(Published CharlestonGrit.com on 30 September, 2012)
I am going to regret writing this article. My wife has strongly advised against it. I’m pretty certain it will get me fired from blogging on Charleston Grit. Yet, something within is forcing me to write about this topic—breast-feeding. The precipitant came from 1) a television spiel pertaining to outrage about a mother breast-feeding her child in public; and 2) a recent magazine cover depicting a mother breast-feeding a young boy who was standing on a platform to reach an exposed breast (Time, May 21, 2012).
What are my qualifications? That’s a fair question. I am not a woman. I have never given birth. I do have two breasts, but they have never produced milk. I have not had to take a side or defend my choice to breastfeed or not. (Perhaps that’s my advantage in writing about it!)
However, I was breast-fed as an infant, and I had a wonderful relationship with my own mother. My wife was breast-fed, and she had a wonderful relationship with her mother. I watched my wife breast-feed our two sons who are now well-adjusted men. I believe that counts for something. And I am a psychiatrist familiar with medical knowledge and human development, and I have treated thousands of patients—many of whom are women. (As a psychiatrist, I’m a privileged person. People share information about themselves that they might not share with a confessor or with anyone, so I benefit from seeing a collective side or slice of humanity.)
So here goes:
Belief 1: Our culture’s obsession and emphasis on sex is skewing our views on breast-feeding. Our culture views breasts predominantly as sexual, so the important role they play in providing nourishment for infants, emotional nurturing, and strengthening of the bond between mother and child can get lost. In a movie called The Last Emperor, the emperor is fed by a wet-nurse until approximately age of six or seven. The emperor calls this woman his “butterfly.” He has a special place in his heart for her.
For people who do not understand long-term nursing, it is not a sexual thing. Rather, it is a natural and an emotional thing. The concept of the breast being used for anything other than sex is mostly foreign to our culture. It probably takes a fairly confident woman, confident in her own sexuality and motherhood to realize this and to do what she feels is right for her and her child.
Belief 2: When the concept of birthing became more “medical” than “natural,” breast-feeding was affected. Around World War II, mothers were being urged to utilize “bottles” in order to free up their time. Doctors knew best and as a result, mothers began to lose the art of nursing. Meaning, fewer mothers were able to provide first-hand experiential advice, encouragement, and confidence to their own daughters about how to breast-feed. But that’s changing. As the medical world, slowly but finally has come to recognize that there exist real benefits to the mother and infant that accrue from breast-feeding, more women are getting the message (now) about its benefits. Which leads me to…
Belief 3: There are numerous benefits to breast-feeding. For the infant, these include getting ready-made antibodies that protect them from viruses and illness, nutrients that are available immediately even though the infant’s own liver is not yet mature enough to generate those same nutrients from cow milk. For mom, there is a built-in biological reflex. When the baby latches on to her nipple, there occurs the release of oxytocin. This creates a tranquility and peacefulness for mom. (I underscore this is NOT a sexual or erotic feeling.) It’s a feeling that helps mom to be even more nurturing. Finally, there is the priceless emotional bonding that develops between both mom and the infant.
Indeed, even dads benefit in a variety of ways. Watching your wife give birth to your child is an experience that will increase your love and commitment to your spouse and family. Similarly, watching your wife breast-feed your child is heartwarming at a minimum. Moreover, it means dads don’t have to feed the baby or get up at night to warm the bottled milk. There exist other benefits that will absolutely get me fired and black-listed if I wrote about them.
Belief 4: Work can take its toll. The Women’s Movement promised women they can have everything—a career, the joys of mothering, and a happy family. It was also the Women’s Movement that got women to smoke cigarettes. “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Once women started smoking, lung cancer killed more women than it did men (previously, lung cancer in women had been a rarity). The Women’s Movement certainly has good points, but regardless of it or what anybody may say, there remain only 24 hours in each day; there is only so much energy one person can exert before becoming physically tired and emotionally spent. How does a mother resolve conflicts between competing roles as mother and career person? Sometimes it is possible to work these conflicts out. Other times, it is not. When “not,” it is very helpful to already understand which role will take precedence.
In the workplace, some companies are creating nurseries where mothers can take a break to nurse or check on their kids. Hopefully, more companies will enable mothers to have at least the first six weeks off from work to develop healthy relationships and bonding with their children. In some countries, mothers are given six months of leave from work with the assurance their job will be available when they return.
And, dads need to be in there helping out. Okay—I admit I don’t like to wash pots and pans or clean poo. But, honestly… sometimes I would prefer to be the stay-at-home parent. Ideally, both parents put their noggins together to figure out what’s going to work for them, given the particulars of their specific situation. As it relates to meeting your child’s needs, consider your family team the “Home Team” and somehow, we’re going to make it work.
Belief 5: There is only one person entitled to decide when to wean their child. That person is Mom, herself, while taking into account the emotional needs of her child. In most cases, the child will signal the mom that nursing is no longer important or necessary. Children actually end up weaning on their own, naturally. Sometimes nursing has surpassed the nutritional stage and is serving primarily an emotional need. Mom will be picking up cues from the child and together, it will be clear when the time has come. This decision is personal and private. No one else has the necessary information or intimate knowledge and familiarity to advise a mom that they should or should not breast-feed, or that they should or should not STILL be breast feeding.
Belief 6: Nursing in public should be discreet. Our society is not ready for full exposure. It is much too “titillating” in a sexual way. Observing infants being nursed in public is not so shocking, but toddlers being nursed will have some shock factor and it should always be discreet. Further, as a toddler, the child can wait a short period before being fed. They can wait until a more discreet, convenient, or conducive time presents itself.
We know that meeting the emotional and physical needs of a newborn for the first three years is essential for that child to grow up having a feeling that the world is a good place and that people can be trusted. Children can do nothing for themselves when first born. They depend entirely upon others to clean them, feed them, change their position, keep them warm, and comfort them when they are in pain. If their needs are largely met during these important early years, they have been given what they need to trust that people are good and that problems can be overcome. This is a truly priceless gift parents can provide to their children.