Like all of life, breastfeeding occurs in a context. While it is easy to simplify it down to a matter of “personal choice,” the issue is really much broader than that and people often overlook the powerful influence of the systems surrounding them on the accomplishment of women’s breastfeeding goals.
This article takes an in-depth look at why breastfeeding, and the benefits of breastfeeding, don’t need to be “debunked” or have a “case” made against them. (My only critique of the article is that it falls into the comfortable default of “formula as the norm,” by saying things about how babies that breastfeed have a health advantage. Actually, they don’t. What they have is a normal species-appropriate immune system developed in direct response to a diet of species-specific milk.) It is a long read and covers a lot of important ground so settle in…
What the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many other organizations failed for too long to note, however, is how difficult breastfeeding can be. Yes, they showed the world how beneficial breastfeeding was, and, yes, they helped design policy to ease the transition back to work. But the messy, exhausted moments that change a mother’s mind about breastfeeding? The bleeding nipples, the crying baby, and the paralyzing fear that the baby’s not eating enough? The back-to-work struggle and the boyfriend who thinks breastfeeding is dirty?
Those were, for a long time, left out of the breastfeeding conversation beyond a cursory, “Yes, it will be hard, but it will be worth it.” It’s this difficulty, and the fact that it remains unaddressed in many ways, that drives so many women to start supplementing with formula or to stop nursing altogether.
The most frequently cited challenges associated with breastfeeding include pain, supply issues, work-related pumping issues, and lack of support.
Luckily, breastfeeding also develops species-appropriate cranial development, jaw structure, and facial development. This also in-depth article looks at how the motions of breastfeeding shape and develop the skull and jaw muscles for life (at the end it also has some interesting comparisons of the shape of infant skulls after chiropractic adjustment soon after birth). Again, it uses language that implies breastfed babies receive a “benefit” in this area, while in reality breastfed babies simply have normal craniofacial development.
When we swing too far towards the science of breastfeeding though, we overlook the intense emotional impact of new parenting and the widespread lack of sociocultural support for healthy parenting, especially parent-baby togetherness. This is the context in which breastfeeding occurs and it is often one that actively or passively sabotages the breastfeeding pair. This mother writes heart-wrenchingly, and all too familiarly, about her postpartum experience:
I have many days when I feel truly well, and I have other days when I wonder if I’m still climbing. But in the meantime, I’m living life, I’m enjoying lots of moments and not enjoying others and learning to be fine with that. Because when well-meaning people tell you to “enjoy every moment” they are setting an unrealistic goal for any parent. Many aspects of parenthood are simply not enjoyable. Instead, I focus on feeling every moment, good and bad. If I feel afraid, that’s okay, I just sit with it and let it pass. If I feel sad, I allow myself to cry. And if I feel happy I clutch that joy to my chest and absorb it into my soul, and try to keep it safe forever.
Another powerful systemic variable is our national workplace culture and the lack of reasonable parental leave:
When it comes to women and work, the largest myth of all is that working is somehow optional. Like men, women work for personal fulfillment and a passion for their job. Also like men, women work to support themselves and their families, and always have. The reality in the United States today is that earning money is an absolute necessity for the vast majority of women. And the sad truth is that we aren’t doing anything to support them or their families — not because we can’t, but because we won’t.
I often feel puzzled and angry with myself about why I can’t do everything in one day. “Is it really so much to ask?” I say, waking each morning with the optimistic faith that during that day I should surely be able to eat adequate food, exercise, play with my kids, spend time writing/reading/personally enjoying something, work on my many projects, and go to bed/wake up at a decent hour every day. Unfortunately, it apparently is too much and the most we can hope for is to “pick three”:
This sounds harsh, but it’s true, according to a recent interview with Storenvy founder Jon Crawford on Founder Dating. “Work, sleep, family, fitness, or friends–pick three. It’s true. In order to kick ass and do big things, I think you have to be imbalanced. I’m sure there are exceptions, but every person I’ve seen riding on a rocket ship was imbalanced while that rocket ship was being built. You have to decide if you want it,” Crawford declares.
And, while picking three, things slip away. As I’ve written before, my daughter fell asleep with her head on my arm every night for nearly four solid years until Tanner was born. Now, her opportunity to fall asleep on my arm is hit or miss, depending on whether my arm is occupied with him, and increasingly, even when I do wiggle an arm free for her, she only lies on it for a few minutes before she says, “I’m going to lay in my own bed now,” where she then lies, snuggling her pile of pandas, until she falls asleep.
I tried to capture her smallness. I tried to hold on to the last breaths of her babyhood. But try as I might, it has slipped right out of my grasp. Despite my efforts to slow down and enjoy every moment since everyone told me it goes so fast… all I have left are memories and photographs.
But it doesn’t mean that I can re-live it. Not really. Some of my favorite memories of her as an infant will always be of bedsharing. She always started the night in her own bed, but after her first wake-up of the night, I’d scoop her out of her room and bring her into our cozy nest to feed her and quickly soothe her back to sleep. And for the most part that meant that we all got more sleep… except for the times I’d find myself staring at her while she slept. I’d watch her tiny chest move up and down, and memorize every little detail of her perfect little face. I’d think to myself this is crazy, what are you doing, go to sleep. But those memories, in the dead of night, the ones where there aren’t any pictures – are the clearest in my mind’s eye.
This nighttime savoring may also be due to actual addiction to baby-head-sniffing…
Most of the women struggled to pinpoint the baby smell, although they generally said it was a pleasant one. Their brains, however, told a different story. When sniffing the baby pajamas, the dopamine pathways in a region of the brain associated with reward learning lit up, LiveScience reports. Other odors, like those of delicious foods, trigger this pathway, and the same dopamine surge is also associated with satiating sexual and drug-addiction cravings. This mechanism influences us by triggering “the motivation to act in a certain way because of the pleasure associated with a given behavior,” Medical Xpress writes.