Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why I breastfed for 33 months (or why breastfeeding is like running)

When I gave birth to Junior J, I was determined to breastfeed him for at least six months. We had not attended any classes or talks, however, I had read about the benefits of breastfeeding, and it all seemed so doable. After all, you just need to latch the fellow and he'll drink, and everything would be easy peasy, right? But it turned out to be not so easy after all: After ten hours of labour and and TWO epidurals, I was shivering and feeling nauseous after I delivered. He did manage to latch on, and I requested for him to room in with me, so I spent the night trying to feed him the best as I could. 

It became a lot more challenging when we went home, since the house was a mess (the baby room wasn't ready yet, as it formerly was a guest room and we had some relatives staying with us before that), and we were just scrambling to get everything in order. Junior J seemed to be hungry all the time, and kept crying as he didn't seem to be getting any milk, and I was struggling to get him to latch properly. In desperation, the hubby had to drive down to the hospital in the middle of the night to see if they could spare us more milk samples, and we ended up having to supplement his feeds with formula until my milk came in after a few days (I nursed him, then we topped up with formula).

Things got even worse, as we were exhausted, and there was a steady stream of visitors to entertain (it was Chinese New Year, and everyone was just so excited, since Junior J was the first grandchild of the family on both sides!). I was in pain and wasn't getting much rest. The boy refused to latch properly, and his shallow latch made nursing painful, and contributed to sore and bleeding nipples. Still, I was adamant on nursing him, so I took painkillers when it was unbearable, pumped when I could, and soldiered on.

The first month went by in a haze of naps caught in fifteen minute intervals, and marathon nursing sessions. Junior J had reflux, and I had to carry him upright after each feed. I was nursing him every two hours round the clock, because he could only take small feeds due to the reflux. I had multiple episodes of blocked ducts (which the lactation consultant helped to clear, with a lot of screaming from me), I got mastitis, I also had nipple thrush. I dreaded nursing sessions, which were painful, but I continued feeding, because I really wanted to. Six months, I told myself, just hang in there for six months. Those around us got rather worried. "Just feed him formula, and stop starving him!", I was told, when people saw me struggling with the long and frequent feeds. But I either ignored them, got into quarrels, and went on feeding, feeding and feeding.

Then after the first month, things became a little better. The boy's latch was improving, I knew how to deal with the frequent blocked ducts, I was getting used to the lack of sleep motherhood entails. And it progressively got easier. He was still nursing in two/three hour blocks, but at least I wasn't dreading the nursing sessions so much, and it was satisfying to see the little one put on weight and become chubbier.

I loved how chubby he was!

I was on maternity leave. However, I had to attend night lectures two weeks after giving birth, as I was doing my Masters then. So we learnt to juggle, where either my mum would take care of Junior J at home, or the hubby would bring the boy along to wait for me on campus. I would dash out during lecture breaks to pump, and was so thankful that there was a nursing room on campus where I could store milk and pump in peace. Pumping during lectures was still manageable, however, the time came when I also had to finish up my dissertation, which required me to be out in the field for my research. Initially, my supervisor was horrified when I refused to take up a proposed topic, which involved having to go offshore for half a day each time to gather data. I couldn't do that, how was I to pump when I was out in the wild? Even if I was to pump, it would not be feasible to store the milk in a cooler for half a day in the hot sun! Thankfully, I was able to find an alternative topic to research on, where I could pump at home, dash out during low tides to gather my data, and rush home after to pump again.

Amidst the juggling, the supply dropped, and I remember panicking at times when I was unable to pump much before leaving the house. However, eating fenugreek worked: the supply went up, and we managed to continue to feed the little one all the way until I finished my studies and research.

So the six months went past in a blur, and by then Junior J was a seasoned feeder. He was easy to feed outside, since he would drink quietly under a nursing cover, and I could more or less feed him anywhere. I didn't see any reason to stop, the boy was enjoying his feeds, it was no longer painful to nurse, and I hated the hassle of having to wash and sterilise bottles. So we just continued nursing. Travelling overseas and going out was much easier because I didn't need to carry bottles, and could just nurse him on the go, so we managed to travel and even went on a mission trip with him tagging along. By then I was glad that I had persevered with breastfeeding, and it was much easier as I eventually resigned from my job and stayed home to take care of him.

How could I say no to this boy?

The nursing went on, and on and on, and Junior J showed no inclination to wean, even after he hit his two year old birthday. By now we were facing a different challenge of feeding beyond the "norm" of six months, and I was getting strange looks when people saw toddler legs sticking out from under the cover when I had to feed him outside. People had all manner of comments about feeding an almost three year old, ranging from advice that I should wean him, or to nasty comments like "he'll turn out anti-social". Well, I just did the same thing as when I was told to stop starving my boy in the initial days. Which was to ignore, and continue feeding, because the boy wanted to nurse, and I didn't have the heart to stop him.

I tried to wean him when we learnt that we were expecting Lil J. We tried to tell him that nursing was only for babies, and that he was a big boy. However, he absolutely refused and continued feeding throughout the entire pregnancy. However, all that preparation helped, as once Lil J arrived, Junior J decided that he was a big boy, and did not ask to be nursed anymore. So that concluded my 33 month nursing stint with my oldest.

So he became a big brother. And "big boys don't drink nen nen".

So Lil J took over the nursing shift, but this time round, breastfeeding turned out to be much easier as I knew how to latch him. He turned out to be a great feeder, and the blocked ducts were less frequent (and he also cleared them pretty effectively!). Nursing him was smooth sailing, save for the couple of months where he only nursed when I was lying down.

I also nursed him while expecting baby J, and again, we prepared him for the arrival of his little brother. However, he refused to wean even with the arrival of the baby, and I ended up having to tandem feed both him and baby J for about a month or so, before he decided he was ok not drinking from mama. That period was rather stressful, as I was always worrying if baby J had enough. I made sure baby drank before Lil J could drink, but the advantage of feeding Lil J then was that it helped to prevent engorgement and cleared all those blocked ducts!

Lil J, taken just one day before I gave birth to baby J.
So now, baby J has taken over the milk shift, and it has been more than five years since I started this whole milkmaid business. I'm glad I tried to stick to my six months goal way back then!

And now, the one currently on the milk shift.

Finally, I thought I'd share some things I've learnt during this breastfeeding journey. Basically, breastfeeding is like running, because:

:: Each person's journey is different. There are those who like to run marathons, while others like to do a once a week 1 km jog in the park. Some are gym rats, while some prefer to run amidst nature. The distance, and how you do it doesn't matter, what matters is that you get out and start moving. It's the same for breastfeeding. It's no matter if you've fed for one month, six months, or four years, or whether you express or latch, what matters is that you've tried. Like how the distance you choose to run is a personal choice, it is not for others to judge someone who is still nursing her three year old child, or someone who nursed only for a week. Also, like how there may be those who would tell you how long you should run, there would be those who would like to share their thoughts and opinions on how long you should feed for. Just ignore them!

:: You need to be prepared. I did not read up much about latching the baby, as I thought it would be easy and natural, and I regretted it. Now I tell my friends who are expecting to read up and prepare, since that really helps. (Get some preparation tips here.) Also, having a small tin of formula on stand-by for the first few days would really help, so that you can top up after latching on, while waiting for your milk to come in.

:: It helps to get good gear: Like how good running shoes really help in supporting your feet, and how nice exercise wear may just motivate you to get moving, having a good pump and suitable bottles help if you intend to breastfeed and pump. Please get a double electric pump if you need to express frequently, instead of a  single or a manual pump. It's the equivalent of wearing proper running shoes compared to flip-flops when doing a 10 km run!

:: Starting may just be the hardest part of all: For those who don't run, the first few jogs would usually seem the hardest as you are not used to it. You huff and puff and its difficult. But it gets easier in the subsequent runs as your body gets used to it and it takes less effort to get moving. So its the same for breastfeeding. Most mums I know that nurse struggle in the first few months, but it usually gets easier as baby learns to latch and mama learns to handle the various challenges of breastfeeding.

:: It may not be smooth-sailing, and there may be pain involved, but having a goal really helps. Running can be a challenge when you've hit a wall and can't seem to move another step, but having an end goal in mind does help to push you on. For breastfeeding, it helps to set a goal so that you have something to push towards.

:: There are limitations, because we are only human. While running is good for the body, not everyone is able to run, since some might have health or physical issues (I used to run and I loved it, but these days I can't because of a knee problem). Likewise, while I'd encourage every mother to give breastfeeding a go, please remember that mothers have limitations too. Some may not be able to feed because of physical issues, others because of supply issues. Feeding a baby formula does not make you any less a good mother, what is important is that mama is FINE and baby is FED!

:: A trainer, or good advice also helps a lot: I don't think I would have lasted beyond the first month if not for the help of my lactation consultant. She was no-nonsense and practical. I remember how she told me matter-of-factly that I was to eat painkillers before I saw her for blocked ducts, because it was going to hurt real bad when she squeezed them out! And she was instrumental in helping me through all the nursing issues.

:: Support and cheerleaders are essential: Just like how a run is so much easier with a friend cheering you on or running with you, having family and friends to support you in this breastfeeding journey is key. My hubby really helped to encourage me in the first month, and bore with all my screaming and crying, and did what he could to help. I had friends to talk to, some just listened, some gave me helpful advice and patiently answered all my questions. 

:: It may or may not help you to lose weight: Running helps you to burn more calories, so does breastfeeding. However, weight loss has to do with using up more calories than you consume. So if you were to consume two pizzas for dinner after a 2 km run, I doubt you are going to lose weight. Likewise, breastfeeding does help you to lose weight, but if and only if you are consuming less calories than what you are burning by producing milk. I can vouch for this, as in the case of Junior J I lost a lot of weight, as I watched my diet very strictly, as we suspected that milk and soy were contributing to his reflux. However, for Lil J's case I actually lost very little weight, and subsequently gained some weight, simply because I was eating more (We were in Europe, and dairy was cheap. Who could resist those ice-creams and cheese!). On a side note, it is pregnancy that causes the saggy boobs, and not breastfeeding!

This post is part of a blog train hosted by Madeline at MadPsychMum. I have been most encouraged by all the stories on the breastfeeding journeys shared by other mums, which you can read by clicking on the icon below. 

Tomorrow, Angeline would be sharing her story. Angeline is a stay-home mom to two lovely children, who have given her new insights to life as she now finds herself on a journey of re-discovery of the world through their little eyes. She has breastfed since July 2008, tandem-fed for 9 months and is still currently breastfeeding her 29-month-old. Find out more tomorrow how she overcame the initial hiccups, and ended up extended breastfeeding in the end at Simply Mommie. 


  1. Awesome sharing Jus! Thoroughly enjoyed reading. 2 at once? Admiration max! And great analogy to running :)

  2. Btw, which campus have a nursing room? Care to share?

    1. Hi Madeline, thanks for organizing this blog train! I think it was good that I wrote this even though there were so many painful memories! Anyway, the campus was NIE. It was a really nice room, with a chair, table and even a bar fridge to store milk. I was so thankful for that room!

  3. Thanks for sharing! I think mums who had a rough start (my first three months with K were a complete nightmare) that are prone to wanting to marathon feed. It's like, now that I totally got the hang of it, such a waste to stop right? :)

    So much good advice for new mums there too - love your running analogy. Jia you everyone!



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