After trying for many years I had my first child at age 40. I was determined to do everything right. High on that list was breastfeeding. I was prepared for it to be challenging, but it turned out that my son and I were the perfect nursing pair. He did a great job of latching on and sucking, and I did a great job of producing "liquid gold."
When my son was eight months old I developed a breast infection. Many nursing women have them -- they are painful, but no big deal. I felt a lump that seemed like a clogged milk duct. But when the infection went away, the lump stayed so I scheduled an appointment with my physician.
My son sat on my tummy as I lay on the exam table. My OB laid one hand on my breast. Then she said abruptly, "Ok, you can get up now." And so began the process that would dominate my life for the next year.
Over the next six weeks I had a series of tests -- each one more invasive than the last. Each test was inconclusive. Finally, everyone agreed that I must have an open biopsy, but there was one problem. My surgeon insisted that I stop breastfeeding before the surgery, and I refused to stop. My surgeon laid out the possible side effects -- wound infection, extensive scarring and, of course, the surgery would be much more difficult for him. From his point of view it would only cost a few months of nursing. After all, my baby was already nine months old by this time.
But every day of breastfeeding is an amazing gift to both mother and child.
In the end my surgeon agreed to do the surgery even though I refused to stop nursing. I was still in the recovery room when he came in to deliver the news that I had advanced breast cancer and I had to begin treatment as soon as possible. All I heard was, "You have to stop nursing." I didn't process the details about how serious this cancer was.
When you're diagnosed with something that's really devastating, there's only so much you can hear. For me, it was that I couldn't breastfeed any more. All I could think of was, "What will I feed my baby?"
While my story is extreme, I am far from alone. I have friends who have had breast surgery before they had children and were never able to breastfeed. And still others try to breastfeed, but are overwhelmed, sleep deprived, have no place to pump during work or their milk supply simply dries up.
I and my husband (pediatrician Alan Greene) are huge advocates of breastfeeding. But, we also know that it's just not possible for all mothers to breastfeed. Over the months and years since I had to stop nursing (our son is 16 now), we've tried to help as many moms as possible who ask the question "What will I feed my baby?" Certainly, in most cases, breast milk seems to be the best possible food for baby, but I for one am very happy that there are other alternatives for moms like me who need a helping hand.
My Personal Tips for Moms Who Can't Breastfeed:
1. Remember that feeding is a special time. Neither my son or I were ready to stop nursing. He had taken pumped breast milk in a bottle from other people in the past, but never from me. I remember giving him his first bottle. He was kicking and screaming, and I was crying, but I didn't hand him over to someone else. Feeding had been our time and I wasn't going to give that up. Whether you're breastfeeding or bottle feeding, use this time to connect with your baby. Look into your baby's eyes. Sing lullabies. Slow down. Engage. When practical enjoy skin to skin contact. There will be lots of time for activity later.
2. Babies seem to acquire taste preferences before they start solid foods. If mom is breastfeeding, baby will be introduced to many flavors during the early months. That means the foods you eat are going to be easier to introduce your baby to when the time comes. I was very lucky to be able to nurse long enough for my baby to be introduced to a broad range of flavors.
If baby is only drinking formula he will only be introduced to a few simple flavors. Talk to your pediatrician about introducing solid foods as soon as your baby is ready and try to feed a variety of flavors of real food such as avocado, banana and sweet potato. If you are feeding your baby cereal, be sure it's a whole grain.
3. If you do not breastfeed, or when you stop breastfeeding, be sure to get adequate calcium. During pregnancy and nursing, calcium is taken from mom's bones to give to baby. Immediately after pregnancy, or weaning if mom breastfeeds, is a window in which a woman can increase the calcium in her bones. Ways to do that include eating calcium rich foods (I like yogurt, broccoli and leafy greens) or a high quality calcium supplement.