Ginger’s Breastfeeding Story: Learning to Listen

Ginger Cofield Lakhani, Brooklyn, New York, and Santa Fe, New Mexico

Before I had my first baby, the concept of birth and childcare was so abstract that it was easy to take for granted that if I stuck to my instincts, I would be able to have the vaginal birth I assumed I would have. It never occurred to me that I would feel unhappy about my birth experience (I did) or that my baby would be out of my care soon after she was born (she was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for nine days for what turned out to be a minor respiratory issue).

In between visits, where my husband and I sat helpless looking at our newborn daughter through the plexiglass walls of the incubator, I sat on a waiting room chair surrounded by floor to ceiling green curtains in the NICU’s pumping room. I dedicated myself to pumping with a ferocity that I don’t think I have applied to anything else; it was the only thing I felt like I could do to help her. Thankfully, my milk came in right away. The nurses seemed impressed every time I brought them several bottles full, but still they supplemented with formula.

When we were able to take our daughter home she latched easily, but I was in such a fog from the long labor, emergency cesarean, and the trauma of handing our baby over, albeit to good hands, that just having her close to me felt like a triumph. One of the nurses told me that she had been on a regular schedule of having a bottle every two hours. I somehow took this to mean that I should nurse her every two hours, and someone else—I can’t remember who—told me that a “good” feeding should last 20 minutes. I timed the feedings on my phone, and, when they fell short, I was sure she wasn’t eating enough, and when they went on longer, I became anxious (was there really still milk in there?).

Eventually, I became tired of holding myself to this misguided, although well-intended advice, and nursed her when she seemed hungry. Things began to feel more balanced as the weeks went on, and as she grew, she started to become more and more alert, as babies do, pulling off my nipple every few seconds to look at the world around her and then latching back on. When my period surprisingly returned two months after giving birth, she became unusually fussy with nursing, and I was sure she wasn’t getting what she needed.

By then, I had attended several supportive La Leche League meetings in my Brooklyn neighborhood and soon realized that while I understood nursing to be the “natural” way, I was confounding this with the idea of it being easy. For many of us, mothers and babies alike, nursing takes work and the support of those around us. For me, it also involved becoming a better listener than I ever thought I could be. I learned, although sometimes it felt like I failed at, how to decipher her hunger cues (such as rooting, turning her head into my chest, sucking on my husband’s sleeve) from other needs that came in various forms of fussing and crying – mainly tiredness or a diaper that needed to be changed.

Hunger cues are things we hear about, but they can feel so subtle and unique to each child that, at times, it feels nearly impossible to master them.

Many mothers I know have experienced guilt on some level: that we’re not doing enough or not doing it right, whatever that “right” might be. I certainly experience these feelings, but I have learned to be easier on myself when it comes to nursing.

Since our first child, my husband and I have welcomed two more. It was only after nursing our second, and now our third, that I’ve noticed that all three have gotten fussy around the time of my period and that I’m clearly one of those women whose supply is altered with hormonal changes. When our son puts his hands up to his mouth, sucking on them instead of my nipple, I allow the option that he’s still hungry and gently guide his hands away. Perhaps most importantly, for my own sense of having a positive relationship with nursing, I tell myself that tomorrow is another day. If our baby seems especially fussy with nursing, it will go back to what feels normal, if not tomorrow, then perhaps the next day or the day after. In the meantime, I am encouraged by his growth and his giggles that seem to tell me that whatever I’m doing is enough.

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