Nursing back to health – in praise of breastfeeding a sick toddler

First published in Aroha Magazine, September 2015.

Like many parents, I spent a full week of the winter school holidays taking care of a sick toddler. There’s nothing quite like it, is there?

It started with a cry in the night, just as I was getting ready for bed. I the door to my 22 month old daughter Esther’s room to find a sad little face peering at me from between the bars of her cot, pointing to her mattress.

“Spew,” she announced plaintively.

Spew indeed. And more spew, five minutes later while I was changing her pajamas, and more again 30 minutes later, and every hour after that until she finally crashed out, exhausted, at 4.30am. When it became apparent she was not going to keep even breastmilk down, I gave up trying to feed her and rocked her back to sleep on my lap until I could lower her gently back into her bed and slink into mine for an hour or so before getting up to do it all again.

They’re called the wee small hours, and now that I have a child, I understand why. If your child needs you, those hours between midnight and dawn shrink, and fly past with disorientating speed. I don’t mean to suggest they pass easily – they can feel like a hell from which you might never escape – but you become so task orientated (wipe up that vomit, change that nappy, put that load of washing in the dryer, change those sheets, feed the toddler back to sleep) that you can look up and be startled to discover five hours have passed. You know the sleep deprivation will catch up with you later, but right now, you’re too busy keeping your child alive to worry.

That might sound a little melodramatic, but I realised during the week that Esther struggled to keep anything but breastmilk down, that that is exactly what I have been doing – keeping her alive – using the best parenting tool I have: my body.

Before having a child, I never realised what a physical experience motherhood would be. It’s obvious when you’re pregnant of course – a small parasite has literally taken over your body – but I didn’t know it would be the same nearly two years on. If I thought about it at all when I was pregnant, I think I assumed that within a few weeks or months of the birth, my body would feel like my own again. But of course that’s not what it’s like when you’re breastfeeding.

I’m sure all breastfeeding mothers have times when they struggle with this apparent loss of bodily integrity, and for many it plays into the decision to finish breastfeeding, whenever that comes. I’ve certainly had my moments. Sleeping in a crack between my bed and my Esther’s cot for months with her permanently plugged in nearly drove me to distraction, and there have been times when my breasts have been shredded by sharp kneading fingernails that I’ve thought “no more!” But I’ve never been more grateful that I’m still feeding her at 22 months than when she gets sick.

Once she could keep fluids down again, breastfeeding became my best ally. She still didn’t eat any solid food for several days, but I never worried about dehydration or nutrition because I knew she was getting what she needed. She needed heaps of sleep to recover, but was clingy and unsettled in her cot, and I knew if I pulled her into my lap for a feed at the right time she’d be guaranteed an hour’s nap, and I could listen to a podcast and drink a cup of tea. As she slowly returned to her usual livewire self, she nevertheless needed extra connection and reassurance, and because I was around (having taken the week off work to look after her) she could get this from frequent feeds. And even when she couldn’t feed, I knew that the physical closeness of just holding her would comfort and help her to fall asleep.

Yes, I ended the week exhausted, and I was relieved when our nights went back to normal, and my days involved some physical autonomy again. But I said a silent thanks to my past self at all the points when I could have given up breastfeeding but didn’t: at three days when my milk came in and turned my breasts into hard, sore rocks that it felt like this tiny baby could never empty; at four months when I was struggling with an oversupply and stuck in a vicious cycle of pumping and feeding; at nine months when I nearly lost my mind from the sleep deprivation of existing all night in a half-sleep of constant feeding. The intense physical experience of breastfeeding can be challenging and overwhelming, but pays for itself at times like this week!