Breastfeeding Mamas, Supportive Papas

I recall from my school days that we humans are classified as mammals. We are – and I say this for no other reason than I love the word – mammalian. This means we have hair, give birth to live young – except for that crazy, egg-laying platypus – and we nourish our young with milk from the mammary glands. And that last part, the milk part, is our focus. . I’m especially interested in how the men feel about the sometimes awkward subject of breastfeeding.

For the vast majority of human history, breastfeeding has been the norm. It’s been only the last sixty years or so that an artificial way of feeding newborns has even been on the table, or in the bottle so to speak. The 1940s and 1950s were a time of prosperity and ingenuity. And along with technological advances, we also got baby formula designed for orphan babies, then later marketed for general use.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly recommend breastfeeding. There’s a ton of research that shows breastfeeding contains antibodies that fight off viruses and bacteria, it lowers the baby’s risk of having asthma and allergies, and has been linked to higher IQ scores later in life. Babies who have nothing but breast milk for the first six months have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and diarrhea. It also lowers the risk of diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers in both baby and mother.  Nutritionally breast milk is a perfect food that changes at each feeding according to the baby’s needs. 

As far as benefits to the mother, breastfeeding burns extra calories so she can lose that pregnancy weight faster. Breastfeeding also releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps restore the uterus to pre-pregnancy size. It lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well.

Then there’s the whole bonding thing. That closeness between mother and baby just can’t be achieved any other way. I remember wishing that I could have shared that bond with my son after he was born but I had to settle for him sleeping on my stomach. By the way, I’m about to become a grandfather for the first time in June. My son and his girlfriend decided, without any prompting from me, that they were going to breastfeed. They knew it was the best thing for my granddaughter. 

One issue that has to be addressed is the “stigma” that is sometimes associated with breastfeeding in public. And I hope the men are listening because their support for this practice and helping to advocate for more businesses and offices to have clean, comfortable places for breastfeeding mothers is crucial. None of this “why don’t you do that in the restroom?” business, OK? “Why don’t you take your lunch into the restroom?” seems to be a good response. But here’s the deal. Even if there isn’t a “place” for women to feed their children – and let’s face it, that’s what they are doing – they shouldn’t be made to feel like they are making anything other than a natural choice. New Mexico State Law states that a woman may “breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be present." So there.

But still, a breastfeeding mom might hear comments like “Why don’t you cover up?” “Do you have to do that here?” “I don’t want my child seeing that.” We could take up another entire article just to address those specific things. Just a quick note here – “covering up” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Try juggling a hungry baby, your own clothes and undergarments, and a nursing “cover.” Put yourself in the mother’s place. A little empathy, please.

The idea that someone might catch a glimpse of a nursing mom’s nipple (First of all - Don’t look!) and find that offensive or inappropriate comes, I believe, from a society that has long perceived the female breast as a sex organ, not a source-of-baby food-organ. I know that’s blunt but there really is no other way to put it. Sexualizing the breast has been prevalent for a long, long time and it’s only getting worse (Thanks internet!). Men – this lies squarely on you. It’s an attitude that must change and I’m afraid it’s not going to happen overnight. 

My friends, Brendan, and his wife, Estrella, have gone through the breastfeeding process twice now. Their daughter Kaisa, now six-and-a-half had trouble latching but was bottle-fed breast milk until she was 7 months old. Aiden, their son, was weaned at 27 months and is now 28 months. He breastfed “like a champ” according to Estrella. Brendan had some insights into the husband’s role.

“The first take away from a father’s perspective is appreciation,” he said. “For the commitment on the part of the mother,” he said. 

“Given the benefits, you would think that breast feeding in public would be applauded or at a minimum – not be an issue,” he continued. “Although Estrella has breastfed in public in many places, no one ever confronted her directly that I can recall – although I have seen people give her looks. When you hear a story of a mom getting kicked out of a restaurant or when you hear someone complain about a mom breastfeeding in public, you just want to explain that this mom has been tethered to this baby for months, even years. And she just wants to be at dinner or at a park or at the mall or doing whatever with her family – and yes, when she is out she has to periodically feed her baby. I mean really, all the mom is doing is trying to keep some normalcy.” 

Brendan summed it up by saying, “The idea that breastfeeding in public is stigmatized or discouraged in any way is really perverse. This country is a little backwards in that regard.”

Let’s hope that we can eventually turn away from that “backwards” outlook and continue to allow moms to feed their children in a normal and natural way.

La Clinica De Familia’s Healthy Start program and the New Mexico Breastfeeding task force both provide information and support for mothers (and their partners) who are choosing to breastfeed. You can contact LCDF Healthy Start at 575-524-0767 for further information.

Spring 2015
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