This Breastfeeding Specialist Says Breast Isn’t “Best”

I hate the phrase “breast is best.”  It’s one of those alliterative, simplistic phrases that strangers love to bestow upon new mothers like it’s the fucking Hope Diamond.  You know what it really is? A dog turd wrapped in tinfoil.  As cynical as I know I can be, I truly believe that these people have good intentions.  Elderly grandmothers aren’t walking around thinking, “Aww, look at that precious new baby! Let me go over there and make that mom feel like shit!”  But breast is not “best” for everyone.  Blasphemy, I know!  They might revoke my lactation credentials for this, but it’s the truth, and I promised no bullshit.  Here is a list of women for whom breast is not always best: women with insufficient glandular tissue, women with preexisting medical problems, women prescribed certain dangerous medications, women who have been the victims of assault, women who drove themselves to the brink of insanity trying to breastfeed through low milk supply, oversupply, cracked and painful nipples, mastitis, or any other of the multitude of problems that can crop up and they just can’t do it anymore.  Or…wait for it…women who just don’t fucking want to breastfeed!  Part of the beauty of the 21st century, mamas, is that you have autonomy over your own body.  If you just carried around a parasite the size of a watermelon and you’re not digging the thought of sharing your body with the cute little alien life form anymore, that’s your prerogative. We’ve got formula for that.

To say our society sends mixed messages to mothers about infant feeding would be a tremendous understatement.  I hear stories of my friends shamed for bottle-feeding their kids, just like I hear stories of my friends shamed publicly for breastfeeding.  “We encourage women to breastfeed their children because of the numerous health benefits of breastmilk, but breastfeeding is experienced in a social and cultural context (1). Incidents of breastfeeding mothers who are scorned for feeding their children in public places are reported frequently on local and national news outlets. This public outcry is a testament of American cultural views that breastfeeding is an unacceptable practice that should occur only in private spaces” (Spencer & Khaki, 2015).  So here is what society is really saying: breast is best unless you’re going to do it in front of me, in which case you’re a disgusting attention-whore, and you should just give that baby a bottle before I glimpse some mommy side-boob.”

I became a lactation consultant because after struggling through the early days with my first daughter who was a month premature, I made it my mission to learn everything there was to know about breastfeeding.  It was fascinating to me.  Our bodies create this life-sustaining fluid that is perfectly designed for our babies by thousands of years of evolution.  It becomes more individualized to each baby’s specific needs with every feed, demonstrating the beautiful connection between mother and child that happens on a microscopic level.

It was empowering for me to see, when I trusted my body, what it was capable of.  But I’m not so self-centered as to think that my experience applies to everyone (which is why I rely on research to shape the advice in this book).  I believe that women who choose to feed their babies this way should receive all the support they need to meet their goals, because as much as society loves to chime “breast is best” they don’t do much to help mothers succeed.  I also believe that women are intelligent, autonomous individuals who should be armed with accurate information and then allowed to make their own choices.  Whether you decide to breastfeed or bottle feed, make the decision that is best for YOU and YOUR BABY.  Leave all the advice and expectations your in-laws, your friends, and society has out of the picture.  Fuck that noise.  And please, I am begging you, never think of yourself as a failure for feeding your baby formula.  Babies thrive on formula too.  Let’s change the mantra from “breast is breast” to “mama knows best.”

Reference

Spencer, B., & Khaki, A. (2015). Whose breasts are they anyway? International Journal of Women’s Health and Reproduction Sciences, 3(2), 75-76. Doi: 10.15296/ijwhr.2015.13

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What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Breastfeeding

Here’s something nobody tells you about breastfeeding: you probably won’t want your partner to touch your breasts, like, ever again.  You might as well hang a sign on them that says “BACK THE FUCK OFF” because your baby can’t read but your significant other sure as shit can.  Sometimes I think that’s the only way he (or she) will get the hint.

One author noted that women and men she interacted with often ascribed ownership of their breasts to either their husband or their baby (Spencer & Khaki, 2015). As in, “they’re the baby’s food now so my husband will get his playthings back when I’m done nursing.”  This was just an observation that was written up as an opinion piece, so not solid research, but she blamed society at large for this phenomenon.  Society sells us the idea that we can be a sexual woman, and we can be a mother, but never simultaneously (Spencer & Khaki, 2015). Think back to when Sex and the City portrayed Charlotte & Trey’s troubles in the bedroom. (Am I dating myself with that one? Shit.)  Other researchers have theorized that women and their partners have a difficult time mentally separating the breasts as an organ for sexual pleasure and an organ for nurturing their innocent children (Convery & Spatz, 2009).  It is an understandably difficult leap to make.  Looking down at your breast and seeing your beautiful baby suckling is a sight that fills you with love, joy, pride, and maybe even euphoria.  Ten minutes later you’re supposed to look down to see a grown-ass man taking up that same spot and feel turned-on?  For some women, it’s totally possible, even enjoyable.  For others, a resounding NOPE.

Breasts and nipples can also be super sensitive during lactation (Convery & Spatz, 2009), and so things you used to enjoy may really just not feel the same.  My personal hunch (please will someone hire me to properly investigate all my hunches) is that lactational aggression is to blame.  In my experience, the feeling of anyone but my baby touching my breasts causes a very physical reaction.  I feel my whole body tense up and withdraw.  Think to any skin-crawling, “nails on a chalkboard”, icky sensation you’ve ever felt and amplify that x100.  The best way I can describe how I feel is to say it’s instinctive, primal, and angry.  Lactational aggression is a maternal behavior that has been extensively studied in animals, but it is just beginning to be researched in humans.  Because obviously the behaviors of lactating macaques, rats, mice, prairie voles, cats, deer, lions, rabbits, squirrels, and sheep should all be studied before actual human women (Hahn-Holbrook et al., 2011).  But I digress.  One human experimental study, although it was limited by a small sample size, found that breastfeeding mothers displayed heightened aggression compared to formula feeding mothers and to women who have never had a child (Hahn-Holbrook et al., 2011).  One unwelcomed reach towards baby’s food supply and BAM, mama bear is ready to rip you to pieces.  Funny how a baby sucking on your nipple with the force of a Dyson doesn’t hurt, but your partner grazing your nipple with a pinky makes you want to punch them squarely in the face.

References

Convery, K. M., & Spatz, D. L. (2009). Sexuality & breastfeeding: What do you know?. MCN: The American Journal Of Maternal/Child Nursing, 34(4), 218-223. doi:10.1097/01.NMC.0000357913.87734.af

Hahn-Holbrook, J., Holt-Lunstad, J., Holbrook, C., Coyne, S.M., & Lawson, E.T. (2011). Maternal defense: Breast feeding increases aggression by reducing stress.  Psychological Science, 22(10), 1288 – 1295. doi:10.1177/0956797611420729

Spencer, B., & Khaki, A. (2015). Whose breasts are they anyway? International Journal of Women’s Health and Reproduction Sciences, 3(2), 75-76. Doi: 10.15296/ijwhr.2015.13