Still Nursing

Two years, 51 weeks. Four years, nine months. Three years, 51 days and counting.

In the past twelve years, there have been approximately 17 lactating-free months. I don’t say this to brag. In truth, I am somewhat bemused that my breastfeeding career is still a work in progress. I spent a long time nursing adults with chronic medical conditions. I never imagined I would spend almost as long nursing my children. But they all turned out to be keen feeders who loved the bosom. Never blessed with a generous chest, I was lumped with what my nana called my ‘two fried eggs.’ It’s a marvel they’ve managed their job so well.

My youngest shows no signs of quitting the milky goodness.

I am a grey-at-the-temples, slightly doughy, middle-aged mother. Breastfeeding a toddler. Again.

He catches my eye, cocks his head and grins. Both hands make the sign for milk. “Do you want some mama milk?” I ask. “Yeth”, he says, giving one firm nod.

I pick him up, lay him across my lap. No longer a neat bundle that fits snug in the crook of my arm, he spills over, legs dangling. His left brow arches. The skin above crumples as he looks up at me. His free arm raises my top for all the world to see. Flesh bare; breast and belly exposed. I rush to cover up. His fingers grab and pinch skin. Sometimes they leave bloody scratch marks. “I must remember to cut your nails”, I think, though I know this thought will fall out of my head until the next time he kneads me. This kneading is purposeful. It helps the milk to flow free, makes him a highly efficient feeder. It helps his restless body stay still. It soothes him. I know all this, but I can’t deny it bugs the hell out of me at times. Two nursing necklaces are in the post. Any day now, he’ll have something else to fiddle with whilst he feeds. I wish I’d thought of this years ago.

The morning after he was born, the GP visited us at home. She was full of concern for his obvious, but, as yet, unverified, extra chromosome. She spoke of potential heart problems and other downsides of Down syndrome.

“If he doesn’t feed well today, he’ll have to go to the Children’s Hospital to see a paediatrician.”

I wondered what the outcome of such a visit would be. I wondered how a newborn—with a still bleeding mother—would fare in such an environment. I wondered how that would help him do what all babies know how to do. I spent more than a decade working in various hospitals. They are places of bright lights, noise, sickness and bustle. They are not filled with the reverent restful hush that new mothers and babies need to be bathed in.

“I don’t really want to do that,” I said.

What I wanted was a chance for my son to settle into a world of warmth. Not one of cold, hard, clinical fear. The GP rang the hospital. After a short discussion, it was decided. We could stay home. Monitor his weight and frequency of wet nappies. I breathed a little easier. We sang to him in those early days, his siblings and I. “Latch on, Larry, latch on. Latch on, Larry, latch on” over and over in gentle voice, in the hopes it would help him wee and weigh more.

On the third day, the midwife said, “You have to let him know you mean business.”

Though he guzzled both breasts when he woke, the feeds were short and his sleep long. I took her words on board. I couldn’t be sure he was making the required five wet daily nappies. From then on, I swaddled his arms and legs lightly in a tartan wool blanket. I meant business. The student health visitor came round. Stripped my son bare. Nappyless, he lay on the hard plastic scales. His weight had dropped. I wasn’t alarmed. This was the third time he’d been weighed in almost as many days. Three sets of scales. Three different people—of course there would be discrepancies. The midwife’s voice came to mind: “babies can lose up to 10% of their body-weight in the first two weeks without causing harm”. He was still in range. Just.

The student health visitor arranged to come back a few days later; cautioned that my son would need to see the GP if his weight had fallen. We settled into our feeding rhythm. My bosoms filled. He emptied them and filled his nappies. As the appointment approached, I filled with doubt and restless worry. The threat of the scales weighed heavy on my mind. I felt tense when I thought my son might not measure up. He was feeding as much as he could—I couldn’t make him drink any more.

I wasn’t ready to give up on him. I knew the antibodies in the breastmilk would boost his immune system. They’d give him extra protection from the chest, ear and gut infections that dog infants with his condition. I knew breastfeeding would be the best workout for his jaw and tongue, priming him for future speech. That he was literally growing his brain with each drop. But mostly I knew that sharing this closeness would stimulate his every sense and help us both fall deeper in love. From my momentarily stilled mind, a fresh thought came. The tension melted away. I called the clinic and left a message.

“I’m sorry for the short notice, but I’m going to have to cancel the appointment. I don’t have any concerns about my son at the moment and I’m sure there are many other struggling mothers who could use your support. It was lovely to meet with you. Thanks again for your help.”

This story first featured on ‘Breastfeeding Today’, La Leche League International’s online magazine.

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