Ecological Breastfeeding: Its value for childhood leukemia

I discovered ecological breastfeeding from reading Sheila Kippley’s book, Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing, while still pregnant with my first child.  At the time I had no idea how much the information and lifestyle and practices would come to mean to me.   With my first son, I put the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding into practice.  We enjoyed a happy, healthy breastfeeding relationship and realized all the many benefits, included extended natural breastfeeding infertility.  My first son nursed for nearly 3 years – until he weaned on his own during my second pregnancy.
As the years passed, my second son came along, nursed for 3 years, until HIS baby brother, Jonathan, was born.  We enjoyed the closeness, the warmth, the attachment – not to mention the health benefits.  All went well and by the time our third baby was born, we were pretty much in a rhythm.
My third son, Jonathan, nursed easily right away, just as his brothers had.  But something we never expected happened to him when we was just 2-and-a-half years old.  He was diagnosed, at that young age, with leukemia. 
The leukemia diagnosis was a huge (and awful) surprise to our family.  Up until that time, Jonathan (a champion nurser like his brothers before him) had been perfectly happy and healthy.  He had never had so much as an ear infection, never been hospitalized (not even for his birth – his was a normal and healthy homebirth!), never taken an antibiotic, not even once.  It seemed to creep up quietly – over the course of a few weeks, he seemed tired, just a little under-the-weather.  He didn’t want to run around so much, wouldn’t climb up his play structure, wanted to be carried up and down the stairs.  But there was no dramatic change in his health.  We were sure it was only a virus – a “bug” going around.  Finally though, after a week or so, I decided to call the pediatrician “just in case.”  As soon as we arrived, the doctor performed some blood work and told us that Jonathan was very seriously ill, and we would need to be transported immediately from her office by ambulance to the main teaching hospital in our region.  I asked if Jonathan was going to be okay, and she replied, “I don’t know.” 
Terrified, we climbed into the ambulance.  And while the EMTs were starting Jonathan’s IV, he asked to nurse.  I looked at the EMT to see if it was okay, and he said, “My wife is still nursing our 9-month-old, and no telling when she’ll quit!  Please – do nurse him.  It will be the best thing for both of you.”  We nursed in the ambulance, then in the Emergency Room, then through the ordeal of being told by the doctor that our baby had leukemia.
We nursed day and night, in the hospital (where I was blessed to be able to stay 24-hours a day due to the support of family and friends who stepped in to care for my older children full-time) where his condition was stabilized and his chemotherapy started.  Except for when he needed to fast in preparation for a surgical procedure, Jonathan nursed frequently, almost like a newborn again.  My milk supply, which had been waning, began to rebound.  As the medications and the process of his body eliminating the dead leukemia cells made him feel sicker and sicker, nursing became his main comfort – and mine too. 
In the first days of having a child diagnosed with cancer, the worst feeling I think for a mother is one of helplessness.  You feel that this thing has attacked your child, and that there is NOT ONE THING you can do about it.  But the good thing about breastfeeding is that you ARE doing something.  Even if your child is very, very sick, you are providing him with the stability and comfort that he has known all his life, even in the midst of great upheaval and pain and fear.  You are giving him some (even if only a very little bit of) nutrition and fluid, and plenty of closeness and comfort – not to mention all the good hormones you stimulate to make him (and you!) feel calm in the midst of the storm.  In one of the worst and scariest moments of mothering, nursing my critically-ill toddler turned out to be the one thing I COULD do for him.  And I thanked God for this blessing.

After his initial intensive treatment, Jonathan’s continued treatment suppressed his immune system and made him vulnerable to infection.  After he came home, we continued to nurse, still day and night.  And his oncologist commended me, telling me that the antibodies my milk was able to pass to him were probably really helping him avoid fevers and infections common to leukemia patients. 
Now his treatment has continued for six months, and he is through the worst.  We are in a long-term maintenance phase, in which he still receives chemotherapy. His prognosis is, so far as we can tell, excellent.   And in July, he turned 3, and he is still nursing.  We will let Jonathan lead the way in weaning, as we have done for his brothers before.  But this time, we see him nurse and we see how even in a critical time, the nursing relationship has infinite value. 
I hope that no other breastfeeding mothers ever have to see their children suffer with a cancer diagnosis or any other serious illness.  But I do have to say that as much as I have always appreciated the general benefits of breastfeeding, I have never appreciated them more than I have in the past six months.  I’m so glad that I had the information and support to continue breastfeeding past the first year of Jonathan’s life –  I never knew what nursing would mean to both of us in the future.
I hope that the World Breastfeeding Week celebration will encourage and embolden many mothers to nurse their babies, and to stick with it for a long time!!

Pam Pilch, founder of Catholic Nursing Mothers League

Regular weekly blogs begin August 10.

Sheila Kippley
Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood
Natural Family Planning


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