About half of mothers will be breastfeeding in our country by six months postpartum, and only one-third will still be nursing by 12 months. This is far below the WHO’s recommendation that moms nurse their babies through the first two years at minimum.
I’ll admit, those recent statistics – based off the 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card – shocked me. I’m approaching my one-year goal of nursing, and as normal as it is in my circle to breastfeed, it was awakening to learn that I’m now standing alongside a minority of moms who are nursing into the second year. I feel that it’s important to say that I’m not sharing this to imply that breast is best. Fed is best. I’m sharing this because it’s an important reflection of how many gaps there still are in providing the systematic support needed for moms who breastfeed in our country.
That said, I feel overwhelmingly lucky to be approaching this one-year milestone – one that I wouldn’t have been able to reach without the incredible support system I’ve found in my own community.
When I look back on our first year, though, these statistics start to make sense. There were so many points along the way where I was encouraged to stop or where I was given conflicting, faulty information.
In those early months, nursing was a full-time job. I grossly underestimated how hard it was going to be. Some told me, “Don’t feel like you have to breastfeed. Besides, how can you tell how much he’s really getting? You’re probably over-feeding him!”
Instead, some of you chose to send words of promise and comfort. “It does get better. You are in the hardest part of it all. Hang in there. You are doing an amazing job.”
To those people, I say thank you. You knew that the last thing I needed was more questioning at a time when everything was one big game of trial and error. You knew that I was in survival mode, aching of exhaustion, and that the last thing I needed was someone to cast doubt on my ability to breastfeed before my supply could even regulate.
And you were right. It did get better.
Then we started teething, and the skeptics returned:“Aren’t you supposed to stop nursing when they get their teeth? Geesh!”
I knew that breastmilk didn’t suddenly lose its magic once teeth came in. I also knew that I wasn’t about to become the next teething toy for the unforeseeable future.
Some of you let me vent in solidarity, while sharing tried and true tips of keeping baby focused on eating – not teething – while nursing. Sure enough, a few days of re-directing and paying closer attention to his cues, it once again got better.
Thank you. You knew just how short my patience was, but you were also able to see farther ahead than I was at that time. You gave me space to dislike breastfeeding at times without joining my pity party. You, once again, lifted me up.
Suddenly we were six months old. Everyone became obsessed with “Is he sleeping through the night?” To which my answer was a very frank, “Nope! He still wakes for his milk!”
Yet this opened the door to all kinds of comments like, “Your baby will never learn to sleep on his own if you keep spoiling him and nursing him to bed! You’re creating bad habits!”
But, I knew these comments were unfounded. In this household, we “do science” even when it’s not popular. I chose not to ignore his mid-night wakings for milk, knowing that these were biologically normal infant sleep patterns that meant he was thriving and communicating his needs – needs that, if met, would be the basis of his eventual independence. I also knew that breastmilk changed its “recipe” at night, releasing more of the good stuff that helps him sleep – all while having full confidence that being responsive was something I’d hardly call a “bad habit.”
Instead of judging or pointing out differences in parenting choices, some of you chose to cheer me on. “Sleep in the first year is so hard and ever-changing. We’ve all been there. Keep doing what works for you and your family. Period.”
Thank you. You knew that what I needed more than anything was a boost of confidence to continue trusting my mommy gut.
And then as the days flew by and we approached his first birthday, some started to question why he would need to nurse at all anymore since he’s now munching on table foods – when they don’t end up on the floor or to the dogs, of course.
“He’s not STILL nursing, is he?” as if my milk was somehow harmful to my clearly healthy, happy baby.
But I laughed it off because I knew that food before one is just for fun, and that my milk was still the most complete source of nutrition that would help him continue to grow – and to keep him protected from sickness.
Some of you chose instead to say nothing at all at the sight of me nursing my “older baby,” other than a smile. You knew that I finally had the hang of things, and that by now, all I wanted was normalcy and acknowledgment that my decision to nurse is mine to make.
Thank you to those of you who knew the respectful balance of offering support while respecting my role as mother. Your words – and quiet acknowledgment – were empowering at times when others overstepped.
It has been a year of ups and downs, but mostly ups. Breastfeeding is hard because it requires you to give your time, energy and body even when all you want to do is take a bubble bath alone. It’s hard because even though it’s natural, it has an immense learning curve. It’s hard because it is an intimate journey – but one that is also dependent upon community support, which isn’t always there.
But it’s also easy. It’s easy because it’s not all on me, and my baby takes charge by telling me when he needs it and how much he needs. It’s easy because it’s so much more than feeding; it’s also something incredibly healing, comforting and nurturing that bonds us. It’s easy because it’s rewarding to see visible results in our thriving baby boy.
Thank you to all the fellow moms who listened, advised and encouraged me – on both the easy days and the tough days. Breastfeeding is incredibly reliant upon a sisterhood – one that I know I will continue to rely on as we head into the unknowns of year two.
After a year of breastfeeding, I feel humbled, I feel grateful, and I feel strong.