Milk of Healing :: How Nursing Saved My Postpartum Mental Health

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The day my son was born, the constant screeches, screams, and painful cries began. The image of the sweet, sleepy newborn I had envisioned was not the 6 lb. 15 oz. boy laid in my arms after a long, grueling labor and emergency C-section.

With a difficult baby entrusted in my tired and completely-overwhelmed care, it seemed that nothing came easy. When people hear that I successfully breastfed my son for so long, they sometimes wrongly assume that it wasn’t a struggle for us.

Like many mothers who attempt nursing for the first time, it was anything but easy. My son had trouble latching, and he would frequently come off my breast. It seemed he was barely eating and never comfortable. After listening to doctors, I ended up in the formula “top off” situation and timing feeds, which only made things worse.

A couple exhausting and trying months later, I almost gave up breastfeeding completely. I was worn down in so many ways, and it just wasn’t working. On top of that, I was not sleeping at all and struggling with my baby’s severe colic.

One Last Try

But I wasn’t ready to quit, and I decided to take a leap. I listened to the advice of seasoned breastfeeding moms online, ignoring what some might think is sound advice from pediatricians. For me, the advice given by local pediatricians was harming–not helping–my nursing relationship with my son. I figured I had nothing to lose. It was a last-ditch effort before I gave up entirely. 

I spent the next several weeks with my bra off, letting my baby nurse as much as he wanted. Sometimes it was every five to ten minutes.

It was hard, but I chose to trust my body and the advice I was given by so many women who had done this before. This process allowed me to rebuild my milk supply and my ability to be in sync with my baby improved. Before I knew it, he was nursing like a champ, and it no longer felt like a huge, insufferable chore.

We Made It

We made it. We were successfully breastfeeding.

Despite our nursing success, my son’s temperament didn’t improve to any degree until he was about six months old. I spent my days doing everything I could to get him to sleep in small amounts because it’s all that I could get. I wore him in a carrier all day, and I gave him warm baths while he was restless and letting out his feelings the only way he knew how: ear-piercing screams.

Our nights were spent driving around the streets of Bradenton, Florida (our home at the time), so that he could sleep for a couple hours in the car. The movement of a vehicle helped. If we were home, we were up every 30 minutes, attempting to calm and soothe a chronically uncomfortable little guy.

Postpartum Depression and OCD

Any mother going through this would be susceptible to depression, negative thoughts, and anxiety. I was depressed. I also had what I now recognize was postpartum OCD, but I never told anyone. I struggled in silence because I was too ashamed to speak up. I was hanging on by the thinnest thread imaginable.

I often read stories about mothers whose mental health declined when breastfeeding didn’t work for any number of reasons. They felt better once that stress was lifted and they could just enjoy their baby. That is completely understandable.

But I’m sharing this because the opposite can also happen. For me, nursing saved my mental health. I knew it then, but it’s ever so clear to me now.

Nursing Healed Me

During a time when I had no idea how I’d get up and care for my colicky baby each day, nursing got me through.

Nursing was like a rope someone had thrown down for me from above to hang onto when I felt like I could barely get up. It kept me holding on. It was the lighthouse in my storm.

While dealing with horrible negative thoughts and trying to stay sane through hours of crying and no sleep each day, the one thing I had was nursing. My son, despite his dislike of much of this new world, loved to nurse. It was like home for him. When he nursed, he was calm and peaceful. I was calm and peaceful. This was a bond we shared. It was a bond that made me feel close to him during a time when that was challenging.

nursing saved my mental health

Nursing gradually became a spiritual and poetic experience for me. There are people who may balk at this statement, and that’s okay.

This is my truth.

I sometimes would cry as my son would nurse, filled with emotion that I was able to provide him with food. This food helped him grow, and I was his place of calm. When nothing else worked to soothe him, nursing did. He nursed for both food and comfort. He would nurse all throughout the day–when he was hungry, tired, cranky, and upset. He needed me; I needed him.

Through the wondrous thing that is nursing, I was slowly rising from a dark place. The milk that flowed from my breasts to him was Mother Nature’s nectar of healing. It was so much more than food for us. It was closeness, comfort, security, love, and peace.

The Ending of a Beautiful Thing

We now know my son had sensory issues. He struggled to take a bottle once our nursing relationship took off, and he refused solid foods until after a year old. I nursed him exclusively beyond a year of age, his only source of nourishment and rest. We nursed until just shy of his second birthday. By then, I was ready to wean. Though not without challenges, he was no longer the colicky, uncomfortable baby he once was.

Yet, even though I was ready for a break, I still cried. This bond that had been my lifeline for so long was over. (I’ve since learned this post-weaning type of depression is normal).

I will always look back on nursing my son as a time of struggle, triumph, and meaning. It will never not make me cry when I speak about it, because it encompassed so much more than the act of providing nourishment.

Nursing saved my mental health until I no longer needed the rope and could “let go” . . .  in more ways than one.  

 

 

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A Michigan native, Marjorie attended Eastern Michigan University for her undergraduate and graduate education. But after meeting “the one” and enduring a lengthy long-distance relationship, she followed her now-husband, Kyle, to Louisiana, where she completed her counselor internships. Marjorie fell in love with southern culture thanks to Baton Rouge and NOLA. Due to Kyle’s job, they have since lived in Ohio, Florida, and now Birmingham, Alabama! It’s been a whirlwind, but Marjorie has loved the adventure of acclimating to new places and making new friends. She looks forward to getting to explore more of Birmingham and Alabama! Marjorie previously worked as a career counselor but is now a stay-at-home mom of two. Soon, she will be pursuing health and fitness certifications. Her son is 6 and her daughter is almost 4. They both have so much personality and keep their household busy and lively. Marjorie has been married to Kyle for 8 years. He’s pretty hard to miss at 6’3” with red hair! When not busy with the kids, Marjorie enjoys working out (after a crazy year, she’s happy to be back in the gym!), writing, feel-good TV, searching for unique learning activities, and exploring new-to-her local parks. She will also rarely pass up a moms’ night out.

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