This article first appeared in Le Leche’s breastfeeding magazine ‘Breastfeeding Matters’, July/August 2015, edition 208.
Caroline tells us about her tandem nursing experience, and how breastfeeding has always felt like the natural choice for her and her babies.
As I write this, my son and daughter’s tandem nursing days are drawing to a close, as Ewan is gradually and naturally weaning from the breast. He is four and a half years old. His younger sister, Tessa, now twenty months, nurses day and night. Words can never do justice to what my life has been like since having children; they have been the most eventful, joyous, challenging, memorable, exhausting and reflective years of my life, filled with laughter and tears. I have learnt to juggle, both physically and emotionally, two growing nurslings. My children have taught me more than I ever imagined, about myself, about breastfeeding and about life. Below I share a little of this enfolding journey, of mothering, of breastfeeding, and how the two converge.
Nursing remained a place of sanctuary, support and comfort to Ewan throughout his third year. He persisted, even when there was little milk left as my pregnancy developed, seeing this out to the day I went into labour. As Tessa grew inside me, so did the unwelcome feeling of being ‘touched out’. These strong feelings were telling me to push Ewan away. I struggled to come to terms with the first negative feelings around feeding Ewan, which left me guilt-ridden and shocked. This was compounded with the physical challenge of nursing while pregnant, as my nipples became sore and my bump grew bigger. I persisted by placing boundaries on when Ewan could feed and for how long, not feeling ready to completely wean him yet.
I vividly recall Ewan’s last feed as an only child, the day I went into labour. As we lay snuggled up in bed I silently wept, aware the next time he fed would be radically different and that our relationship would alter once the new baby came along. Ewan was oblivious to my tears as he fell asleep dreamily on the breast. A few hours later, my parents came to collect Ewan, leaving me to labour in peace with my husband, and later, my independent midwife. My hope was for a natural home-birth this time, having experienced an emergency caesarean under general anaesthetic with Ewan.
After a long and difficult labour, Tessa was born the following evening at home, safely on the living room floor. I had watched snow falling in our garden as I laboured, had focused on visions of Ewan’s blonde hair and shining face as the contractions strengthened.
After Ewan’s traumatic birth, I’d been so ill the midwife had to place Ewan on my breast and support me feeding him. This time around I had envisaged the first feed with my newborn baby as a blissful, self-directed experience. How wrong I was! Shaking uncontrollably with exhaustion and emotion, I could hardly hold my daughter, never mind feed her. My midwife gently placed her on my breast, where I expected her to instantly latch on and feed. However, Tessa fussed at the breast, unsure of what to do. I was surprised at how tiny and helpless, how I had to support her feeding and ensure she didn’t slip off. I was used to an expert toddler feeding, not a newborn!
Ewan met his little sister the following afternoon. On seeing mummy after two long days apart, he instantly latched onto the breast and fed for a long time. Again, I held back tears as he fed hungrily, knowing this was his way of reconnecting with me, of taking in this massive change in his life. I could hardly keep up with his need to feed. He insisted on feeding almost every time he saw his sister feeding. This was exhausting and emotionally draining for me, especially at night where we all slept together. However, I let him nurse, knowing how fundamental it was to him and our relationship.
I learnt through trial and error how to feed a newborn and a toddler at the same time; it was a strange sensation which at times I struggled with, but again I persisted. I learnt to savour those moments when my children were both nursing, knowing how fleeting this period would be and how content they were. Helpfully, Ewan always obliged whenever my breasts were engorged in those early weeks, releasing the heavy feeling so that Tessa could feed. We remained in our little nest for the first week of Tessa’s life, oblivious to the outside world, which was snow covered and too cold to enter anyway!
I naively assumed because I was an experienced breastfeeder it would be easy to feed Tessa. Far from it! I was up night after night, comforting a frantic, exhausted and frustrated baby who could not feed properly. Deep inside I knew no matter how difficult this experience was, whatever it entailed, my faith in breastfeeding was unbreakable, I just needed to figure out what was wrong. Tessa kept on falling off the breast, feeding for a short time then slipping off again.
One afternoon, I stumbled across an article about tonguetie in ‘The Mother’ magazine. The symptoms sounded familiar and so did the photo of the tongue-tied baby. Immediately, I phoned my independent midwife, who referred Tessa to the maxillofacial outpatient department at our local hospital. I was instantly relieved, assured that after a simple procedure Tessa would be tongue-tie free and able to feed normally. The following eight days felt a very long time as we waited for the appointment. Tessa’s feeding remained problematic as she constantly fell off the breast, although I was not experiencing any nipple soreness, which can happen with tongue-tie babies, and Tessa was not losing weight.
The following week, at five weeks old, Tessa’s frenulum was snipped. The procedure was more nerve racking for me than Tessa, who cried a little but soon quietened on the breast. I had hoped this would spell the end of any feeding difficulties, however, Tessa had to re-learn how to breastfeed. This took time and patience, but was worth it.
By the third month of Tessa’s life I felt we were finally in the flow. Talk about multi-tasking! I remember a woman calling me a wonder mummy as I fed Tessa in the sling, held our dog’s lead and pushed Ewan in the pushchair. All in a day’s work! My husband and I were ambitious about how much we could do in a day with young children; feeding on the move solved that problem. However, I did miss the many occasions when I had sat with my feet up resting or reading while nursing Ewan. Those quiet moments simply didn’t exist with a second child. The few times I did sit to feed her were so rare I still remember them!
By this stage I felt it was time to place firm boundaries on when and how frequently Ewan nursed. After much soul-searching, as well as seeking advice from a La Leche League friend who also tandem fed, I started to reduce the amount Ewan fed. This was a testing time emotionally for us both, as Ewan learned to let go of his reliance on nursing and I learned to mother him in new ways. Having a second child had changed the nature of my nursing relationship with Ewan. I found it hard to admit, but I no longer felt the same connection with him. Discussing this with other mums, I soon learned that these feelings of wanting to protect and feed the younger child are normal and natural, that they aren’t wrong. Feeling so touched out and irritable when he fed was starting to affect our relationship. Reducing his breastfeeding was, for us, the only way forward.
Ewan slowly accepted this reduction in snuggle time, though not without tears. Gradually I managed to reduce his feeds to before bed and on waking. I also limited how long he breastfed, timing them and giving him warning when he needed to unlatch. I still feel terribly sad that I had to do this. I vividly recall the last time Ewan fell asleep on the breast, when he was three and a half years old I cried as he slipped into a peaceful sleep, stroking his hair as I remembered nostalgically all those beautiful night time feeds of the past. He looked so content, I didn’t want to break the spell, didn’t want him to know this was the end of all that. Hugging him to sleep just doesn’t feel quite the same, but it is another signal of his growing up and of our evolving relationship.
For months Ewan’s first words on waking were ‘snuggles’, but this one last feed of the day has recently reached its natural end. Even so, Ewan still talks a tremendous amount about ‘snuggles’, and will cuddle my breasts affectionately, demonstrating how very important breastfeeding has been in his life. We are both learning to let go as he moves onto the next stage in his life.
As for my daughter, her nursing journey still has a long way to go. Nursing is a fundamentally entrenched part of our everyday life, something Tessa asks for and is insistent on having, frequently in the daytime and throughout the night. Her first word was ‘more’, which meant ‘give me more milk’. Sometimes when Ewan tries to feed she gets quite possessive, saying ‘no mine’! If she cannot find me to latch on in the night, she asks for ‘more’ in a desperate voice, searching for that instant source of comfort and nourishment.
I cannot imagine a life without nursing. I have nursed every day for the past four and a half years. Nursing is as much a normal part of everyday life as eating or sleeping, so much so that I will breastfeed my toddler in public without even blinking an eye. This is a far cry from the closet nurser I once was when Ewan was a small baby. I feed so naturally, confidently and discreetly that it is unlikely most people are even aware I am nursing. I have never been directly asked to leave a public place due to nursing, although twice in cafés a waitress has suggested I nurse in the baby-changing room. On both of these occasions, I was so flabbergasted I was rendered almost speechless.
One of my friends recently asked for my advice on travelling in exotic locations with children. I have found that nursing, co-sleeping and baby-wearing are The Travel Essentials. In Bali, when Ewan was 23 months old, he nursed through illness, to feel comfort in an unfamiliar place, to ease the long flights and for nourishment when the food tasted strange. As we set off on our next travelling adventure to Nepal, I go in the confidence that breastfeeding Tessa will be just as valuable for her as it once was for her brother, so much more so than any object you can buy.
My children’s different nursing behaviours illustrate how very different their personalities are. Ewan was a very gentle nurser, who twiddled with my hair whilst feeding and would feed for what felt like hours, slowly waking up after a nap or a night’s sleep. If offered, he would never refuse the breast. On the other hand, Tessa will play with and pull my other nipple whilst feeding, to the point I have to cover it up! She only feeds when she wants, on her terms, and is often distracted with other things. But for both of them breastfeeding has been hugely significant in their lives.
I am proud of my children, of myself and of our breastfeeding journey. I treasure this time as I know how short-lived life with little children can be. I hope that in a year or two I can write another piece, to add to this beautifully evolving story.
Words can never do justice to what my life has been like since having children.
Shaking uncontrollably with exhaustion and emotion, I could hardly hold my daughter, never mind feed her.
We are both learning to let go as Ewan moves onto the next stage in his life.
I cannot imagine a life without nursing.