Next week, my baby girl turns a year old. I’m still breastfeeding her – just as I did my son, until he was almost 2. As a nursing mum, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of years – about my children and myself, but also about the attitude of others towards a fundamental parenting choice that I’ve made. In the post, I want to encourage you – especially if you are mum to a new infant – with some of what I’ve learnt.
Just to be clear – I know not everyone can or wants to nurse. I don’t judge that. So if that’s you… Then please don’t feel judged! You are just as much a woman and mother as those using their breasts to nurse their babies because you can still nurse through your responsiveness to your child’s needs.
In the rest of this post, I will use ‘nursing’ to mean feeding baby with breast milk… But I absolutely know that there’s no reason that a bottle-fed baby can’t be ‘nursed’ in the broader sense every bit as much as a breastfed one.
1: Breastfeeding or Nursing?
Let’s start with a distinction. In British English, most people talk about breastfeeding rather than nursing. I’ve got no problem with either term but I do sometimes feel that when we talk about just breastfeeding some infer that feeding your baby is all the breasts of a new mother are for. It’s clear that, for an infant, your milk provides nutrition and hydration. But it also provides comfort and stability at a time of enormous upheaval. The sound and smell and touch of you makes up so much of what your baby needs in its first months, and there’s no place they would rather get it than nuzzling at your breast. It is an amazing gift of creation that your body is designed to be everything that is needed in these opening months. This is why I far prefer the term nursing to breastfeeding; but, whatever we call it, we need to remember that, as mothers, we are nursers – of body, mind and spirit – of our babies. And we should not be ashamed of that.
A lot of women feel that they don’t make enough milk and therefore choose not to nurse. You need to remember that the milk you produce increases over time to match the needs of your baby. A breastfed baby nurses little and often, especially at first – their tummies are tiny and breast milk is digested more quickly than formula. Unless they are losing more weight than anticipated for a newborn and your midwife has concerns, you are doing just fine.
When we are nursers, and we respond to our babies day and night as they need, we can sometimes find that partners, parents and others struggle with the exclusive nature or our relationship with our babies. Don’t get me wrong – it is vital that you include your partner and carve out time for both of you together, and that you accept offers of help from friends and family. But you should never feel guilty that your baby needs you more than others. Grandparents, aunts and uncles will have years to forge relationships with baby – but baby needs you now; ‘in a minute’ is not a concept that infants can, or should have to, understand. That one’s for the grown ups.
Caring for an infant is unbelievably intense; nursing one is a whole other level of intense. You need to stay fed and – crucially – hydrated. You may spend days on the sofa at a time. This is normal. It is okay. You are not weird and your baby is not weird. (And, believe me, you’ll miss those hours of tv catch up when you’re nursing number two with number one on the loose!).
4: Four Hours between Feeds is a Myth
Some babies can and will feed every four hours. A nursing baby probably won’t – my son fed about every 90 minutes for months, even after I started solids with him. At a year, my daughter still takes milk or food every two to three hours, including at night. Each baby is different, their needs are different, and a nursing mum needs to go at their pace. There is nothing wrong with you or your baby if you cannot reach the four-hour target (which seems to me to be a falsified ideal that succeeds only in stressing new mums).
5: The First 8 Weeks are the Hardest
When I was nursing my son, I struggled with latching, bleeding and repeated mastitis. I was in excruciating agony every time I nursed, and I was ready to give up. Then my mother-in-law – who had nursed five children – shared some crucial wisdom with me: if you can get through the first 8 weeks, you’re through the worst of it. And she was right. Once I broke through the 8 week barrier something just clicked – and I actually started enjoying my special time with my baby boy.
6: After 6 Months…
Statistics show that the number of women who nurse their babies drop significantly at 6 weeks and 6 months after birth. Those of us who continue to nurse after 6 months face a raft of new pressures; in my experience, this can manifest itself in pressure, as you start solids, to swap the breast for the bottle – and a lack of understanding from many when you choose not to. Why would you? Nursing is exhausting, time consuming… But it is your choice. It is rewarding. You might even enjoy it! If you and your baby are both happy to continue, then you should – guilt free. Your milk is still the best thing for your baby, even when you start to complement it.
7: Nursing and Sleeping
I have always nursed my babies to sleep, have co-slept with both, and didn’t start night weaning my son until he was 15 months old. I will probably do the same with my daughter because she is not yet ready to give up those feeds. My son woke every couple of hours every night until he was 2 – and then suddenly the penny dropped, and he slept. I had stopped nursing him to sleep just a few weeks before. We were both ready – and the slow decline in milk supply meant that, when we stopped, I didn’t suffer the mastitis that I had feared. This was just one of the bonuses of going at the pace that suited both myself and my baby; the other was an enormous sense of peace.
8: Back to Work
I have returned to work as a nursing mother twice, and both times have worried about milk supply and the transition back to proper bras (a two-edged sword!). Your body is clever, and knows what you need when you need it – even when you’re at home some days and don’t see baby for hours on others. The real struggle for a nursing mum in the workforce is childcare when baby is ill. Employers may not know – or may simply forget – that an ill baby reverts to newborn and rejects everything except milk, sometimes for days. You need to make nursing that baby your top priority especially if, like both of mine, they categorically refuse formula milk. Not every HR department is sympathetic to this, and it is important that you are transparent with your needs and familiar with your work place’s policies for working mums. If necessary, get your doctor’s endorsement.
9: This too shall Pass
Some days, you can’t bear the thought of another feed. But even if, like me, you nurse until your babe is a full-fledged toddler, you nurse for such a short time. Remember that.
10: A Lesson in Love
Nurse for as long as you and your baby are happy to keep doing so. You are not only responding to their needs but investing in your future relationship with your baby. When you nurse on demand, you practice a level of self sacrifice that much of our society doesn’t understand, but the dividends are worth it: a toddler who knows that you will respond to him. Practice at the kind of selflessness that you will need to navigate the years ahead. Your responsiveness and self sacrifice will give your son or daughter confidence, and a vital message about what it is to be in relationship with others.
In short? New-Nurser, you’re doing one of the hardest things in the world. You’re doing it with no sleep. You’re learning a whole new kind of love, maybe even coming to a whole new understanding of God’s love for you – love marked by devoted sacrifice and piercing joy. But when it all seems too much, think on this: when your nursing days come to a close, you will miss that intimacy with your baby -and you’ll be glad that you stuck with it.