Breastfeeding is Normal

Breastfeeding is  – quite literally – a subject close to my heart! It just makes sense to me and even before I wanted children I had strong opinions on it. As a student nurse I gave a health promotion talk about breastfeeding improving survival rates in neonates to fellow students.

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Emma Bond with Carene, who was born 12 weeks early 2lbs 2oz.

My passion was evident, and several students asked if I was training as children’s nurse, (I wasn’t) but my motivation, even then, was in planting seeds, helping to create a culture where breastfeeding is the norm, and to discuss how essential it is for babies to thrive, and yes, survive.

What would normal look like?

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We would breastfeed in public, without comment or disapproval from others. We would openly talk about our experiences with friends and colleagues, offer advice, tips and brainstorm problems, observe breastfeeding mothers, support one another and share our journeys. In the absence of this we have women whose first experience of breastfeeding may be nursing their newborn, who did not have the benefit of overheard the conversations at work, or see their mother feed their siblings, their auntie encouraging their niece, or openly observe their friend breastfeeding whilst sat together in the coffee shop.  Without that steady stream of positive reinforcement breastfeeding becomes something to work at rather than something to experience. And if it is hard work we tend to assume it is not going to go well, rather than realize that we are learning a skill from scratch, supported by people who may not be well experienced themselves, perhaps whilst being undermined by the negative comments from family or friends, or even professionals, and the ‘convenience’ of the alternative. In the absence of witnessing normalised breastfeeding, or being fully supported by friends, family and professionals there may be little for new mothers to draw upon with which to guide, inspire or encourage them on their breastfeeding journey.

How long does normal breastfeeding last?

Ages of children who self wean range from 18 months to 7 years and beyond.

Little boy (2-3) with bare chest, arms up, portrait

This link from KellyMom shows that WHO and American health authorities understand the benefits of continued breastfeeding for both mother and child. They support and encourage mothers to breastfeed for as long as it remains mutually positive. Kathleen Dettwyler’s blog post “When to Wean: Biological vs. Cultural Perspectives” Discusses various markers as to determining weaning age. In his article ‘The Importance of Breastfeeding To Total Health‘ Brian Palmer dentist says ‘From my research, I conclude: Breastfeeding, for at least one year, is critical for the proper development of the oral cavity, airway and facial form…. Since the largest increment of craniofacial development occurs within the first 4 years of life, how we develop in those early years impacts us for life.’ This supports the idea that breastfeeding gives maximum benefit when it occurs over a period of years, as opposed to months.

Pressure to Wean

With the wide availability of formula milk women believe they have a choice in how they feed their babies, and yet the truth is that many women give up breastfeeding before they want to due to pressure from partners, family or friends. Coupled with advertising from the formula milk producing companies whose entire purpose is to undermine the confidence of the new mother so she then puts her trust in their product.

Sexualizing the Breast

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Culturally breastfeeding is taboo. Breasts are actively promoted by media and advertising as sexually alluring, and as a culture we put this idea before the fact that breasts primary function is to produce milk following the birth of a baby, and for as long as that baby / child requires it.  ‘Male privilege’ may be considered as a  valid reason for women to stop breastfeeding. Men who consider their partners body to be their property may ‘allow’ breastfeeding, as long as they do not feel that it interferes with their sexual needs being fulfilled, and when they think it does they may exert pressure on the mother to stop. The idea that women may find breastfeeding pleasurable is uncomfortable for many. Generally people find it difficult to separate the sexuality of the breast from its original function. The biological reason for breastfeeding to feel pleasurable is so that the woman will continue to do it, and the baby will continue to thrive. The hormones prolactin and oxytocin are essential for the development of the mother – child bond and survival of the species. We should not really then, if we understand this, be concerned by the mothers enjoyment of breastfeeding, as it is not sexual in nature, however, whilst people remain ill-informed about breastfeeding in general this fact continues to be distasteful for many. Having said that there may be times when the woman struggles to breastfeed due to discomfort from poor latch.

Social Pressures

The fact that breastfeeding is still frowned upon in public sadly compounds the message that women who choose to breastfeed are not always welcome in social situations. The reality as I have experienced it is that breastfeeding women are generally keen to be as discreet as possible and this is perfectly possible within a busy public place. There is a difference between knowing a woman is breastfeeding and seeing her breastfeeding. People who get offended tend to assume the latter, where as in reality it is the knowledge of what is occurring that they are reacting to.

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Breastfeeding a baby or child need not interrupt a conversation or necessitate a stint in a private room. Eating and drinking is a social activity, yet breastfeeding babies are expected to be fed apart from the group. As social animals we tend to follow the norm and do what is expected of us. Breastfeeding mothers risk being ostracised, and having to sit in private to breastfeed, they are expected to choose between nourishing their baby and socializing in situations where the two activities are seen as being mutually exclusive.  Thankfully there is the  Breastfeeding Welcome Scheme in UK which promotes the normalisation of breastfeeding whilst out and about.

Look out for these signs

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Or even this

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Modern Medicine

The medicalization of pregnancy and birth undoubtably has contributed much to the safety and improved survival rates of infants and mothers, but the flip side is that new mothers trust their bodies less. Women who bottle feed talk about ‘how many ounces of milk their babies consume, whereas breastfeeding mothers don’t have that information to hand. Women may mistakenly assume they are not producing enough milk and switch to bottle feeding because it is easier to know exactly how much fluid a baby consumes. If a baby is not gaining weight as expected the mother may be encouraged by health professionals to switch to formula feed, which further undermines the mothers faith in her abilities to nourish her own baby, and reduces her milk supply – a vicious cycle which could result in her stopping breastfeeding before she wanted to. Mothers need support and encouragement to make breastfeeding a success. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by Le Leche League is an essential read for parents-to-be and those interested in supporting breastfeeding mothers. This handy summary document from the book has loads of quick tips and reminders from the book.

Political Issues

The bottom line is that formula milk makes money and breastfeeding is free. The politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer is fascinating reading about the development of the formula milk industry and their marketing tactics.

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Breastfeeding and child development

An article in The Lancet suggests a link between breastfeeding and IQ, where ‘participants who were breastfed for 12 months or more had higher IQ scores, more years of education, and higher monthly incomes than did those who were breastfed for less than 1 month.’ This is not to suggest formula fed babies will grow up to be unintelligent, but that people who are breastfed a year or more are more likely to reach their potential.

Give Expressed milk via a Cup

It’s not just the formula itself which is harmful but the action needed for the baby to suck from a bottle rather than a breast. Clearly expressed breast milk is preferable to formula, but in the case of feeding expressed milk, cup feeding is preferable to bottle feeding. In ‘The influence of Breastfeeding On the Development of the Oral Cavity’  (an article which is no longer available to view for free, but which can be purchased here) Dentist Dr Brian Palmer says that bottle feeding babies develop an abnormal tongue and jaw movement as a result of having to exert pressure on to the teat to prevent milk flowing when resting or performing non-nutritive sucking. The action results in abnormal jaw and tooth development and can lead to life-long dental problems. In contrast breastfed babies develop properly formed teeth and jaws and a more proportionate facial structure.

Breastfeeding Clichés

In ‘The politics of Breastfeeding, When Breasts Are Bad For Business‘ Gabrielle Palmer mentions that clichés such as ‘breast is best’ and talk of ‘the benefits of breastfeeding’ set it apart, and above from the reality that it is a perfectly natural act. Such thinking also suggests that whatever breastfeeding delivers is simply ‘more’ than whatever formula feeding does, rather than tackle the fact that formula feeding is detrimental to the health of babies. She states, ‘Artificial feeding is risky …(but) humans are herd animals and we tend to do what everyone else does’.

Breastfeeding Mamas – I Salute You

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There is so much more I could and want to say on the subject, but for now

I leave you with this emotional and thought-provoking spoken poem by Hollie McNish

‘Embarrassed’

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