Feed on

Do you ever get the feeling that you are the least interesting person in your circle of friends? Or at least the one with the most unrealized potential?

I was reminded of a friend from Oxford recently, a beautiful German woman named-I think I remember this correctly—Anna Maria Milena Teresa von Brentano, because she once told me in passing that a forbearer of hers invented the mind-body problem. That would be Franz von Brentano (1838-1917), father of the school of act psychology or intentionalism. And I was thinking about him because the mind-body connection can both power and inhibit successful breastfeeding.

Anyway, one friend led to another, and before I knew it I had found an engineer doing consulting work in Scandinavia, a death row attorney (defense) in Texas, a published professor of antebellum literature at UC Irvine, a UK military commander, a D.C. socialite, and a prominent barrister at the Serle Court in London. I’m a part-time editor in Louisville Ky. Oy. Well, at least there’s no reunion to attend…

But back to the whole mind-body connection: I began thinking about it with last week’s nursing problems. I sat up early Wednesday morning at around 5:00 a.m. to nurse Simon and disaster struck. He sucked, pulled back, sucked a bit more, pulled back some more, and cried endlessly. When my milk didn’t let down at the beginning, I wasn’t alarmed. But after several attempts, Simon was getting more hysterical and it suddenly occurred to me that I might not be able to feed my child. That’s when the flop sweat began.

So now I was not only struggling to hold a bucking, sobbing baby while desperately wishing my milk would drop, but I was also nearly prone from heat exhaustion on top of it. In the end, I prepared a bottle, handed it to Matt to give to Simon, and went and had a little cry myself.

After this incident, I began to over-think something I had never really thought about before: let-down, or the milk ejection reflex, and the ability to nurse. Some women never feel let-down at all. For others, it fades over time. I, however, have been able to feel it every time I have nursed Simon-and by now we’re looking at around 1500 times-since he was born. It’s the comforting little burn that tells me Simon is getting what he needs and my body is functioning as it should. Of course, when that let-down doesn’t happen, it’s the least comforting thing in the world.

I can be quick to panic. So after that failed feeding, I went into the next one with the dread of a kid heading to the dentist. Would it happen again? Would I feel let-down this time? How long would it take? Was I doomed to never nurse again?

For anyone who has nursed before, you know that this is the worst possible thing you can do. Nursing works best when the mother is relaxed and confident in her abilities. When mom is a wreck, inhibited let-down-the very thing I was the most worried about-is the most likely to occur.

What’s the solution? Well, it depends on who you ask. Nursing school of thought number one holds that if you visualize a successful let-down, you can bring it on. So immediately after the first failed nursing attempt, I started visualizing let-down. It reminded me a bit of trying to will myself to sleep. “500, 499, 498…getting sleepy…497, 496, 495… drifting off, it’s getting harder to count…494, 493…Damn! I’m still awake and the alarm goes off in 3 hours.

Only this time the interior dialog was more like: “I’m relaxing…this will work…I feel some warmth…Simon is suckling….I feel my baby close to me…I feel some pressure…Oh my God I’m not letting down and this isn’t going to work!” I could make visualization work a few times, but it was a mental strain.

The second school of thought is that if you are distracted-if you do not spend the whole time thinking “Do I feel let-down? Is it happening?” you will in fact feel it much sooner. Therefore, the prescription is to talk, listen to the radio, read, or watch TV to get your mind off of what you are doing and let your body take over.

If you are me, this approach has two downsides. One is that you nurse to enjoy the immediacy of the relationship, not to forget all about it. The other is that, if you are as single minded as I am, you end up listening to “This American Life” on NPR while thinking “Isn’t this nice? I love ‘This American Life!’ I’m paying attention to this moving story about taking care of one’s parents and not paying attention at all to whether I’m letting down or not. Nope, just sitting here, enjoying Ira Glass and his fine, fine show. Have I let down yet?”

In the end, I came out the other side from sheer force of will and my uncanny ability to research and spin. I have now read hundreds of pages on lactation, supply, let-down, and strikes. In doing so, I was able to settle on a theory of nursing problems and a prescription for help that suited my needs. My story is that Simon was teething and I was exhausted. Once I got some rest and got some fluids, and Simon got some Orajel and Tylenol, we’d both be OK. I’d pump after feedings and guzzle herbal tea to boost my supply. Once I had nursed 10 times without event, I’d be back in the game. And I was. Then three days after that fateful Wednesday, I failed to let down again. My story for this second incident is that I had some wine (alcohol can inhibit let-down) and that Simon woke up but wasn’t really that hungry.

Am I right? Who knows? And for that matter, who cares? As a professor of mine at Michigan once said, “Voodoo may not be scientific, but it can still kill.” Well, my let-down may or may not have been inhibited for the reasons I think it was, but it was inhibited and now appears to be no longer. With a little bit of luck, I can let this particular mind-body problem drop and move on to obsess about something else.

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