To Wean or Not to Wean?

When I found out I was pregnant with our second child, my heart went out to Baby T, my firstborn. My first thought was, “But Baby T is still my baby! How can I have 2 babies at the same time?” My second thought was, “What am I going to do about nursing Baby T?” After all, Baby T was only 13 months old, and still a picky eater, with breast milk his #1 source of nutrition at the time.

There were a few things I was sure of:

1) It is completely safe to nurse during pregnancy; and
2) I am extremely open to the idea of tandem nursing once the baby comes

But one thing totally freaked me out:
I had never spoken with a real, live mama who had nursed a baby throughout her pregnancy and/or tandem nursed. Or so I thought.

I had heard about them from my midwives, La Leche League leaders, and in online parenting forums. My midwives assured me it would be no problem to continue nursing throughout my pregnancy; in fact, I could even nurse Baby T to help encourage my contractions during labor. At LLL meetings, I was the odd one out: I was pregnant AND had a nursing baby. I was given suggestions for books (or, rather, ONE book) to read: Adventures in Tandem Nursing. And women all over the world talk about how they nursed through pregnancy or tandem nursed on the Mothering or KellyMom boards. But I felt like an alien. Had no one in my town actually nursed throughout her entire pregnancy?

I was now 5 months into my pregnancy, Baby T was gobbling down solids due to my decreased milk supply, and I was struggling with the question of whether it was right to keep nursing him. Every mama I knew who had started nursing her toddler during her pregnancy had ended up weaning because she said she had “dried up.” I knew my milk supply was drastically low, but I also knew that Baby T still frequently asked to nurse, and he was still getting some milk, even if it wasn’t very much. But was it wrong of me to nurse when there was barely any milk? Was that strange? No one else I could find had kept nursing with a dwindling supply. I started to consider weaning Baby T. I figured I wouldn’t offer, but wouldn’t refuse, either. And then one morning, after Baby T had nursed about 3 times in one hour and I knew there was nothing left, I refused him. He was frantically doing the sign for “milk,” crying, and beating the nursing chair with his hands. I offered him the sippy. I convinced him what he really needed was his truck book. I cupped a hand of cereal in front of his face, in hopes that he was just hungry. But no, he just wanted to nurse.

And then a few friends came out of the woodwork. I got the support of 3 women who I actually knew—in flesh and blood—who had nursed throughout their pregnancies and then gone on to tandem nurse. Just knowing a few women who had done this helped me realize that nursing my toddler was still ok. As another friend put it after I questioned whether it was wrong to continue nursing a toddler simply for comfort: would you refuse your child a hug when he or she needs to be comforted?

That solidified my decision. As long as Baby T still wanted to nurse, I was going to keep nursing him. This was going to work out. I know there are more challenging struggles in my future, but for now, we are both comforted in the way things are going.

Knowledge is Power

When we are children, we wonder: Why is the sky blue? Where does the water in the toilet go when we flush it? What is a rainbow? Every aspect of the world piques our curiosity, and we ask those who are older and more experienced than us to answer our questions. I wonder why we stop wondering. Why do we get to a point where, as adults, we interpret what we see and hear as fact and stop asking questions?

Too often in this country, we are “educated” by only the outlets with which we are familiar. Our peer groups and our families provide us with many of our values and ideals, as well as information about how to experience the world, and we add what we see in the media to this store of “knowledge”. I include the words “educated” and “knowledge” in quotation marks, because education includes more than simply learning about that with which you are already familiar. It’s easy to follow along in the footsteps of your family or peers, or go out and buy what you’ve seen advertised on television without questioning it. But a true education involves learning about what you don’t already know. It includes asking questions about that with which you are unfamiliar, and leaving your comfort zone to truly investigate both sides of the story. Without investigating all of one’s options, one doesn’t really know something; one is simply acting on a familiar experience.

This becomes even more consequential when it comes to subjects like birth and breastfeeding. Think about what you’ve seen on movies and TV shows when a woman is delivering a baby. She’s on a gurney or hospital bed, in a hospital gown, lying on her back while holding her breath and pushing with all her might. The lights are bright and the environment is sterile. The OB is wearing white scrubs and a mask. What kinds of symbols do you envision when you think about babies? Pacifiers, strollers, and bottles, perhaps? It seems to me that one of the most pervasive symbols relating to babies is the baby bottle. These are some options that you have when it comes to birthing, caring for, and feeding your baby.

But did you know that there are other options?

You may not have realized that you can give birth in a quiet, dark hospital room, laboring in a relaxing tub, with your partner putting just the right amount of pressure on your aching lower back. Or in a birth center, or in the comfort of your own home. Or that you can carry your baby in any number of slings, baby carriers, or wraps, so that you can keep baby close to your heart and soothe baby with womblike security and motion. Or that some babies never drink from a bottle. A woman’s body can provide an infant with all the nutrition he needs to sustain himself for the first twelve months of life.

 These things may not have occurred to you because they are not pervasive symbols in our culture. When it comes to options for birthing and caring for your baby, unless you educate yourself about the different possibilities, you may never know what decisions are yours to make. This brings me back to my original question: why do we stop asking questions about that which we don’t know?

When it comes to prenatal care and giving birth, many first time mothers are not sure what to expect. This makes sense. After all, this is their first time going through this amazing experience. Many women simply seek their prenatal care from the doctor they have been seeing for their well-woman care. They assume that—hey—this doctor is an OB/GYN, she is qualified to deliver babies, so she might as well deliver mine. If I have a question, she can answer it. After all, she is an expert, and she knows everything about giving birth. Right?

Let me go off on a little tangent here. Do you remember when you were a junior in high school, how you met with your guidance counselor throughout the year? He introduced you to the world of higher learning through a plethora of colorful catalogs describing the school’s mission, education model, and even the smaller details like how the school deals with student life, core curriculum, and tests. Then, you trekked across the country with your parents during your summer vacation, visiting the schools you were considering, just to make sure that they were a perfect fit. After all, you would be spending the next four years at this institution. It would provide the education and memories that you would carry for the rest of your life. This was an important decision.

Now, think about this. The person whose care you seek to deliver your baby will guide you through nine months of your life. She will attend to your physical and emotional health during those months and beyond. She will be a great influence in molding that one intimate event that only a woman can experience firsthand. The birth experience you have will affect the rest of your life. Don’t you want to learn about your care provider’s model of care, and how he or she deals with prenatal tests, emergencies, and how he or she attends to your physical and emotional needs?

The same idea goes for caring for your baby. As a parent, you are responsible for this little life. Although your baby is an individual, everything you do can still influence your baby’s development. Before your baby is born, you may go shopping for a crib, bottles, pacifiers, and a stroller. But what about the other options, like breastfeeding and cosleeping? If you don’t have friends or family members who have breastfed or coslept, you might not even consider this an option.

I had a recent conversation about breastfeeding with an acquaintance. I was commenting on the fact that breastfeeding in public is not legal in three states. The reaction from this woman was, “But why would you want to breastfeed in public?” My answer was simple: “Because my baby will get hungry when I am at a restaurant, at a park, or at the grocery store.”

This brings me back to my original point, that women need to be educated beyond that with which they are familiar, in order to choose what is best for their babies. Maybe this woman didn’t have any friends or family members who breastfed. Maybe she is afraid that people would see her breasts if she breastfed in public, and maybe she’s uncomfortable with that. Maybe she was just brought up thinking that the only way to feed a baby was with a bottle. But perhaps if she learned more about the number of women worldwide who breastfeed their babies and how beneficial it is for the health of our infants, it would become a consideration for her. Perhaps if she saw more women breastfeeding in public, she would realize that it is not inappropriate. (In fact, to show her just how modest one can be when feeding a baby, I grabbed a baby-sized box, lifted up my shirt, and put the box in front of my breast. In the middle of my office. During work hours. I asked her how much she could see. She said, “not much”.) Perhaps if the mainstream media advertised lactation consultants, breast pumps, and showed more women breastfeeding, she would realize that there were options available for feeding her baby other than bottles.

Inevitably, when it comes to breastfeeding in public, you hear the opinion, “I don’t mind if women breastfeed in public, I just don’t want to see it.” Or, “I saw someone breastfeeding at Wal-Mart the other day, and she just had it all hanging out. I didn’t need to see that.” Our culture is notorious for being exceedingly prudish when it comes to displaying women’s breasts in public. Women are taught that breasts are something to hide. However, in many other cultures, women are brought up learning that breasts are used to feed their babies. They are not as sexualized as they are in this country, and therefore, it is not as taboo to reveal them in public.

I realize that this is a cultural ideal in the United States that may be difficult to change. But this is where the importance of education comes into play. If women learned about the various ways to breastfeed a baby without revealing any skin, and if they were educated about different breastfeeding positions, clothing, and covers, maybe those women who are afraid of revealing their breasts would be more comfortable nursing in public. If breastfeeding in public was the norm, and was portrayed in the media as such, it would not be an uncomfortable issue. People wouldn’t wonder where to look when they saw a breastfeeding mother. And if breastfeeding your baby in public was as much the norm as bottle feeding your baby in public, then maybe more mothers in our culture would continue to breastfeed their babies up to 12 months and beyond, as is recommended by the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It’s important to educate the public in this country about different options when it comes to birth and caring for a baby. It’s not about being right or wrong, or having the best point of view. It’s simply about being educated as to what options are available and making the best decision for yourself. Where’s My Midwife? is a resource you can use to educate yourself about these subjects. We are here to answer any questions you may have. We advocate for midwives not because we think they are the only option for obstetric care, but because we want to make sure you are aware of this option. Personally, we may feel that midwifery care is best for us. I personally use a midwife for my prenatal and well-woman care, because I feel most comfortable with the Midwives Model of Care. But we also understand that you need to select the best option for you and your family. We can explain what it’s like to give birth with a midwife, what it’s like to get an epidural or pitocin, what it’s like to breastfeed, and what it’s like when you encounter breastfeeding challenges and need to supplement your baby’s nutrition. We want every woman in this country—in this world—to feel empowered when it comes to their health and the health of their babies. And knowledge is power.