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MAMA TALK - The Highs and Hiccups of Nursing

Aileen lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two young boys and a big black lab.  she works part-time for a non-profit agency and is fully enjoying the highs and hiccups of mommyhood. 

On a cold February morning my two day old infant was taken from my loving arms to a sterile, stark, severe looking Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. My husband and I spent the next day standing vigil at our son's bedside as we anxiously awaited the test results. During this time a wonderful neonatal nurse named Amy took me aside and asked if I planned to nurse Joseph. I awkwardly uttered that I still wished to try. She very gently described the necessity for me to begin pumping before my milk supply diminished in order to build a reserve for my son. Nurse Amy then carefully instructed me on how to operate the hospital pump and the correct procedures for storing breast milk. While my son spent his first night in the NIC unit, I spent it attached to a breast pump feeling quite alone, wishing it was my son affixed to me rather than this cold, inhuman device. After a lengthy fifteen minutes of listening to the swishing of the machine, Nurse Amy returned to check on my progress. "You struck gold!" she said referring to the colostrum, the nutrient-rich first milk, in the pump's bottled containers. She went onto explain that this colostrum would be a complete vitamin resource for my son. "You'll be giving him the golden ticket."

And it was those words, "the golden ticket," that stuck with me throughout the wee hours of the night when I would awake from my sleep, stumble into the bathroom with my breasts heavy and aching, and commence with my thrice nightly ritual of pumping and freezing my breast milk. After four nights of such measures and four days of thorough and constant testing on my son's behalf, we received some good news. Our son seemed to be suffering simply from a small rectum which rendered it difficult for him to push out that first meconium stool. A simple dilation on the pediatrician's part and my son was ready to be weaned from the sugar-water mixture he'd been receiving intravenously and on his way to receiving his first breast milk through a small bottle. A day later I was able to nurse my son for the first time since he was taken to the hospital's NIC unit. On this first try, he tired quite easily. He had retained his ability to latch on but seemed sluggish when it came to the actual nursing. The ever-educational NIC nurses informed me that that Joseph was able to receive his milk much faster and with less effort from a bottle. So when I attempted to nurse him, he would naturally find it more difficult and be more apt to give up. I would need to be somewhat forceful if I wanted to persevere in nursing. Flick his cheeks, rub a cold washcloth over his face I was told, any endeavor that would encourage my little one to awaken and ignite his interest. Ten to fifteen minutes of nursing from each breast is what I needed to accomplish in order for Joseph to receive enough nutrients. Quite impossible it seemed as Joseph was falling asleep from exhaustion after three minutes. Yet, two days later after much perseverance and firmness my son gained two ounces and was able to come home with us.

Once home, I thought the task of nursing would run much smoother. I hated to think of nursing as a task but as the days passed it was exactly that. Nearly an hour of nursing would yield only ten minutes worth of milk in Joseph. He would then proceed to catnap for twenty minutes awaking famished effectively negating most of his last nursing. We continued on this way for the good part of a week to the point of delirium. I began to doubt my abilities to nurse. I sought solace and some sound words of wisdom but found little. My mother, who nursed my three siblings, tried but could offer little support as she experienced few, if any, hiccups in the world of nursing. My only friend with children at the time was the mother of triplets. She attempted to nurse but, quite understandably, abandoned that exhausting feat early on. I longed for what all of my mommy-prep books described in paragraph after paragraph as that wonderful bonding feeling, that undeniable serenity.

I was not the only one suffering along in these struggles. My dear husband, quite the nursing advocate prior, had begun to mention the word - formula. "Just at night," he would say "to give us a little break." I began to see his rationalization while simultaneously concerned with whether Joseph was receiving a sufficient intake of breast milk. He was gaining weight but minimally. Yet before I resigned in my efforts, I felt I still had a little fight left in me. And then, one glorious March morning, I received a gift. As Joseph went to latch on for his mid-morning session, I felt the letdown sensation instantaneously and more forcefully as opposed to the lackluster letdown I had been experiencing halfway through each nurse. My little guy was somewhat taken aback as was I and he had to struggle to keep up at first. But after ten or fifteen minutes he was full, a deliciously round Buddha belly full. I was over the moon and Joseph was asleep, sound asleep. And there it was, what no book could truly put into words, that heavenly bond I had been looking for. I had satisfied my child's hunger with ease and in return felt utter peace watching him breathe contently in my arms.

From then on the weeks and months of nursing passed rather smoothly but not without a few more hiccups. I came to look forward to our daily one-on-one time. It was my time to study all of my son's features, to take in his splendid smell, to let him form a fist tightly around my finger, or to just close my eyes and feel his warm growing body against my own. It was lovely, simply lovely, but as I said, not always effortless. I had to learn to navigate the frequent calls of nursing no matter the location. After a number of bungled public attempts, I became a master of finding discreet spots, covering myself appropriately, and nursing Joseph in record time. And just when I thought I was getting our son in some type of eating and sleeping routine along would come one of the dreaded feeding frenzies. There was also, of course, the sleep issue. Although, Joseph was now quite the proficient nurser, he would still awaken throughout the night once or twice to feed. I was envious of anyone with a solid night's sleep and my husband's earlier assertion of attempting to feed Joseph formula at night crossed my mind on more than one occasion.

Yet, despite any and all of these hiccups I continued to enjoy all the rituals of nursing. I took great pride in the fact that I had stuck with my initial instinct to breastfeed, knowing full well that it is often a defeating process for countless mothers. After months of late night reading declaring the undeniable breastfeeding benefits, I felt certain I would not deny my son what was considered by many as nature's best. There was also the ever-growing support of my husband who would on occasion peruse my small library of nursing books. It was clear, he too, took great comfort in the knowledge that our little boy was devouring hundreds of natural vitamins and antibodies with each turn at the breast. When asked by friends on the decision to nurse, I would find my husband responding first listing the endless health rewards. The two of us soon stumbled upon a lovely routine in the evenings, relaxing on the couch while I nursed and he took care of burping duties. This ritual easily cemented us into a family unit and quickly became our favorite part of the day.

And so it was with some despair that I found Joseph weaning naturally at eleven months. I had come to envision myself as the one to decide when to gradually wean him. While I felt that the time was nearing, I was not prepared for the decision to be made by someone other than myself. But after some introspection and, I admit, a little self-pity on my part, I could only be grateful. After all of our trials and tribulations into this foray of nursing, Joseph and I had come full circle and ended our adventure with the ease and grace that I so naively believed would be instantaneous. In hindsight I would do it all over again and have - with our second son. John was a champion nurser from day one. If Joseph was my journey over the rainbow, John was my pot of gold in that I had gained a wealth of wisdom and experience and quite an easier set of circumstances. For those mothers embarking or about to embark on their own nursing journeys, I say prepare for battle, expect the unexpected, wave the white flag if needed, but know that the rainbows and pots of gold are awaiting you.

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