Wednesday, November 3, 2010

That Penguin's Lactating!?

I started to write a post about my experience with breastfeeding, and, I will, but this is not it. This post will probably offend people I wouldn't like to offend, but I feel like I keep getting asked, so I'll share. See, it turns out that just doing something all mammals do to survive is a HUGELY controversial topic. Everything about it seems to stir up a hot mess. So, this post is just my back peddling way of getting to the topic... if you just want my happy story, you'll have to wait for the next post. Before you go worrying that I'm all judgy, let me just say yes, I am... I hope not as badly as I could be. These are just my personal opinions, and I'm hardly an expert.

Every drop of breast milk a baby gets is a WIN! Not only that, but I'm super glad formula exists that works really well. Any other time in history the option was get breast milk or die. Although I may not be a big fan of formula, I'm a huge fan of babies not dying. Sinister marketing causing devastation among those living in poverty and costing industrialized nations billions in unnecessary costs? Sure, but still better than nothing, or sips of water, or cow's milk.

Let me just jump right into the controversy. Breast is not best. Yep, you read that right. Breast is not best. Breast is normal. The same way eating food through your mouth is not "best." You CAN eat through an IV or a tube through the side of your abdomen... but people generally agree that through the mouth is the way to go. So common is this agreement, that you have to stop for a second to come up with another way to do things. Generally, you only use those ways to get nutrients if you literally cannot do it through your mouth. That's my short story on breastfeeding. We, as a culture, should have to stop and think for a second, then look up and go "Hey, if you didn't have breast milk, what else could you use?"

Disclaimer 1: Some people cannot breastfeed. If the Mom dies, or no longer has tissue in her breasts, or the child is adopted, it is a great deal harder within our culture to get that child breast milk. Stimulating lactation in a person who has not recently given birth is pretty tricky. More importantly, we stopped nursing each others' children somewhere along with the invention of formula/when we stopped living with each other/when we viewed wet nursing as servant's work. Pick your poison on that one.

Lets say you'd like just the milk? To get breast milk from a breast milk bank is pricey... like $3 an ounce if you've got the prescription. Oh, and that milk has to be processed like cow's milk... as in a bunch of the good stuff is killed off so you don't get contaminated. Or, if you're more adventurous you can buy it in most states privately online for closer to $1 an ounce, but that's still pretty steep. Not to mention the weirdness factor for buyers, much less sellers. (The sites generally have disclaimers about stating if you're willing to sell your milk to folks not using it for feeding infants... we'll just hope that means cancer patients.) If you're really lucky, you'll have someone donate for you. But how does one offer? How does one ask? Of course, getting someone's breast milk at all in our litigious society means dealing with trusting someone else's body and taking on the responsibility of nourishing someone else's child. Just donating to a breast milk bank means going through a litany of tests and a comprehensive application process; all for a woman with a small child of her own.

Disclaimer 2: Our culture is full of "booby traps" that make it really hard for women who want to breast feed to do so successfully. There has been much written on the topic, but lets just summarize with a few thoughts.

First, formula is BIG money. You have to buy it, so someone is making money from that sale. If you use formula, you're likely to have a pretty strong brand loyalty since switching stirs up a hot mess of digestive issues. (Lets just say beetle bits are a pretty strong reason). So, if you're making your livelihood by selling formula, it is vitally important that you get folks to choose your brand ASAP. Hence marketing tactics like "gift bags" from the hospital. Seems nice enough, but if the formula is right there in your house when you hit the rough exhausted spot, it's crazy easy to give up and switch. I can hear a well-meaning Daddy's simple logic "You are SOO exhausted, just let me feed him over night so you can get some rest." Are formula companies evil? No. Are they in it for the cash? Of course.

Secondly, we tend to paint breast feeding as either super easy and natural or extremely difficult and/or painful. Really, like most things, it's not that simple. If, however, you believe either end of the spectrum, it's likely you'll be a little shocked to find out that it isn't true. Cognitive dissonance is a real kicker. It is also tricky to figure out how to get help. I, for example, thought everything was great but still requested a lactation consult. They don't do weekends so we got the quicky visit before checking out, if I hadn't begged the doctor who told me to supplement to use breast milk we'd have never been referred back to get that help. (I don't know where I thought I'd be getting that breast milk to use to supplement: see above). Furthermore, I hadn't yet been to a La Leche League meeting and, I know for those less extroverted than myself, the idea of walking into a room full of strangers to ask for help that might involve flashing your boobs, is more than a little intimidating.

Next, there's the issue of nursing covers. Because our culture has turned breasts into highly valued sex objects, it is difficult, if not impossible to view them as a purely functional baby feeding apparatus. Nor do I feel we should. I, personally, like the idea of being able to use my body for both sexual things and functional things. The trick comes in convincing folks that this is ok. Or even that viewing them as functional at all is ok. For some reason, our culture has decided that since boobs are sexy, any time we see them it means SEX. It wouldn't be so funny if we also treated bottles and nipples with the same fear and power.

*warning, mini rant*
I mean, really, which is weirder: me getting all animal planet and nursing my son or someone whipping out a rubber sex toy and shoving it into their child's mouth. You know, the artificial nipple it is OK to us in public? If babies eating offends you, I can understand, but you can't say one is ok but that the other is offensive... well you can, but you just sound silly.
*ok, I feel better*

Then, all that being said, we get to the idea of a nursing cover. Here I have a great deal of ambivalence. I own, and use, several, generally around people I know well and would feel weird if they saw under my shirt, not just the nipple, but my side and back. I figure strangers in public are fine, and, it's my body and my issue. On the other side, I know from research that women who use nursing covers are more likely to wean earlier and not meet their own nursing goals. I should note that I grew up in a really modest subculture. We're talking I feel guilty wearing tank tops or shorts that don't hit my knees kind of modest. While I wish it weren't true, nursing without a cover makes people about whom I care deeply VERY uncomfortable. They love me and they support me nursing my son, but it is a big stumbling block for them. It seems ironic that it is actually sexuality that makes this group uncomfortable when the act taking place is pretty much the least sexual thing I can imagine. Further irony, to me, is that WAY more people notice I'm nursing when I whip out my backwards super hero cape than when I just cuddle my baby and let him nurse. The nursing cover is the compromise that works for everybody right now.

I also realize that, lactivist though I may be, I cannot single-handedly change culture. I cannot change the fact that when the 17 year old boy at the coffee shop sees me nurse, he thinks "Boobs... oooh I LOVE big boobs!" I can help him learn that they are for babies first and other things second, but that involved initiating a conversation with which I am not comfortable. Furthermore, I cannot however get past how I feel about his sexualization of me and my baby (Yet!). So, if you feel you're more comfortable with a cover and it keeps you nursing, awesome. Do I think we ought to feel a nursing mother needs one? No.

Finally, we get to the struggle of women who need to pump. I didn't have to do it long, but I HATED it. I felt like a cow. I hated how detached it felt. I hated keeping track of every milliliter. For most women who work, maternity leave is six weeks. God forbid you're on bed rest for a week or two before the baby is born and need to return to work after just a few weeks of nursing. You're trying to keep up supply and balance your life while leaving your tiny infant in the care of someone else. Then, at work, finding a time and a place to nurse. Sure the legislation is on your side, but often it requires you being a pioneer and your own advocate. I cannot imagine the struggle. I could never blame a woman who, after giving her all, could not manage to do it.

In fact, that's my summary. I can't imagine blaming any individual woman for her choice of if and when to breastfeed. Again, every drop of breast milk is a win. All that being said, our society and culture have some serious issues. We are getting very high rates of women who intend to and even initiate breastfeeding, but still don't meet their own stated goals. We have women in third world countries who give their babies formula because they saw TV that said it was better; even when the formula they can afford to use is, by necessity, heavily diluted and mixed with filthy water. We've somehow convinced our culture that "Breast is best" yet are horrified when we see a child beyond a few months nursing despite research showin us that there are important nutritional benefits your toddler cannot get anywhere else (WHO and AAP are both saying through two years).

Long story short, if you know someone who is thinking about and/or trying to breastfeed, support her for as long as she chooses to do so. If you see her nursing her baby make eye contact and smile as you pass. Breastfeeding is important for all of us and our futures, lets get it together folks!


  1. Good for you, Christine! People just need to get over themselves. That said, I hope I can breastfeed for as long as possible when it comes time to do that. I'm not that comfortable with baring parts of my body either, but I would rather do breastfeeding (as my husband calls it, "milking" -- eyeroll)than put who-knows-what into my child. Milk away! ;)

  2. Great blog, Christine!
    I had a wonderful experience nursing in Monteverde, and all the rest of Costa Rica. Breastfeeding was pretty necessary, very well accepted...almost demanded! We had a close knit group,very supportive, and we nursed each others children when needed. I nursed 3 or 4 of my nieces at one time or another, and a few of my friends kids too. I also pumped and supplied a malnourished baby when Sheyn was a newborn. Now I wish I hadn't been so self conscious, and had nursed him, instead of sending bottles of my milk. He probably needed the closeness and comfort nearly as much as the nourishment. But I was new at it, and sorta shy (I got over that..LOL!).
    Anyway....I think your post was super!
    Keep up the good work. :)