*Before reading this article please note my prior posts on a healthy acknowledgement that not all moms/babies can breastfeed and that is perfectly OK.
There is a lot of information floating around about the benefits of breastfeeding. There are all kinds of studies that will tell you that breastfed babies are smarter, breastfed babies are healthier, breastfed babies have lower chances of developing certain diseases later in life, etc. Most of the benefits that are touted relate to the nutritional value of breast milk and its superiority to formula. Although the immunological benefits come up as well. But, depending on where these studies are conducted, some of the studies may reveal more about the long-term well being of children who are raised in homes that value breastfeeding, than the actual breast milk. I’m not saying that’s the case, but I’m also going to say that we have a love/hate relationship with scientific studies and their results right now. Not sure what I mean? Read this brilliant Jezebel article on all the conflicting information you get as a pregnant woman (all citing scientific studies). It’s the same for anything, people listen to and cite the research that supports their preconceived notions.
That being said, do I think breast milk is nutritionally superior than formula? For most kids yes. Do I think that formula is a life long sentence to ill-health and low grades? No. Like anything in life, being breastfed is one single influencing factor in a whole host of influencing factors. So, why are almost all my blog posts about it and why does it matter to me so much that I breastfeed my baby and see other moms breastfeed theirs? I’m going to warn you, my answer is pretty unscientific and I don’t (*gasp*) have any studies to back me up.
One of the few instincts that babies are born with is the rooting instinct. There are several mouth reflexes that exist to encourage a baby to seek and find nourishment. The design of our bodies (and theirs) is that they should root and find their mother’s nipple. That child has spent the past 9 (or fewer) months inside their mother’s body. Protected, ensconced, and perpetually cared for in their own perfect little ecosystem. They come into this world through pain and effort and hard work. The separation of the mother’s body from the baby’s is a really violent process. I’m sure there are some that are relatively calm, but even if you had a peaceful birth there is blood and sweat and other bodily fluids all being spent in the effort of removing a part of the mother’s body so it can grow and flourish to be its own independent being. And now the child is in a world it’s only known by proxy, and the way our species keeps surviving century after century is by developing a habit to immediately seek comfort, nourishment, and warmth at the mother’s breast. Because both mom and baby need this as a way of sharing her body until they are both ready for their own space. We come into this world the way we spend the rest of our lives, looking for connection.
To me, being at a mother’s breast, hearing her heart beat, being held in her arms, being warmed by her presence is such a crucial initial reassurance for a child after the shock of birth. And I say that as someone who could not provide that for my daughter for her first 4 days of life. It’s a first indicator to this little person what the world outside the womb will be like. Once we become pregnant our bodies immediately begin redirecting nutrition and energy away from ourselves and towards growing this little being inside of us. Unless someone chose to terminate the pregnancy altogether we have no choice in how our body uses resources to grow a child. We form a bond with this child inside us, but in a strange twist it’s very tentative because it’s inside us, which means we can’t see or touch or hear each other directly. But, when a child is born a mother is faced with the choice of whether she wants to continue to give of her body to her child. Breastfeeding is one crucial way (not the only way!) that a mother can do this. She now has the choice to literally take calories, water, and energy from her own body to sustain her child. This is really powerful, it’s a physical manifestation of a deep and serious commitment.
Love and connection are not bound by practices and rituals, and especially the love of a mother for her child can never be contained or restrained by one act. For me breastfeeding is a serious act of love and dedication to my daughter and an oath to be my best as a mother. This is more important than whatever nutritional and immunological benefits are gained from breastfeeding. Scientific studies are great, but they’ve never had the final word on anything. As women and mothers we can tap into a deep and intuitive understanding of what is best for those under our care, and that’s why I choose to breastfeed.