Last week, just in time for World Breastfeeding Week, my daughter and I celebrated a milestone: 22 months of breastfeeding.
I still remember the exact moment, on a humid night with a red moon rising, when my daughter made her entrance into the world. As a mother, you never forget that feeling when your eyes meet and you have the chance to hold your baby for the very first time. It was love at first sight; love like I’d never felt before.
Weeks before I went into labor, I decided to partake in a free breastfeeding class at the local hospital. My husband worked odd hours, so I went alone. Hot, sweaty and super pregnant, I waddled in the door 10 minutes late and whacked my butt into the chairs. Everyone in the room turned to gasp as I slunk into the closest seat. The instructor was passing out strange-looking baby dolls, and all the ladies were cooing over the dolls like they were living creatures. I immediately wondered if I really should be there. Maybe I don’t need this silly training. I mean... won’t I just “get it”?
To Latch Or Not To Latch?
The instructor was explaining “latching,” and I grabbed my notebook to feverishly jot down notes. Perhaps it is the writer in me, but I truly believed if I wrote it all down, I would somehow reference this once baby arrived (the mommies reading this are chuckling right now). The lady was showing us the different breastfeeding positions, like the football hold, cradle hold and side laying position. Then she started talking about more complex topics, and my pregnant brain just wandered off. I started thinking: What if I have absolutely no idea what to do? What if I fail at this? Will the baby starve to death? What if I think I’m doing football hold but I’m actually doing cradle? Is that a bad thing? And oh, yeah, I could totally go for some doughnuts right now.
Just as I was beginning to feel overwhelmed, the instructor decided to put on a video from the 1980s. The women in the video had gigantic breasts, and they were breastfeeding tiny newborns. I mean I felt like my whole body was the size of one of these breasts. The video was British, too, so I was silently enjoying the British accents. But then this part of the video began that I will always remember. They showed how when the baby is born, the mother and baby lay skin to skin and, miraculously, as if by magic, the baby makes its way to the nipple and latches on for the first time, completely unguided. I watched with tears rolling down my cheeks (pregnancy hormones) as baby after baby made its way across their mother’s chest to arrive perfectly at her nipple to feed. And in that moment, I couldn’t wait for the day I could experience this myself.
Not As Easy As It Seems
On the night Mishka was born, there was a blood moon and a lunar eclipse ― a very rare occasion. After the birth, my husband and mother went to get me food, and the nurses handed me the baby. For the first time since she arrived, I was left completely alone with her. I remember this strange mix of emotions where I felt overjoyed to be alone with her, to study her and examine her, and then at the same time terrified. We sat there for a minute. I was holding her as you would hold a baby duck. Then, instantly, I remembered the breastfeeding video. I opened my hospital gown and took off her swaddles and laid her tiny naked body against my chest.
I could feel her warm and wrinkly little skin. She wiggled and made some squirming noises and then suddenly started making her way for my nipple. The strange and glorious feeling to have this tiny being immediately latch onto my breast is indescribable, but all I can say is a little tear of joy rolled down my cheek. I thought to myself, well, this is amazing, and much easier than I thought. But boy, would I be wrong.
Do you know what was not described in that breastfeeding class? Pumping, engorgement, overactive letdown, latching problems and baby colic. You know what’s also not covered? Sleepless nights, ruined sheets, soaking through clothes, sore and bloody nipples, and wondering if you might have actually turned into a cow.
The first eight weeks of breastfeeding were very challenging. There were times I just needed a break. I thought of giving up. I thought of buying a box of formula. And I even thought about buying a one-way ticket to Aruba. Even though it was tough, I held out, because I loved the bonding time, and I saw the milk was making my daughter healthy and strong. I was thankful for the help of a very nice lactation consultant, who walked me through much of the difficult times, and for a supportive husband. My mother and father came by every day, and my friends dropped off fresh meals for the first week. Their visits kept me sane.
As the weeks turned into months, we started getting into a groove. I worried less about the football hold vs. the cradle hold, and I just started seeing it as our relaxing time. I read something that said you should turn off distractions, turn down the lights, and just practice breathing and being with your child while breastfeeding. As a yoga teacher, I know that maintaining our inner peace is so important, and so I focused on sharing these peaceful moments with my daughter. I wanted to build this trust between us in the most soothing way. In fact, according to Deepak Chopra, “a close attachment can prevent diseases, boost immunity, and enhance IQ in your baby.” Breastfed babies are shown to develop less illnesses due to the antibodies found in breast milk, and UNICEF and the World Health Organization both advise breast-feeding to “two years and beyond.”
So why was everyone so shocked when I decided to breastfeed her past one year?
What Is Extended Nursing?
As we approached her first birthday, my breasts had been to war and back, and I had the scars to prove it. I’d survived one year of breastfeeding, and I was quite proud of myself. The teething, the biting, the scratching, the clawing, all of it was worth it for our quiet bonding time. I decided I wanted to continue to breastfeed longer, maybe up to her second birthday. With the full support of my husband, we went on 12, 14, 18, 22 months of breastfeeding with very little problems... except one: the massive amount of judgment from people that we had never met.
The more I breastfed my now lanky toddler, the more I would get this judgment from other women. The worst of it came from my pediatrician, a young woman with three children of her own. She said I should quit breastfeeding because there was “no nutritional value to the breast milk now she’s a year old” and that I was just “spoiling her appetite.”
In the United States, breastfeeding longer than one year is known as “extended breastfeeding.” And while it’s nice to have a name for it, is it really necessary? I am not “extending” anything. I am just breastfeeding my child.
A recent study from the World Health Organization found more than 70 percent of American women stopped breastfeeding their babies at 6 months. Yet around the world it is quite common to see mothers nursing their children until 2 or 3 years of age. What was so different about the United States mother? Was it because of work? And why was there so much judgement around “extended breastfeeding”?
We’re Breastfeeding, And You Can’t Stop Us
I decided to write this post and take these one-year breastfeeding celebration pictures because I was tired of the judgement and the words and the sideways looks. I believe breastfeeding should be honored, and after all the hard work it took to be here today, I don’t need a medal or recognition. I just want my quiet, peaceful time with my daughter. I see her growing so healthy and strong, and I am thankful for these breasts for sustaining us this long.
You can find me sitting in the aisles and breastfeeding her in Target ― or outside under a tree or at a restaurant or on the beach. But my favorite place to breastfed my daughter is in bed right before we fall asleep. And I kiss her on the head and wish her sweet dreams. As she turns 2 next month, we will be aiming for one more year of breastfeeding. I know when she is 16 I will miss these cuddle times. So I am cherishing them.
Thank you to Bess from Aurora Photography for the amazing photos.