Starving Our Young: Why Breast IS Best

About six months ago I found myself incredibly perplexed by an article I was reading in Pathways Magazine on the cultural issues surrounding breastfeeding. As the article opened up it recounted the incidence of a mother and her infant trapped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After days of being without access to food or clean water, the infant died of dehydration. The mother was eventually admitted to a medical facility only to ask the doctors on staff if they had anything to dry up her milk because she was experiencing breast discomfort. Reading this was heartbreak for me and for more reasons than few. This particular recount was a jarring reminder that some of us have rejected the course of nature to such an extreme that our assumed ignorance can have irreversible consequences. It made me ponder the likely possibility that some of us are blindly being strung into starving our own young.

Most of us have heard the term “BREAST IS BEST”. I have used this slogan in numerous conversations and on avenues to encourage and lift up this awesome act. But for me and many others this isn’t just a three letter sentence, it is a motto that we live by for both ourselves and our young. We view our bodies and their capabilities as the life source for our babies to grow, thrive and function optimally. And this notion isn’t by opinion alone; it’s backed up decades of research. Over the years, journals and publications alike have shown us that when children aren’t breastfeed, they are at increased risk for a myriad of issues including, but not limited to: immunological deficiencies, lower IQ scores, poor digestive function, increased risk of SIDS, ear infections, respiratory issues, vision and nerve dysfunction, metabolism disorders, improper bone development, Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. For mom, disobeying the natural act of breastfeeding can contribute to post-labor hemorrhage, an increased risk of metabolic syndromes, heart disease, diabetes, breast, uterine and cervical cancer, osteoporosis, fractures, and rheumatoid arthritis. And we haven’t even touched on the emotional benefits, yet, but let me assure you, they are vast.

In 2011, the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry published literature entitled, “Breastfeeding, Brain Activation to Own Infant Cry, and Maternal Sensitivity “reviewed previous published research and some of their own based on their findings of the differences between mothers who did and did not breastfeed. Their research reported, “Breastfeeding represents a set of maternal behaviors that enhance the emotional bond between mother and infant via close physical contact and affectionate dyadic interactions. Research has demonstrated that breastfeeding may contribute to the development of a range of sensitive maternal behaviors during the early postpartum period. For instance, breastfeeding mothers exhibit more interactive behaviors toward their infants, including touching and gazing, as well as more affectionate responses during feeding at one and three months postpartum in comparison with formula-feeding mothers. Compared with formula-feeding mothers, breastfeeding mothers have increased parasympathetic nervous system modulation, greater vascular stress response, lower perceived stress levels, and fewer depressive symptoms. Such close physical contact and protection from negative mood and stress may contribute to maternal attunement to the infant’s physical and mental needs.”

Most people are unaware that the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until the age of two. That’s right, world –TWO! Unfortunately, the CDC reported that in 2012, only 25.5% of mothers were still nursing their child after six months. When I have the opportunity to share The WHO’s guidelines for breastfeeding with my patients or friend and family, some people turn their face sour and grimace like I’ve just told them a dirty joke. The reality is that there are very serious implications to not breastfeeding and it’s no laughing matter. So how important is breastfeeding, anyway?

La Leche League International’s national bestseller (and bible of breastfeeding, in my opinion), “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” says this in regards to how important breastfeeding really is: “Extremely! There is almost nothing you can do for your child in his whole life what will affect him both emotionally and physically as profoundly as breastfeeding.” And to think that we’ve got people flinching at the mere thought of a woman breastfeeding her child past the age of six months, or in public, like it’s a rude act of sexuality. Get with the program, ignorant fools!

By now, I’m sure I’ve got some people reading behind their screen, conjuring up some serious feelings of anger towards me for suggestively pushing some assumed portion of judgment on them for not breastfeeding. Let us all get one thing straight before we move on. This blog is a space for ALL THINGS NATURAL, not a place for everyone to gather ‘round and sing kumbaya. I support, give evidence and project my residual opinion, though education and professional experience, all in an effort to make women feel empowered by the fact that we are fierce and unparalleled marvels of human intelligence. There is a difference between being issued the facts and being judged. My aim here is to give ample amount of evidence to allow you to make an informed decision, not to make anyone feel judged by the decisions they make for themselves or their families. I want women to own their bodies and their health, not feel like they’ve been rejected by it.

When it comes to the womanly art of breastfeeding and parenting, are we being manipulated by what society’s projected standard of importance is for a woman and her child or are we striving to become more familiar with how our bodies were designed to perform? Let me lay out for you a conversation I had with one of my close friends, Ashley, earlier this morning via text in regards to baby gifts, in general. I would like to preface this by saying she is neither pregnant nor a mother, but her insight is quite logical:

Ashley: “I can barely afford to get Griswold’s (her dog) nails clipped regularly. All these costs for baby gadgets make my uterus shrivel up in fear.”

Me: “Here’s the thing, though; babies don’t need STUFF. They need breast milk, a clean diaper and to be held. People get so hyper about supplying newborns with all this irrelevant crap. It’s silly.”

Ashley: “That’s what I always think when I see crazy crap! I always think women in other countries still live in huts and carry babies around on their backs. Why do we think they need a [explicit] whale-shaped humidifier with lights and sounds for 80 bucks?!”

The logical (and comical) point of this conversation, coming from a single woman nonetheless, is incredibly relevant to the point I’m trying to make. Women spend countless hours planning baby showers and filling up their registries, painting and furnishing rooms, compiling countless headbands and tutus and worrying about how much weight they are going to gain during a pregnancy. How frequent is it that you hear a woman exhorting as much time and angst over efforts to make sure she is prepared for giving her child something far more valuable than a perfectly painted wall in the nursery? We are doing such a poor job in this country of efficiently educating and properly preparing women for breastfeeding that we’ve got children being starved to death because of our lack of concern for it! Not only are we flat-out failing to identify this very real issue and under-utilize any and every possible resource to mentally and physically engage women to embrace such a natural and normal act for more than a few months, but we downplay it like it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Newsflash: Research has shown time and time again that both mom and baby are at both short and long-term illness and diseases when we don’t breastfeed!

Isn’t it presumable that if the woman who was stuck in the aftermath of a hurricane was a tad bit more privy to her body’s ability to nourish her infant, the child wouldn’t have succumb to death by dehydration? It’s possible. What is also possible is the notion that due to the negative feelings and attitudes about breastfeeding that we have built up over many years, we have inadvertently created a culture that supports, and in some cases even encourages, a standard that is sub-par. Our ignorance is leading to a nation that is essentially starving it’s young.

I personally know a lot of women who have had difficulties breastfeeding but what I’m beginning to realize is that a majority of these women were incredibly under-supported and without resources. It’s not my position to make an assumption as to why breastfeeding wasn’t successful for them but I would like to use their personal experiences, as well as my own, to encourage women that breastfeeding isn’t rocket science.

First and foremost, if you’re a mom, you NEED to own “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”. This book is an amazing resource and it was truly my go-to when I needed answers. Second, if you are birthing in a hospital, as a part of your birthing plan, DEMAND that you have a lactation consultant visit you multiple times to help latch baby and check for frenulum issues. Third, find a network of mothers who have nursed, preferably ones who has breastfeed multiple children and for long increments. I text and called my mother-in-law countless times during my first few months of being a new mother and she was a huge safety net for me. I have visited a Le Leche League and it was a great outlet for mothers to share struggles and triumphs and I would highly recommend this organization to anyone. Last but not least, and this is going to sound odd, but make sure you are enjoying motherhood. It has been my opinion that mothers who have a lot of anxiety (for any and all reasons) fail at breastfeeding. I won’t get into the hormonal effect cortisol has on oxytocin and milk let-down, but take my word for it.

As with any health advice I give to my patients or friends and family, or here on my blog, I want to encourage you to be exhaustive in your journey to discovering the abilities of your own body. Reading a blog isn’t going to make you the expert on any one issue, but it will hopefully give you the push necessary to seek out and make an informed decision. Let’s help build up women, families and cultures with the importance of nurturing our young with the benefits of breastfeeding. After all, breast is best.