Sunday, April 03, 2011

Breastfeeding, Part I

I spent lots of time (while walking the baby around trying to get her to sleep!) thinking about what I want to say about breastfeeding: the tone I want to take and how I want to say it.  This is not a simple topic to address and I'm not sure which angle to approach it from.  I realize I'm potentially walking into a field of contentious landmines.  I know from hanging out on baby-related internet forums and even from talking to friends and acquaintances in real life that breastfeeding can be a touchy subject.  It seems everyone is defensive about their choices and situation.

Those who choose to formula feed from day one feel judged by the "holier-than-thou" breastfeeders who proclaim that "breast is best" and one is not doing the best for her baby by not breastfeeding.  Exclusive breastfeeders also feel judged and pressured, being told the baby is getting too big to breastfeed, or that they probably don't or won't make enough milk so they might as well supplement with formula.   In the middle is a whole spectrum of people who do some combination of breastfeeding, pumping and/or formula for hundreds of different reasons. 

So I'm going to risk wading into the muck and write honestly, but from my own bias, which I feel I must disclose to you so we're all on the same page.  I'm sure you probably noticed that I fall squarely and unequivocally in the so-called "attachment parenting" camp.  I didn't really set out to be this way.  I definitely didn't read how to do it in some book.  I have simply followed my instincts about what is best for my baby, and I can't help but notice whenever I read something about attachment parenting that it more or less describes my parenting philosophy and the choices I've made.  I co-sleep, babywear, and breastfeed on demand because those are things my baby is telling me she needs. 

But like I said, I didn't set out to be an "attachment parent".  Before Avery's birth, I had some ideas about what life with a baby would be like, most of which were more or less wrong, and many of which were more mainstream parenting ideas.  They weren't wrong because they were bad ideas, but because they didn't really take into consideration that the BABY gets a say in it too.  What I somehow failed to fully realize is that the baby will come out with her own unique personality, desires, likes and dislikes that will be evident from day one.  You are able to mold the baby to behave how you want to some extent, and some babies are "easier" than others in the sense that they just go with the flow without putting up too much fuss.  You can stash them in a swing or bouncy seat for a while, or put them on a schedule, and they're cool with that.  Other babies, as I discovered, are more sensitive and have more personal requirements for things to be just so.  My ideas about where the baby would sleep or nap or how much she would nurse didn't matter to her.

What you do to or with the baby in the first weeks (I believe) has little effect on their inborn temperament.  But being able to recognize and lovingly accept your baby's needs - however different they may be from your own expectations or desires - CAN affect the type of experience you have.  My own particular baby was (is) extremely sensitive and needed to be protected from too much stimulation.  She needed to be held and nursed constantly in the first few months.  I was admittedly unprepared for this intense level of need.  Whatever I thought parenting a baby would be like, however I prepared during my pregnancy, nothing prepared me for the reality of having a baby.

I'm sure you've all heard that human babies are all essentially born "premature" because if they grew any more in utero their heads wouldn't fit through a woman's pelvis.  When we got big brains and started walking upright, this compromise had to be made.  Compared to other mammals we humans are born the least neurologically and physically developed and the most dependent on an adult.  If human babies were born at the same level of maturity as our nearest primate relatives, they would be born at 18 months!   So you are essentially parenting a fetus for the first year plus of your baby's life.

I want to talk some more about this science-y anthro- bio-logical stuff because it interests me and I think it's important to the breastfeeding discussion.  As hard as it is to remember as we sit in our air conditioned homes typing away on our computers, taking showers and buying our food at the grocery store, we are animals.  Mammals, to be more precise.

One of the defining characteristics of mammals is that we have mammary glands and lactate to feed our young.  At one end of the spectrum are "cache" mammals and at the other are "carry" mammals.  Cache mammals leave their young in protected nests for long periods of time while they go out in search of food.  Their milk is very fatty and satiating to keep the babies full and happy for the many hours while mom is gone.  Some examples are deer and rabbits.  Carry mammals have very watery milk that is higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat and protein.  This milk is digested quickly and the infants need to nurse frequently or in some cases continuously!   Marsupials crawl inside mom's pouch and stay latched on until they are more mature.  Because of this, carry mammals carry their young around, they don't leave them in nests.

You are a "carry" mammal, like other primates.  Your milk has the lowest fat and protein content of all mammalian milk, and your baby is born very immature.  Knowing this will help you understand why your baby needs to be with you from birth, needs to be held all the time and why she wants to nurse constantly around the clock in the early weeks.   Perhaps you will still struggle, as I did, with your baby's intense needs at first.  Yet again, I come back to our modern life paradigms being unsuited to our species.  Here we are giving birth in institutions, being separated from our babies, and then heading back to our homes alone to cope with the demands of a newborn baby.  All this after growing up with plenty of personal space and a lifestyle that enabled you to do whatever you want whenever you want.  No wonder many first time mothers find themselves reeling.

Now I am no luddite or dirty-hippy, thinking we should all just retreat to tents in the woods.  I enjoy all the conveniences and sanitation of modern life and don't think they should be disposed of.  HOWEVER.  I do believe that modern life has had many negative impacts on our health and well-being as human animals.  We no longer eat, live, interact, or raise our young in ways that are biologically best suited to us as a species and I believe it's had a hugely detrimental effect on our physical, mental and spiritual health.

Because we no longer live in small clan or family groups, we have lost the support system for childrearing.  We don't have our extended network of mothers, aunts, sisters and friends to help new mothers out, or pass along knowledge.   A lactation consultant told me a story about a gorilla in the zoo who didn't know to put her baby to her breast.  The zookeepers were worried, but one of them thought to call La Leche League.  LLL sent some mamas to sit around the primate enclosure nursing their babies.  After seeing them, the gorilla started nursing her baby too!  Breastfeeding is natural, but it's not innate.  It's something we learn how to do.  Most of us in our modern existence have never even seen someone nursing a baby before.  Luckily there are many things you can do to have a successful and enjoyable breastfeeding experience, which I will talk about in a bit. 

In the next post I'll talk about my own breastfeeding experience, but for now I'll get off my soap box because a certain baby is awake and demanding my attention!


Nina said...

Falling squarely in the "everyone thinks the baby is too big to nurse" category, I am very interested in your following thoughts too! Did I ever think that I would be nursing a 25 month old? Nope...but it seems right.

Lindsey Broere said...

:) I liked this post...well written....very well written.

nicknmegan said...

This is great, Michelle. Can't wait for the next one!

Erin said...

Thank you! I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your "series" on this topic :)