by Mary Jessica Hammes
March 30, 2009
When Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar welcomed their 18th child last December, I idly wondered whether Michelle might be breastfeeding. Then I wondered: has she breastfed her other children? What about all of them? And then I realized: wow, that’d be nearly two decades of breastfeeding!
Chances are that you know about the Duggars already, at least if you’ve seen their show on The Learning Channel, “18 Kids and Counting.” The show follows the adventures of Michelle, Jim Bob and their children—Joshua, 20 (who is also a newlywed), twins Jana and John-David, 19, Jill, 17, Jessa, 16, Jinger, 15, Joseph, 14, Josiah, 12, Joy-Anna, 11, twins Jeremiah and Jedidiah, 10, Jason, 8, James, 7, Justin, 6, Jackson, 4, Johannah Faith, 3, Jennifer, 1, and Jordyn-Grace Makiya, born Dec. 18.
Michelle, 42, and Jim Bob, 43, are remarkably laid-back as they lead their well-mannered brood through daily life (and prayer—the family are devout evangelical Christians). On the show, Michelle’s voice is nearly hypnotically soft and sweet, and it’s that way on the phone, too. I was so pleased when I learned that Michelle would be happy to talk about her breastfeeding experiences. As I chatted to my friends before the interview, we theorized that at this point, after all of those years of practice, surely breastfeeding for Michelle was smooth sailing. It turned out that while she has indeed breastfed all of her children, we were quite wrong—but that Michelle has an ample supply of determination when it comes to breastfeeding. Not only that, she was very candid in discussing the many difficulties she faced.
(A word of caution for moms-to-be, please note: it’s quite rare for someone to have so many breastfeeding issues at once; more on that a bit later.)
“I’ve always had struggles along the way and have managed to work through my struggles and continue to breastfeed,” Michelle said in a recent phone interview from her home in Tontitown, Arkansas.
She knew she wanted to breastfeed her first son, Josh, because she had learned about both the health benefits of breastfeeding as well as the bonding it allows. But she wasn’t prepared for the pain she felt when she tried. Fortunately, she found relief with the support of her local chapter of La Leche League.
“I think initially I connected with the La Leche League because they have great resources for nursing moms,” she said. “They helped me tremendously with my first baby, Josh.
“I had excruciating pain and I was dealing with probably just learning how the baby had to latch on,” she continued. “Later I found out that I had either flat nipples, or one might be inverted. I probably had greater challenges (than most mothers).”
She’s worn breast shields, she has spent weeks “toughening” her nipples, and she’s battled what she calls “very dry skin.” While lanolin reportedly saves her nipples from discomfort, it also gives her another hurdle: a moist environment ripe for growing Candida (yeast).
(Another note for readers: strategies for toughening nipples like pulling, stretching or tugging often do more harm than good—be sure to speak with an internationally board certified lactation consultant before undertaking any of these methods.)
“When you’re nursing, you definitely do not want that,” she said.
At the first sign of yeast, she reaches for a natural remedy, gentian violet (although she also uses Nystatin ointment). Gentian violet is famously vivid and stains “The baby’s mouth and the mother’s breasts purple—you have to be careful!” she laughed.
(Readers: if you ever use Gentian violet, be sure to use it sparingly, applying a 1 percent aqueous solution once a day, no more than three days, and discuss it with your child’s doctor—too much can irritate your baby’s mouth. For more information see Breastfeeding, A Parent’s Guide.)
Duggar has also struggled with the amount of time she’s been able to breastfeed each child. Her first set of twins were born via emergency C-section (Duggar has had three Cesarean births; the rest were all-natural vaginal births, 13 of them VBACs,) and she was able to breastfeed them for two weeks. “But I ended up getting mastitis (a breast infection),” she recalled. “The overall responsibility of having twins and having a toddler—I was so sick and I just didn’t continue breastfeeding after I got mastitis.”
Those early days, before she gathered the tools and knowledge to manage her breastfeeding issues, were especially tough. Michelle says that Jim Bob was always supportive of her decision to breastfeed, but it was hard for him to see her in such pain, even when she was so determined to make it work.
“Initially when I really had challenges with breastfeeding, I remember crying, tears streaming down my face and trying to breastfeed the baby and Jim Bob was saying, ‘Honey, it’s OK, you don’t have to do this,’” she said with a little laugh. “I’d say, ‘You don’t understand, I have to!’”
Despite her many obstacles, she wanted to keep breastfeeding, and so she did. Her children have all nursed for varying amounts of time, but her supply drastically decreases whenever she becomes pregnant, which has obviously been quite often.
“The longest I’ve been able to breastfeed is nine months, and I’m thrilled about that,” she said. “I’m designed in such a way that I start my cycle six weeks after the baby is born—and that’s with no paci, no water, just breastfeeding—to the T!” she said, referring to the fact that exclusive breastfeeding—and in particular, a practice called lactational amenorrhea method (LAM)—can be a form of natural birth control if certain conditions are in place.
It’s like clockwork, she says: though she’s likely not ovulating with the first menstrual cycle that returns, her cycles are regular from that moment on. “At eight months (after the previous baby was born), I usually conceive, and when I do get pregnant, then my milk seems to dry up. So by nine months, my baby is fussing when I’m nursing…that’s when I have to supplement.”
Michelle says that, given her own struggles and triumphs, she feels for other women with breastfeeding problems.
“I deal with a lot of pain and issues,” she says. “It’s not this wonderful, pleasant, relaxing experience that makes me want to fall asleep. It’s more of an endurance thing…There’s a lot of pain for some women and honestly, getting past that is hard, especially when they’re little and breastfeeding every 2–3 hours. It is a real challenge for some women.”
If you are planning to breastfeed for the first time and are reading this article, you might be wincing at this point. You might even be thinking, “Breastfeeding is for the birds! Birds who like pain!” Don’t fret. Some things to keep in mind:
Even if you do encounter difficulties, you can take heart in the fact that despite every trial, Duggar wholeheartedly endorses breastfeeding—after all, she wouldn’t keep at it for so long if she didn’t think it was worth it. For her, she says, the bonding she experiences through breastfeeding far outweighs the physical issues she often faces.
“I honestly can say I don’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling about nursing itself, the physical aspect of it,” she admitted. “I know some women really enjoy curling up and nursing. But I love the bonding process I have with my baby. It is so precious.”
Michelle shared a few tools and tips that she’s found helpful:
Does she have any other advice for expectant or new mothers when it comes to breastfeeding?
“You can do it,” she said. “There may be hurdles and obstacles you’ll face. Don’t give up! Keep trying.”
Mary Jessica Hammes is an Athens, Georgia-based writer, trapeze instructor, knitter, gardener, comic book enthusiast, and hula hooper. She is mom to Tommy.
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