Friday, December 01, 2006

The Truth About Breastfeeding

Everyone knows that breast milk is best for babies. However, experts agree that formula provides a nutritious alternative. At the same time, many breastfeeding mothers subconsciously perceive baby formula to be the powder equivalent of Mad Dog 20/20. I was breastfeeding my first baby, but I supplemented with formula occasionally. Although I knew that I was fed on formula as a baby and that it was even healthier today, I felt like every drop of formula I gave him was a small failure. It's not my fault that I couldn't think clearly; it was the hormones. Breastfeeding is beautiful, natural, and endlessly rewarding - when you get the hang of it. Until that time, I believe that our bodies supply us with magical and curious hormones that give that extra nuttiness we need to get through the tough times.

Two words: bloody nipples. Why else would perfectly sane women continue to breastfeed with sore and/or bloody nipples? We continue to breastfeed because "it's best for the baby". We will do anything for our adorable babies. I smelled like spoiled milk for an entire year. People didn't tell me I smelled; but they also kept assured cleared distance. I always felt leaky. Breast pads helped the leakiness, but they hindered my style. Sure, they would work great if I had on a big sweater or a sweatshirt. Occasionally I would want to wear a t-shirt or a tank top. You could always see the round outline of my breast pads through my bra. So I would try to skip the breast pad and go nursing-commando. Subsequently I would be having a grand time when I would look down to see two big circles of breast milk on my shirt. I never knew how long they had been there. No one tells you that you are leaking because, as I will explain, people think breast milk is disgusting. I would then slink back to the car, replace my breast pads, and go home in shame.

I loved to see the faces of people when I was breastfeeding in public. As I became more proficient, many people would make eye contact with me and start to smile before they realized the horror that was taking place right in front of them. They're eyes would slowly pan up from my babies' legs to the back of his head. They would suddenly gasp, look away, and walk faster (to safety). Once, I was entertaining a kid-less friend and stopped to rearrange my refrigerator. I placed a bottle of expressed milk on the counter. I doubt she would have looked any less disturbed if I had shown her a urine sample. Why is breast milk so disgusting? Milk from the refrigerator is also breast milk - from a cow! I'm not saying we should pour breast milk on our Corn Flakes, but let's treat it with some respect people.

I found myself talking nonstop about my breasts. I couldn't wait to mention breastfeeding in conversation. I must have been so annoying. It came to a point where if I wasn't showing my breasts, I was talking about them. I could have written 20 poems titled "Ode to Breastfeeding My Baby". I would discuss when and how often I breastfed. I would discuss the condition of my nipples. Up to that point, I kept these matters private. Looking back, I'm a little embarrassed. I keep telling myself, "it wasn't my fault; it was the hormones."

The first few months of breastfeeding are difficult. You don't know whether or not your baby will latch on. Then you don't know if they've latched on correctly. Unlike formula, you can't tell how much breast milk a baby ingests. In the first few weeks home from the hospital, we are all worried about our babies gaining weight. They drill it into your head at the hospital. You have to make sure the baby has "x" number of wet diapers and "x" number of dirty diapers. My husband is a little neurotic. We had spreadsheets for poop, pee, and what he called "feeds". He would always ask "Did the baby feed?" He made it sound so sinister, like we were hunting down and eating small animals. All I did all day is breastfeed. I watched TV. I knew everything about pop culture. I knew Dr. Phil's wife's name and both his kids' names, and I found myself referring to Oprah's boyfriend in many of my conversations. I was lucky to get a shower every day, and I needed them more than ever. I was always worried that my baby wasn't getting enough milk, or that my supply was drying up. My husband positioned a station in the family room for me to record the feedings. He had a notebook, a calculator, and a scale. I was to weigh the baby before I nursed and after I nursed, convert the weight gain to ounces, and record the approximate intake of fluid. He made sure to tell me that I couldn't change the baby's diaper during the process for fear any urine lost in the diaper change would offset the breast milk consumed. I realized that it wasn't just my hormones that were wacky.

After the first couple months, breastfeeding became easier. The baby and I fell into a rhythm and we were both happy. I can still see his little face looking back at me as he happily suckled away. I vividly remember the warmth of his little body in my arms. These were the most purely happy times of parenthood for me so far. I loved being a nursing mom. It was finally working. I felt like I had a soda fountain strapped to my chest full of breast milk. There were no bottles to clean and no milk to warm. I honestly don't know how working moms continued to breastfeed. It was double the work. You both nursed your baby, and fed him bottles. Now that's dedication.

I always thought that the mothers who were still nursing their 3 and 4 year olds were fanatical. When your baby toddles in your bedroom at night, lifts your shirt, and asks "snack, please?" you know that you've breastfed too long, right? As I approached my baby's twelfth month, I kept telling myself that I would quit soon. It was hard. Sometimes, when I breastfed in the morning, I would get such a rush of affection for the baby that I would feel drunk for a couple minutes. Again, I'm sure hormones were still at play. I started thinking, "I could do this until 24 months, right?" Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I didn't have to make the decision to give up breastfeeding. My baby lost interest at about a year old. It sounds fanatical, but I cried. I knew it would make my life easier, but I also knew I would miss it. I knew it meant that my baby was growing up. This period in my life would be over, the hormones would leave, and I would go back to appropriate conversation and pleasant body odor. It was nice that he could feed himself. It gave me more freedom and my body slowly returned to normal. Even without the hormones, I look back at that time very fondly. I'm glad breast milk is best for babies. It's not too bad for moms either.

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