How I Learned to Love Breastfeeding: A Lesson in Biology

I have been breastfeeding for two years without a break.  As a person who was fortunate to be breastfed (and grow up in a household where that was normal), I’ve always thought breastfeeding is an amazing gift to give your baby.  Naturally, then I have been happy to share the nourishment, wellness, and love of the breastfeeding relationship with my son.  But I had the breastfeeding epiphany the other day as I nursed my 5 week-old daughter that  I don’t think I ever truly loved breastfeeding until now.

Let me clarify, I think like most moms I’ve had my ups and downs with breastfeeding.  Sometimes I just desperately want some space–to feel like my body belongs to me and me alone.  But most of the time I love cuddling up with my kiddos and giving them food and comfort from my own physical being.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

As a brand new mother the first time around; however, I was shocked by how challenging it was to get comfortable with breastfeeding.  I dealt with breast pain, cracked, bleeding nipples and a baby who would cry and “fight” at the breast (as I later learned, that had to do with fact that my strong letdown and oversupply was probably a little like water-boarding for baby.  I might have been pissed off and had a narrow latch too.  Sorry baby.)  Somehow in my idealized vision of motherhood, I never imagined it would work this way and I’m afraid I took it a little personally.

Unfortunately, I’m also a figure-it-out-on-your-own-or-people-might-think-you’re-a-failure kind of gal; so, it took me WAY to long to get help from a lactation counselor (when my husband put the phone  and number for the hospital lactation center in my hand).  The good news is that we got through it with the support of a a lactation professional and an amazing husband.  And by the time River was about 6 weeks old, we were merrily rolling along.  (Later, breastfeeding through pregnancy and now tandem breastfeeding have brought other kinds of challenges and rewards, but that’s another post!)

Now, here we are the second time around and I’m an old pro.  This time I knew how to help my little girl so that breastfeeding would be easier for her, and by extension, me as well.  But it’s not simply because I’ve got the “mechanics” down, so to speak.  This is where my epiphany comes in.

As many of you know, this past spring I became a doula and a certified lactation counselor.  During the course my studies and training, I learned a lot about breastfeeding (duh!) and managing oversupply (by using a laid back or “down under” position).  I also learned a lot about breastfeeding in a larger biological context.

In the book, Breastfeeding Made Simple:  the 7 Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers, Nancy Morbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett write about human lactation in comparison to other mammals. First of all, they explain that humans are a “carry” species, meaning Mom is biologically designed to be a baby’s natural ecological habitat, providing for all of the needs of the infant:  food, warmth/shelter, comfort, etc.  A human infant cannot be left alone for any period of time such a “cache” animal (like a rabbit) or follow its mother around to meet it’s needs as they arise such as a “follow” animal (like a cow or deer).  From a strictly biological point of view, humans must be cared for “in arms” or carried.  There’s a reason why babies can really wail when they need to:  they are utterly helpless without a caregiver.  In an earlier time, to leave a baby alone would mean a likely death.

For me, it has been a fascinating revelation to think about breastfeeding and the mother-baby relationship in this context.  I think humans–sitting pretty near the top of the food chain, in concrete towers, and living in virtual worlds–forget that we are actually animals.  We are born with in-bred reflexes and instincts to survive and to live symbiotically with our mothers.  Programmed to find a breast (without assistance!) and latch on, to squirm closer to a body for warmth, or to cry out for comfort.

This is what I realized nursing my daughter: as I laid her on my body and truly stopped to watch her breastfeed.  I watched her dig her perfect, tiny toes in to my legs and hips to help her move closer to my breast.  I marveled as she lifted her head and moved it side to side to locate the nipple (better than any tummy time!).  And it took my breath away to see the seemingly effortless right hook of her arm that pulled the nipple from her mouth when she was finished and sleepily lay her head on my chest–milk drunk, oxytocin high.

When an infant is in its natural ecological environment (on mom’s body), it starts to look far less helpless and far more like a full, intelligent person.  The whole deal looks damn elegant when you truly stop and observe the miracle that this is.  Our species would not exist if this mama-baby dance didn’t exist. Mind-blowing beautiful–and one more reason I love breastfeeding.

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