Several people have asked how breastfeeding is going while pregnant. I've wanted to share and yet shied away from it because it's, right now, kind of a depressing story.
In short, it's hard. Really hard.
I don't want to suggest that mine is the only experience. There are many voices out there discussing their own experiences, and some are a lot more positive — or are positive in the long term, looking back (so I will have to revisit this subject later on). I don't suppose my experience is any less valid, though I don't want anyone reading to think that this is how it will be for you.
I think that's what worries most women about going into pregnancy while breastfeeding, actually: It's all unknown. Will my milk dry up? When? Will my breasts hurt? How badly? Will my child react to the change in quantity or taste of milk? Will my child wean? Is that what I want? Will there be successful tandem nursing at the other end of it all? Is that what I want? And, of course, the questions start even before pregnancy, because you have to wonder if breastfeeding is affecting your fertility.
And no one can tell you, Here's what will happen for you and your children. They can talk statistics (70% of mothers experience a significant drop in milk supply during pregnancy; 26% of children seem to self-wean during pregnancy, and up to 69% wean, when mother-led weaning is included), but you can't know where you will fall within those statistics.
I had high hopes I might avoid the largest groupings, but…yeah. We'll see.
First off, breastfeeding during pregnancy hurts. It never used to for me, ever. Well, there was that one time I had a scratch on my areola that stung like the dickens, and I was always a little ouchy premenstrually when my cycles got back into swing, but in general nursing has been an easy road, once everything was established. I say this not as a boast but as an admission and a point of contrast. I always had sympathy for nursing mamas who felt pain on nursing, I truly did — but now I have empathy. When Mikko asks for nummies, it's seriously the last thing I want to do. And I never offer anymore. It's like if someone went around asking you at random intervals, "Hey, mind if I tweak your sore nipples again?" You really, really want to say no. Even when there's a cute and eager little face attached to the request.
Secondly, my milk? Pfft. Gone, round about the 15-week mark. I had such high supply leading up to pregnancy, I thought I might avoid the often inevitable consequences of pregnancy hormones, but no. I can't squeeze a thing, and Mikko has confirmed it: He's getting nothing. And the further downside is that dry nursing hurts even more. I'd hoped that the soreness was a first-trimester sort of thing, but it's not.
It's frustrating, because all my tricks to increase or maintain milk supply are useless now against the onslaught of hormones. Supply and demand means nothing to my pregnant body. My techniques to limit soreness, starting fundamentally with a good latch and no nursing acrobatics, keep the pain within (barely) tolerable levels, but they don't prevent it, and they don't solve it. I still flinch on every latch and grit my teeth throughout the nursing. I can no longer stay asleep during nursing in bed, because it's too uncomfortable; I have to try to wait until he's fallen asleep and then push him away so I can roll over and try to get some rest. I find myself trying to put him off nursing whenever I can, which is both an immediate relief if he agrees, but somewhat worrisome to me as a habit.
It's confusing, because I'm such a staunch breastfeeding advocate, a defender of extended nursing, a person who really, truly loved breastfeeding — and now I'm not even sure what I want. Do I want Mikko to wean? In the individual moments, I want not to be breastfeeding. When I step back and look at the big picture, I feel horrible that he might wean before he intended to or would have otherwise, simply because I'm pregnant.
There's this patina of guilt coating everything. I would never lay such blame on any other mother, but I can't avoid feeling it for myself. Our decision to get pregnant was, yes, a little carefree, but my son is three-and-a-half years old. He doesn't need to depend on breast milk for his nourishment. And bringing a new baby into the family is a good thing, not a cause for recrimination, no matter what the circumstances (I believe). I think, in the long run, that Mikko will be glad to have a sibling, and we will all be glad to have become a family of four — no matter what the transition means to Mikko's nursing relationship.
And, yet, I feel I would forever regret it if Mikko were to wean within the next months — because I would always attribute it to my choice to get pregnant, and to my negative reactions during the pregnancy, no matter how justified each element is.
This is how it's affected me, but how has it affected Mikko so far? It's been rough on him, too.
The decrease in breastmilk really has had an effect. First of all, he's constantly "hungry and thirsty." I know sometimes his asking for food and drink is a result of boredom (just as that has sometimes been his reason for nursing). But the fact is, he's no longer getting the calories and fat he used to from breastmilk, and it's had an effect on how full he feels throughout the day and night.
Of more concern for me are the other elements of breastmilk he's now missing. Mikko, like many preschoolers, is a terribly picky eater. Some friends on Twitter and I were talking about how we used to pride ourselves on our adventurous eaters — and then they changed into their current incarnations, which we can only hope is a temporary manifestation. Basically, Mikko's diet is white. White chicken, carbs, potatoes, pasta, and whatever sugar he can get his paws on. We're lucky if we can convince him to eat some fruit or broccoli (his sole vegetable). I used to not worry so much about his limited diet, because I knew he was supplementing with all the nutrients in breastmilk. But now, I know anything he gets is from what he eats. I'm feeling a lot more pressure to encourage him to variety, and it's all of a sudden.
Another important element of breastmilk is the immune-boosting properties. Mikko had a fever the other night, and I was so sad as he was nursing to sleep, knowing he wasn't getting any antibodies anymore. I worry that he might get sick more often and not recover as quickly; plus, nursing during an illness was sometimes the only thing that would comfort and nourish him.
But where we've most noticed a difference is sleep. Ugh. We're night owls, anyway, so you have to translate the times a little. For instance, Mikko used to go to bed somewhere around 10 p.m., and we would stay up a few hours more to get some work done, then all get up around 10 in the morning. When I say that we were happy one night that Mikko fell asleep one night, without too much struggling, at 3:30 a.m., you can get a sense of the frustration we've been feeling — and the exhaustion.
The night before that, I had lost it. I'm not proud at all of how I reacted, and I had to apologize to him the next day. I had tried to go down to bed with him at 1:30 a.m., several hours past his usual bedtime, in hopes my presence would lull him to sleep as well. Plus, I was exhausted, too. His nighttime sleep had been horrendous for the past week or so. He was kicking me, waking up with dreams, needing to get up to go to the potty, nursing several times a night and for hours at a time, a big change from nursing to sleep and nursing a couple hours before he woke up — a rhythm he had fallen into in the past six months or so. Combined with my pregnancy-induced tiredness and other stresses, I was ready for sleep.
But Mikko was not. He was pinging off the walls, rolling on top of me, kicking me in the face, chattering to me, trying to climb over me to get to my nightstand. At 3:30, after two hours of unsuccessfully trying to sleep through this, groggy and livid, I roared. I started swearing. I told him he had to stay in bed and he had to go to sleep. He called me a monster, and I couldn't disagree. He cried that he wanted to go downstairs to his dad, who would be nicer, and I refused to let him. I think at that point I could have used the cooling off, but I stayed. I sulked and locked us both in the bedroom together. Half an hour later, through tears, he fell asleep. I stomped down the stairs. I was still too angry to sleep, so I tried to get some of the work done I'd been neglecting without my usual nighttime hours of adult time.
Sam looked over at me and told me he'd asked Mikko earlier that day if he was getting any milk. "No," Mikko had said simply, "the baby took it all."
I about cried. For what it's worth, that's not the language we've been using about where the milk has gone, but that's how a three-year-old interpreted it. Sam pointed out that Mikko has nursed to sleep his entire life and now, within the span of a week, he had lost his full tummy and the warm, sweet taste in his mouth as his cue to drift off. It threw us all for a loop.
I assume that this part of the transition is temporary — that Mikko will figure out how to get to sleep and stay asleep without breastmilk. But, for now, it's tough on all of us.
And the psychological conundrum is ever present. I was lying in bed last night, Mikko latched on with me unable to sleep, calculating the months left in my head. I wondered, Can I really do this? Can I really put up with the discomfort for that long? I tried to remind myself it's only scattered times a day, and I only have to endure each one as it comes — but it's still not something I look forward to. But what I do look forward to is having an abundance of milk after the baby arrives, and the joy I might be able to give Mikko then if he hasn't forgotten how to latch or lost interest. I also love the idea that tandem nursing might ease Mikko through some of those early issues of sibling rivalry and make him realize we're all still connected, even though he has to share his mama now.
I watch him latch as he dry nurses, and it's still perfect for now. But I struggle, mentally, with allowing him to nurse so very much since he's not getting anything physical from it and since, no matter how often he does, my supply is going to stay the same. It's one of those weird contradictions again, because I'm a huge encourager of "comfort" nursing, both because breastfeeding is an act of comfort — but also because all suckling, in a non-pregnant situation, encourages milk supply. In this case, that second motive is lost, and I find myself feeling justified cutting nursings shorter and shorter, or distracting him at times.
I was hoping that maybe my colostrum would come in early. I seem to remember it coming in around 20-ish weeks when I was pregnant with Mikko, but I don't have it written down anywhere. At the time, it was a curious and interesting fact, a harbinger of what my breasts would be able to do, but there was no point to it other than that then, so I didn't remember the timing exactly. I've been thinking maybe if Mikko got some colostrum, (a) he'd be more likely to keep nursing, and he'd get some of those antibodies I like to pass on, and (b) it would hurt less. But I asked on Facebook and Twitter, and the responses were quite varied. Some tots like the taste of colostrum, and some really don't. Some mamas noticed a decrease in pain, and some did not at all. So even that's no true hope.
The good news in all of this is that, as mentioned before, I have an intensified sympathy for any other mamas struggling with low milk supply or tender breasts while breastfeeding. I've always considered women who persevered past such problems heroines, but now I can really feel it. I mean, the optimism inherent in a situation like that in early breastfeeding is that it often can be overcome, with help from a lactation consultant when needed. In my case, the only light at the end of the tunnel is birth.
My takeaway message from all this? Well, first of all, don't let me discourage you from trying to breastfeed through pregnancy. There's no reason not to give it a shot if you have an older nursling and are expecting already. Don't beat yourself up if you're already pregnant and are now in this situation; children can adapt, and you can figure out a way through that works for you and your little ones. See how optimistic and tolerant I can sound when it's not my kid and my discomfort?
If you're trying to decide when or whether to start trying to conceive while breastfeeding, all I can recommend is thinking about it carefully, acknowledging that, statistically speaking, you'll likely have to supplement nutritionally (donated breastmilk or formula for infants under a year, increased table food and drink for babies of an age to be eating solids). You also need to consider how you feel about the heightened possibility of weaning, whether because your child chooses it or because nursing becomes too uncomfortable for you. If your child is prone to illness or is under two years of age, you might also consider the effect on health of losing the supply of antibodies that breastmilk brings. For most women, there's no danger with nursing during pregnancy, in terms of miscarriage or preterm labor, or diminished nutrition for the expectant mother or unborn baby.
In the end, only you and your partner can decide if trying for another baby now is right for you and your current nursling — after you weigh the benefits of adding to the family with the drawbacks of what might happen to your present breastfeeding relationship.
I would also suggest, whether you are pregnant already or seeking to become so in the near future, that you prepare your older nursling for the transition as well as your child is able to understand and adapt in advance (depending on your child's age and maturity). It can help to be matter of fact and positive about it, at least outwardly, so you're not projecting your own fears onto your child. For instance, I started suggesting to Mikko early on in the pregnancy that the milk in my nummies might go away, but that it was all right — he could continue to have nummies, and if he was thirsty or hungry, we could find him other drinks and food. I've also kept reminding him that the milk will come back when the baby's born, and he and the baby can share, which he seems to understand and look forward to. If you know you want to wean (or night wean), you might start gradually cutting down on nursing sessions in terms of frequency and length now so that it's a gentle process. Even if you don't want to wean, you might consider finding methods of putting your child to sleep at night that don't involve nursing, perhaps getting a co-parent to help you. If your child will have a tough time transitioning to eating more solids or drinking other fluids, or eating a varied diet, you might try increasing exposure to foods and encouraging frequent snacking. We did some of these transitional techniques, but if I could go back in time, I would work harder on the sleep angle!
I started writing this post before Christmas, and just getting my thoughts out has given me a clearer vision on what I want, and how blessed we already are that Mikko and I have had this attachment for so long — and that we'll continue it, no matter when breastfeeding stops being involved. I'm going to try to be patient and less grouchy, and just look forward with him to the new baby's arrival, because he truly is excited about becoming a big brother. He'll be fine, I'll be fine, and the baby will bring us all joy. Eventually.
I'll stop back in with you next trimester.
Some helpful resources for you from kellymom.com and Hilary Dervin Flower, the author of Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond:
- "How will my milk change?" — including information on milk supply, milk composition, and colostrum
- "Myths vs Facts: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Tandem Nursing" — including mythbusting about the uterus's reactions to breastfeeding hormones, prioritizing the fetus or newborn over the nursing toddler, weaning, and the effect of tandem nursing on children and mothers
- "Is it safe to nurse during pregnancy?" — reassurance and brief facts about contractions, miscarriage and preterm labor, mother's health, and nursling's health
- "A New Look at the Safety of Breastfeeding During Pregnancy" — an expanded explanation of the research
- "Nutrition for mom" — when you're eating for three
- "Nursing during labor" — interesting information on natural speeding of labor and help with postpartum recovery
- "Nursing During Pregnancy and Tandem Nursing: The Official FAQ" — I pulled some of these details out in this list, but here's the full FAQ for answers to other questions you might have
- "'Is it for me?' Tips for Making Your Decision
about Nursing during Pregnancy and Tandem Nursing":
"Hold your nursling close as you dream about your next baby, and never doubt for a moment that you have what it takes to make the best choices for each of you as you go along."
What have your experiences been with breastfeeding and pregnancy? Did you wean beforehand, cut down during, or go on to tandem nurse? Or are you in the same boat of trying to conceive or already expecting and wondering what your course will be?