A Love Letter to Moms Who Supplement

A Love Letter to Moms Who Supplement

I swear this isn’t a lactation blog, really, I have other things to talk about.  But here we go again…

Dedicated to my dear friend Ann

Dear Supplementing Mom,

I see you.  I see you posting in Facebook groups desperately looking for some advice to boost your milk supply.  You’ve scoured KellyMom and plumbed the depths of Google and tried everything.  Maybe it was a tongue tie discovered too late, maybe your body had trouble recovering from a traumatic delivery, maybe there’s no damn discernible reason other than that life doesn’t work out the way we want all the time.  But you’ve heard breast is best and you’ve wanted so badly to give your baby best.

But here you are in the store, staring down the formula aisle with a pit in your stomach and a bad taste in your mouth.  You are doing what you need to do to provide your baby with the nutrition he or she needs to grow, and honestly, the breastfeeding/health community has often failed to support you before and after this tough decision.

First, I think you are a total goddess.  You are amazing.  You do the hardest thing every damn day for that little person.  It’s really easy to pat yourself on the back for accomplishing your goal.  You know what’s really hard?  Sacrificing the ideal because in this case the compromise is the heavy lifter who can get the job done.  For those of us who were afforded all the necessary resources and happenstance to succeed as breastfeeders we don’t have to confront what would happen if we couldn’t make our ideal a reality for our child (in this category, trust me it’s coming for us in something else).  For those who decide to quit and formula feed entirely there can be a relief, to no longer feel that pressure to make breastfeeding work.

Those of you that supplement will straddle that conflict and struggle we feel on a daily basis.  You give your baby the best your body will allow under the circumstances, and then where your body quits you do the right thing and get help.  You don’t make it an all or nothing scenario.  To acknowledge your limits, accept help, and continue to do the best for yourself and your baby is incredibly hard and incredibly honorable.

You are amazing.  Your child is lucky to have you as a mom.  And those of us who’ve had success with breastfeeding will one day find that we can’t always have what we want, even for our children who we love above everything else.  If there’s any guilt, hurt, or regret lingering from your decision to supplement would you kindly look it in the eyes and tell it to fuck off?  From me?  You’ve got more important shit to do Mama.

Love,

Modern Amazon

 

Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.
The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires,
The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;
To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.

-Walt Whitman, Continuities

 

Formula Proponents: Your Privilege is Showing

Formula Proponents: Your Privilege is Showing

Recently on Facebook a few women, including myself and a very well known breastfeeding advocate were called bullies for some comments we made against “Fed is Best“.  I really try to stay out of the Facebook fray as much as possible and instead compose my thoughts and frustrations into constructive posts here on the blog.  I guess I was feeling extra saucy last night when I jumped in to comment on Facebook.  So, of course being called a “bully” had me thinking about all the different perspectives and why some of us are so adamant about breastfeeding education.

While thinking about all this, it suddenly dawned on me how incredibly privileged it is to promote formula usage as an out from breastfeeding.  (Disclaimer (per the usual): I respect that there are a variety of reasons why babies DO need to be formula fed, and also I think that making moms feel guilty for formula feeding is neither constructive nor acceptable.)

Why is promoting formula usage a privileged perspective?

FORMULA IS EXPENSIVE.

There, I said it.  That shit is not cheap.  And for families who can easily absorb that cost (think somewhere between $1,000 to $3,000+ per year depending on the brand/formula your child can tolerate) it’s really easy to say, “Eh, I guess this isn’t working.  Formula it is!”  And if you have that luxury, then great.  It’s your choice to do that.

But when people are PROMOTING formula, they have to think about families that CANNOT afford this extra cost.

How about beyond the cost of formula?  For families who live in places with easy access to potable drinking water using formula is no big deal.  However there are many places in this world where clean drinking water isn’t available by just turning on the tap.

Let’s fast forward, baby is eating solid foods, hurray!  Well, now if you can afford fresh, healthy, organic food, then that’s obviously great for your child.  But for families who cannot afford to go to Whole Foods and drop $300/week for their family, breastfeeding could make a huge difference in the long term and short term health of their child.  Breastmilk is an immunity booster and a complete nutritional food.

So, when there are people who don’t want us to push breastfeeding education because they feel that just talking about the benefits of breastfeeding is automatically an act of war against mothers who use formula, it’s an obvious sign of privilege.

You can clearly afford formula, so for you, what’s the big deal?  But there are so many families for whom picking up a can of formula is not the easy option, and educating them on how to successfully breastfeed is PARAMOUNT to their child’s health.

**Edited 8/23/16 based on a constructive conversation with a reader and friend!

This totally cuts both ways.  Because, let me tell you, formula SHAMING is also a big sign of privilege.

Here are the advantages I had as a breastfeeding mother that are not widely available to all moms (especially in the U.S.):

  1. Paid maternity leave
  2. Money to hire a lactation consultant
  3. Healthcare that covered my breast pump
  4. A city with pump-friendly/breastfeeding-friendly ordinances (and an employer who enthusiastically complied)
  5. SUPPORTIVE FAMILY AND A SUPPORTIVE SPOUSE (this is huge)

In the U.S. especially we are slowly becoming more supportive of working/pumping/breastfeeding moms, but as of right now it is still a huge uphill battle.  Moms in the medical field especially get a lot of push back from colleagues/employers, and if they work in emergency services the nature of their work can make it very hard to impossible to keep a regular pumping routine.

Remember that a child’s health, a mother’s health, and a family happiness rarely hinges on one thing.  I like to think that most breastfeeding advocates feel so strongly because they care about infant and maternal health for all.

But, even while we believe deeply in the bonding, healing and nurturing power of breastfeeding, we have to practice compassion, empathy and understanding.  Our daily reality is our own and we rarely know every challenge that other families face to give their children the best they can.  We have to have open, honest, fact-based and love-based conversations.

 

The Real Reason I Think Breastfeeding is so Important

The Real Reason I Think Breastfeeding is so Important

*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.

 

 

Breastfeeding: System Failures not Mom Failures

Breastfeeding: System Failures not Mom Failures

I talk a lot about breastfeeding, mainly because I’ve spent the past year plus of my life nursing my daughter 6-12 times a day, so I end up thinking about it a lot.  Which means I’ve read a lot of articles about breastfeeding, I’ve watched all the documentaries and I belong to several virtual and real life breastfeeding support groups.  And of course anyone who is paying attention to trending blog posts and media discussions will see that one of the issues at the crux of the “mommy wars” is breastfeeding vs formula feeding.  For the sake of this blog post let’s put aside the moms who decide in advance that breastfeeding isn’t for them and they aren’t interested in trying.

What we have left are moms who exclusively breastfeed, exclusively pump, pump and breastfeed, breastfeed and supplement with formula, and moms who tried to breastfeed but ended up exclusively feeding their babies formula.  Often moms who have exclusively fed their infants breast milk know that bad information early in the breastfeeding relationship can totally derail breastfeeding and negatively affect milk supply.  As a result, when another mom says she is sad that she “just doesn’t make enough” and needs to either supplement or switch to exclusively formula feeding, a bunch of other moms jump in to see if she is drinking enough water, eating enough calories, feeding on demand, power pumping, getting a good latch, seeing a lactation consultant… etc etc until the message that mom starts to hear in her head is “this is your fault, you could be doing something different and succeed”.  And the truth is that according to research, a very small percentage of women biologically and medically cannot produce enough milk to feed their babies.

However, I would posit that a more important truth is that new mothers who want to breastfeed get either very little information, bad information, or tons of conflicting information before and immediately after their babies are born.  We’ll start with my personal experience and then examine some of the feedback I’ve heard from other moms directly.  I was relatively prepared before my daughter was born.  My mother breastfed and promised to be a resource to me.  I took a birthing class that covered breastfeeding.  I watched two breastfeeding documentaries, one while pregnant, the other a few weeks postpartum.  My obstetrician asked me if I intended to breastfeed once, I said yes, she literally never talked to me about it again.

My obstetrician asked me if I intended to breastfeed once, I said yes, she literally never talked to me about it again.

That’s right.  The doctor who is supposed to be trained in all things women’s health and baby birthing never discussed the potential issues I might face and where to find good/vetted information.  She verified that I had good intentions and then left me to sort through the information I encountered from other moms, nurses, Dr. Google, and well-meaning strangers on my own.  Then my daughter was born and she was immediately whisked to the NICU.  So now I had three lactation consultants and four postpartum nurses coming in every four hours or so giving me different instructions on how often I should pump, what flange size I should use, and how to care for my nipples.  Thankfully I knew enough to ignore some of the bad advice I received in those first three days postpartum.  Fast forward a week and my little girl is discharged from the hospital (hurray!) we go home, she gains weight, everyone says, “great job!”.  Meanwhile I feel like my nipples are going to fall off and I’m using every healing treatment I can find to keep that from happening because I’m so determined that I won’t let anything derail us from breastfeeding a full year.  Finally, I have a full on breakdown around four weeks postpartum and I look online for a local lactation consultant to come and help me.

The first woman who comes to my house is clearly nervous and she’s making me nervous and she’s making my daughter nervous.  She goes through her weight checks and watches us nurse and makes a few suggestions, but at the end of the visit says, “Hmm, I’m really not sure what’s wrong.”  I was NOT a happy camper.  Finally, I ask my pediatrician for a lactation consultant recommendation and I get Lisa.  Oh, what a difference Lisa makes.  It doesn’t take her long to identify a tongue and lip tie, and soon we have schedule a procedure to get it corrected, and while I still had issues for another 6 months, it was enough to get us to one year!

Now, let’s take what other moms have going on.  They have daycare providers who are imposing formula guidelines on them because they don’t understand how breastfeeding is different.  They have pediatricians who don’t understand much about breastfeeding and give them terrible advice.  They have postpartum nurses who are trying to formula feed their babies against their wishes.  They have mothers and aunts who never breastfed and don’t support it and work against them at every turn.  They have husbands/partners who see their breasts as sexual and want them to stop because they seem to have this wrong idea in their head that as the partner they “own” these breasts.

Some of the most harmful misinformation is coming from medical professionals.  When a mom receives bad advice from a medical professional she is put in a position of going “rogue” and going against the advice she receives in order to do what she feels may be best for her and her baby.  Now she feels like she’s taking a risk and the truth is that if motherhood does anything to a woman, it makes her risk averse.  Especially when it comes to her brand new baby.

So, what’s the more important truth here?  The more important truth is that moms haven’t failed to breastfeed, we have a system that has failed to support them in their breastfeeding goals.  We have told them that “breast is best” and they should strive to exclusively breastfeed.  But then we haven’t educated our obstetricians, our pediatricians, our nurses, all of our medical professionals about how to help a woman succeed in lactation.  We’ve set a goal for moms and we have failed to give them adequate support.  On one hand we are supposed to be able to trust the medical advice given to us by those who have spent their lives studying how our bodies work and how to care for them.  On the other hand if you talk to breastfeeding moms you’ll know they’ve had to ignore all kinds of advice from medical experts in order to successfully breastfeed.  And then when they don’t meet that goal, with often really good intentions to help, we’ve essentially told them they are to blame.  We’ve set moms up to fail, and then we put this crushing pressure and guilt on them to make up for the major flaws of our maternal health system. 

Let’s eliminate guilt from our conversations about maternal health.  It’s not helping.  It’s always hurting.  And then let’s focus all the good, constructive energy we have to make the maternal health system better and stop nitpicking our friends, coworkers, relatives about their mothering choices.

 

Women’s Health: Ideals vs. Reality

This isn’t news to any of you I’m sure, but people are always trying to tell women what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.  Maybe because we house the mechanism for the continuation of our species?  Perhaps this makes people think they have the right to be laying down these absolute edicts about how we look, how we care for our unborn and then born children, how we birth those children, how we attract (or don’t) attract mates.  Somehow it’s all public domain, and of course everyone has strong opinions on whether you are doing it right.

The reality of the matter produces a difficult situation: listening to the contradicting–and often disapproving–messages leave us constantly questioning ourselves.  We don’t need studies from hygiene products’ marketing departments to tell us that this becomes harmful to our self-image very quickly.  When it comes to women’s health there are pervasive ideas about how a woman’s body “should” function.  These expectations produce damaging results when our bodies and images don’t comply with societal norms. Most damaging results of these expectations  is that if our bodies don’t comply with these societal norms, the assumption is that we are somehow responsible.

I think this concept is most obvious in giving birth.  Many women (myself included) want to have a “natural birth”, this means giving birth without any interventions or pain relief.  There are tons of books, articles and websites out there coaching and preparing women to give birth “naturally”.  Many of these sources also blame ill-informed or indifferent doctors and uneducated mothers for the high rate of births that need interventions.  The hope is that if you do all the right kinds of stretching and mental preparation and you have a great birth plan with your doctor/midwife that you will reduce the risk of infant mortality and have a beautiful drug-free  bond with your baby and you will feel like an Earth Goddess.  I strongly believe that the original blueprint for the female body has a really great system for bringing a baby into this world.  But we live in a world full of imperfections.  Our bodies fail us in all kinds of ways from dry skin to anxiety to common colds to asthma (the list obviously goes on and on and on).  Why would we not think it’s realistic to expect imperfections in carrying and delivering another human being?  One of the most stressful physical feats our bodies will ever undergo.  And this seems obvious (to me at least), but the first assumption when something goes sideways with women’s health, is that the woman is responsible.  Needed an intervention when you gave birth?  Well, did you try spinning babies to get your infant in the optimal birthing position?  Did you do this, or that, or this?

Somehow the blame always comes back on us, like we could have prevented this.  Like we should have prevented this.  It’s the same with breastfeeding, pregnancy, weight gain, weight loss, aging, you name it.  If you are a woman and your body cooperated (easy pregnancy, successful breastfeeding, met fitness goals) then it’s easy to think that everyone should be able to attain the ideal, because well you did it, so can everyone else.  The worst is healthcare providers or partners who also witness one woman who was successful and then holds all other women to the same standard.  OR you see that many women aren’t able to attain the ideal and decide we should eliminate an ideal all together in order to level the playing field.  This follows the logic that women have lots of expectations and pressure put on them as it is, why add any additional stress?

I know it’s really unsexy to be balanced and pragmatic, but how about this.  What if we all shoot for the ideal, BUT also educate ourselves and each other about the realistic road blocks we may encounter?  It is good and healthy that we strive to do the best for ourselves and our families, we should be striving for an ideal!  I recently framed my thoughts this way to another mom who was upset at the prospect of having to supplement breastfeeding her child with formula, “Be kind to yourself Mama! You are amazing! Take the pressure off yourself to be perfect, love yourself for wanting to give your baby everything you can, and then continue to love yourself when you reach your limit. We all have to ‘supplement’ in one category or another.”  Humans are complex creatures, and we can house in ourselves the ability to strive for an ideal, fail, reach out for help, but love and respect ourselves for wanting the best.  We don’t have to kill the ideal in order to practice self-love.  What we absolutely need to do is set realistic expectations for ourselves and other women.  We need to assume that others are doing their absolute best until proven otherwise and support them in their goals as best we can.

Today’s women face really interesting challenges regardless of what they want to do.  The social structure that used to house gender norms has been entirely upset.  As a result we have a lot of freedom, but often not much support.  And on top of that, everyone has an opinion on what we should be doing.  It is good that we have healthy science-based discussions with each other on best practices for all realms of women’s health and it’s also good that we respect each others’ preferences and circumstances.  What’s making it harder for us to stand together and bridge rifts is when we project our own experiences onto others and hold them to unattainable ideals AND when we think discarding the ideals all together will make everyone feel better.  Neither of these options will inspire us to reach for the best option and be better to each other.  We can help each other by being honest about the challenges we face with women’s health.  This includes difficulty getting pregnant, miscarriages, terrible pregnancies, traumatic deliveries, difficulty breastfeeding, issues with contraception, and the list goes on.  When a woman you trust and admire puts a face and a heart to one of these issues you are much more likely to be kind to yourself because you remember being kind to her!  We don’t have to avoid tough topics in order to build solidarity and feminine community.

I still believe that the ideal birth takes place without drugs or interventions.  And I can truly never know if I would have prepared better/differently in my pregnancy whether I could have had that ideal.  What I do know is that during pregnancy and delivery my body didn’t do what it was “supposed” to do and it needed help.  I live in a day and age when that help is available (how great is that?) and I took it with both hands.  I could worry endlessly whether I did everything I should have to get the best result possible (and I did for a few weeks after my daughter’s birth).  But at the end of the day I live a life with an imperfect body and imperfect circumstances.  To think I can control all of that is harmful and counterproductive.  Thankfully I had an incredible birth class instructor who prepared us for both for the ideal set of circumstances and the less than ideal set of circumstances.  I plan on trying the whole pregnancy thing at least once more and I’ll shoot for the “ideal” again, but I will also forgive my body it’s imperfections and love myself for wanting the best if it all goes south again.

Love yourself when you succeed, love yourself when you fail, and make space to share your experiences with other women.

Fed isn’t Best, Fed is the Absolute Minimum

Whew, you got past the title because you are either really pissed, or you are super rah-rah breastfeeding.  Either way, please stay with me.

I know it’s popular to say “fed is best” as a way of supporting all mothers with infants and disarming the “mommy wars”.  I have so many problems with this statement I’m having a hard time knowing where to start.  But let’s dive into my first point, which is that fed is not best.  Fed is the minimum that we provide our children.  If we do nothing else, we must feed them in order to keep them alive, because for several years they are incapable of providing sustenance for themselves.  Providing our children the minimal nourishment they require to survive is not the best that we can do for them, it is the minimum of what we should do as parents, seeing as we brought them into this world.  I really don’t know how I can say this any more clearly, I honestly feel the point is so obvious, that to belabor it would be an insult to my intelligence and yours.

Second, this “fed is best” campaign is in response to a “breast is best” campaign.  Short, rhyming statements are intended to help spread the word and stick in people’s brains so that the information is easily recalled.  Every OB/GYN office can’t have a poster up on the wall with a paragraph explaining how breastfeeding is the best nutritional and psychological feeding option for your infant, BUT sometimes due to a whole host of medical complications mothers cannot breastfeed their infants–in which case there are necessary alternatives for feeding, and formula is best for that baby.  We should not need that caveat!  Are we incapable of understanding that if a child is highly allergic to its mother’s milk, the harms obviously outweigh the rewards of breastfeeding, and in that instance, formula is best for that child?  Or that children who are born premature often have  a variety of issues with feeding of all kinds, because they weren’t meant to be out in the world yet, and their mothers’ bodies weren’t ready to feed them, and so breastfeeding may not be an option?  It is implied; it is understood; it is reasonable to expect that when we say “breast is best,” it is for most infants, most mothers, in most situations.  I’ve known mothers who physically could not breastfeed their babies for a variety of reasons.  They did do what was best for their children.  We cannot make blanket statements about every situation and we cannot account for every possibility in a simple statement intended to spread awareness.  This is simply not possible.

Let’s also examine why we need things like “breast is best” and #normalizebreastfeeding.  These phrases don’t exist to shame moms who formula feed. That is not the point!  We need these hashtags and short sayings because as a country, we are recovering from an unfortunate period of our medical history where doctors were telling mothers that formula is superior to breast milk.  As a result, there were generations of women who thought that breastfeeding was disgusting or unnecessary and were not able to guide or educate their own daughters on how to breastfeed when they became mothers.  It is a scientific fact that breastfeeding is a superior option for most babies.  Therefore, “breast is best” is not intended to shame mothers who choose to formula feed, it is trying to get the word out so that more and more mothers will breastfeed!

How someone feels about their life choices is not the most important thing.  We cannot take it upon ourselves to take responsibility for how other people feel about their life choices.  By shielding others from decisions they’ve made and of which they may not be proud, we are denying them the opportunity to improve. Some mothers don’t learn about the wonders of breastfeeding until baby #2 or #3.  That’s ok!  I have been able to exclusively breastfeed my child for the past 9 months and for that I am very blessed.  There is a possibility that with my next child my body will betray me and I will have to supplement.  If that happens, I will still know that 100% breastfed is the ideal.  But we don’t live in an ideal world, and life doesn’t hand us ideal circumstances.  We do our very best with what life hands us.  And if that’s what we have done, then we cannot resent the ideal for existence.  If someone has chosen to formula feed their infant in spite of all the research they’ve read and is very proud of their decision, then I cannot for the life of me see why they would care in the least bit that I am an avid advocate of breastfeeding.  It is not my job to tell them how to feed their infant.  I will always be an avid supporter of breastfeeding while being respectful of the fact that other moms may choose not to breastfeed.  However, I am not going to lie and say that “fed is best”.  Because dammit, fed is the minimum.

June 12, 2017 Update 

I’ve been wanting to revisit this post for some time. I’m leaving the original post because I think it’s important that we all admit and acknowledge that are views are evolving as we understand more of the world and of ourselves. 

I will admit that I don’t think the above post is an entirely balanced and comprehensive view on the subject of infant nutrition.  As I address in my post Breastfeeding: System Failures not Mom Failures, the “why” is important.  It’s not simply that mothers don’t want to breastfeed, although that does exist too.  And as these obstacles exist, the idea that we need to put pressure solely on the mother is not only not fair, it is in reality not helpful. Pressure truly needs to be applied to the women’s and maternal health sectors to provide adequate information and support. And finally, just as I think that “fed is best” is not an accurate statement, in some cases “breast is best” is not an accurate statement. The truth is always more nuanced. 

And finally, just as I think that “fed is best” is not an accurate statement, in some cases “breast is best” is not an accurate statement. The truth is always more nuanced. What do I really wish for? I wish for a world where we have infant nutrition specialists who are neither militant lactation specialists nor formula salespeople, but rather baby advocates. Providers who can grasp the comprehensive needs of an infant and then help the mother make the right decision for her baby.

I still can’t get behind “Fed is Best”, but I can embrace a more complex and nuanced conversation than the thoughts I’ve laid out above.

Why Lactation Should Be Taught in Sex Ed

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Until I became a mother, I didn’t realize how much about my body I didn’t know. That statement doesn’t seem overly shocking, how can you really understand the birthing experience until you go through it, right? Except I’m not talking about giving birth. That was rough, trust me. But, most of giving birth was expected (even if it didn’t go as planned). Sex ed portrayed conceiving, carrying, and delivering another little human as a serious consequence of sex and less as a truly incredible method by which we continue our species, but that was kind of ok with me since procreation comes naturally to most every organism on this planet. What is reserved for our class of organisms is lactation! Lactation is incredible! The benefits to mother and child (even ignoring the hotly contested research results) are truly astounding. What I knew about lactation before becoming pregnant was this: my mother breastfed my brother and I despite various infections and inconveniences, and it was important enough to her that she persevered (which meant that it was important to me from a young age), and on a very intuitive level breast feeding seemed “right”. That was it. I didn’t know the basic mechanics of how the milk comes out, I didn’t understand how the body produced milk or what of a woman’s self or diet ends up in the breast milk. Nothing.

 

Let me tell you what I did learn in sex ed. I learned about sperm and ovum, and we said “penis” and “vagina” until no one giggled. I learned how babies are made, and I even learned about the vas deferens and cowper’s gland (and somehow that knowledge survived), in addition to names for my own gender’s anatomy. Honestly, I know there was a video about a birth that was definitely filmed in the late 70’s or early 80’s, but other than that, I remember very little else.

 

And from my perspective there is something very wrong here. There is a really gigantic missed opportunity that could positively impact a woman’s life from when she is 13 and taking her first sex ed class through adulthood, whether she decides to become a mother or not. Why teach about sex and birth, but not lactation? Perhaps because sex is something in which both genders participate. Birth is the consequence of both genders participating. But lactation, that is something that a woman does without a man* (unless her baby is a boy). It is an exclusive female activity.

 

A woman can choose to continue breastfeeding, or she can choose to stop breastfeeding at any time. It is entirely within her control. As such, well-timed education about this activity has the ability to positively influence body and self image. Well meaning feminism of the last several decades has told us a variety of things: girls can be strong, too; love your body regardless of how it looks or compares to magazine covers; and no one has jurisdiction over your body but you. I understand the well-intentioned nature of these statements. However, they still don’t strike the right tone to me. Girls can be strong, too? What it tacitly acknowledges is that female strength is always relative to male strength. Love your body regardless of how it looks or compares to magazine covers? What if we don’t talk so much about what our bodies look like and more about what they are capable of? We can redefine beauty a thousand times to mean a thousand different things, but at the end of the day whether you weigh 90 pounds or 290 pounds, by focusing on aesthetic over all else, the value of the body is sexual. No one has jurisdiction over your body but you.  Amen sister! And I think understanding lactation is a rarely used, incredibly valuable foothold in respecting our bodies.

 

I’m thinking back to myself at 13 when I took sex ed. I was already an independent and strong-willed person. If I had learned what my body was capable of at that age? It would have astonished and delighted me. I really think I wouldn’t have gone through that stage where I ate ½ gallons of ice cream in one sitting and wore huge sweatshirts to hide my body because I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Despite my “strong woman” bent, I still evaluated my body based on its ability to attract a boy/man. It’s how my friends and female classmates evaluated their bodies. According to television, it was also how the media evaluated celebrity bodies. As far as I knew, this was the value of a body: that it was desirable. And if this body was desirable enough to someone else, well then you could end up with a baby!

 

But what if instead of only seeing aesthetic and sexual value in my body, I instead saw mind blowing utility!? What if I learned, that whether I carry and deliver a baby or not, I can feed and sustain life for an infant? What if I learned that my body is capable of whipping up a fresh and unique batch of milk every few hours that is tailor-made for my child’s exact nutritional needs? What if I learned that my body will produce antibodies to protect my child’s immune system even if I haven’t been exposed to the virus? What if I learned that while breastfeeding, my body’s temperature will adjust up to 2 degrees to warm up or cool down my baby to the perfect temperature? What if I learned that breastfeeding significantly lowers my risk for breast cancer and post-partum depression? What if I learned that during nighttime feedings the breast milk has higher levels of serotonin to help my baby (and me) go back to sleep?

 

If I knew all of these things then I would see myself not just as something pretty (or not), but as sustenance, as medicine, as comfort, as powerful, as beautiful because I am capable. And as a result, I would respect my body and myself more. How do I know? I don’t only know these things about my body–now I’ve seen them! Men and women are both capable of incredible things. But I am so PROUD to be a woman. I am strong. I am powerful. I am worth more than a pretty face or a nice ass. I am comfort, sustenance, medicine, and affection to my child. I am a mother. I am a woman, and I want every teenage girl, whether she plans on becoming a mother or not, to know what her body can do. Because when you value your body as more than what it can evoke in others, you respect yourself, you care for yourself, and you are confident.  Isn’t that something every teenage girl needs in spades?

*While breastfeeding is a female only capability (barring extreme survival situations), it greatly benefits from male support.  I am blessed enough to have a husband who supports me in all things breastfeeding-related from budgeting for a visit from a lactation consultant when money is tight to washing my pump accessories when I’m exhausted from a long work day.  You may also be wondering, what do those 13 year old boys get from learning about lactation in sex ed?  They learn to see a woman’s body as more than an object for them to desire.  Couldn’t that be the start of something amazing?