At 42 Degrees

At 42 Degrees

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Autism & Breastfeeding: Our Story

Choosing whether or not to breastfeed your child is an intensely personal decision,...add Autism into the mix and the choice becomes even more intense and even more personal. 

From the very first the nursing relationship between Isaac and myself was a-typical from my previous experiences having nursed my older sons when they were babies. 

My oldest son I nursed for six weeks until a severe case of mastitis sadly ended that endeavor. 

With my second son I was determined to learn more about breastfeeding, one: to be more successful and two: to hopefully avoid another case of mastitis at all costs, and anyone who has had mastitis would completely understand my intense drive and commitment. To that end when I became pregnant with my second son, I joined a local, La Leche League group, invaluable resource for information and support, and it was a blessing to be able to nurse my second son, without a case of mastitis until he was eighteen months old, which by any standards among our circle of family, friends and acquaintances was considered quite a lengthy nursing relationship. 

As an older mother, I was nearly 45 when Isaac was born, I knew I wanted to breastfeed the miracle of what was our newly born son, and honestly with my past experiences, I did not anticipate any problems, but I also didn't anticipate having a newborn in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) with severe jaundice either. Without the support of our local Children's Hospital lactation center we would not have been able to enjoy a nursing relationship. The lactation center provided not just breasts pumps, bottles, and even nutrition in a gorgeously appointed lounge setting with the utmost security and privacy at 3 A.M. when we rushed Isaac to the emergency room, but the staff offered encouragement and sympathetic comfort to a very distraught mother and kept me on task, which was to pump milk every two hours to build my milk supply so I would be able provide the very best nourishment to a very sick baby boy.

And I'll be frank, it was extremely difficult, as an older mother, I was not recovering from the physical childbirth experience as quickly and throughly as one would hope, and the next six weeks were pretty much a nightmare, except for the fact I was nursing Isaac and he was finally home and thriving on breast milk which required no sterilization or refrigeration or any effort other than making sure I ate adequately, took my vitamins, and drank plenty of water while I sat in a rocking chair in my bedroom and held my little guy under those glaring bilirubin lights while we waited for those bilirubin levels to come down,...and that was a nearly three month process, not having to sterilize and mix formula, much less having to shop for it and hope Isaac would tolerate this or that formula or not was a huge blessing,...

However Isaac is Isaac and he experiences the world in a different way and he makes sure you do too, and that includes breastfeeding for unlike my previous children, Baby Isaac didn't gaze soulfully into my eyes and try to put his teeny finger in my mouth or do any of those other adoringly adorable things that small babies will do,...Baby Isaac simply drank,...very businesslike and very efficient,...especially when he wasn't sleepy because he had to get that meal over because there was a world out there for him to explore and he didn't really have that much time to waste for nutrition,...or in the vernacular Isaac pretty much 'slurped' his meals down,...and actually that was kinda cute, and done,...he was a busy guy and I frankly didn't give it much thought, because all children are different and Isaac was thriving on breast milk and when he was sleepy I was able to cuddle him as he nursed to sleep and let's be clear, Isaac considered it every baby's right to nurse to sleep and don't argue with him about it,...thank you very much.

Autism crept into the nursing relationship when it was time for Isaac to begin solid foods, only we didn't know it was autism then, we just thought our strong willed little guy, and Isaac was decidedly strong willed from the moment he was born, we thought, he just wasn't into that mushy rice cereal, or mashed bananas, or any other type soft food you'd give an infant. Isaac wasn't having it,...thank you very much,...he'd rather slurp,...and so at three months old, we didn't worry about any more solids, but at six months old, when there wasn't much change in Isaac's attitude, we were a tad perplexed because it was clear this babykins didn't like, and I mean, really didn't like anything soft or gooshy, and we counted it as a relief that Isaac took to crackers at seven months.

Only a saltine cracker is not much nutrition, but fortunately breast milk does provide everything a baby needs for quite awhile, we skidded by on the eating deal until Isaac was sixteen months old and he finally consented to try more foods,...but nothing mushy,...let's be clear,...we're not eating mushy, but scrambled eggs nice and dry and beans, nice and dry, and barely cooked apple slices, nice and dry, and yes, I'd dry them with a paper towel,...such food supplemented Isaac's supply of breast milk.

Autism was fueling these food wars, but we didn't know it, because we didn't realize our strong, silent-type toddler had autism, but we did know Isaac wasn't typical, certainly not in comparison to his older brothers. Nursing a still nursing Isaac was also not typical, as when he wasn't sleepy it was like nursing a hyperactive octopus,...flip, flop, flip,...which I didn't think could get worse, until Isaac wanted to try nursing upside down and fortunately physics weren't on his side,'s a tough life for a little guy, and for a bewildered Mama,...because it was obvious our toddler wasn't expanding in his socialization and we were at a loss how to gain a connection with a toddler who didn't have the strongest eye-contact and very little imitation skills,...that's when breastfeeding became a connection tool,...because you've gotta be a little social,...if you want milk out of Mama,...and you can't run from a cuddle if you're getting milk out of it. Thus nursing Isaac was a formative tool because we were able to forge a closeness and bond, which I didn't think we would have had otherwise, and when I say forge, I mean it was concentrated work on my part to encourage eye-contact and help Isaac accept cuddling touch and calming when he was in hyper-drive mode. And as a bonus it was still great nutrition.

Thankfully we received great support from every professional from Isaac's pediatrician to his child psychologist concerning what was becoming a protracted nursing relationship because unlike a typical child, reasoning with an autistic child can be either challenging or futile. Thus how do you end a nursing relationship or even should you once the child, obviously no longer needs breast milk for nutrition? Clearly we live in the western hemisphere, and in North America, and even closer defined the Deep South of the United States, where nursing relationships between mother and child typical end at twelve months, if not much sooner. But in other parts of the world, I've been assured that nursing relationships between mother and child can and do last much longer past toddlerhood, and with such assurance it has been easier to take a long-view of the nursing situation,...because clearly this relationship or need on Isaac's part needed to taper off,...on his timetable and by his choosing,...and yes,...there have been many days when I desperately wondered if that miracle would ever occur,...but it did,...and gradually with Isaac dropping a feeding here and there,...and perhaps I helped a little with distractions and appropriate snacks to ease the transitions, because with children on the spectrum transitions had take on monumental significance which can make the experience heartbreakingly difficult for all concerned.

But I am happy to report that Isaac has made the transition and is now officially weaned and that's the sole purpose of this post, to encourage perhaps another mother nursing a child on the spectrum,...whose asking herself,...when and if the weaning process can and will take place,...because for a while I quite frankly had my doubts as I nursed a two year old, then a three year old, and yes,...even a four year old for that last nite-nite and early morning nursing which was soooooo hard to give up,...but I was determined to stick to Isaac's timetable, allow him to choose the time and place in his mentality when nursing wasn't necessary and my little guy did it,...dropping the nite-nite feeding and then finally the early morning,..and with his usual flair, that last morning, Isaac jumped out of bed excited to meet the day and begin on his adventures without even a second thought to morning milk...and boy is it a great feeling to see Isaac sail through this milestone so joyfully. His choice, his timing, and it was for us,...the right decision.

So Q&A: Was nursing a child for so long time consuming? That would be a yes. Was it a physical toll upon my own resources? As an older mother, already exhausted by chasing a hyperactive child that would be a double yes! Was nursing so long inconvenient? Ah,...yeah, but to that an any other question I or others could pose,...the ultimate answer is the process was what my child needed,...thus no matter what, was worth the endeavor.

The most significant take-away from the experience of our breastfeeding relationship, the relationship which Isaac and I forged, because when you forge something it become strongly attached, and again, I truly don't think it would have been possible to have built that type of relationship with Isaac without the necessity of Mama or more important that Mama Milk, Mama provided, it kept Isaac from zoning me out of his existence, or even yet, it anchored him into our world because clearly at times our little guy is existing on a different plane,...that's just autism,...and I wish I could climb into Isaac's plane at times,...because he makes it seem so extraordinary,'s a happy place,...and so his he,...and I am so groveling grateful to have had the opportunity to build a relationship with him,...because otherwise, I would not have known my son.

Again, choosing whether or not to breastfeed your child is an intensely personal decision,...add Autism into the mix and the choice becomes even more intense and even more personal,...but I wanted to share our story because autism is isolating enough,..and it is so important to know that there are others who have walked the precarious paths you are now walking and they have crossed those milestones,...and what seems impossible, possible. 

Until I post again,...may God bless and keep you!

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