Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Here's to a long and milky nursing future!

Zekie got his first tooth last week. It's coming in slowly, and only just peeking above the gum. But it's there, and it's sharp!

Many people in America have the misconception that the appearance of teeth mean it's time to begin weaning. But how can this be, when teeth can come in as early as 4 months (And rarely, even earlier!) and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, and with complementary solids for the first year? If an infant is weaned before then, he must be given human milk replacement, since the nutrition that breastmilk provides is absolutely essential for the first year.

Further, the AAP recommends that breastfeeding should continue for as long as is mutually desired by the mother and child beyond age one. The World Health Organization recommends at least two years of breastfeeding, and thereafter for as long as is mutually desired. Breastmilk continues to provide not only very beneficial nutrition like healthy fats, proteins, and vitamins, but also protective immune qualities. The immune system of a child under 2 is very underdeveloped, and continues to develop through childhood. While solid "adult" foods will become a larger and larger part of the child's diet until he is no longer nursing, there is no denying that breastmilk has valuable benefits well into toddlerhood and young childhood.

On a side note, I learned that the ancient Hebrew word for a child under the age of 5 essentially means "nursling". And a child under the age of 5 was almost exclusively his mother's responsibility, after which a male child would increasingly enter his father's world. So it would have been considered normal for a child to be nursing to some degree up until about age 5. And in Mongolian culture, there is a saying that a child who nurses until the age of 6 will be a strong wrestler (a very popular sport in Mongolia). Looking at physical and psychological child development, it is biologically normal and expected for a child to nurse for several years, and then gradually wean all on his own. In developing countries, it is normal for a woman's fertility to not return until a child is nursing much less often (signaling to the body that the child has been appropriately cared for and it is ready to devote its energy to a new tiny baby), and then for the child to naturally wean the rest of the way during pregnancy when the milk supply often diminishes. And, we even refer to a child's baby teeth as "milk teeth", which naturally fall out and make room for adult teeth beginning around age 5-7.

So...if getting teeth doesn't have to mean weaning, then the next question is: what about biting? Or, doesn't it hurt to nurse a child with teeth? This would seem to be a natural question, since even though a baby clamping down with his gums can be very painful, teeth can break the skin. But, even a baby can learn that there are rules and "manners" to nursing. Watch your baby's signals: biting often happens at specific times, like when baby is bored/done nursing, frustrated, teething, or playful. By addressing your baby's needs and keeping an eye out for the signals that he may bite, you can avoid a lot of biting episodes. If you start to feel him biting down, you can insert a finger in his mouth to break the suction and unlatch him. Put him down and say in a stern voice, "No biting! Biting hurts mommy!" He will learn that biting ends the nursing session, and if he wants to continue nursing, he had better use his "manners" and no bite! I have actually been doing this with Zekie, and it does seem to work quite well.

Also, since with a proper latch, the baby takes the nipple far back in the mouth to the soft palate and gently massages the breast with the gums to stimulate milk flow, any teeth simply "lay" on the breast rather than ever coming in contact with the nipple, or biting down on anything. There may be a re-learning period as new teeth come in, but a proper latch will not hurt, even with teeth.

Whether you're a nursing mother or someone who loves and supports one, you can help to inform people around you and create a culture that supports, rather than tears down, nursing mothers and especially those who are nursing toddlers and beyond.

Here's to a long and milky nursing future for us and for any other mamas (and babies) who are reading!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Very Satisfying Thing, Indeed

Some of my most treasured moments happen while nursing my son. At 7 months old, he has a few bites of solids here and there but is still 99% breastfed. And we are both loving our precious time together- 10 minutes here, 5 minutes there, and occasionally 30 minute sessions sprinkled throughout our day to connect and relax together.

Our nursing relationship started out pretty rocky. He was very sleepy the first few days and had a hard time latching, then I got extremely engorged and he had an even harder time latching. Once we cleared that hurdle, I developed an oversupply and a forceful letdown, which I didn't know I had for weeks, and every feeding became a battle. The poor thing would ask to be fed but then scream for sometimes up to 40 minutes before finally latching on, dreading the experience of drinking from a firehose. Then for the first 5 minutes of the feeding he would gag, cough, sputter, and pop on and off until the flow finally slowed. Not only that, he had some reflux problems in the early weeks (which thankfully mostly resolved at around 6 weeks, though he still spits up a lot) which meant he would scream for some time after most feedings as well. In those early weeks, feeding time was a nightmare for both of us. But we were both determined- him, to satisfy his hungry tummy, and me, to provide him with the food and comfort he deserved. I spent hours researching solutions to our problems while he slept on my tummy.

Around 8 weeks or so, we finally settled into our groove and we've been going strong since. We are old pros now; we can nurse anytime, anywhere. He can finish a meal in 3 minutes flat if he's just after satisfying his hunger. Other times he will draw it out and savor every swallow, sometimes popping off to swish a little bit of milk around his mouth as if enjoying the lingering taste before swallowing and latching back on for more. Often, especially before a nap or bedtime, he will take his time, suckling for comfort in between swallows as he drifts in and out of sleep with his arm lazily tossed across my breast. Finally, he lets go with a deep sigh as he nods off to deeper sleep.

Possibly my favorite is when he is so eager to nurse that he is practically diving for the breast before I can get it out for him, grunting and squealing at me to hurry up. Then he latches on as though it is his first hamburger after being on a desert island with no food for days. As the first drops of milk begin to flow, his eyes roll back, he lets out a deep, shuddering breath, and his whole body relaxes into me in deep pleasure and satisfaction. It is as though I have just served him the nectar of the gods!

Of course, as he enters older infant-hood, he has become very busy and easily distracted. He is SO interested in the world, at every little sound, sight, and movement. He has to turn his head and look, he has to reach out and touch. It's a delightful stage, but it also means some nursing sessions can be quite disjointed, and often he won't nurse at all if there is too much going on around him, popping off to crane his head and look every 5 seconds. (And then fusses 5 minutes after I put it all away because of course, he is still hungry!) He will kick and squirm, play with my hair, mouth, and nose, he will tug at my bra strap and try to pinch my armpit. (That last one drives me nuts!!) It makes me laugh when he pops off and curiously peers at the nipple while fiddling with it, perhaps finally connecting the visual image of it with his meal service. And I love, love, love it when he pops off just to flash me a milky grin of pure joy, cooing his delight at me before diving back in for a few more gulps before squirming off to play.

For those first couple of months, I nursed because it was the right thing to do. It was not fun or pleasurable. In fact, it was very painful. I stuck to it, knowing that even if I never enjoyed it, it was still what my child deserved, what he was designed to eat and I was designed to feed him, and I could not deprive him of that unless I literally had no other option for the sake of HIS health. But I hoped, oh, I hoped, that we could press through to where we are now.

I don't think I could have imagined how deeply satisfying it could be to share this connection. It is satisfying to know that each and every cell in his body has come from me, that God designed and equipped my body to grow an entire little human being, sharing my nutrients, energy, oxygen, and all my love to build him cell by cell, from the one cell that he started with, to the active little boy that calls out "Mom-mom!" when he needs me. Oh yes, it is very satisfying! And satisfying also, that I can see how incredibly satisfied he is in my arms and at my breast. His little baby heart knows just where he belongs, and where he can find the best nurturing and food in the world.

I've been thinking about how the word "to wean" literally means, "to be satisfied". We are a long, long ways away from weaning yet (thank goodness!), but I love the thought that after months and years of filling him up and satisfying him over and over and over again, sharing those thousands of moments of nurturing, love, and connection, there will come a day of his choosing when he has been completely filled with his beloved mama milk, and he will not need to be filled again. He will be satisfied, for good. I will have fulfilled that need of his, and he will move on to bigger adventures, knowing his mama will be a safe and comforting presence to return to until he is ready to launch for good.

*tears up*

But, my little Spider Monkey is still a very little monkey, and for now I will continue to satisfy his tummy and his heart again and again, tucking away each precious moment to be treasured long after his babyhood has passed. God, I love my son! Thank you for entrusting this precious soul to my care. Cover us both with Your peace.