Note: I am not writing this to make anyone feel bad about whether they nursed or how long; I am writing because I want to share my story of what a great experience nursing can be.
Juliana nursed for the first time when she was about half an hour old. It must have been very comforting, after being thrust into a loud, confusing world, to once again be surrounded by a familiar smell, a familiar taste, and a recognized voice. Her tiny hands flickered over my skin, and she looked up at me with big, bright eyes. I could hardly believe she was mine, but she obviously knew I was hers.
The first couple of weeks of breastfeeding were very difficult. Juliana latched pretty well from the start, but she was jaundiced, so keeping her awake long enough to nurse was nearly impossible. We took off her clothes and annoyed her in every way possible but she still slept on. Getting enough milk was important to reduce the jaundice, so the hospital lactation consultant recommended I started pumping and giving her extra feeding from a syringe. Each feeding I spent 30 minutes trying to wake her up enough to nurse her, then I spent 30 minutes painfully pumping while Kevin fed her tiny bits of colostrum from a syringe. It was so hard to relax, and the high blood pressure I developed just after leaving the hospital didn‘t help. She nursed every 2-3 hours during the day and we had to wake her up every 3 hours at night, so there wasn't much of a break before it was time to start over again.
Once the jaundice started to go away, Juliana became more alert and nursing was much smoother. I was happy to leave the breast pump behind for the most part. For the first month or two she mostly ate every 2-3 hours, for 30-45 minutes each time, and I felt like I was nursing all the time. I read 20 books in the first three months, mostly in the middle of the night! I also watched a lot of TV, both of which were helpful in allowing me to relax. Once we both started getting the hang of breastfeeding, it became much easier. I loved the way Juliana would close her eyes and start rooting around when she was hungry, and she would wail pitifully if she had been hungry for longer than 30 seconds. I loved the way she predictably drifted off to sleep at the end of every nursing session, too warm and cozy to resist.
I first started nursing in public when Juliana was 5 weeks old and we had a 37 hour flight back to China. I was a little nervous about it since I still wasn't entirely comfortable with nursing even with no audience, but it went fine. By the end I felt much more comfortable nursing on airports and airplanes and with people looking over my shoulder. Nursing isn't as popular in China right now, but people do seem to be a bit more open about it. When we would have (female) students or teachers over and I was nursing Juliana, they would come sit by me and watch her nurse.
When Juliana was about 2 months old I developed mastitis. A student took me to see the local doctor and then tried to translate his diagnosis: "He says you have too much milk." Eventually we were able to translate the word "mastitis" which made things a little clearer, but then he prescribed some medicine I shouldn't take and told me to stop nursing, which I knew I shouldn't do. After a call to the doctor-aunt of another student and a bit of self diagnosis, I bought some amoxicillin and it started to improve. Everything I read said that rest was very important…they probably didn't mean "take a 14 hour train to Beijing and then trek across the city on bus and subway." But Juliana had a 2 month check-up and immunizations, and at least I was able to see a better doctor in Beijing who confirmed that the mastitis was improving.
Once we got past the early days, nursing was pretty easy and I enjoyed it. I loved the connection I felt with Juliana and the peace I felt knowing I was providing the nutrition and comfort she needed. She continued to nurse during the night, but a particularly nasty stomach bug forced me to learn to nurse lying down, which was helpful. She went through several stages of supreme distraction, and there were times when she drove me crazy by picking at my skin. She learned to do some pretty complex acrobatic moves while nursing, a skill I didn't always enjoy. But overall, things were going great. She became a more efficient nurser and started to nurse for 15-20 minutes instead of 30-40, and she wasn't nursing as frequently so it was much easier to schedule going out or being away from her for short periods of time. She was never on a strict schedule, but she naturally fell into a relatively predictable routine.
Shortly after Juliana was born I distinctly remember telling a friend I planned to nurse her until she was about a year old and that was long enough. I said, "Once she can start asking to nurse, that's a little weird." Now I have to laugh at how much my thinking has changed. When she reached the one year mark I thought, "One year is such an arbitrary time. Just because it's when most people stop nursing doesn't seem like a good enough reason to stop." So I didn't. To my surprise, I found that nursing a past-one year old seemed completely normal.
One day Juliana started walking and suddenly I was nursing a toddler, something I would have never seen myself doing before Juliana was born. But once again, it seemed pretty arbitrary to stop nursing just because she started to walk. I read more about the benefits of "extended breastfeeding" both for Juliana and myself. We were both still happy to be nursing, so why stop? I knew it would seem strange to some people, but fortunately I discovered many friends who had nursed into toddlerhood.
As Juliana started to enjoy drinking cows milk and became less dependent on nursing, I gradually started nursing her less. By 15-16 months I was just nursing her before bed and first thing in the morning. It was nice to have more flexibility during the day, and I enjoyed a chance to cuddle with my increasingly active child. At bedtime when she asked, "Nurse? Nurse?" it seemed sweet rather than strange. Sometimes she would stop in the middle of nursing and look up to give me a kiss. I could tell these times were important to her for a lot more than just nutrition. In the mornings I brought her into bed with us and enjoyed not having to get up right away at 6am. Sometimes she would doze off and we'd both get a little more sleep.
Weaning a Nursling
I planned to stop nursing when Juliana was about 2 years old, but it took a little bit to actually get around to it. I kept thinking, "I guess I should stop nursing," and then I would think, "But why? We are both still happy with it." I don't think there is anything naturally strange about nursing a toddler (in fact the worldwide average age for weaning is four!), though I realize it is a bit countercultural. At some point I think we have to take cultural norms into account, but let's be honest - there is quite a bit about my life that falls outside of the cultural norms!
Around 26 months I decided to stop nursing at night, since Juliana was only nursing for a few minutes. I usually prayed for her as she nursed, so instead I just held her and prayed with her. For a few weeks she sometimes asked, "Nurse?" I would say, "No, we'll just pray together," and she was fine with that. A few weeks later she randomly, wonderfully started sleeping much later in the morning, so the morning feeding disappeared rather naturally. Since her entire weaning experience was so gradual, it was never difficult for either of us.
I admit that I am a little sad to think of this sweet part of our relationship coming to an end. It is just one more milestone to show how quickly Juliana is growing. But mostly it seems like the right time for us to let it go. I am so grateful for the opportunity to nurse Juliana as a baby and a toddler. I am grateful for all the support from friends and family and doctors who never doubted my decision. It has been a beautiful experience.