The tide is turning toward breastfeeding in Louisiana.
This has been in the works on the national scene for a while. There are government-funded “Breast is Best” campaigns throughout the US and “Breastfeeding welcomed” signs on storefront windows in major cities. The news media regularly covers women’s legal right to nurse anywhere, at any time in 43 states. We’re all aware of NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial Latch On campaign, his take on the World Health Organization’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.
National and local governments have taken an interest in breastfeeding as a means of disease-prevention (because, I suspect, spending public advertising dollars encouraging women to breastfeed is easier and less controversial than tackling the public health crises caused by the food industry). There’s a now-twenty-years-old World Breastfeeding Week celebration (that’s Aug. 1 – 7), and August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month.
And it should be mentioned that increasing numbers of mothers are plugged into Internet communities and in-person, locally organized social groups who gather to discuss topics related to mothering. Breastfeeding, like modern cloth diapers, sleep schedules, babywearing, and homemade purees vs. jarred food vs. babyled weaning, is bound to come up.
So I have to tell you, I don’t breastfeed because it will make my baby smarter, or healthier, or closer to me than she would be if she were fed with an alternative milk and nipple. Study after study, campaign after campaign tries to tell me this, but I have a hard time processing the comparisons. I’m really not convinced that those are the most appropriate reasons upon which to found a campaign for breastfeeding—or that the dominant media conversation should be one that centers on breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding. I don’t breastfeed because it’s ‘best’ or ‘better than’ formula-feeding… or because of anything related to formula (which is, despite some of the discourse you’ll find bandied about in ‘crunchy mom’ subcultures, real food that a baby can survive and thrive on, whether it is given as a maternal preference or out of circumstantial necessity) at all.
I breastfeed because it’s normal.
I mean it. And there’s a certain amount of privilege and luck behind that statement, I’ll admit it. I was set up for success by forces beyond my own control. I have had access to this idea that humans are mammals, and mammals nurse their young, for as long as I can remember: I was breastfed in the mid-‘80s by my working mother. My husband was breastfed by his mother, a homemaker who had seven children between 1976 and 1987 and wasn’t socially acquainted with anybody else in Lake Charles, La., who nursed. I watched my cousins being breastfed as I was growing up; I watched my sister-in-law struggle some through her nonetheless eventually successful first breastfeeding experience during my first pregnancy. I watched my sister pump milk for her premature triplets (well, okay, I didn’t watch, but I knew she was doing it). I was a part of those kinds of online women’s communities before I was ever pregnant. I had natural births, one of them at home, which is proven to make the nursing relationship easier to establish. And I stayed home with my first baby; I brought my second to both of my part-time jobs with me until she turned one.
I can’t imagine knowing how to be a mother without making milk (although I know that many, many good mothers throughout history have accomplished just that). For the first year of my babies’ lives, nursing hasn’t been about feeding at all, really. The transmission of calories was secondary. It was just what my babies did… often. It was my mothering paradigm, my primary means of mothering, what I spent most of my days doing: it was how my babies went to sleep, how they got their nutrition, how they got the antibodies to build strong immune systems, how they were reassured when the garish lights and unfamiliar sounds (or, later, the absolutely fascinating, MOMDIDYOUSEETHAT???! scenes) of, well, anywhere that wasn’t our home sent their tiny brains into overdrive. It’s how they overcame boredom when our priest’s homily ran over seven minutes. It’s how I distracted them from the pain of shots. It’s how they went about their everyday lives as infants.
There’s a great deal of evidence that suggests that human infants instinctively exhibit attachment-promoting behaviors to ensure their own survival. Very young babies cry to nurse every thirty minutes, not because they are hungry, not because they’re not getting ‘enough,’ and not because mom’s milk is ‘too thin,’ but because they don’t know that a tiger isn’t about to eat them. When a mother is casually nursing her baby while she stands at the stove and stirs her gumbo or sits at her oak desk writing depositions, she is still, despite her nonchalance, holding him closely in fierce protection, giving him sustenance that comes from her own body—and he gets that. He gets what that means. Maybe not on the poetic level that we do, but instinctively he knows that this is right. He is a mammal baby, and this is what mammals do under biologically normal circumstances. (It’s also the mechanism by which adequate milk supply is ensured. Supply management is not much of an issue, barring certain very real but also statistically rare medical conditions on mother or baby’s parts, when the pair is lucky enough to be able to share an ‘unrestricted access to the breast’ kind of daily routine.)
The ‘breast vs. bottle’ conversation in the media and even in medical circles so often becomes about feeding, but the fact is that breastfeeding is not purely a feeding choice. It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s choosing to be attached to a baby continuously or to make other arrangements that will not compromise the milk supply. It’s choosing to possibly even allow a child to remain, both literally and metaphorically, ‘attached’ for longer than we as a culture tend to think babyhood should last, for the sake of respecting the instinctive, paleological parameters of human child development rather than the culturally imposed ones--or it can be choosing some nuanced combination thereof.
It’s choosing to adopt a mothering paradigm that hasn’t been a popular one in our culture until recently, and women sense that. It’s okay for them to reject it; people have dignity and the agency to carve their own paths. But it’s also okay for them to embrace it.
I feel less and less alone as a breastfeeding mother in Southwest Louisiana. I am witnessing more and more local success stories—more and more women who attempt to establish breastfeeding are succeeding, are nursing exclusively to 6 months and then continuing nursing with complementary solid foods until 12 months and beyond. Many are pumping at work (rock stars!) and managing their milk supply with great care, learning the science of lactation and its delicate interplay with the endocrine system so intimately that they can pinpoint where they are in their fertility cycles by how many ounces of milk they are pumping on a given day.
The tide is turning because the support is there. Information—the right information—is more accessible than it was even when my first child was born in early 2009. The La Leche League International chapter meetings in Lake Charles are teeming with new faces—and friendships—every month. Moms of twins, moms of preemies, moms who have more than one child but have never breastfed before, moms who work, moms who are inducing lactation for an adopted baby, moms who are in the military, moms who are women of color, these are the moms who are joining us for our monthly meetings now who weren’t joining us three years ago.
I don’t think the tide is turning because of the studies. I don’t think it’s because the medical establishment is supportive—because International Board Certified Lactation Consultants and other breastfeeding-minded medical practitioners in the United States have to fight daily against a system wherein breastfeeding is not normalized, where pregnant women are booby-trapped by their OB/Gyn practices with bags of 'free' baby product samples sponsored by formula companies before they schedule their first ultrasound.
The tide is turning because women are insisting that their biologically normal practice be recognized as a socially normal choice, and they’re having such a good time doing it that their friends are joining them.
Friends. That’s how we solve a public health crisis. Woman to woman, the way it’s always been done. And year by year, we’ll make it normal. Year by year, we’ll turn the tide.
A huge, special, full-of-love thank you goes out to all the Southwest Louisiana mothers who graciously volunteered to have their personal photos featured on today's blog post. These images truly make the piece.
(Your regularly scheduled 'Newborns in Cloth' series will return next week, so be on the look-out!)