We’ve all heard about the benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby, advice on how to breastfeed and opinions about where to breastfeed and for how long. This list isn’t about any of those things. Although I have my own opinions on these matters, I respect a parent’s autonomy to make informed decisions on behalf of their child. I know plenty of moms who love their babies but due to physical limitations, psychological limitations or misinformation are unable to, or choose not to breastfeed their baby. This list isn’t about that either. What follows are aspects of breastfeeding that I don’t hear people discuss often, or at all.
1. Breastfeeding is a unique activity between you and your baby. One baby’s latch might look different from another baby’s latch, but if it feels right to mom and baby and baby gains weight, it’s a good latch. Those are pretty much the only criteria for a good latch: mom feels ok, baby gains weight. Breastfeeding might feel different to different people. To me, a strong letdown feels like I’m being squeezed from the inside, an almost pleasure-pain sensation. I’ve heard lactation consultants say that a common letdown sensation resembles a more pin-prickly sensation. I’m sure that other mothers have other sensations. The point is that it really doesn’t matter what it looks like or how it feels as long as you and your baby are happy with it and baby gains weight.
2.Human breasts make actual milk. As a biologist, this should not come as a surprise to me, but on some level it did. Humans, after all, are mammals, and as mammals naturally feed their babies via mammary glands, also known as breasts. All mammals from dolphins to bats to kitty cats do it. But still. In a childlike way, I am amazed every time my baby pulls away from the breast and I see actual MILK in the corner of her mouth. It’s crazy to pump and watch the pumped milk separate the way cow’s milk does into a creamy top layer and a watery bottom layer. People have demonstrated the realness of human breast milk by making ice cream and cheese from it. Real milk. From boobs. What a remarkable resource for babies.
3. Breastfeeding is free. F-R-E-E. Formula is expensive. Although I was able to produce enough milk to exclusively breastfeed Flowergirl for five months, we had to buy formula to supplement my pumped milk when she needed to be bottle-fed. I just don’t pump sufficient quantities to exclusively feed my baby pumped milk. I must say, that formula that we had to buy? Expensive. Those with economic challenges would benefit the most from this aspect of breastfeeding. Did I mention that it’s FREE?
4. Breastfeeding, once mom and baby learn what to do and mom’s supply is well established, requires little effort. Breastfeeding a newborn requires some work until mom and baby figure things out. Certainly, breastfeeding is helped by ongoing support of other breastfeeding moms, breastfeeding experts such as lactation consultants and an accepting local culture. However, once mom and baby have become an experienced breastfeeding team, daily breastfeeding activities feel natural and simple. In fact, it sometimes feels like breastfeeding is the lazy person’s solution to feeding a baby. It feels like cheating. No bottles, no preparation. Have boobs will travel (with baby!). Mama’s milk is the perfect composition and temperature right out of the package. Breastfeeding is great for people like me who don’t always have the best brain for organization on a personal level. As long as the baby is with me, feeding the baby takes care of itself.
5. Breastfeeding is good for the environment. Breastfeeding has close to a zero carbon footprint, with the possible exception that breastfeeding moms need to eat more. In contrast, formula needs to be produced, put into packaging, shipped to a store and transported home, each step of which has a negative environmental impact. Breastfeeding is green!
6. Some day you will find yourself with a boob hanging out, and you won’t realize it. If I’m alone with my baby for an extended period of time, I try to do a “boob check” before answering the door or leaving the house to make sure the girls are sequestered.
7. Other people have oddly strong opinions about your choice to breastfeed (or not). The idea of politics surrounding a normal biological activity is insane to me, but here we are. Breastfeeding is something that a woman’s body was meant to do. Breastfeeding is the reason that women have breasts, and is likely the evolutionary basis of the sexual attractiveness of breasts. This is ironic, since it is the sexual attractiveness of breasts that are much of the basis for society’s issues with breastfeeding. Nevertheless, my open discussion of breastfeeding does not make me a “lactivist”; it makes me a mom who has decided to feed my baby the biologically normal way because my body can. Breastfeeding moms didn’t invent breastfeeding, nature did. I breastfeed for me and my baby, not to make a point to anyone else. Accordingly, my intent is not to make others feel bad that they’re not breastfeeding. However, like so many parental decisions, the decision of whether or not to breastfeed is criticized by society. This decision is no one’s business besides the parents’. I think we all need a little more desensitization when it comes to breastfeeding. How a baby is fed is only one aspect of parenting a baby. There is an alternative to breastfeeding for those who are unable to breastfeed or choose not to breastfeed for their own personal reasons. Education and support are critical for women to make an informed decision for their own situation, and then that parental decision needs to be accepted. I am a strong believer in the benefits of breastfeeding. What effect should that have on your decision to breastfeed? Perhaps none, except that you should know that I’ll support you on your breastfeeding journey if you choose that road.
8. Breastfeeding feels like a little ecosystem of mama and baby, a closed niche of two. It’s unlike any other kind of intimacy imaginable. The baby grew too big to stay inside mom any longer and so the baby was born, but the baby continues to feed from the mom just like the baby did in utero. My body still knows everything that my baby needs. My baby knows how to feed from me. Beautiful.
9. If you breastfeed long enough, you may get a blocked duct or mastitis. I don’t have the statistics on this, but it happened to me once with each nursling and I hear of it happening to friends often enough that it seems that it shouldn’t be a huge shock if it happens. Blocked ducts suck, but if you recognize them early enough, you have a good chance of stopping it before it progresses to mastitis. Painful lumps and red sections of the breast are signs of a blocked duct and signs to diligently nurse and pump, pump and nurse. Apply warm compresses to the area, shower and nurse some more. If you get a fever, call the OB immediately for antibiotics. My OB prescribed antibiotics for my mastitis over the phone. The whole process is not at all fun but it’s “just” an infection and the sooner you get medication for it the better.
10. Mamas need to be weaned too. My son self-weaned rather quickly (in my mind) at 15 months old. In retrospect, my supply had been tailing off for months, as had my baby boy’s patience. Suddenly, he was finished with breastfeeding. It only took a week of so for him to decide he was really done. I was devastated. I loved nursing my son and didn’t truly realize how much I would miss it until it was over. I wondered if he would still need me. I struggled to acclimate to our new relationship without our special bonding time. My current nursling, my daughter, is 14 months old now. I’m not ready to stop our special breastfeeding time together, and I only hope that she weans me more slowly than her brother did.
11. Sometimes, breastfeeding is the only excuse you will have to sit down. Enough said.