There is no hunger quite like that of a breastfeeding mother.
It’s not a swollen-belly Africa hunger. Nor is it the floor-drops-out-from-under-you hunger that happens the morning after Thanksgiving when your recently distended belly goes in shock at having less than 5 pounds of food stuffed inside it. It’s hardly even in the same category as the afternoon work munchies that prompt you to buy a bag of Cheez-Its from the vending machine.
Breastfeeding hunger is always there, humming as steadily as your refrigerator. Like a hangnail, it is either throbbing and at the forefront of your attention or just a mild annoyance that you can push to the back of your mind until the next bite to eat. Just when you think you’re satiated, a creeping sensation from the middle of your belly tells you it needs just another 100 calories to stay ahead of the always oncoming curve.
This wee baby, an 8-pound boy born two and a half weeks ago, is eating every few hours, sucking a sweet, rich liquid that just three weeks ago, my body wasn’t producing.
They say a breastfeeding woman is supposed to eat as many extra calories a day as a pregnant woman (about 500 calories, if I remember correctly), but during my pregnancies, I rarely felt my body asking, no begging, for those extra calories.
Now that Avery is here and eating three times as often as the rest of the humans in the house, my body is screaming for food and I’ve had to grant myself the permission to eat as frequently as I feel I need to just to keep up with the baby. You learn (or in my case, re-learn) pretty quickly that a sleeve of peanut butter crackers will take the edge off for an hour at most and that the “small” (or “regular,” depending on your perspective) portions you’ve trained yourself to eat just won’t keep the boat afloat.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how refreshing it was to watch Julia Roberts’ character in “Eat Pray Love” eat with abandon, but I’d forgotten how strange it is to actually throw all the self- and society-imposed restrictions out the window when breastfeeding duty calls. Having a baby recalibrates your body’s hunger meter, and it takes a few weeks to relearn how to read it.
In fact, I didn’t know how to read my hunger meter until I had a baby.
Pre-Julian, I thought I had a handle on portion control and weight management, even though I was still carrying around a few of the 40 pounds I put on in college. (It’s worth noting that 40 pounds is also about what I gained during both my pregnancies.) It took breastfeeding Julian to develop a new awareness of the amount of food my body needed to feed both my nutritional needs and those of my kid. Through that experience, I learned once and for all how to listen to what my stomach was telling me it needed versus what it wanted, and that’s when I finally lost the last of the beer-and-pizza poundage.
Breastmilk has 20 calories per ounce, and babies drink about 25 ounces per day. If it takes my body 20 calories just to produce one ounce of milk, think about the number of calories a breastfeeding mother will expend over the course of a year of nursing.
Woman, even eager eaters like myself, aren’t used to being allowed or encouraged to eat more. People often make that assumption during pregnancy (if I had a dollar for every, “Well, you’re eating for two” joke…), but as the baby grows, you can’t fit that much food in your compressed stomach. When the baby finally comes, you’re so busy trying to keep him and everyone else in the family situated that it’s hard to find time to feed yourself a normal amount of food, much less the extra calories needed to feed the baby, too.
We’ve been lucky enough to have a slew of friends bringing food over almost every day. If we were having to prepare (not to mention buying ingredients for and cleaning up after cooking) all those meals, I almost certainly wouldn’t be getting enough calories to keep up with my body’s needs. It is an incredible luxury to be a new mother and have so many people bring such delicious home-cooked food. I’m well aware that, despite our feminist dreams of equality, most moms are expected to resume the responsibilities of feeding her family not long after giving birth to its newest member.
I also know how lucky I am to be breastfeeding at all. Not all babies or mothers take to it as well as Avery, Julian and I have. They’ll get a food that’s as close to perfect as nature gets. I get a reminder in how to read my body’s own hunger gauge and the green light to fill it when the tank gets low.