Exclusive Breastfeeding: The Good, The Bad, and Finding The Silver Lining
For me, exclusive breastfeeding brings me yin and yang sensations of love, tiredness, satisfaction, pain, connection, and confinement.
Sensations of love, because through breastfeeding, I spend a considerable amount of time caring for and appreciating my baby. I know that I’m giving her the best and most complete food there is, and in the process, I get to pause several times a day to just be with her.
Sensations of pain and confinement, because it's physically intense. Not sleeping through the night for months is hard. I have ongoing pain in my shoulders, back, and neck from heavy breasts and awkward breastfeeding positions. In a way I’m trapped - serving all my baby's needs - since she doesn’t even take a bottle with my expressed milk.
If I get anxious about losing pregnancy weight, I can end up depleting my milk supply and my health. And if I'm always busy, I can activate my stress response, thereby increasing cortisol. If my cortisol is elevated for long periods of time, it can lead to a decline in my mental, emotional, and physical health.
In other words, there is no other way out. From the moment a mother decides to breastfeed, there is great responsibility that comes with this decision. Maintaining my vitality during this process means eating to breastfeed, going to bed early, releasing what hurts, and resting when I can. Yes mama, resting is the magic word.
And by resting, I'm not referring to scrolling through the feed on the phone while breastfeeding. What I mean is relaxing my eyes and learning to see the beauty of being fully there, no multitasking. And even if it doesn't happen every time, because it doesn’t, I’ve made the decision to surrender to this special moment every time I have a chance.
When my mind is wandering, I check back in by noticing my breath. I look at my little girl, her perfect, fluffy skin and her blue-gray eyes, and I feel so grateful to have this opportunity.
From this moment of gratitude, my heart opens and I feel electromagnetic waves moving from me to her and back to me again. There’s a bubble of magic, connection and beauty surrounding us. It feels like we are showered with love. At that moment we are one again. This connection is so strong and pure I wish to experience it every time.
Have you ever seen other mammals nursing? They surrender to the moment and to each other and therefore are in a state of grace.
I know we are all programmed to always be doing things, especially in today's hyper-connected world. It's almost as if we're always looking to achieve something, somewhere out there. But what I've learned is that I’m achieving so much just being fully here, feeding her. Not only do I participate in special moments such as the one mentioned above but at the bare minimum, if nothing magical happens, I get to rest.
I won’t deny that sometimes I think about what life would be like if I wasn’t breastfeeding, but then I remember all the benefits we're both getting. And there are many, among them: I'm helping her grow into the stronger, healthier, smarter, and most confident version of herself. And for me, I know that I am lowering my chances of different types of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, amongst others.
More than 80 percent of U.S. mothers breastfeed their newborns, but less than a third continue to do so for one year. I was unable to find the percentage of children who continue to be breastfed for up to two years as WHO recommends.
When I look at these statistics, I think of my firstborn Jasper. He breastfed for 16 months, and now that I am breastfeeding his sister Penelope, he’s decided he wants to breastfeed again. If he doesn't have his moment with mommy's boobies, he has a meltdown.
He is two and a half years old and almost never gets sick. He is confident, intelligent and active. We should be living the famous “terrible twos” but I really don't see anything terrible about it. In fact, it's been very satisfying to see him become a "big boy", albeit still a baby, when he's in mom's arms or breasts. It's a double job for me, but I know I'm doing good for all of us, and that alone keeps me going.
And because I have already gone through this journey once and decided to go through it again, I want to leave a message for every mother who decides to exclusively breastfeed: if you can, hold on tight and don’t give up.
Like everything in life, this too shall pass. Any pain you may be experiencing will eventually disappear, and before long, you will be sleeping through the night again. Your vitality will return and you'll lose the weight you gained during pregnancy, if that's what you desire.
In the meantime, instead of going into multitasking mode, enjoy every breastfeeding moment as a unique experience of connection with your baby. Close your eyes and surrender. Focus on your breath and allow yourself to experience it. Take the opportunity to make your baby feel safe and to rest alongside her.
Remember, breast milk is a living substance, and with each feeding, it evolves in sync with the needs of the baby being breastfed. It contains vital nutrients, cells that develop immunity, and stem cells. It feeds healthy gut bacteria and provides many other emotional factors that cannot be replicated.
If you have no choice but to give your baby formula, keep in mind that you are doing your best, there’s no reason to feel guilty. It’s also possible to make bottle feeding a moment of bonding and connection. But if you do have a choice, enjoy it and give it your all. Everyone says that I will miss the days when I spent most of my time physically connected to my babies.
The older version of yourself as well as the older version of your baby are thanking you for sticking through the process. And in the meantime, maybe you'll learn new life skills, like saying no, asking for help, surrendering to the moment, or even accepting yourself. In my case, I'm learning to surrender to the moment with each feeding.
Edited by: Lily Zara