Wednesday, September 29, 2010

AP Principle 2: Breastfeeding

Okay, it's been hashed out time and again the many, many reasons why human milk is better for babies than formula. (Even more lately: the big item in the news right now is that Similac has been recalled due to contamination with bug parts! Gross.) But it's an attachment parenting principle as well, not because of the health benefits, but because of the emotional attachment it encourages.

In other words, it's not supportive of attachment parenting to pump the milk and prop the baby up with

a bottle on a strict schedule. The health benefits are there, but the attachment is totally missing. However, the bright side is that bottle-feeding mothers can practice "bottle nursing" by feeding the baby on cue, however much he wants (instead of pressuring him to finish the bottle), while snuggling him up against her. The important thing, for attachment purposes, is the snuggling, not the quality of the milk. However, as I've mentioned before, the nursing mother receives such a hormonal boost that attachment will be easier with actual breastfeeding.

It's easy to see how snuggles and touching built right into the daily schedule would be a good thing. When you nurse your baby, you can't "forget" to get plenty of cuddles in, and you certainly aren't likely to be leaving your baby with a nanny while you pursue your own interests. Instead, you'll be keeping your baby close throughout the day (as I do at work and on my errands) and holding him whenever he wants.

Another advantage is what is called "demand feeding" or "cue feeding." This simply means feeding your baby when he is hungry. Rather than expecting a baby to adapt to our schedules, we adapt the stronger to the weaker, and change our schedules based on what the baby needs. A mother gets very good at reading her baby's signs that might mean he's hungry. When Marko was little, he sucked his fists and turned his head from side to side like he was looking for something. Now, I mostly just feed him when he's fussy and I realize it's been awhile, though sometimes he noses around for a quick snack when I'm holding him.

Keep in mind that there's no real way to tell beforehand between "just wants to nurse" and "actually hungry." Babies nurse for comfort as well as food, and you can't really tell which one he wants. Sometimes a baby will truly be hungry even when he's just eaten. Sometimes I think the baby must be starved, when really he only wants a sip before wiggling to get down again. It's not a big deal, because I can provide for his comfort needs and his food needs easily, without having to know which are which.

You can see, then, that this is more than just a feeding choice. It's a whole method of parenting a baby, incidentally the same one that I saw my parents use with my younger siblings. It works, it leads to happy babies, and there is no guesswork as to what the baby needs -- you let the baby tell you what he needs. No counting of ounces necessary!

* * *

You may have noticed that I tend to avoid the terms "breastfeeding" and "breast milk." This isn't because I'm embarrassed by those terms. No, it's because I find them a little too clinical. "Breastfeeding" suggests a feeding method, as opposed to formula feeding. So it's useful for distinguishing the two feeding methods, but in other contexts, it seems to call undue attention to the feeding method. For instance, do you ever hear anyone say, "I saw someone formula feeding her baby on the bus"? No, you'd say, "I saw someone giving her baby a bottle on the bus." And yet if a woman nurses her baby, I'm always hearing that she was "breastfeeding" with a tone of horror, and the assumption is always that she was baring her chest for the whole world to see. Generally speaking, she wasn't; but the word draws attention to her breast all the same, whether it was showing or not. Breastfeeding suggests something odd, unusual, uncommon; something you have to get set up in your special chair to do; something you probably aren't doing for a long time. Nursing suggests simply caring for your baby, which you can do anywhere and don't need any particular supplies for. It's just a question of connotation and how the two words strike me.

As for "breast milk," well, do we call cows' milk "udder milk"? Does a cat feed her young with "nipple milk"? No, and that sounds a little ridiculous! But when someone hears that a bottle of milk sitting in the fridge is "breast milk," it all of a sudden sounds like this weird thing. Like it's dirty or gross. It brings mental images of breasts into the mind, obviously, which does make some uncomfortable. But human milk, the milk made by and for humans, doesn't seem nearly so odd. Rather, it makes perfect sense that babies are drinking human milk rather than cows' milk, or perhaps wolf's milk like Romulus and Remus.

* * *

Which brings me to a further point, which is that I never thought of bottlefeeding as standard and nursing as extra good. Yet many people to act as if it is. They say things like, "I could do the normal thing and give bottles, or I could give the baby a special food, cut his risk of ear infections and SIDS, raise his IQ, and lose that baby weight faster!"

For me, it was more like, "I could do the normal thing and nurse this baby, or I could give him an inferior food, increase his risk of ear infections and SIDS, decrease his IQ, and have the baby weight hanging around for months!" Why would I want to do that, if I had a choice?

When we struggled so much with nursing, I had no desire at all to give up. Some people seem to work at it just so they can say they gave it the old college try before switching to bottles, which is what they really wanted to do in the first place. In my case, I would never have stopped mourning our nursing relationship, and I know I would have felt bad about every bottle. Not because "people are making me guilty," but because I treasure our nursing times so much and would hate to have him finding comfort in a bottle instead of in me.

A breastfed baby has all his wants and needs met in his mother. That's certainly the kind of start I wanted to give my baby -- the knowledge that here, in these arms, are safety and comfort and love and satisfaction. Long after he's weaned, I hope that knowledge stays with him.

Related posts:

AP Principle 1: Birth Bonding

Intro to Attachment Parenting


Dr. Thursday said...

I suddenly realized (with a shock of delight) that a nursing mother is perhaps the most perfect and literal example of Subsidiarity. I don't have room here to explain; it is apparent from the definition, and a grand challenge to those who still distort Subsidiarity to refer only to goverments or economics. If you need to know more, see here for an introduction. Bear in mind that even the Angels practice Subsidiarity as they chant God's praises: the superior assist the inferior in their work: and so the mother assists her child with something he cannot do on his own: his work of growth. Amazing. I may have to add another chapter...
Thanks, Sheila!

Sheila said...

Leave it to you to find Subsidiarity everywhere! But I can see how that is. The higher rung of the ladder exists to serve the lower.

In fact, all parenting is kind of like that. :)

MichelleKendall said...

I thought this might be something interesting to you. Sorry about how untimely these comments are - I'm still back in 2010 and getting current!

I desperately wanted to get my son to nurse, but as you read in my post on silent reflux - my son just wasn't on board with eating let alone nursing.

So I did my best to create as close an environment to nursing as possible. When we weren't out in public, I took him up to his room where the rocker is for feedings. I stripped naked from waist up, stripped him down to his diaper, and held him to me skin-to-skin. I sang to him while he ate (he's always loved music, even in the womb) and stared into his eyes.

Nursing was better, but there's something magical about the look a baby gives you when he's eating, even if it isn't exactly on your terms.

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