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by Kim Pekin, President of Natural Family Boutique

I come from an unbroken line of breastfeeding mothers. My mother nursed me; her mother nursed her, etc. For me, breastfeeding was never a choice - formula feeding was a choice some women made if they were unable to nurse. At least, that is what my experience had been during my childhood. I grew up unaware that most Americans saw things the other way around.

I first learned of LLL in 1980, when my Aunt visited us. I was 14. She would nurse her toddler while we would sit and talk about mothering. I had always been fascinated by the whole pregnancy/birth/lactation process, and wanted to be an obstetrician "when I grew up." I considered my time with Aunt to be part research for my future career and part fun "girl time." She told me how being a member of LLL helped her develop a network of like-minded friends who supported her decision to nurse. This was the first time I ever realized there was such a thing as a decision to nurse.

When I became pregnant with my first child, Erik, in 1989, I read everything I could get my hands on about pregnancy and birth. Breastfeeding was something I just took for granted. I assumed that it would all just come naturally. I was working full-time until 2 days before he was born. I bought a breast pump, and thought I would be able to just pump a few bottles every day for him. I had no idea what I was in for.

When Erik was born, I left the hospital 19 hours after his birth. I had nursed him only twice while I was in the hospital. He had been very sleepy and uninterested in nursing during his first day. The day after we got home, he woke up and I had no idea how to take care of him. My mother lived 1000 miles away, and my only support was from people who had never breastfed a baby. They told me to put him on a strict schedule or he would be totally spoiled. I didn't trust my instincts because I felt so overwhelmed by the experience. I figured that since I was an only child and had never been around a newborn, these other "experienced" mothers must have known what they were talking about.

I did things the way everyone, including my son's pediatrician recommended. I put him on a schedule and let him cry when he wanted to nurse more frequently than every 3 hours. He gained weight very slowly and cried all of the time. About a week after he was born, I had cracked and bleeding nipples. After another week of me crying every time he nursed, I gave up and began formula feeding. I felt like a failure as a mother and as a woman. This, after all, was supposed to be something that just comes naturally. I felt defective and depressed.

On formula, Erik developed essentially the same as every other child I knew. He was constantly on antibiotics for ear infections. He ate solids early (4 months). He spent a great deal of time being cared for by other people. I felt that my role as his mother could be adequately filled by anyone who loved him. In other words, I felt that I offered little that was uniquely my own.

When Erik was 18 months old, I conceived my daughter, Lauren. I was determined that things would go differently this time. I read "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding" for the first time about a month before she was born. It opened my eyes to a whole different way of thinking. Unfortunately, it was not enough. Things went fairly well for the first 6 weeks despite some early setbacks. Lauren was in the hospital until she was 5 days old due to jaundice. I came to the hospital every 3 hours around the clock to nurse her until her release.

When Lauren was 6 weeks old, I developed a stomach ulcer and my doctor put me on medication that he said was incompatible with breastfeeding. Later, I found out that it would have been completely harmless. I met with a lactation consultant and rented a hospital grade breast pump. The doctor decided I should pump and dump and feed Lauren bottles of formula. I had great difficulty pumping milk. I was very discouraged by the small amount I was able to express when I pumped. After about 3 weeks, I was given the green light to breastfeed Lauren. But, Lauren had become accustomed to using bottles and would become frustrated when she would try to nurse. She cried constantly and so did I. The lactation consultant decided that I should use a Supplemental Nursing System to encourage Lauren to nurse. We tried it for a few days and gave up. Lauren was no longer nursing at all by 3 months. Once again, I felt that I had failed.

My husband and I divorced three years later. A year after that, I re-married. My husband, Barry had two children from his previous marriage. His son, Jonathan, was 6 months older than my son, and his daughter, Nicole, was 6 months older than my daughter. About a year after we married, I began having baby cravings. Our blended family was doing very well, and our marriage was fantastic. I realized that I wanted to have a child with Barry and share the experience of raising our child together. After some initial problems with infertility, we conceived Elizabeth in 1998.

This time, I knew exactly what was ahead of me. I knew I really needed to prepare. I read "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding" about 10 times cover to cover. I also read as many other breastfeeding books as I could find. My husband, whose children were bottle-fed, did not understand my nearly obsessive need to prepare myself for breastfeeding.

When Elizabeth was born, my husband marveled at my devotion to nursing her. I was completely determined to be a successful nursing couple. Elizabeth roomed in with me full time at the hospital. I woke her to nurse every two hours during the day if she was sleepy. I ignored the poor breastfeeding advice of an obstetrician who said I should give her bottles of artificial baby milk until my milk came in. I turned a deaf ear to all advice from anyone who had not nursed a baby. When Elizabeth was jaundiced, I slept next to her in the living room where her light therapy unit was set up. I nursed her with the light cuff on every two hours for the duration of her treatment.

At 2 weeks postpartum, I developed mastitis and a very high fever. I read in the "Womanly Art" that the best remedy for a breast infection was frequent nursing and rest. My husband stayed home and took care of Elizabeth and me while I recovered. He brought her to me every 2 hours to nurse, and then cared for her himself so I could get as much bed-rest as possible. He made sure I had everything I needed to get me through this difficult time.

Barry quickly became my biggest support and my strongest advocate. He defended my right to breastfeed everywhere and quickly shot down the arguments from people who were ignorant of the benefits of breastfeeding. He thanked me nearly every day for nursing our daughter.

When Elizabeth was about 6 weeks old, I joined La Leche League. The first meeting was like a whole new world had opened for me. Before joining, I felt like I was the only woman in my community who was nursing her child. I never saw women nurse in public. Finally, at La Leche League, I saw mothers who also nursed their children. I wish I had joined La Leche League when I was pregnant with my first child. Being a member of La Leche League and attending the monthly meetings have truly shaped how I raise all of my children, not just Elizabeth. I learned about toddler nursing, tandem nursing, pumping, misinformed doctors offering poor breastfeeding advice, nursing strikes, weaning, etc., from the experiences of my friends. I now know that what I went through is very common. I didn't fail at nursing; I just had the unfortunate experience of dealing with the expectations of a bottle-feeding society. This culture is what has made it so difficult for many of us who want to breastfeed our children.

Breastfeeding Elizabeth caused me to question many things that I had at one time accepted blindly. When I became pregnant with my fourth child, I was more open to alternatives to a hospital birth. I researched the risks vs. benefits of various common obstetrical interventions, took Bradley classes, and planned a home birth with a midwife.

Charlie's birth was an incredibly beautiful family event. Birthing at home, with my body's own wisdom, helped heal the pain I had carried with me from my other births and failed breastfeeding attempts. Finally, I did not feel defective! My body knew all along how to give birth, just as it knew all along how to nourish and nurture my babies through breastfeeding. 

As I write, Charlie, who is now nearly 4 years old, is still nursing.  Of course, I know that our nursing days are nearly done.  He's nursing once or twice a week instead of once or twice an hour now.  It is a bittersweet time for me.  I am saddened by the thought of this journey coming to completion, but I feel great joy when I reflect upon all that we experienced through breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding has been so much more than providing milk for my child.  It is about learning to listen to my child's needs, and learning to trust my ability to meet those needs, perfectly.  The lessons I've learned have made breastfeeding the greatest parenting class I could have ever taken.


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