Learning to Let Go (and the Benefit of a Good Let Down)

This post is part of the weekly breastfeeding blog hop, hosted by The Slacker Mom, and co-hosted by The Gnome’s Mom and Happiness Redefined. This week’s topic is “How Often Do You Nurse?” Please visit The Slacker Mom to see the linky list and read everyone’s entries, as WordPress.com can’t show it here.

How often do you nurse sounds like a simple question. For me, I learned the hard way how important it is to respond to baby’s needs. If you simply want the frequency, skip to the bottom. If you want to go along for a ride with me down memory lane, welcome:

The day after my first baby was born, I was high on life, jazzed from birthing him and meeting the new love of my life. The effects of the crazy-long (68 hour), super-exhausting labor had not fully kicked in, and the flood of post-partum mothering hormones were working wonders on me. To top it off, I was a natural at breastfeeding. Or so I thought.

Little one was actually not so little. He weighed in at 9 pounds, 12 ounces. Being such a big guy meant he was really hungry and wanted to nurse a lot. But I was clueless about the specifics of breastfeeding and did my best to stave off the formula-pushing nurses in the postpartum unit, who were decades behind the angels in labor and delivery. So I simply nursed baby every couple of hours for 20 minutes on each side, as instructed. After all, I had spent the first thirty years of my life as a good Type-A personality and thrived off doing things by the book.

But baby wanted more than that. Much more. My sore nipples didn’t think he could want to nurse that much. So his daddy patiently wore a path in the hospital room floor.

Fast forward to our return home. What should have been a blissful first night as a family of three in our very own home turned into a nightmare. I should have known something was up when our dear friends showed up with dinner and kept commenting on how fussy our baby was. (Weren’t they supposed to gush over his cuteness?) Overnight little one became inconsolable and refused to latch on. Panic set in. Where were my labor & delivery angels when I needed them?

The next day, my milk came in and I was painfully engorged, which made all attempts to get baby latched on impossible. We braved the 45-minute drive through LA traffic with a crying baby to have our pediatrician declare that little one was failing to thrive. That thrust our panic into overdrive. Thankfully, she also directed us to a lactation consultant, who saved my breasts from exploding. Most importantly, she got us on track to meet baby’s nursing needs. My husband spent hours that night tenderly feeding our baby little drops of my breastmilk from a dropper, as that was all baby would accept.

I cried a lot that night, accompanied by the soothing hum of the hospital-grade breast-pump the lactation consultant had left behind. Tears of relief that all was going to be okay and my breasts were no longer rocks of searing pain. Tears of regret that I had not met baby’s needs in the early days of his life. Tears of frustration with the lack of breastfeeding support I had received in the hospital.

Like so much about early parenting, those first few days left an indelible mark on my mind and heart. I can still see the incredibly beautiful face of my first baby as I gazed, transfixed, at him during our first hour of nursing. And I can taste the lesson learned that a mother is designed to meet baby’s needs by nursing him each and every time he asks for it.

From there on out, nursing did become easy. Well, except for my oversupply gagging him for several weeks and sundry other speed bumps. Overall, it really did become easy and enjoyable. And it has been that way with each of my three sons.

Here are a few lessons learned and a summary of nursing frequency:

  • As a breastfeeding mother, you have a crazy amazing super power. But with great power, comes great responsibility. So, kick back and let your super powers take over. Code for: Breastfeed whenever baby is hungry for as long as baby needs. Nature’s design is so intelligent. Trust it. When baby starts fussing to be fed, answer it like you did when your growling stomach awoke you while pregnant for bowl of ice cream laced with pickles. Just like 007 doesn’t ignore M, let your baby’s nursing needs guide you. Nursing baby when he needs it means your breasts will be configured to adjust their milk composition and supply to meet his current developmental needs. And that’s way cooler than the latest Bond gadget.
  • Not only will baby thank you for nursing on demand, your breasts will too! If you resist nursing baby, you may be running yourself ragged (instead of putting your feet up regularly to cuddle and nurse your little one) and end up with plugged ducts or worse. I found myself too busy at times (or not responding quickly enough to a growth spurt or other time of temporarily increased need to nurse) with each of my three. I learned quickly to spot the early signs of and ward off plugged ducts.
  • Do what it takes to succeed at breastfeeding. This will be different for every woman and with each baby. With my first baby, it was hiring a lactation consultant, buying a good breast pump, and learning to nurse on demand. With my second baby, it was learning to breastfeed while babywearing, so I could keep up with his older brother. With my third, it was learning to let more things go around the house, so I could enjoy the much-needed break that nursing afforded me.
  • Frequency has varied so much for me over nearly eight years of nursing little ones – from baby to baby and from stage to stage. For example, after our rocky start smoothed out, my first newborn was a luxuriant nurser who savored 45-minute per-side sessions every 2 hours. Yes, that only left me 30 minutes between nursing sessions to use the bathroom or catch a shower. Had I not been taken to the brink of breastfeeding disaster, I might have resented these sessions. But, having him successfully breastfeed and gain weight like a champ made it all worth it. And he became a more efficient nursling over time.

Luckily, my second son was born efficient. His 9-minute labor at the hospital was a good omen. He breastfed like a high school boy wolfs down a pizza. Frequency: still every two hours at the outset. Okay, truth be told, my first two boys nursed every two hours day and night for most of two years. I was truly past-ready when they each night-weaned.

This third and last time around, I have a relatively efficient 22-month-old nursling who is currently only nursing 3 or maybe 4 times a day, roughly 6-7 hours apart during the daytime. The last two nights he awoke crying with what I thought were nightmares, clearly requesting to nurse. Since he night-weaned two months ago, I was shocked. This morning I finally remembered the whole teething=needing-to-night-nurse correlation. Sure enough, he has a 2.5 year molar poking through. Experience has taught me that it’s okay to nurse them a little again after passing a milestone (such as night nursing). It doesn’t suddenly set you back light years.

The lessons learned from breastfeeding have been more than I’d ever imagined. Then again, I had no idea how incredible it would be to experience how my pregnancy super-powers (grow a human inside me) transform into post-partum amazingness (keep that baby alive and healthy with milk from my own body) for months and even years. My Type-A personality has seriously changed for the better the last nine years. Ultimately, I’ve learned on a number of levels that a good let down can be a real cause for growth.  Any nursing mother knows what I mean. Just like a good sixth sense, our breasts let down milk in anticipation of baby’s need to nurse. Now that’s quite a superpower.

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