high hopes and low expectations. I didn't want to have my heart too broken if it didn't work out well for us so I set two small goals for myself and hoped hoped hoped to reach them both: I will breastfeed the baby within an hour of giving birth (because I had read that is the best thing to do) and I will breastfeed the baby for three months, just three months, please let us get to three months.
And then Grace was born. I was lying under the lights praying praying praying when we heard "It's a girl!" and they swept away my blue baby (how did that cord get around her neck anyway?!) to be cleared out and cleaned up and weighed and bathed and swaddled and proudly planted in an incubator clinging to her Far's finger. I saw her sweet little face, I declared her beautiful name, I said "I love you", and then she was gone and I didn't see her for two more hours while I went through the rest of the surgery and pretend-yelled in the recovery room, "Where's my baby? I want to see my baby! I have to feed my baby!" So my first goal was not even close to accomplished which made me nervous about the reality of my second goal.
When Grace and I were finally reunited, she latched on instantly and could suckle very well. The problem was that I didn't have any colostrum or milk yet. So days went by with me drinking lots of hot liquids (tea and hot chocolate are believed, in Kenya at least, to help bring your milk), and Grace happily latching on to me but not actually getting anything to eat. I was worried that she would starve, but was reminded that she came out pretty full from all the good stuff she had on the inside and that she didn't need to eat that much just yet; and at one point the nurses gave her a thimble or two of formula that sustained her until things started working from my end.
Three full days after she was born, my increasing fears were assuaged when my milk finally came in and I could nurse her. Then it turned out that I was one of the lucky ones, for which I am still extremely grateful. Grace was a clock-like pro, eating pretty much every two hours on the dot. My anesthesiologist (surprisingly) spent five minutes giving me some "try this" tips for nursing, which was very helpful and the only professional advice I got. I had a small amount of discomfort that is expected when you start nursing but was never in actual pain, never got mastitis, never had a problem. I was equally thrilled and surprised because I had really expected a much more difficult experience and actually my three month goal came and went quite easily. Soon the next goal was to nurse her exclusively for six months and then reevaluate, which also went by with a breeze. Particularly for our travel-inclined lifestyle, nursing was perfect for several long flights in Grace's early life. It seemed that Grace could be comforted through any fussiness or discomfort by breastfeeding, which was truly a relief to all three of us (and probably hundreds of other people on various international flights).
When Grace started eating solid foods a few days shy of six months, we were happy to have reached the World Health Organization's recommendation for nursing and Grace naturally started to nurse a little bit less often, although still many times a day. I read in a few different books that breastfeeding for as long as possible is especially good for future-vegetarians and we decided to continue. Soon we were at nine months and then a year: it was still easy, it was still "working" and Grace showed no indication of wanting to stop. It is hard to say what role breastfeeding has played in Grace's inability to gain the normal amount of weight since she was six months old. Both doctors we have seen indicate that some babies just loving breastfeeding so much that they aren't that interested in solid foods, which could very well be the case with Grace. At thirteen months I stopped nursing her during the day - which she was not happy about - and kept it up only first thing in the morning and before bed (admittedly, this rule was broken during air travel and sickness). This didn't produce any big changes in her solid food consumption though, and as our trip in Boston came to an end the doctor we met with said, "You've gotta stop nursing her now. Cold Turkey. It will be a week of pure hell, but eventually she will be hungry enough to eat and drink other things." For the last several months, however, it was obvious that nursing was definitely more for ritual and comfort than actual nourishment because I had a pretty low supply of milk for such a growing girl, so who knows about how hungry she was even then. But I knew the doctor was right and so last Friday morning I nursed Grace for the last time. Fifteen months and nine days after she was born, I stopped breastfeeding. Not bad for a mom who was hoping to get to make it to three months, even if I didn't start in her first hour of life.
For three days leading up to our grand finale, I had been telling her all kinds of things to prepare her for the event because, if you have spent any amount of time with Grace you know that, she understands absolutely everything you say (or very nearly that). So I started telling her these things:
- You are a big girl now, Grace. Soon you have to drink other milk because Mama almost doesn't have any more milk.
- Mama's milk is almost gone now, Grace. In two more days you can't have any more of Mama's milk.
- Grace, after tomorrow Mama won't have any more milk.
- Tomorrow morning is your last time to have Mama's milk because you are a big girl now.
You probably think I sounded crazy, but she definitely understood what I was saying. The night before our last feeding she was really, really sad and wouldn't go to bed easily with her usual routine. I cried a little bit the two days leading up to this event because to physically feed a child for nine months inside your body and then fifteen months out in the real world...was an enormous and emotional commitment! But the day we ended I was in a good place and was happy about the decision and, frankly, my upcoming freedom.
The next few days were a little bit of a roller coaster with brief morning and evening temper tantrums when she would scream "Ma-Moo! Ma-Moo! Ma-Moo!" while making her sign for "milk" repeatedly. She hit me, threw my glasses, and tried to bite me, which provoked a few more tears (from me); but, ultimately going "cold turkey" was not nearly as hellish as anticipated and I am proud of Grace for mostly being over the whole thing by now. She seems to only ask for "Ma-Moo!" every couple of days and, while she is not drinking any other kind of milk yet, we hope that will come with a little more time.
I have been asked if I regret having nursed her for so long; perhaps after reading this you can predict that my answer is no, because since breastfeeding worked for us it was the healthiest way to start her life and, while it is still not the norm to nurse for so long in the US, throughout the rest of the world it is completely mainstream. The only thing I regret is not having introduced a bottle of breast milk to Grace at the appropriate 6-10 week marker because I think that would have given me a bit more freedom, involved Kristoffer in her early days a bit more, and would have made transitioning to other liquids much easier down the line, particularly when she wasn't gaining weight and we wanted to give her formula (which she never ended up taking). So that lesson has been learned for whenever it is that we are blessed with another baby, but I am proud of what I have been able to give our daughter and of the bond we have because of it. Who knows if a future baby will even be as good at or interested in breastfeeding; I am sure that it will be a whole new ball game when the time comes. I'll know what I'm doing, of course, but I think I'll stick to my two initial goals and go from there. It seemed to work pretty well this time around.
To begin with, there was lot I didn't know about breastfeeding, including my own feelings on the topic, and I could not have predicted how much we would both love it and what a big part of our lives it would become. To end with, even though I nursed her for a long time it seems impossible to me that that part of Grace's life is over.
Grace, you are a sweet, sweet girl and I love you very much.