Guest post by Shayla Cherry
One week in and my son’s cough was only getting worse. We were up all night as he began coughing every hour, on the hour. He developed a sharp, desperate inhale; a characteristic whoop every mother hopes to never hear. I began researching pertussis with a sinking heart. Little did I know, we were in for a long and exhausting winter.
The next month was spent indoors as whooping cough tore through our home. Our days were filled with movies, cuddled together in our cozy haze. Sometimes when the coughing woke him at night, he was so exhausted that he’d fall back to sleep without nursing.
But when a coughing fit left him breathless and scared, he found comfort and sleep at the breast.
My son went for two weeks without eating, yet he nursed and nursed and nursed. I was so grateful and relieved that I could nourish him in this way. I had no fear of dehydration. No anxiety when he refused to eat. Remarkably, he kept growing, even through his weeks of sickness. As always, breastmilk was our safeguard.
I remember after Rye took his first steps at nine months, people started asking me when I would wean. If I made any mention of my exhaustion or anxiety, they’d remind me that I’m doing it to myself.
“Haven’t you weaned him yet?”, they’d ask.
While these comments come from kind, loving, well-intentioned people, they carry the cultural assumption that I am more important than my son; that his needs are somehow less valid than mine.
It’s true: breastfeeding is hard.
Through countless bouts of mastitis, sleepless nights, nutrient depletion so deep that my teeth ached with each inhale… breastfeeding is hard. Parenting is hard. But they’re both so worth it and, for me, indelibly intertwined.
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Nursing my son gives me peace of mind. When he has a fever, when he refuses solids or when he eats nothing but bananas and rice…I still know that he’s getting everything he needs.
Rye was 18 months old when he contracted pertussis. I can’t begin to imagine how terrifying that would have been if, like nine out of ten babies, he was weaned already. He would have lost every ounce of baby fat. We may have needed to go to urgent care for an IV, and who knows where that would have led — secondary infection, pneumonia, antibiotics…
As it was, our bout with whooping cough was brutal, but never dangerous. To tame the cough, I gave him medicinal doses of sodium ascorbate, a form of vitamin C. It made a huge difference, although he rarely drank it voluntarily. After dosing him, I was always relieved to be able to offer the sweetness of breastmilk to replace the taste of the bitter medicine.
As everything else fell away, we simplified and found a new rhythm.
On our bed propped on an incline, we slept in fifty-minute bursts. We welcomed play at 2am in the dim hallway light when a coughing fit left him wide awake. I cuddled my son for weeks on end, reading on my phone while watching Curious George for the umpteenth time.
As parents, there is a reserve we draw on when our children are ill; it takes us far beyond what we ever thought we could endure. We get up twelve times a night to respond with love and compassion because our children need us to.
Covered in various bodily fluids, nursing a thirty-pound toddler through the hiccuping gasps that follow true distress; these are the parenting moments we’re never quite prepared for.
There is no choice, only need.
Rye grew at least an inch over those miserable weeks. My breastmilk protected him against secondary infections and kept him nourished and hydrated. Equally important was the comfort it gave him. After a particularly bad coughing fit, he could return to his safe space.
His vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds as we watched one nature documentary after another. And though he stretched out some, as toddlers do, he still kept a healthy layer of baby fat — those cheeks I love so much.
Though I was more tired than I’ve ever been and my own health hasn’t quite recovered, I am immeasurably grateful for the gift of breastmilk. I was able to nourish and protect my son, even in the depths of my exhaustion. So, if you’re nursing a toddler and want to continue, I hope sharing my story helps you to trust your instincts. Do what is right for you and your child, as mothers have done for aeons.