The changing meaning of breastfeeding

E. is now 17 months old and I’m still breastfeeding him. However, breastfeeding didn’t come naturally to me. It took me many weeks to adjust to it and was quite painful at the beginning. After the initial moments of pain passed, all went well. During the first six months I loved the sense of connection that breastfeeding brought and the feeling that I was giving him something that was good and healthy – my milk. I could hardly believe that he was feeding exclusively on my milk for six months. It was like a miracle to me.

During our Christmas holidays in France, when E. was three-and-a-half months old, he got an infection and we ended up in hospital there. The first night was horrible: he had a high fever and was in pain. The hospital was packed, due to a strike by some of the staff, and we ended up sharing a room with three other babies and their mothers. During the first night, which I spent sitting on a chair with him, the only thing that calmed E. down was breastfeeding. I was frightened and in tears because I had never seen him like that, but he latched onto my breast as the only relief available to him in this world. At those moments I thought to myself: “At least, I can breastfeed”, as the act of breastfeeding was the best and only thing I could do. This thought gave me peace of mind. There was absolutely nothing more I could do; and on top of that, it was working. While on my breast, he stopped screaming.

My other memory from the hospital was the sense of solidarity with the other mothers. I remember an Arab woman with a three-year-old girl in the bed next to ours. Her toddler had an infection and cried throughout the whole night. At one point the mother screamed at her: “What do you want? I can’t do anything more, please stop crying!” I felt great compassion for this woman who stayed beside her daughter day and night. We were all exhausted, and I could feel that the women in our room were just doing their best (I refer exclusively to women because those who stayed at night were all women, whether breastfeeding or not). So although I tend to criticize everything, I didn’t find any room for criticism during those days in hospital in France.

The following morning I fetched myself a coffee and got another for the Arab mother. I empathized with her about how difficult it is to stay with a toddler crying the whole night. She replied that this had not been the first night but the fifth that her child had cried all night. She clearly needed some rest. She started crying. In the hospital in France,  I learned about the strength of women that raise their children on their own, and how easily we criticize other women without understanding or learning about their circumstances.

During these days in hospital I found breastfeeding a source of comfort and relief and had the sense that my milk was helping E. to get stronger. I felt very proud of myself as woman able to feed our baby. Now breastfeeding has another meaning for me. It is the sense of connection, of being really close to E. The other day I told my partner that I don’t know when I’ll stop breastfeeding because when this happens I will never be so close to E. again. Breastfeeding has become a question of connection rather than health; an issue of nurturing rather than feeding. By breastfeeding at night I keep my intimate moments with E. and I also have the perfect excuse to refuse to do any travelling, which I don’t feel like doing at this point.

From the initial pain and discomfort to the joy and pride of being able to feed E. exclusively with my milk, breastfeeding has had different meanings for me in my relationship with him. I think I will be able to stop breastfeeding when I can find other ways of communicating with him that provide us with some sort of intimacy. But I’m not longing for this time to come, and I’m sure it will bring buckets of tears.


2 responses to “The changing meaning of breastfeeding

  1. jumbleberryjam

    Such a lovely story. My son could only be calmed by nursing (when he could be calmed at all); and more importantly, I firmly believe that our physical/emotional connection – even when he wasn’t soothed by it – spared him from autism/spectrum disorders. But at 21 months when I just couldn’t keep waking up multiple times throughout the night, I was able to talk with him about my needs and make a plan with him concerning why he could have milk during the day, before bed and at wake up time only. The first 2 nights were rough for us both (although by that point I couldn’t discern the different between a rough night and a rough night). Within 5 months his constant day-time nursing was physically taking me out. So we talked about it and made a sticker board. I could nurse him 6 times during the day (one nip/one sticker), but when all 6 stickers were up on the wall, no more until bedtime. Much to my amazement – he got it! He never fussed once, nor did he ever run out of stickers. Within 3 days, the day-time nursing disappeared altogether. We nursed before bed until he was 3, but the morning feed had been long abandoned by him (without any negotiations) by then. One week after he turned 3 – on Thanksgiving night – he just fell asleep during our bedtime routine and this continued for over a week. Yes, you are wise to wait until you can communicate – not just for his sake, but also for your own. This transition was one of the most positive experiences for our relationship since he was born. I think we both felt empowered by our teamwork rather than devastated by the loss. May it be so for you, as well.

    • Amazing!! I friend told me a similar story but with E. I was not so gentle. At one point, when I had to return to work and moved with him on my own to a different town, because my partner could not find a job in the same place I decided to stopt breastfeeding at night. It was horrible. But I managed to do it. Breastfeeding during the day has been reduced slowly and more according to what he wanted. So, for me it has been a bit of everything 😉

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