A mother’s experience: Tandem nursing and toddlers
When mother of three, Ishbel Kölsch, breastfed her toddler in public, the reaction she got was not what she expected.
My journey with nursing was a completely unplanned one. I had researched every aspect of pregnancy and childbirth, reading lots of books and scanning informative websites but I had not looked into nursing at all. Somewhere along the way I had bought into the belief that “some women can nurse and some women can’t” and that the ability to do so largely depended on chance. I had been told by so many women that they really wanted to but couldn’t breastfeed their baby. I decided therefore, to first determine whether in fact I “could” nurse and then I’d take things from there. How misguided and ill prepared I was!
I was lucky enough to have a beautiful birth free of any complications and in a hospital that encouraged bonding with my baby as soon as possible. Moments after she was born, my baby rooted her way to my breast and latched on right away. It was miraculous. It was done. She was nursing, and so began a beautiful chapter of my life.
For a while, all was going well. My baby nursed frequently and extensively so that there was not much chance to use the breast pump I had purchased upon recommendations from some medical staff and friends. But soon, within the first week, I started to experience pain that grew to be excruciating when we would nurse, giving me shivers all throughout my body. I began to dread the sight of those little lips of hers that would quiver when she was ready to nurse and, instead of bonding, in crept fear and anxiety. I reviewed instructional videos online, I read around on websites and consulted books desperately seeking a response to what I assumed we were doing wrong. The lactation consultants we saw, however, informed me that technically, everything was OK. She was latching correctly, she was happy and getting what she needed, but I was still in this unbearable pain, crying while we nursed.
Two things happened. A lactation consultant explained that sometimes discomforts such as these subsided simply when the baby grew older, even by a few days. And a friend, who had experienced similar pain in the beginning, told me that one day, one feeding, the pain would just not be there. That it might take weeks or even a couple of months (as was the case for me) and it would just “go away”. It did. The pain disappeared. At one point I really didn’t think I could push through but I held onto what these two people said and I am forever grateful I did.
Nursing feels like one of the most beautiful, most rewarding and satisfying acts of motherhood that I am lucky enough to experience. The intimacy of holding my baby in my arms and against my heart, her gentle caresses and her eyes looking deep into mine, her little grunts and sighs expressing her pleasure. The underlying satisfaction knowing she is getting the best source of nutrition available to her, giving her a significant advantage in the protection against a diverse and extensive list of illnesses and infections.
I continued my journey with nursing like I had begun it, with little thought other than to savor the experience. I didn’t think about how long I planned to nurse other than leaving it to my baby to decide. It felt too difficult to decline her urgent requests. I now know the various time periods women in different cultures nurse and what the world health organization recommends but I had never thought about where I fit in with this. I hadn’t heard the term “extended nursing” or considered whether it applied to me.
My baby was six months old when I discovered I was pregnant again. I was told that she might choose to wean herself if she didn’t like the change in taste of my milk. She continued nursing. When she was nine months old, a pediatrician told me that she should immediately be put on formula and that an iron test would likely show her to be deficient, his concern being she’d been nursing while I was pregnant. Not so. An iron test showed her to be right at the top of the target range right where she should be. We changed pediatricians. She nursed all through my pregnancy and remained in the 95 percentile for weight and height and never got sick. Her sister was born shortly after she turned one and I was nursing both her and her new sister in the hospital. It felt natural and comfortable to just hold them each at a breast and the lactation consultant confirmed there was no need for any special consideration. I was assured the newborn is the one influencing the milk supply and making sure she gets what she needs.
I could never have anticipated from what early age on my babies would bond and form a relationship of their own. But from the very start, nursing, heads together or feet to feet, they cradled one another, reached out and ran their hands through the other ones’ hair or up the other’s arm or along a leg. They held hands and gazed into each other’s eyes. They’d fall asleep together in my arms and on my lap, all of us in an embrace. Nursing like this was its own special kind of gift.
When I fell pregnant a third time, my eldest showed no signs of weaning any time soon so shortly after our third baby was born, I explained to her that she was now a big girl and didn’t need to nurse any more. We hadn’t been nursing very often towards that time and there had been days we hadn’t nursed at all so it wasn’t a difficult transition. She’d ask to nurse and I’d say “nooooo” and she’d laugh and giggle and move on. She just accepted it. Now my children are 3, 2 and 1 and I still nurse the younger two.
When nursing in public I have waited for confronting looks or comments or expressions of distaste but they have never come. Surprisingly to me, I have experienced the opposite. My first attempt at nursing in public, when I felt particularly guarded, hoping desperately to be discreet, a couple approached to say “Good for you! We are so happy to see you nurse that little one in public! It’s so important and such a beautiful thing and don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise.
You keep that up!” I have had elderly men walk up to me and peer over my shoulder while my baby has nursed and say “Ah, feeding time. Look how happy she is. Just beautiful!” I suppose I am lucky living in California where this type of attitude and outlook is common but I have nursed too in places where I was nervously awaiting a negative reaction but none ever came. I never bought those nursing capes and in all this time I’ve never invested in any specific nursing attire. I’m used to scanning restaurants for booths or corner tables or seats somehow favoring nursing, though I can be in the middle of everything and everyone and pull up my top to nurse. I am discreet (well, I try to be but it doesn’t help when your baby is pushing up your top!) but I tend to believe this is not an act one ought to try to hide. Nursing proudly in public makes me feel like I am doing my part to put it out there and give the OK for other women to do the same.
That said, I do feel more conscious nursing my toddler in public, especially in view of fellow moms and that is a shame. I wish it wasn’t like that. The only criticism I have received over nursing is from moms who, for a variety of reasons, stopped nursing early, in the first 4-6 months. I have been told many times, almost aggressively (as though I am doing something wrong) that I ought to stop, to look after myself and “put myself” first and that my baby “doesn’t need” to be nursed. I have thanked them for their advice but held true to the belief that what I am doing suits me and my baby. I also consider nursing working in my favor and making things easier for me in the long term as I don’t have sick kids to manage or tumultuous times on account of teething.
I don’t judge others for choosing not to nurse (given that they can if they wanted). Nursing is not always easy or without its sacrifices and mothering is a hard and demanding job. We’re all just doing the best we can. While we as women can be one another’s biggest advocates we can also impose the highest expectations and that is a shame. I try to meet this judgement with compassion and kindness for I believe it usually masks insecurity and think we need to support one another.
I have been nursing for four years straight and my youngest could continue for another couple of years. I have gone from a coffee lover to a herbal coffee lover and I am still eagerly awaiting that martini or glass of red. There have been many occasions when my babies will all be playing peacefully and joyously and then mommy walks into the room and there is instant fussing to be nursed. There’s never been any need for antibiotics or Tylenol as nursing seems to have prevented and soothed many things but it can be exhausting and there are times when I feel I just don’t have anything to give.
Above all though, there is the immense feeling of gratitude as well as an ever-present realization that this time like all others in parenting is fleeting and will pass before we know it. So I choose to savor it. In my mind is an album filled with images of the places I have nursed. Hunched over on the top of snowy mountains, boots dug in deep, taking in majestic views as my little one none the wiser is all curled up inside the soft lining of my jacket falling asleep. Atop granite mountains in the summer time, the smell of pine in the air; waist deep in rivers; crouched in salty tide pools; next to erupting geysers and bubbling hot springs with mist and the smell of sulfur in the air. Sweaty while mid hike or with a summer breeze in a rocking chair; under an umbrella in the rain hiking in the fall and then of course all the urban landscapes too. Planes, trains, airports, restaurants, reception rooms, hairdressers, museums, galleries, stairwells, change rooms, malls, coffee shops, bookstores, park benches, quiet secluded rooms at parties, in the middle of loud, music filled celebrations…… the list goes on. One thing remains the same each time; the world melts away as I draw my baby (or babies) towards my heart and at my core I know this is what it’s all about. To love and to give – with all of me, with everything I have. I choose to hold it close, savor it and be grateful for this time will pass in the blink of an eye.