It's World Breastfeeding Week again and this year it brings me to now fifteen total years of lactating I’ve put in. Whew! Seven babies raised so far with a few months of breaks here and there means I’ve spent the better part of the last decade and a half with a breastfeeding child. If this littlest one follows the same path, and it looks like he will, it'll be another two or so years on top of that. It feels a bit wild but I am also so grateful for the ability to have nursed all of them and the support (and sometimes downright stubbornness) that’s made it possible. I have no doubt that it has made a lifelong impact on the health and wellbeing of my children as well as my own health and growth in motherhood.
It hasn't been easy. There have been times when it was beyond difficult, in fact. There were so many times when it was painful, exhausting, or frustrating. There have been so many nursing sessions where I felt touched out, depleted, irritated, and would have liked to be anywhere else. I've navigated more than a few tongue ties, shallow latches, "lazy" babies, overactive letdown, oversupply, food sensitivities, bleeding nipples, mastitis, and of course, babies waking to nurse throughout thousands of nights. I think I can even say the hard moments have outnumbered the idyllic, oxytocin-laden, tender ones. (She's not really not selling this all that well yet, is she?)
Here's where I'm going: having pushed through those times, I am so very grateful I persisted and for the support around me, active or passive, to do that. I will never regret the times, as hard as they may have been in the moment, when I nursed those babies. There were times it was and is really difficult, yes, but it has been so worth it in so many ways.
I know that not every woman is able to – or even wants to – nurse for varying reasons and I know that this is a tender subject for many. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a beautiful, priceless gift to our children when it can be given. Every drop of milk given is an act of love. Women deserve to know the facts, the research behind, and the beauty of breastfeeding. Our babies deserve for us to make the best, most informed decisions we can for them in the unique circumstances we have. It is a tragedy when mothers and babies are not succeeding in breastfeeding simply because they don’t have the necessary support and information around them to do so. Overwhelmingly, that is the case when it comes to breastfeeding that ends prematurely. It's not because there is something wrong with mother or baby, though that happens. Far more often than not, it's because mom does not know the basic physiology and tenets of breastfeeding and milk production or does not have the support needed within her community, marriage, workplace, parish, family, etc. to keep it going, needed especially when it is difficult.
While I believe that most all women would be able to nurse their baby without any outside help – after all, her body was intentionally designed by God to do this! – we are created to live in relationship and community. When we have the support and accurate information from the community supporting the breastfeeding relationship, mothers, babies, and families can better thrive physically and emotionally. And when mothers, babies, and families begin to thrive, culture and society can then begin to thrive, too.
In my experience, the support to successfully breastfeed has come primarily from these sources:
My Husband – The support of the father of the baby is critical to the breastfeeding relationship. A loving and manly father and husband wants to see both his wife and child thrive and will do what he can to help that happen. When a mother feels guilt or shame from her husband for nursing or when there is a disordered sense of competition for the mother’s affection or body, it puts all of them at risk for dysfunction. Familiaris Consortio teaches, "In the family which is a community of persons, special attention must be devoted to the children by developing a profound esteem for their personal dignity, and a great respect and generous concern for their rights." This esteem for their dignity begins from the moment of conception and continues through infancy. When a mother feels free and has the emotional and practical support from her husband to nurse her baby whenever needed, wherever needed, the family and marriage is strengthened in love and self-sacrifice. When a mother knows that her husband is behind her 110% even when it means his own personal sacrifice, she can draw from that confidence and strength when things are hard. "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church," Saint Paul instructs in Ephesians.
A woman should never have to feel like she needs to make a choice between her husband and her baby. A husband is called to provide protection and love for both his wife and child and he should always seek to help his wife in providing for the natural needs of their baby. He can offer this in very practical ways – keeping the water bottle filled, bringing her the baby at night if necessary, feeding her, protecting her space postpartum, setting boundaries with extended family and friends, and helping her with other tasks around the house that she can’t get to because she’s nursing. He can also offer it in emotional and spiritual ways – learning with her, loving her and being sensitive to the many physical and hormonal changes she goes through while nursing, defending their choice to breastfeed to critics, praying for or blessing her and baby while nursing, and never placing his desires above the baby’s needs. I’m so grateful that my husband has been just this kind of support for me and our babies.
The Church – As a Catholic my Church doesn’t mandate that every mother breastfeed, of course, but she certainly supports and encourages that relationship. Being imbued with the sense that my body’s natural design from God is good and holy and worthy of respect was tremendously powerful in having the confidence that my body would provide what my baby needed. Knowing that the Church viewed my fertility as a gift, saw my womanhood as something of genius, and had a profound respect for my body’s design is incredibly empowering to me as a woman. Seeing beautiful artwork revered by the Church of the Virgin Mary bare-breasted and unashamedly nursing God Himself speaks volumes. A centuries long devotion to Our Lady of la Leche (Our Lady of the Milk) honoring the breastfeeding Virgin Mary and promulgated by the Church speaks even louder. Pope Francis has several times now encouraged mothers to breastfeed during Mass if needed and several popes have clearly encouraged and supported breastfeeding.
Pope Saint John Paul II even said this:
“From various perspectives therefore the theme is of interest to the Church, called as she is to concern herself with the sanctity of life and of the family. In practical terms, what we are saying is that mothers need time, information and support. So much is expected of women in many societies that time to devote to breastfeeding and early care is not always available. Unlike other modes of feeding, no one can substitute for the mother in this natural activity. Likewise, women have a right to be informed truthfully about the advantages of this practice, as also about the difficulties involved in some cases. Health-care professionals too should be encouraged and properly trained to help women in these matters.”
(Pope John Paul II, Address on Breastfeeding).
A woman with that kind of spiritual support and confidence imbued in her is in a much better position to not only trust her body and feel stronger in her decision but also gain extra strength and determination when difficulties do arise.
Doctors and Midwives – I’ve been blessed that the most influential providers in my early years of parenting truly supported breastfeeding. While I did struggle fiercely with my first and could have used some more proactive help, at no point did these particular providers ever question my ability to breastfeed or make me feel like I couldn’t do it. It was never forced but it was always truly valued. They helped when they could and gave resources for further help. The doctor and midwives who have been at my births have been knowledgeable in and supportive of breastfeeding not just in theory but in true practice. They understood and respected the breastfeeding relationship, knowing that it was more than just a source of food and impossible to replicate. Our first family doctor, when evaluating the health of our children, looked at the whole person and situation in front of him, rather than use misinformed growth charts, (often created basing their information on formula-fed infants whose growth follows a different pattern than breastfed infants). By the time we had to switch doctors years later, I was confident enough to know that the growth charts the new doctor used were problematic. Having health care providers that truly understand and know the value of breastfeeding and how much it differs in practice and effect from other feeding methods is unfortunately uncommon yet incredibly important. Having providers who believed that the female body was designed to feed her infant, and then acted that way, was invaluable.
Books and the Internet – The first parenting book I ever read was during the throes of difficulties nursing my first baby. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was game-changing for me as it taught me HOW breastfeeding worked. Understanding how the breastfeeding relationship naturally functioned gave me so much confidence as well as the ability to figure out problems as they came up. Countless are the times that I turned to that book or to online support sites or forums with questions. In a time when the female community is so different from ages past, when so many of us grew up without much exposure to or guidance in breastfeeding and are on our own to figure this all out, and when even many in the medical world are not credible sources of information on breastfeeding, these resources are often critical to breastfeeding success. They can play a role in reclaiming much of the feminine wisdom and collective memory that has been lost in modern culture.
Friends – I’m blessed to have lots of friends who nurse their babies and be in a community where it is common. While many of us do so for different lengths of time and in different ways and for a multitude of reasons, no one bats an eye or thinks it’s weird that a two year old is still nursing. Not one friend I know would expect a mother to hide in a different room (or worse, a bathroom!) when the baby is hungry. Nursing babies are welcome whether it’s a women’s group retreat or a ladies’ night out at a restaurant. It’s just normal to bring your nursing baby everywhere and everyone is always genuinely glad to see them or give mom's arms a break and hold the baby. Being able to comfortably bring a baby to an event, chat about the joy of nursing and vent about the struggles, troubleshoot issues, and simply feel normal and not at all self conscious when nursing creates an environment where mothers, babies, and the breastfeeding relationship can thrive.
It's interesting to me that lactations consultants/counselors/IBCLCs were not actually ever part of my real support system. With eighteen years being in the "mom world" and over a decade of birth work I respect the fact that many of them are incredibly helpful, compassionate, and can absolutely assist in turning a struggling nursing relationship around. I also have been able to witness that, just like any other profession, there's a wide range of abilities and skill. There are ones who have the credential required by their employer but who don't really have the much more important intuition, experience, or skillset to help a struggling mom. There are some that give terrible advice and some that give wonderful advice. There are some that project one issue onto every struggling mom like tongue tie or low supply and some that don't have a variety of tools and perspectives to pull from outside of a rigid training and overly academic standard of normal. Simply recommending a lactation consultant is not enough to help moms if the ones they utilize aren't actually all that helpful. However, a good one can be a key component in the support a mom needs to succeed in her breastfeeding relationship.
Every woman deserves to have the accurate information, emotional and practical support, and freedom needed to make an informed and empowered decision about breastfeeding that is best for her and her baby in her unique circumstances. It’s my prayer that we can continue to do better in offering that to every mother and child - in family, in community, in healthcare, in culture, in the Church, and in society as a whole.