What my children have taught me about breastfeeding

When I was in college, my music appreciation professor asked us to write a paper comparing two works by a single musician. He meant two different styles of compositions, and was reluctant to let me write about Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata — he thought I would run out of things to say. But I insisted, and he relented, and I ended up running a little over the page limit, so interesting did I find the comparison of these two pieces. I thought of that paper this morning as I nursed my newborn son. Because to compare my children is a bit like comparing a sonata to a symphony: It’s just too easy to be interesting.

My daughter is a force of nature. In utero, she did not kick so much as play drum solos. After birth, she fought to sit, to roll over, to crawl, to walk — never losing sight of her goal of independent movement, which she achieved well before her first birthday. Now she runs and dances and wrestles and tackle hugs and performs until she passes out from exhaustion (begrudgingly, after asking endless questions to ward off slumber).

Then there is my son. While there is a strong physical resemblance to his sister, they are unlike each other in nearly every other way — disposition, sleep habits, musical taste, even their opinions of bathtime. (I thought at first that he shared his sister’s newborn loathing of bathtime, but he objects only to being cold.) Comparing these kids is like comparing coffeehouse indie and hair metal.

What I do find interesting are the differences in their approaches to breastfeeding. I had assumed, incorrectly, that nursing was mostly instinctual behavior — that aside from physical issues like tongue tie, nursing was pretty much the same from baby to baby. But if anything, I’ve found it highlights the differences in their temperaments.

Anya adored nursing. She looked positively beatific when I fed her, and would pause periodically to laugh from pure joy. But when we were faced with a (sadly not temporary) low milk supply, breastfeeding became a stressful experience for us both. She started each breastfeeding session by biting me — I guess to kickstart my flow. When the milk was gone, she would pound on my chest with her tiny fists and howl with rage. Because of this tension, I often had to pass her to someone else to be burped or rocked to sleep (she got too worked up when I held her), and thus missed out on some key bonding opportunities.

Kai, on the other hand, approached my (temporary, reversible) drop in supply with gentleness. Rather than chomping on me, he finessed the nipple until the milk started flowing. I think his gentleness helped us nurse through the downturn, and the fact that he continues to use this technique means less pain for me. (Which is great, because some days all I do is feed him.) Once he’s eaten his fill, he rests his head on my breast and hugs it with both arms. He isn’t as overtly joyful as his sister was, but so long as I am holding him (or am at least within reach), he is content. Some babies have a security blanket; Kai has me.

I was worried I would not be able to nurse Kai, because of the troubles I had nursing Anya. Now I see those troubles were likely the result of a difficult c-section recovery — nothing I did or did not do was going to change a thing, because everything I could control went perfectly. Whereas Kai and I have faced several obstacles, including being separated for a time during recovery, and are still successfully nursing.

My pregnancy with Anya was perfect, but being pregnant with Kai took a toll on me both physically and emotionally. I was in far better shape and had less morning sickness with Anya. Despite being in labor with Anya all day beforehand, the c-section for her went more smoothly than the planned one I had for Kai. If I were to guess, based on these facts alone, which baby I would have trouble breastfeeding, I would have said Kai.

I wish breastfeeding had worked out with Anya, but she is still a healthy, happy girl despite being formula fed. And while we may have missed out on that specific form of bonding, we are still very close.

I am glad to at least be able to share this with Kai, though. Not only does nursing simplify feeding him, but it has provided us with some truly lovely bonding moments. Which is why, despite the soreness, the inability to be separated from him for more than an hour, the loss of sleep, and the ogling from strangers when I nurse in my car, I persist in breastfeeding. Those few drawbacks wither in comparison to the benefits.

So the main lesson they have taught me about breastfeeding is that it does not make me more or less a loving mother. There are pros and cons to both breastfeeding and formula feeding, but the bottom line is this: Loving mothers feed their babies.

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