April 12, 2010

"Breast is Best" v. Hysterics

I went into parenthood DETERMINED to nurse my children. I didn't know how long I would do it, and I still have no real concept of when that will end. We're going strong at 6+ months, and the pediatric recommendation is a full year, but my understanding is that children generally self wean between 8 and 18 months old. Yeah, big window.

The global average for length of nursing is actually four years, but that's the GLOBAL average. By most accounts, a majority those children would have been long weaned if there was anything else to feed them. Or any other available method of birth control. Breast milk is amazing, and has health properties that we're only just beginning to uncover. Did you know that you can use breast milk to treat throat cancer? I digress...

I had set myself a six month goal for nursing my babies. I figure, six months is pretty damn good, and nursing twins is HARD, right?

Good lord... I had no idea.

You see a little cat with a litter of six kittens just serenely laying there while the babies nurse away and you think, "That's the simplest, most natural thing in the world!" No. Absolutely not. Nursing is HARD, nursing is COMPLICATED, and human babies- unable to hold up their heads, roll over, or smile at you in thanks, can hurt your poor breasts more than you can possibly imagine.

One word. Suction. Suction is amazing. Using suction, you can life massive weights. You can clean your carpets. You can cause hematomas.

Babies develop the sucking instinct around 35 weeks gestational age. That means that if your baby is born full term, they shouldn't have too much trouble sucking that milk out.

The thing is, new babies are not patient. And they don't empathize (yet). And they have no concept of their mother as a human being. No, to a newborn baby, mommy exists for baby's warmth, comfort, and food. And baby will take what's theirs.

A newborn will latch hard, badly, and start sucking. If they're not getting enough, they might BITE you. HARD. And the fact that there are no teeth in that little jaw is irrelevant. That's the strongest muscle group in their bodies.

So imagine for a minute that you have a vice, attached by suction, clamping on your VERY tender nipple. Because you get all sore just for this very special moment. Now imagine that they're PUSHING YOUR NIPPLE AWAY as hard as they can, while maintaining that amazing suction. Oh yes, you'll survive. But never forgetting this ominous phrase- "Permanent nipple damage." Because pulling out your nipple without breaking suction? Oh yeah. Bad.

And there's always insult to the injury. When your nipples are black and blue, swollen and sore, that's when you're most likely to get an infected or clogged milk duct. And the best way to fix that? Yeah, more nursing.

From most of the moms I talk to, my assertion that it takes 4 months to "establish nursing" is just about right. You got that, four months of this. And they'll lull you into a false sense of security. You'll think that two weeks of perfect nursing means that you're finally through it all, that now you can lie back like the little kitty and let nature do it's beautiful thing. And that's when the growth spurt kicks in and the little bugger starts mutilating you again.

Then you have your loved ones weighing in. They hear you scream with pain, or see your breasts swollen with mastitis, and they tell you that it's okay to stop. This is what formula is for, and you've done your best but it's okay to just go ahead and give the baby a bottle. But you don't. Because you're going to be the best effing mother ever, and god damn if you're going to let something like half an hour of agony eight times a day stop you. And all that tension makes it impossible for you let let down, and you just get hurt more and more and more, and then you start to cry.

And crying will save you. Because those hormones that make you cry also make the milk come. And starting one kick starts the other. So you sob, weep, wail, and curse, and then the baby eats. Oh, it still hurts, but at least you're fulfilling your biological duty.

You will freak out your co-parent. You will freak out your baby. But hell, what do your tears matter? The tears of a mother are irrelevant- you cry so that baby doesn't have to. You brought that baby into the world in pain, and with pain you'll keep it here so help you.

...I understand Jewish grandmothers more every day.

But it ends. Nursing becomes established. And the clogged ducts and the purple nurples cease. And you're left with the weaning question.

I had decided that "at least six months" was a good goal. But if it takes four or five months to get good at it, why stop right away? I mean, a four month investment for a two month return? Screw that. I'm nursing until either they self wean, or they can walk up to me and ask me to nurse them. Because that's when things will start getting awkward.

And now, when they're teenagers and I won't let them borrow the car, I can tell them it's because I nursed them through all the pain and mastitis and that they can go ahead and give that a shot if they want to go to Julie's cabin in the woods.

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