Breastfeeding Does Not Have To Be All Or Nothing

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I’m reading a story to Little Dude before bed. Tank is perched on the boppy for his nightly bedtime nursing session. As I read all about The Little Engine That Could, Tank pops off my breast and shifts slightly, staring right up into my face as I read. He hangs on every word, as only a four-month-old fascinated by the contours of my face could.

The Little Engine coasts down the mountain, proclaiming proudly “I thought I could. I thought I could.” I start the next book – another train book – and Tank decides he’d rather eat than keep listening. He nurses himself to sleep.

After I get both kids settled in their beds, it hits me yet again how lucky I am to have moments like that one because, technically, I exclusively pump for Tank, just like I did with my first son.

Just like those toys in our bedtime story, desperate to find an engine to pull them over the mountain, I struggled with one obstacle after another when it came to breastfeeding Little Dude. I kept asking for – and receiving – help, but by the time the right help arrived, our mountain was just too high. After three months, I decided to exclusively pump and bottle feed.

I still remember the last time I nursed Little Dude. He wasn’t feeling well one evening, and I nursed him because I thought it might help. He was hungry shortly afterwards, which was always so frustrating. I knew we were done and never looked back. It wasn’t worth it.

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On a whim, I offered Little Dude a boob months later, just to see what he would do. He just stared at me, and I swear he was silently thinking, “Woman, what is this and where’s my bottle?”

Breastfeeding started off much better with Tank. He had his issues, no doubt: he was tongue tied, and had oral motor difficulties just like his brother, but for some reason he managed to transfer milk just well enough to keep us going.

Under the guidance of an IBCLC (whom we saw much sooner this time around), I pumped after most nursing sessions to maintain my supply while we worked things out. This time, our main obstacles were my own uncertainties (which stemmed from my experiences with Little Dude) and Tank’s temperament (which made it hard to tell if he was fussy for fussy’s sake or because he was still hungry).

After five weeks of exclusively nursing, we derailed. Tank wanted to be on me constantly one day. My anxiety went through the roof, and I switched to exclusively pumping.

I’ll never know if we hit a day of cluster feeding that I could have toughed through, or if we would have continued to struggle, but it seemed like the right decision for our family. I felt a weight lift as soon as I made that choice, better to preemptively enter familiar territory we knew we could handle.

I tried a few times to nurse, but the anxiety over “is he getting enough” just wasn’t worth it. After one nursing session that ended in tears and a bottle, I decided again that our train had passed by. Once the boob was over, it was over.

Fast forward to several weeks later. Tank was fussy, we were spending time outdoors with family, and I was feeling particularly lazy and didn’t want to get up to get a bottle or toy. I offered him the breast. It had been weeks but…he took it. And I swear he smiled at me. Then he spit up, and all those doubts crept in again.

This time, though, the words of those who have helped guide my breastfeeding journeys chiseled away at the doubt. If he wants to comfort nurse, let him, they said. Obviously, if he took it, he must still be getting something from it. And, of course, he spits up all the time anyway so it’s likely not a bad omen or anything.

With zero expectations, I accepted the idea that we could have some sort of convoluted nursing relationship. I let Tank be my guide, and slowly and surely we settled into a nightly nursing session. As he has gotten older and passed the age I quit nursing Little Dude, I’m experiencing and appreciating what it’s like to have an evolving nursing relationship.

It took a long time to move beyond, “This is just a thing we’re trying,” and actually get comfortable with, “This is how we do things. It works for us.”

The fact that something messy and imperfect works for us has been the greatest lesson and triumph of this whole experience. I’m a perfectionist. My gut instinct when things don’t go the way I expect is to throw in the towel and walk away rather than pivot and grow.

Yet here we are. 99% of the time Tank drinks from a bottle. He gets all the milk I can pump. He gets at least one formula bottle a day, sometimes more. He nurses for comfort, but never for a full meal. And this is all okay. Like that Little Engine, I found myself at a crossroads and said, “Well, maybe we can do this thing.” And we did.

One of the many lessons Tank has already taught me in his brief time on Earth is that breastfeeding, like anything in life, does not have to be all or nothing. It does not have to be stressful or riddled with guilt. It is complicated, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.