The Breastfeeding Brain

IMG_9880I have many blog posts building up, but the bulk of my energy is devoted to lactation and newborn-cradling right now and I need to accept that as my current focus! (Or, I should learn how to write very short posts with one hand or even one finger–circumstances not very conducive to sparkling insights or sustained creative flow!). The picture above is of my favorite new nursing mama sculpture. Her deep redness reminds me of seeing thermographic images of lactating women at a La Leche League International conference in 2007. The chests of the women in the slides were brilliant swirls of red, orange, and yellow energy. The thermographic images of non-lactating women were a blue-green color. The speaker was Peter Hartmann, a researcher from Australia, on the topic of “The Anatomy of the Lactating Breast.” It was a keynote luncheon speech, so we all chowed down on our salads and looked at thermographic images of lactating breasts at the same time. It was awesome and I still wonder what the Chicago Hilton staff made of our luncheon “entertainment”! This evening I dug out my notes for the exact numbers and 30% of the mother’s resting energy in the body is diverted towards lactation, while 23% of her resting energy goes to the brain. This demonstrates biologically the intense amount of importance nature places on lactation. It also demonstrates why a nursing mother may feel “fuzzy” or like she can’t think (or write blog posts!) like she used to, because literally, the energy formerly being used by her non-lactating brain is now centralized in her brilliantly colorful chest (baby’s habitat)! Hartmann said that lactating breasts are “on fire” and non-lactating breasts are “cool,” indeed the chest of the lactating mother is of a higher temperature. And, the mother’s chest can adjust by several degrees in response to her baby’s body temperature.

IMG_9973

Re-reading these notes led me to then re-read notes from Nils Bergman, MD’s lunchtime presentation about “Mother-Baby Togetherness: The Biological Needs of the Baby for the Mother” as well. I’ve referenced this presentation before in my article The Birth-Breastfeeding Continuum. This extremely high-energy, enthusiastic, and fast-paced presentation by Bergman remains, to date, one of the most powerful and impactful conference sessions I’ve ever attended about any topic, ever. He was passionate about the concept of the mother as baby’s habitat. Literally, the mother’s chest is the “maternal nest” after birth, providing the baby’s home for at least the next six months after birth. He shared that there are four patterns of mammalian infant care patterns: cache, follow, nest, and carry. Homo Sapiens are a “carry” species. Human milk is very low in protein “which suggests that human newborns should be continuous feeders.” I have long joked that babies nurse at the precise rate of speed of their digestion. Biologically, this turns out to be true!

Bergman cited research from Gallagher that, “through hidden maternal regulators…a mother precisely controls every element of her infant’s physiology from its heart rate to its release of hormones and from its appetite to the intensity of its activity.” Breastfeeding provides ALL of the sensory stimulation a baby needs and is “an invisible hothouse in which the infant’s development can unfold,” with breastfeeding quite literally providing brain wiring for the baby. The brain is a social organ and breastfeeding is about creating love as much as it is about food. And, the mother herself is the baby’s natural environment with everything the baby learns filtered through the mother’s body. Bergman was emphatic that separation from mother feels life-threatening to the baby, because it is in the “wrong place” when it is not with mother. “The universal response to separation (wrong habitat) is protest.” And, a period of intense activity trying to find the habitat and restore the rightful state of being. The Motherbaby is a single psychobiological organism. Bergman also said that the mother doesn’t need to specifically DO anything—“just by being she meets all baby’s biological needs.” And, mother herself has a biological need to hold and care for her baby.

So…this is me right now with Tanner, exactly. His habitat. His place. Where everything is just as it should be.

One thought on “The Breastfeeding Brain

  1. Pingback: Thursday Tidbits: The Return | Talk Birth

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