Nourishing and nurturing: Nursing without feeding

A guest post from my wife about  nursing our daughter even though she doesn’t make milk.

Sometimes my wife complains about being the one with the milk. “All she sees me as is a pair of boobs!” she says, looking at her tired-looking nipples.

I see what she means. Our baby’s face lights up as she throws herself at Lizzie, cackling with what looks like lovingful joy, only to head straight for the good stuff. I can understand the disappointment at not truly being loved for herself alone; it’s cupboard love. But that doesn’t make it any less real, even if the emotion at the core of Dora’s happy burbling is simple appetite. And I find myself feeling jealous, because my wife has milk, and I don’t, and Dora never throws herself upon me with such simple devotion, ever.

The broken back

When our baby was three weeks old, my wife suffered a slipped disc, leaving her flat on her back and in pain for months. It was a shitty time; painkillers, trips to A&E where even on morphine she was crying in agony, and a decline so horrible that looking back on it we can’t believe how brave and cheery we were. Lizzie decorated her Zimmer frame with twinkles and we limped around town at Christmas with her name spelled out in lights. Finally, she was taken seriously enough to be booked in for spinal surgery.

This meant our barely six-month-old daughter and I were left alone for two nights while Lizzie recovered in hospital. (When they opened her up, they found not only a slipped disc but fragments of it floating around in there.)

Alone with frozen breast milk and a baby used to feeding to sleep every night, I properly dreaded how I was going to manage.

A silent pact

The first night, after a long day at the hospital, we hopped into bed and I did the most sensible thing I could think of: I put my own breast in her mouth.

“I don’t make any milk you know,” I whispered, and she seemed to shrug. It was giving her just what she needed: comfort and love and warmth and the smell of a parent.

Now, normally, when my nipple is in someone’s mouth, it’s sexual, and I can’t lie, Dora suckling at my breast was a weird experience to begin with. But the feeling of weirdness was remarkably short-lived, and after about five minutes she fell fast asleep. Whenever she woke up that night, I nursed her, and it was OK.

We both knew while Lizzie was away we were somewhat in the shit; we both missed her, and in this desperate situation we made a silent pact to be each other’s comfort. In the morning we visited Lizzie in hospital, and Dora had a proper long feed. The next night we repeated the ritual.

Nutrition versus nurture

It was a turning point in our relationship. Now Lizzie’s back at work, I regularly nurse Dora at nap times, and she falls asleep comforted. I don’t know if I’ve ever made milk for her, but that’s not really the point.

It makes me think the debate about formula versus breast milk might be missing an important component of how feeding your baby isn’t just about nutrition; it’s about the emotional and social complexities that happen when you breastfeed your child, regardless of your gender or biological link to them. And perhaps the world would be a happier place if we all took a chance and experimented in the dark when we’re terrified, with this intimate, scary, wonderful gift we have as animals to nourish not just the body but the soul.

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