Monday, June 28, 2010

A spiritual take on breastfeeding

I admit it, I'm a little obsessed with the topic of breastfeeding at the moment. Probably because it is finally working out well for us. It was doing okay up to now, mostly, but there were some issues due to some (very unhelpful) lactation consultants I saw in the hospital which are now worked out, at long last. I am very proud of myself, proud of the baby, and thankful.

I've been thinking a lot lately about all that nursing my baby teaches me about the spiritual life. After all, Catholics were pioneers of breastfeeding in the 60's and 70's, when almost everyone was told to bottlefeed. They founded the La Leche League -- under the patronage of Nuestra Senora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of Milk and Good Birth) -- to support and educate breastfeeding mothers. Now the organization isn't officially Catholic, but you can still find a lot of Catholics there. After all, Mary didn't exactly stop and shake up a bottle on the flight to Egypt!

The bible is full of references to breastfeeding. In the book of Maccabees, the heroic mother of seven martyred sons tells one of them, "Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age." Nursing well into toddlerhood was quite common. Then in the Gospels, the woman cries out from the crowd, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you nursed!" Best of all are the metaphors:

"Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort,
That you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!
For thus says the LORD:
Lo, I will spread prosperity over her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.
As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap;
As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you;
in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort."

Although God is usually referred to as a Father, here He compares Himself to a mother, one who comforts and nourishes us. Jerusalem is a nursing mother with plenty of milk.

This metaphor is very meaningful to me, because I truly feel that I understand God a lot better as I nurse my son. Being a mother means being, in a small way, like God. Nursing is giving of myself -- like the mother pelican who was supposed to pierce her breast to feed her young with her blood, who is an ancient symbol of Christ.

Medically speaking, there are many reasons why I feel so very emotional about nursing. The two main hormones in a breastfeeding mother, prolactin and oxytocin, are strongly mood-altering. Prolactin governs the production of milk. It produces nurturing feelings in the mother; in fact, prolactin injected into a male rooster will cause him to gather chicks under his wings like a mother hen does. It also has a great balancing effect on the moods, making the mother feel calmer. When I was pregnant, if John said the wrong thing, I was all over him. I would tell him exactly how he was wrong, and sometimes I would cry. Now, I can have a baby screaming in my ear at the moment when he says the offensive sentence, and it really doesn't bother me the same way. I'm annoyed, but I generally shut my mouth and let it go. Prolactin actually makes it easier for me to be patient! A very necessary virtue for the mother of an infant. Another handy effect is lighter sleep -- you can be roused more easily and fall back asleep more easily. Believe me, I need that!

The second hormone, oxytocin, is responsible for (among other things) milk let-down. Once the baby's been nursing for a couple of seconds, oxytocin is released and milk rushes down for the baby. Oxytocin is popularly called the "bonding hormone" because it promotes a feeling of intense love and happiness. (It is also released during labor and sexual intercourse.) I'm not sure scientists yet know exactly how it affects the brain in order to "imprint" the person you're with as the person you're bonded to -- but it does act in this way. John often laughs at me as I stare down at the baby while he's nursing and start gushing about how wonderful he is. "Look at him," I'll say. "Look at the way he's looking up at me! Look at his little fingers! Look at his eyes! Don't you just love him? Don't you?"

I think these two hormones are absolutely necessary for navigating the hard job that is motherhood. I just don't know how bottlefeeding mothers manage.

Breast milk is naturally adaptive. When the baby is first born, he is fed with colostrum, the thick yellow milk that's full of antibodies. After a few days (signaled by the delivery of the placenta) this turns to true milk. This milk undergoes slight changes as the baby matures. Milk made at nighttime also contains chemicals that induce sleepiness. Milk at the beginning of a feed (foremilk) is more watery and thirst-quenching, while milk at the end of a feeding (hindmilk) is fattier and more filling.

The amount is also adaptive. When the milk first comes in a few days after birth, there is an almost limitless amount -- way more than the baby needs. But by about six weeks, the supply regulates so that it's just the amount baby needs. Whenever the baby goes through a growth spurt and needs more to eat, he nurses more frequently (well, almost constantly). After a day or two, the milk supply increases in response to his needs. When the baby begins to wean, eating more solid food, the milk supply decreases. There is always just the amount the baby needs.

With time, the mother's body becomes so responsive to the baby's needs that her milk will begin to let down when the baby cries -- or even before! It always astounded me the way my mother used to say, "The baby must be hungry -- my milk's coming in," and then a moment later, he would wake up and cry. I'm still not quite sure how that works!

Since prolactin represses fertility, a woman will rarely become pregnant while her baby is still nursing exclusively. The longer and more frequently he nurses, the longer the infertility will last -- so a "difficult" baby will end up with more time as the youngest child than an "easy" baby will. Again, it adapts to the baby's needs.

In order for this perfect attunement to happen, the mother and baby should be virtually inseparable. Separation will throw off the balance. When the balance is thrown off, the usual suggestion is to bring the baby very close -- to spend as much time as possible with the baby right against your skin. Often this is enough to increase the milk supply to fit the baby's needs. I have only been without the baby once since he was born: for a bit over an hour, to get my hair cut. I decided John and the baby could stay home, since I was only going to be two blocks away and could rush home (with my hair half cut!) to take care of him. I spent the entire time thinking about the baby and worrying about him. I was so glad to rush back home and scoop him up into my arms again! A nursing mother and child are sometimes referred to as the "mother-baby dyad" because they are like a single unit in their inseparability.

Okay, so how does this function as a metaphor for God? Well, think about how close God is to us -- as close as a nursing mother, who simply won't leave her baby for a minute in the hands of a stranger. When we cry out, we don't have to wail and wail for help, like a baby left far away in a crib -- no, God has heard us before we even cry, and rushes to us with overflowing mercy. It isn't a burden for God to attend to our needs, but a joy.

The best verse of all on this topic is this: "Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you." As a mother, staying as close to my child as I do, I realize how utterly ridiculous is the notion that I could forget my baby. It's like saying, "I forgot to put on my feet this morning," or, "Oh, I have to run back and grab my arm." Even if I was separated from him for awhile, my overfull breasts would make me remember. If it's been too long since he's nursed, they actually become painful, and I hover over the crib, thinking, "Wake up! Wake up! I want to feed you!" Isn't that how God is when we fail to pray to Him? He tells us, "Wake up! Pray! Ask Me for something! I am so overflowing with graces for you, it hurts!"

Yes, when I nurse my baby, I feel like I understand God better. I identify with Mary, and with Jesus on the cross. It is such a joy to me to pour myself out completely for my son. Instinct makes this virtue come easily to me. I know it won't always be this way -- but I hope I always remember it.


Andriette said...

I absolutely LOVE this, just as I loved nursing my own babies and helping mother's to have success in their own experiences. Do you mind if I share this with my lactation nurse friends?

Andriette said...

Oops, ...mothers'

Sheila said...

Sure, go ahead!

Julia said...

I love this beautiful post! There are so many wonderful things you bring up that I had never thought about before but are so true! I also love all the references in scripture to nursing mothers.

Chelsea said...

Thank you so much for this post!
As I was reading, while nursing my daughter, I just shed tears of gratefulness, of complete love.
<3 peace be with you & your family!

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