The push to normalize breastfeeding isn’t intended to embarrass or minimize the ways that any parents feed their babies. There are important reasons to normalize breastfeeding: breastfeeding can improve health in babies and mothers, can decrease infant mortality, and can ease poverty.
For the first 6 months of your baby’s life, he or she has an immature digestive system. And this is when breastmilk is most important for these reasons:
- provides antibodies to protect baby from infection
- provides intestinal growth factors that colonize intestines with beneficial bateria
- helps to mature baby’s intestinal lining
- contributes to the development of a thick stomach lining to better absorb nutrients and protect against contaminants
- contains digestive enzymes that baby’s body does not yet produce in sufficient quantities
A baby’s immune system is also under-developed, fully maturing around 5 years of age. Breastfeeding provides immune cells that fight infection while also strengthening baby’s own immune system. Studies have shown that breastfed infants create more antibodies in response to vaccinations than formula fed babies.
None of which means that families who are able to raise healthy babies and children without mother’s milk should feel guilty for doing so.
No doubt that breastmilk has amazing properties. But that doesn’t mean that every breastfed baby will exhibit every benefit from nursing, or that any one non-breastfed infant will display any inferiority. Breastfeeding is one of the countless elements working in concert to grow and sustain a human body. It is not the end all and be all.
But it does mean that there are good reasons to promote breastfeeding, to make resources available so families have the information and help they need to overcome difficulties, and to normalize breastfeeding across the world so that mothers do not feel embarrassed or conspicuous when nursing children.
“Normalize breastfeeding” doesn’t mean eliminating or undermining other options. No one should feel guilty or embarrassed about feeding a baby. Sometimes pumped breastmilk in a bottle is the way a family is able to provide the benefits of breastfeeding. Others may be using donor breastmilk in bottles due to health issues. In some families for whom breastmilk is not available or preferred for a variety of reasons, bottles of formula sustain and provide vital nutrients to their children. For families without access to healthy formula or clean water, breastmilk (from the breast or in a bottle) can be a – literal – life saver.
We cannot know the reason why every family chooses one or the other. When we see a baby being fed we cannot tell if it is the usual way that baby is fed or an exception. You may feel some relief to know that you don’t have to wonder. Instead of wrestling with feelings, default to love and joy when you see a baby with a loving family. That is what the sight of a baby or child is designed to inspire!
Normalize Breastfeeding for Toddlers
When you see a nursing toddler, it means that the message of healthy breastfeeding is spreading. It means more and more families are considering it normal to nurse a toddler, enough that some mothers are able to comfortably nurse their toddlers in public.
And it also means more mothers, prospective mothers, friends and family members of mothers, and children who will one day be mothers and fathers, are being exposed to a nursing toddler as a normal, everyday occurrence.
After all, the benefits of breastfeeding for toddlers are real, both for nutrition and immunity (the immune system is usually fully developed around age 5).
The World Health Organization and UNICEF recommendations on breastfeeding are as follows: initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour after the birth; exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months; and continued breastfeeding for two years or more.
If your toddler doesn’t nurse, there is no reason to be concerned. Pretty much all toddlers eat solid food so it is unlikely anyone will presume anything when they see a toddler not nursing. And if anyone asks whether you still nurse your toddler, or how long you nursed your baby or toddler, you can reply, “As long as was right for us.” If you are supportive and non-judgmental, you are likely to be taken at your word.
Don’t let a smug or self-righteous person embarrass you. Remember that they are the one with bad manners, and they don’t make a formula replacement for that.
Nursing in Public; Not Only for Discrete Breastfeeders
Where breastfeeding is tolerated but not supported, mothers may feel as if they are doing something embarrassing, even shameful. Comparing breastfeeding to urinating or sex, does not inspire pride or confidence.
The breastfeeding relationship can suffer not only from the resulting emotions, but also because the physical let-down of milk responds best to relaxation. A mother who is determined to give her baby the benefits of breastmilk even though she must excuse herself from polite company every time baby is hungry, or stay close to the house for the first 6 months of motherhood, is much likelier to call it quits sooner after 1, 4, or 6 months.
However, a breastfeeding mother who feels supported and welcomed as a breastfeeding mother, who is treated normally even while breastfeeding, and who sees other mothers breastfeeding comfortably around her, is likelier to be able to provide her baby with the benefits of nursing for a much longer time, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the World Health Organization.
Women who are not yet mothers are more likely to nurse if they see other women nursing – normally, comfortably, without causing a scene – throughout their lives.
Treating nursing mothers with respect inside and outside of the home will increase the average number of months that babies will be nursed. It will encourage more new mothers to nurse their babies. It will show that we really do want babies to be breastfed in our communities.
Don’t second guess the mother. If she’s more comfortable going somewhere discrete, let her. If she wants to use a cover, let her. If she wants to continue her discussion while casually latching baby onto the breast, just follow her cue and carry on the conversation.
If you have been raised where breastfeeding moms were kept out of sight and are not comfortable with that scenario, politely excuse yourself for any small reason without pinning it on the breastfeeding mother.
Don’t ask a mother to cover up if she is not inclined to do so. It doesn’t work for every mom. Some babies won’t nurse under cover, or will tear the cover off. Covers also interfere with airflow and can cause baby to become overheated. Covers are not the solution. They are one more thing that, if a mother can’t make it work, it may sabotage her success and contribute to weaning her baby onto a bottle.
Don’t ask a mother to pump anytime she wants to leave the house. Some mothers exclusively pump, some are unsuccessful at pumping. Again, it is the mother’s prerogative. Pumping is a huge amount of work, and a huge time commitment. It requires keeping the milk cool until needed and often warming it up before using. Mothers who need or want to pump milk some or all of the time should be supported as well, but pumping should not be society’s requirement for going out in public.
A society that has normalized breastfeeding without conditions, hasn’t normalized it at all.
Mothers should choose bottles and/or formula when it is the best choice for their families. Their decisions should not be influenced by unfriendly attitudes toward nursing mothers.
Nursing and Wrapping
Perhaps you noticed that all the mothers in this blog post are wearing wraps. Except for special cases, you don’t need anything to nurse your baby but your body . . . and ideally great support and a network of nursing friends.
But wrapping is one of the most complimentary practices for the nursing mom (co-sleeping is the other). When you don’t have to mess with gear – no heavy carseat, no buckles, no bulky stroller – and your baby is already kept heart-to-heart, ready to nurse on cue, it is easy to loosen the wrap and latch baby on. Then, carry on: walking, talking, shopping, eating. You don’t have to stop.
While breastfeeding is natural and should come naturally, the here and now reality is that it can take some work to master. So can wrapping.
Work on nursing first. The World Health Organization recommends latching on in the first hour after birth. Don’t bother with the wrap at all until you have established a strong, successful nursing relationship. Spend the first days (weeks, months) laying in together. Spend time skin-to-skin. Nurse as often as baby is interested. Get really comfortable with nursing. Call in help for any pain or difficulty whether from a breastfeeding friend, a doula, or Lactation Consultant.
Once nursing is going really well, then you can try nursing in the wrap. Find some different carries and positions for babywearing breastfeeding.
It will be easier to normalize breastfeeding when moms have access to wrapping and other practices that will support them.