My Breastfeeding Journey: Because Together, We Are Stronger
I'm sharing my personal journey as an African mami to uplift and encourage all the amazing mamas out there. Because together, we can.
Like most mamas, when I look back on the early days after my youngest child was born, it looks like a blur — especially now that he is 12 years old. We tend to forget how hard it was. In fact, it is practically superhuman what we mamas do for our babies. When you think about it, how do we actually make it through the first year? And feeding — especially breastfeeding — plays a huge part in the overwhelming experience that is new motherhood.
The more we know, the more clearly we understand that babies have a better chance to survive and thrive when they are breastfed. Just for starters, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that breastfed babies have lower risks of asthma, leukemia, obesity, ear infections, eczema, diarrhea and vomiting, respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), Type 2 diabetes, and more. There is nothing on planet Earth that can replace breast milk. It is uniquely formulated by nature for your child.
"In talking with many women, I have learned that, just like every child and every birth story is different, so is every breastfeeding story."
The last week of August is Black Breastfeeding Week and the entire month is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In talking with many women, I have learned that, just like every child and every birth story is different, so is every breastfeeding story. These stories are as unique as we are. I’ve also realized that these stories are vitally important to share, because breastfeeding is the best start for a lifetime of good health.
Mamas, let's share our stories. Because the truth is, for most of us, breastfeeding is really, really hard. Even scientists haven’t figured this one out. If a mother tries to breastfeed at all, studies show that most give up after only three months; after that, the numbers drop even more dramatically. Think about this: Breast milk is baby’s No. 1 chance to stay healthy, and most babies are not getting it after the age of 3 months.
Okay, this is not to make any mama feel guilty. This is to encourage everyone to try. I want to tell you a little bit about my own breastfeeding struggles, and by doing so, I hope that we can all talk about this more and more, until breastfeeding for a full year is the rule, not the exception.
After giving birth to my youngest child, I had health complications, so I felt lucky to be able to breastfeed at all. Breastfeeding was familiar to me, because growing up in Cameroon, it was part of the culture. And with everything I had been hearing about the health benefits for baby, I was determined to try. After a rocky start, I figured that I would give it my best shot, and if I wasn’t able to do it, it wasn’t going to be for lack of trying.
Balancing Breastfeeding & Work
At the time my youngest was born, I was working full time in a demanding career as an IT executive. My maternity leave passed in a flash, and I was back on my usual hectic work schedule. Unlike my friends in Europe, who were able to stay home for six months or more to care for their babies, I was on the go.
My job involved travel, so when my son was 4 months old, I had to be out of town for three days for a business trip. Using my breast pump, I pumped like crazy before I left and stockpiled plenty of milk for him, placing it in a freezer that we had bought especially for storing breast milk.
When I came home, I was frustrated to discover that my baby refused to breastfeed. He had quickly adapted to the bottle while I was away, and he had apparently decided that it was too much work to nurse from my breast. I cried. Then I called my lactation consultant.
“Keep pumping,” she said. And I did.
I learned that the more you pump, the more milk your body produces. I had my portable breast pump, and I took it with me to work, on business trips, everywhere. Every two and a half hours, I pumped at the office. I pumped and pumped and pumped. Sometimes I pumped 64 ounces of breast milk in a day. It was crazy, but knowing and believing in the benefits of breast milk, I worked really hard. My nipples became raw. At times, I was completely discouraged.
My support network kept me going through thick and thin. I made lots of friends at La Leche League — they are the best organization. My mom and my sisters were so encouraging, as well as my husband and older kids. My mother thought that because I was in America, I would not breastfeed, so she was especially proud.
Basically, you have to know that you are not alone in your commitment to breastfeeding, because it is hard! The right support is essential. The key is to look for a breastfeeding group that you like; if you’re not getting the support you need, you’re not in the right group.
In the end, I was able to breastfeed my youngest son for 16 months. I stopped pumping when he turned 12 months old, but by that time, I had enough surplus of frozen breast milk that we were able to continue feeding for four more months. It was really hard, but totally worth it. I honestly attribute his current excellent health at the age of 12 to the fact that he had a great start on breast milk.
Again, I tell this story with zero judgment. Every mama’s circumstance is different. There is not a single breastfeeding journey without issues — whether it is flat nipples, soreness, baby not latching on, not enough milk, busy schedules, partner support — yes, there is drama! I had my share. But remember that your journey is as good as the people you have around you. You have to know that you are not alone. Find your tribe, and at least give it a try.