Lessons from a year of breastfeeding

Little Boy’s first birthday is coming up, which means that my husband and I have survived 12 whole months of parenthood (!) and that we’re about to be the parents of a toddler (!!).  It also means that I (with significant help from my husband) have achieved my goal of breastfeeding for the 12-month minimum recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Here are a few of things that I’ve learned from those 12 months:

Breastfeeding can be easy

This isn’t to say that it will be easy, but it can be.  Every breastfeeding reference that I’ve encountered, whether in baby care books or online, emphasizes how difficult it can be in the beginning.  There are pages dedicated to resolving clogged ducts, soothing cracked nipples, boosting a low milk supply, and fixing a painful latch.  These resources are really, really important—it’s critical that new moms know that these issues can be resolved—but they do tend to give the impression that the first few weeks of breastfeeding are awful.  It’s enough to make you think twice about whether this is something you really want to do.

What I’m saying is: don’t be scared.  Sometimes your baby gets the latch figured out right away, you produce plenty of milk, and things generally go well.  That’s what happened for me.  There was a short period when Little Boy was about two weeks old when I had to be extra careful about how he latched on, but otherwise there was no pain, no cracks, no gritting of teeth.

An important corollary here is that the difficulty level of breastfeeding is mostly out of your control.  I’m not an über-mom who figured out the secret to easy nursing—I was just lucky.  My mom tells me that nursing went smoothly for her, too, so maybe there’s a genetic component.

…but it is a big commitment. 

A big commitment on top of the already huge commitment of being a parent.  All parents face the sleep deprivation of the early weeks, but for nursing moms, there is no reprieve.  You have to wake up for every feeding; even if your spouse gives a bottle, you still have to pump.

With a one-year-old, sleep deprivation is no longer an issue, but my life still revolves around Little Boy’s four-hour meal plan.  If I go anywhere without Little Boy for longer than that, I have to bring my breast pump.  It’s constraining in other subtle ways, too.  For instance, I can’t go for a run until after Little Boy’s first nursing session of the day, because the engorgement is too uncomfortable.  So when I go running in the summer, it’s in the hot hot heat.

Some parts are wonderful.

Some women like to gush about how perfect and natural and amazing breastfeeding is; I’m not one of those women.  The oxytocin rush tends to make me sleepy and light-headed, not blissfully happy.  Still, when Little Boy snuggles into my lap for his breakfast, it’s pretty darn nice.

Some parts suck.

One word: teeth.

We’ve mostly moved past the biting stage, thankfully.

You don’t have to sterilize your breast pump parts every day.

The manual that comes with your breast pump will say that you have to boil or steam the flanges, valves, etc. every single day that you use them.  For weeks, I dutifully washed my pump parts with soap and water, then popped them in a Medela microwave bag to steam clean.  Ugh.  So much work.

But you don’t have to sterilize baby bottles every day, so why should breast pumps be any different?  (And it’s not like I sterilize my nipples…)  Eventually, I decided to just do the steam-cleaning thing on the weekends.  These days, I mostly forget to do it at all.  Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration assures me that this is completely OK.

On a related note: you can store pump parts in the refrigerator between pumping sessions!  I would go even more crazy if I had to wash my pump parts thrice a day at school, especially since my building lacks running water.  Breast milk stays good for several days in the fridge; the drops of milk on your flanges are no different.  I store everything in a quart-size Ziploc bag between pumping sessions, then wash it all at home that night.

You can breastfeed on a schedule.

Not right away, of course.  Newborn babies need to be fed on demand, both for their sake and to establish a good milk supply.  However, once breastfeeding is well-established and your baby is steadily gaining weight, it’s OK to introduce a routine.

I think a lot of people hear the words “baby schedule” and think that it means strictly applying time constraints without regard to their child’s desires.  “Sorry kid, I know you’re hungry, but your next meal’s not until 10 a.m. and it’s only 9:45 now.”  Yeah, don’t be a jerk.  (Also, surely that approach is bad for formula-fed babies as well…?)  But there’s a middle ground, one in which you guide your baby into a schedule that works for everybody.

For us, that meant waking Little Boy up at a consistent time every day and offering food every three hours during the day (and then as needed at night).  Between 4 and 5 months old, he started taking more consistent naps, and his mealtimes likewise became more consistent.  Today, his eating habits are very predictable, within ±30 minutes depending on naps and hunger.  Only once in recent memory has he asked* to nurse between regular meals, and that was when I was recovering from food poisoning and knew I was dehydrated and low on milk.

*How does Little Boy ask for milk, you ask?  He pulls down my shirt and demands, “Ma ma ma ma ma.”

It’s easier to nurse in front of strangers than in front of friends.

Obviously, this depends a lot on your personality.  Me, I’m not too worried if someone at a gas station catches a glimpse of something while we’re on a road trip—they can get over it.  But when friends (or worse, family) are around, I get nervous about whipping out the boob.  I worry about their comfort level with my usually-covered body parts.  The only exception is my mom, because she’s awesome.

Where do we go from here?  I’m getting awfully darn tired of pumping, so once we hit that 12-month mark, I’ll start weaning Little Boy off his mid-day feedings.  We’ll stick with breakfast and bedtime as long as it works, assuming my milk supply holds up.

Tell me about your baby-feeding experiences (breast or otherwise) in the comments!

6 thoughts on “Lessons from a year of breastfeeding

  1. I’m totally with you on being more comfortable nursing in front of strangers vs. friends/family (except for my mom too!)… though I’d have to put co-workers at the top of the uncomfortable list!


  2. I applaud you for being able to breastfeed SO long! That’s a great feat, for both mother and son, I am sure! I wasn’t able to for longer than 3 months with either of my kids, because they both had soy and milk allergies, but for the time I did, it was a huge challenge. The benefits you have given your son are no doubt amazing. Congrats, mama!


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