When my oldest was a newborn in my arms, I’d never been on a computer and didn’t have access to information that so many moms have today. So, at 17, I was pretty stupid about a lot of things, including breastfeeding. I didn’t belong to (or had even heard of) any lactation support groups and, since I was living in typically conservative Texas, I didn’t have the opportunity to see other women publicly breastfeeding the way they do now.
One thing I had going for me was that I’d always known I wanted to breastfeed. It wasn’t that I’d been highly educated about how healthy breastmilk was for developing babies, or that I had examples of my own mother breastfeeding (she didn’t and I’d never actually seen a woman nursing a baby before). The real determining factor for me was that I was poor and figured my boobs were a free source of food for my babies. It was that simple.
Thankfully, medical professionals were incredibly supportive of my decision to breastfeed, which made my choice seem like the best one for both me and my child. When I told the nurse in the delivery room that I wanted to breastfeed my newborn son, she talked to me about the health benefits like an increased immune system and easier digestion, as well as the natural side effect of weight loss for me. In truth, I’d never heard any of those things before, but was excited to hear my cost-saving plan had some perks.
Later in my recovery room, a lactation consultant came and taught me a few different ways to hold my baby while nursing and explained the concept of latching. She also warned me about the possible discomfort and told me to use my own breastmilk as a salve on cracked, tender nipples.
When I left the hospital, I had a pamphlet that said pediatricians recommended at least six months of dedicated breastfeeding for a healthy start. Believing everything I read, I set my mental clock ahead six months and began what I thought would be a nursing countdown.
Breastfeeding was pretty easy for me. My son took to latching and thankfully, my breasts made ample milk. I rarely had pain or sensitivity issues, and aside from the embarrassment of nursing in public (the breastfeeding-in-public-without-shame movement had yet to flourish), we fell into a rhythm that worked for both of us. (And yes, I lost a lot of weight while breastfeeding, too!) While I never truly felt confident as a young mother, whenever I nursed my son, I had an innate sense that I was doing something right by him.
Around my son’s sixth month, I was excited to transition him off the breast. While I enjoyed the closeness we had while nursing, I was growing tired of leaking, engorged boobs, and figuring out a way to privately feed him whenever we were in public. Plus, somehow I'd gotten it into my head that women shouldn't breastfeed longer than six months. This was a clear case of misconstrued information.
My neighbor, one of the few friends I had at the time, told me it was easy to stop breastfeeding and encouraged me to do so sooner than later. She warned me that if I kept breastfeeding him, he might never quit, and I would be stuck at his beck and call well into his toddler years. The thought terrified me. All I had to do, she said, was stop offering him my breasts.
“If he’s hungry enough,” she said, “he’ll take the bottle and you won’t have to breastfeed him anymore.”
I woke up the next morning determined to see my plan through. Looking back, I wish I had more support and information about long-term breastfeeding, but I didn’t, and therefore, I thought that what I was doing was the best thing for both of us.
When my son cried and nudged towards me in a clear attempt to nurse, I kept my shirt down and made him a bottle of formula, instead.
Hearing my son cry, and watching him refuse to drink from the bottle only made my own milk come in stronger. I tried to fight my instinct to just nurse him instead, but I was so insecure that I kept listening to my neighbor's advice.
The disgust on my son’s face couldn’t have been more obvious. He scrunched up his nose, clamped his lips together and gave me the evil eye, all while continuing to cry. Desperate, I went upstairs to my neighbor’s door, the only other mom I knew nearby, and asked her what to do. Her friend was over and gave me this pearl of wisdom:
“If he’s hungry enough, he’ll take the bottle. Just wait it out.”
So, to my son’s dismay, that’s exactly what I did.
Every 15 or so minutes, I offered my son a bottle, and every single time, he refused. He was (and still is) incredibly stubborn. As an hour and then two passed, I became frantic.
“He’s starving!” I said to the women upstairs. They had a good 15 years on me in age and I felt like they must have known what they were talking about since they’d been parents long before me.
“He’s not starving,” they assured me. “He’ll eat when he’s hungry. Whatever you do, don’t cave in. Then he’ll never take the bottle.”
This back and forth continued for hours. Hearing my son cry, and watching him refuse to drink from the bottle only made my own milk come in stronger. I tried to fight my instinct to just nurse him instead, but I was so insecure that I kept listening to my neighbor's advice.
Eventually, after my son’s cries changed from intermittent boo-hoos to nonstop wails, I realized the plan wasn't working and offered him my breast. My neighbor and her friend scolded me for being “weak” and went back upstairs, shaking their heads as they left.
I’ll admit, in that moment, I actually felt like a failure.
A week later, at my son’s six month check-up, I told his pediatrician about what happened, fully expecting the doctor to tell me I was doing something wrong, but instead, she said the complete opposite.
“Oh that’s great you didn’t give up! You know, I really think babies benefit from extended breastfeeding," she told me. "They’re really good about telling us what they need, and I think your little guy is pretty clear: he’s not ready to stop nursing.”
I left her office feeling—for the first time—like I’d done the right thing as a mom. By listening to my own instincts and finding the courage to ignore the advice of others, I was giving my son exactly what he needed.
I continued to breastfeed my son, only finally weaning him at 13 months, when I learned I was expecting my second child. Thankfully, my son was ready, too. Although he would have enjoyed continuing to nurse, he didn’t have a panic attack or refuse food because I stopped offering to breastfeed him.
Sometimes moms don’t have all the information or support other moms have, and it can skew their decisions about parenting. I hope every mom knows that if she tries her hardest to do what she believes is best for her baby, and listens to her gut, she’ll probably get things more right than wrong, even if she makes a few mistakes along the way.