My friend and I are at her house swimming with our toddlers, her son about six months younger than my daughter. He starts to fuss and pull at her swimsuit, and I realize he wants milk, that she’s still nursing. I turn away to give her some privacy as she whips out her boob. He takes a few sips and carries on.
Whoa. She’s good. She can ride her bike with no hands. I could never do that.
I don’t know why I’m writing this story now. My daughter is almost two years old, no longer breastfeeding. She drinks kefir every morning, eats pb-and-j for lunch, pounds back the blueberries. She’s thick and stout and thirty pounds now. But it wasn’t always this way.
My daughter hovered on the low-end of the growth charts for most of her first year. And though my pediatrician assured me that she was healthy and meeting milestones, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for her being a lightweight, that I wasn’t giving her what she needed as a breastfeeding mom. I obsessed over my milk supply. I stressed every time she spit up and lost precious calories. If I could not get her to stop crying, I would put her to the breast, assuming she was still hungry.
Less than 24 hours after giving birth to a healthy eight-pound, two-ounce baby girl, they told me she had lost too much weight in order to go home. Within 48 hours they were questioning my milk supply, if I was capable of producing enough to feed my baby.
We left after three long days. Both my midwife and lactation consultant were pleased with the way she was latching, the pediatrician comfortable with her weight.
On day four my milk came in. Indeed, there was milk everywhere. Per my midwife’s recommendation for sore nipples, I wandered around the house shirtless like a primitive woman, dripping milk. You could follow a trail to find me. And then the let down—wow. Both boobs at the same time. I could give any squirt gun a run for its money. I was a wet, sticky, milky mess, and I didn’t know how to handle it.
The nipple pain persisted, but I clung to the words of my midwife: “In two weeks this will all pass, you will be in a completely different place.” And since they told me the latch was good, I just figured I needed to push through the pain, but every time she nursed I cringed and cried.
At my daughter’s two-week appointment she still had not gained enough weight, and the breastfeeding was still excruciating. The pediatrician requested I revisit the lactation consultant. She came to my house, setup her scale in my living room, and sat beside me on the couch. As I unsnapped my tank top to nurse my baby, she gasped and covered her mouth. “I don’t know how you’re handling this,” she said in her sweet, British accent. “She’s done quite a bit of damage, the worst I’ve seen in a long time.”
Obviously, I needed to heal, and that wasn’t going to happen with a newborn constantly nursing. I could have chosen to exclusively pump for a week to give things a break, but I opted to use a nipple shield instead. It was awkward at first—my daughter didn’t like it—but it took the edge off the pain and she eventually got used to it.
Nipple shields are like training wheels—they’re not meant to be used forever. Sometimes mom and baby need a little assistance with the latch, inverted nipples, nipple damage, or even overactive letdown, but eventually the baby is weaned off the shield and back to the breast. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
I wanted to wean her off the shield. So badly. At first due to the inconvenience—fumbling for the shield at 2am, blindly positioning the little sombrero just right while my daughter ravenously tried to latch. I hated washing and sanitizing them, toting them around. But more than the inconvenience, I felt like a fraud, embarrassed that we needed a crutch. I wasn’t breastfeeding the real way. In my mind all of the moms I knew were riding their bikes saying, “look, no hands!” while I was lagging behind, teetering from side to side with my training wheels on.
Yet at the same time, I was scared to wean her off the shield. What if it didn’t work? What if I found myself in the same painful mess? I would essentially have to teach her to breastfeed all over again. I didn’t have it in me. I halfway tried a couple times and threw in the towel. And so the shield stayed with us the entire sixteen months.
The saga continues: Around eight months I developed a sort of chronic mastitis. The cure was to pump after each feeding. Call me stubborn, but we had been through so much to get where we were that I wasn’t about to call it quits. I wanted to breastfeed for a year and so I stuck it out.
And then something wonderful happened: we had introduced solids at six months, but somewhere around one year she started gaining more weight, looking a little chubby. While most babies her age were thinning out, she was doing the opposite. And for the first time, I was able to enjoy breastfeeding in way that I never could before. I no longer worried how much she was consuming or if I was providing enough to sustain her. There was no pressure or strenuous demand. And so I kept breastfeeding, even though I had made it a year, and even though I had to keep pumping to keep mastitis at bay, I kept going because I was finally able to savor the sweetness of breastfeeding.
As I watch my friend nurse her toddler like one of those cool, hippie moms, I notice something: I don’t feel jealous or less than like I did for so long. I acknowledge that I never could have done this with my own daughter, but it no longer eats at me. And maybe that’s why I’m writing this story now—I’m free from all those feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and frustration. Because the truth is, when someone asks me someday, “did you breastfeed your daughter?” my answer will not be, “yeah, well kinda, I had to use a nipple shield and pump.” My answer will be “yes.”