November 03, 2011
I have to admit… thus far in my column I’ve been writing with a safety net. I’ve found willing editors who let me run with stories of parental discovery, who rarely censor my tales of triumph and woe and who appreciate our daughter roaming the halls of the newsroom. My aim has been to share the agony and the ecstasy of being a new parent, to cultivate community and solidarity through story. In the process, I’ve discovered the spectrum of baby behavior and parenting styles is wide. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as an expert in anything ‘baby’.
However, after almost a year of on-demand nursing, I have a thing or two to say about a topic still very close to my heart- literally- that topic is breastfeeding.
First of all, (and I just have to get this off my chest) did you know that there are several documented cases of men lactating? This isn’t some Halloween trick- I kid you not. If you do some reading about this rare phenomenon it will surely bend your mind. In the end, mammary glands are mammary glands. Everyone has them and apparently even the males of our species can use them to nourish a baby. And yet, as we approach our daughter’s first birthday, the breast has become a focal point of scrutiny. The question I get most often these days, “How long do you intend on breastfeeding?”
I remember sitting in the car in a parking lot when our daughter was just a month old. I was breastfeeding her when a woman sitting in a large truck parked beside us, got out and motioned for me to roll down my window. I thought, ah ha, here we go. I’m going to have to defend my legal right to breastfeed in public. I was ready to go head to head with anyone who challenged me on this, but instead she said, “I just weaned my son and he’s two and a half. Keep going, even though it’s hard, you’ll never regret it.” I remember thinking she was making quite a to do about nothing. But as I approach the year mark of nursing, I must admit to having fantasies about a day when my little darling might self-wean and I could morph from ‘milk maiden’ to independent ‘me’ once again. If only more dads could share in the breastfeeding spotlight maybe moms would keep at it a little longer. I feel privileged to continue to nourish our daughter with mother’s milk- but it isn’t easy.
Breastfeeding is one of the most natural things in the world but I understand why it’s not for everyone. In the long-term, the act can be downright political and even controversial, not to mention time consuming to a (person’s) schedule. Although the world average age for weaning is around four years, I’ve heard many a joke regarding toddler’s breastfeeding until they’re three, four, and beyond. My own resolve to keep going comes from the fact that I was not breastfed. Perhaps as a result, combined with other dietary/environmental factors; I was a very sickly little kid. I will go to great lengths to insure our daughter has every chance at a strong immune system.
Although scientists are still learning about the specific components of breast milk, most agree breastfeeding is crucial to your child’s immunity. You might even win an award for it. Recently, the Idaho WIC program (providing supplemental food for low income Women, Infants and Children) was awarded a $1.1 million high performance bonus for encouraging one of the highest breastfeeding rates in the nation. According to a recent post on the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Web site, “Breastfeeding is a primary focus of the WIC program because of the health benefits for both mother and the infant. Breastfeeding will be the norm in Idaho for at least the first year of life and preferably longer.”
In one U.S. Department of Health study conducted in 2003, only 14.2 percent of all babies were exclusively breastfed when they were 6 months old. According to the book, Breastfeeding- ‘Bicultural Perspectives’, most large mammals nurse their young until they’ve quadrupled their birth weight. In humans, that would mean breastfeeding until 2.5-3.5 years of age!
With all of the health advantages gained by prolonged breastfeeding, why would anyone choose anything else? Aside from obvious medical conditions, there are plenty of reasons why mothers abandon the practice. Even with the advent of the breast pump there is a lot of coordination and juggling that has to occur for prolonged breastfeeding success. Clogged milk ducts, milk supply issues, engorged breasts, nipples that leak, and babies who bite don’t exactly serve as encouragement.
So to all those moms out there who’ve gone the distance, I salute you. And to all those dads who’ve attempted to let a baby suckle at their breast, you get a gold star! (The National Breastfeeding Helpline 1-800-994-9662).
Countless scientific studies have shown that breastfed babies have higher immunity to resist ailments including ear infections, asthma, and reduced instances of lower respiratory infections, type two diabetes, childhood obesity and allergies. Some conclude that babies who breastfeed the longest score higher on IQ tests. Both children and their mothers share the health benefits of breastfeeding. Women who breastfeed are at lower risk for brittle bones, ovarian and premenopausal breast cancer. In addition, breastfeeding is one of the most cost effective and convenient ways to feed your child.
With many women returning to the workplace shortly after giving birth, the challenges in maintaining a vigorous full-time breastfeeding schedule in the middle of a full-time workweek can be a tall order. Some employers are only recently coming around. In 2010, President Obama amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require employers to allow nursing mothers the space (outside the bathroom) to express breast milk for one year following the birth of their child.
Age, ethnicity and socioeconomic factors can play a role in women’s choice to breastfeed. Breastfeeding taboos left over from the Victorian era, and later reinforced by pervasive “formula is best” advertising campaigns of the 60’s, left many women with the belief that the breast wasn’t the most nutritious way to feed their babies.
It’s no wonder that the project for Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health promotes breastfeeding initiatives and activities.