How Tandem Nursing Birthed Me as a Mother of Two

by Hilary Dervin Flower

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Double-Stacked Side-Lying Nursing Position

Here’s the picture. My distraught two-and-a-half year old daughter is insisting on nursing, lying down “like a baby,” on a favorite spot on the bedroom floor. I know that if I can just nurse her down to sleep this temper tantrum will be over. I realize that my best bet is to lie down and nurse her on the lower breast. This way I can stack my three-week old son on top of her and he can nurse my upper breast.

So there I was and I was thinking, Okay. did I REALLY sign up for this in the tandem nursing package?

In my fatigue I gently lowered my newborn’s drowsy head to rest on his sister’s arm. For a moment the house of cards stood, complete and perfect. But only a moment. I may even have imagined it. My toddler quickly and resoundingly erupted in objections to the imposition, and we were back to square one. It was then that I was knew that SOMETHING was very very wrong.

And how on earth did nursing become a battlefield instead of a sanctuary? 

The Four Tandem Nursing Surprises

When my baby was first born and I nursed both children together I felt like Earth Mama. Peace, harmony, mama-love, and sibling bonding at the breast: it was a dream come true .But we had a few surprises the day after the baby’s birth day.

Everyone expects regression, right? But–Surprise Number One! There was no greater or more frequent challenge during the first few weeks than my daughter’s steadfast insistence on nursing cradled “like a baby.” No, there’s really nothing quite like having to sit, several times a day, with legs spread tailor-style, imagining the stitches in between popping one-by-one, so as to support the large and wiggling body of a nursing toddler. Add to that her delight in coming off (making me leak) so as to “root” so I could “help” her back on. And did I mention she “couldn’t hold her head up?” Now add a tender, but thank god hardy, newborn on the other breast, and try to keep the toddler’s feet and arms from doing permanent damage, and you’re really looking at a job for the many-armed woman.

Why, you ask, did I feel I had to put myself through such Medieval torture and so often? I see you’ve discovered the next surprise.

Ah yes, Testing of Limits, the age old tradition of an unsettled sibling. Surprise Number Two: the battle ground for testing limits was my breast. And I must hand it to her, she chose well, because I had a lesson to learn there that I couldn’t have learned so well anywhere else.

If I said “No” to “na-na” she wailed. If I said yes, she subjected me to an endless series of misbehaviors at the breast. She would never end a nursing session voluntarily. I was forced to recognize that my hitherto eager-to-please daughter was TRYING to drive me crazy. Forcing me to draw the line where I least wanted to, at the physical symbol of our former intimacy.

The next surprise still shocks me in retrospect – can it be that I really experienced a lapse in my love for my daughter? In fact I remember that while I was pregnant I felt a little sorry for the child in my womb, and a little guilty, fearful that I could never find for a second child that intensity of true love and adoration I still felt, almost painfully, for my first. And yet – Surprise Number Three: as I wallowed in love with my newborn I found it incredibly difficult to relate – at all – to my first born.

I suddenly found her normal speaking voice loud, her presence jangling, and her body ungainly and huge. She seemed unfamiliar and almost grotesque nursing in my lap, as if I were nursing a teenager. I looked at her and tried with great concentration to recall what it was that had seemed so achingly endearing about her just days ago.

My eyes, ears, and heart were doing tricks on me, I knew, like “fun house” mirrors. Tuning into my son’s miniature scale blew her up to be large, loud and old. It was as if my biology was plugging me into the newborn only by ripping the connection I had with my first.

Within a couple weeks, the bizarre distortions dissolved like a bad dream. I never knew where they came from or where they went. All I knew was that all of the sudden, thank goodness, I could see my daughter’s wholeness and beauty once again. Now I had to find my way back to her.

And so I stumbled headlong into Surprise Number 4: My darling daughter was in on the conspiracy to put distance between us. I was no longer Mama. I was just “NAAAA NAAAA!” To compensate, she began to pour herself into other relationships like never before. This strategy worked fairly well until her godmother flew home and her father went back to work, something mother nature had evidently not been counting on.

So — four dirty tricks nature appeared to be playing on our continued nursing: (1) I was nursing a 28-pound “newborn” (2) with the defiance of a two-year old (3) who I wasn’t sure I wanted anywhere near my breast and (4) who would sooner bite than hug me. That’s right – all the normal new-sibling negativity focused right on my breasts. Now, where’s that tandem nursing glow?  

How I Catapulted Things from Bad to Worse

Adjusting to the arrival of a new baby is never easy. Could I really be there for her in the way she needed me to be now that the new baby was here? Neither of us appeared sure. After particularly contentious days I would lie awake at night grieving for the lost sense of intimacy, feeling helpless to renew it, and yearning to curl up against her little body, so appealingly innocent in sleep, and make up for all the love I failed to deliver to her during the day.

And somewhere in there we both began to expect me to meet her emotional needs by nursing, and on her terms. as if by meeting her Olympian challenges I could somehow prove my devotion to her once and for all and we could both sleep easy at night. A losing proposition if ever there was.

And so crazy became CRAZIER became TOTALLY OUT OF WHACK.

I knew that she needed me to set boundaries – I had this vague understanding that when children test limits they crave the reassurance which secure limits provide. —But I found myself stretching them. and stretching them. and streeeeetching them. When she tried my patience at the breast I gave her third and fourth chances before finally taking her off my lap. I was so afraid of letting her down – at the breast. I said yes whenever I could. When push came to shove I would have given anything to split right down the middle and give both children what they seemed to need.

From there it was just a few short hops over to the most ridiculous nursing position known to mama-kind. .I don’t think Double-Stacked Side-Lying was in my nursing manual. 

Course Correction

Desperate, I tried a radical experiment. “I’ll give you na-na when it will feel good to both of us.” If I didn’t like a behavior at the breast it stopped or we’d stop altogether. No fear. A clear boundary. Soon, etiquette came back. A warm feeling ebbed back in to our nursing. Debates, scuffles, and wheedling about “na-na” continued, but I found it made a big difference that these exchanges existed in the dialogue dimension – in the space between us – not at the breast.

I continued to struggle in vain for a conviction that we had what it took to make it through. And yet all the while, an invisible something was at work, bringing us to safety. Slowly, it began to dawn on me, my daughter’s purpose in all that limit-testing at the breast. If I could really say no to nursing — a lot — with no apologies or guilt, right in the middle of a family crisis, then I sure as hell MUST believe that we could both take it.

I MUST believe that the important things like boundaries were still just as important now as before.

I MUST believe that I was enough mama for her even if I wasn’t able to DO all the things I used to do for her.

I MUST believe that our relationship could TAKE our feelings, our sadness, fears, doubts, and anger which arose, most immediately, as a result of that boundary being firmly preserved, and more generally as a result of the new baby in the family.

And so, amazingly, by the end of the first month, the dust was beginning to settle. All that had been up for grabs, the very bonds that connected us, having been doubted and tested, were being reaffirmed. Nursing, with both children and separately, began to assume the character of the important, but routine. Her disappointments over “na-na” came into scale with her other skinned knees and toddler travails.  

Epilogue, and Fond Farewell to Tandem Nursing

My daughter went on to nurse for another 18 months, and I have long since forgotten what it was like to have only one child. I remember our tandem nursing crisis as my screaming labor pain of being birthed into a mother of two. Funny that the truth I had to work so hard to find was right there from the beginning, outlined in our triangle of nursing on the first day my son was born. One Mama, two breasts. I have enough to give both children just as I am. We are each of us only human. And in the honest sharing of what is truly ours to offer, we are enough.  


Hilary Dervin Flower lives in Florida with her three children. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in Geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has worked as a trainer and a manager of a rape crisis center in Santa Cruz and as a workshop facilitator in Florida. The need to savor and sort out the profound experience of mothering has put writing on her agenda, and her work has appeared in Mothering Magazine, Hip Mama, New Beginnings and Leaven. Her first book, Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond is published by La Leche League International. 

Copyright © 2003 by Hilary Flower. Published in Hip Mama, Spring 2003. No portion of this text may be copied or reproduced in any manner, electronically or otherwise, without the express written permission of the author.

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