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Of Love And Milk: Facing Our Breastfeeding Ambivalence

By Marcy Axness, PhD

Mother’s milk. The term is synonymous with everything tender, nourishing, and loving. The best. Indeed, a slogan-writer bottom-lined it succinctly: Breast is best. So why do we have so much ambivalence about breastfeeding? Why do we wrestle with the choice of will I or won’t I breastfeed? Why are nursing mothers still asked to leave restaurants or harassed by requests to “be more discreet”? Why the myriad of cultural messages undermining breastfeeding?

Henri Nestlé’s invention of formula in 1869 initially saved countless babies in foundling homes, but the later widespread use of formula as a “new and improved” system greatly undermined breastfeeding. Before Nestlé, there had been wet-nurses, called “angel-makers” in England, so risky (yet popular) was the choice not to breastfeed. Indeed, ambivalence about breastfeeding is ancient: a Greek myth tells that Zeus wanted his bastard son Hercules to nurse from his wife, the goddess Hera, and thus become immortal. He slipped the baby to Hera’s breast while she slept, but when she awoke, Hera shoved the baby away. The force of the baby’s Herculean suck sent a spray of gala (Greek for “milk”) into the heavens. Thus our galaxy was christened— a term, appropriately enough, derived from mother’s milk.

Rather than the amount of bare breast revealed (usually not much), it is the startling intimacy of breastfeeding that can stir discomfort when a mother nurses in public (even when that “public” is family and friends within a home!) Mother and baby respond to each other physically and emotionally while in direct skin-to-skin contact, which in the minds of many, is unconsciously associated with sexual activity—something that should happen in total privacy.

I suffered no such ambivalence. You see, early motherhood brought me to my knees. Daily I was beset by vague but persistent fears of incompetence, and I was trying, always trying, to do better. Do what better, I couldn’t quite name. But breastfeeding provided respite from that humming postpartum anxiety. It was the one mothering thing I could do perfectly, requiring no effort, no angst, no quiet panic over, “Oh, God, what do I need to do now, what does he want?” No way to be wrong.

Of course I knew it was the best thing for my baby, but it was many years before I knew how really miraculous the biochemistry of breastmilk is. Nature has prepared it as a most exquisite elixir, to perfect our journey from cell to human being. To not participate in this natural continuum that Life has devised seems somehow awkward, an abrupt interruption of an elegantly choreographed process.

True, the seemingly incessant demands by an infant for his or her mother’s milk can sometimes feel like a kind of assault. Our sleep suffers, our capacity to function normally suffers, and our ability to accomplish even the most basic tasks suffers! This is when we have the opportunity to develop what people seek at the feet of spiritual masters: the power to respond to what Life is asking of us, in this moment, right now. Poet Andrea Potos sums it up in the opening of her poem “Instructions for the New Mother”: Give up your calendar and clock, start flowing with milk time.

If sometimes you find the day-in and day-out tasks of mothering to be tedious, you needn’t feel guilty—join the club! For some of us it helps to enliven our minds if we learn more about the subtle complexities and extraordinary implications of what we do everyday as mothers. This is certainly true with breastfeeding. Understanding more about the power of breastfeeding can kindle your imagination and inspiration toward embracing breastfeeding with extra delight.

Powerful immune and growth factors are present in your breastmilk that cannot be duplicated in a laboratory. From colostrum to milk, from night feeding to day feeding, from morning feeding to evening feeding, for a healthy baby or a sickly one, a mother’s milk varies its composition in an astonishing response to her baby’s immediate needs!

One of the main hormones of breastfeeding is prolactin, known as the “mothering hormone”; prolactin is also found in the bloodstream during deep relaxation, meditation, or hypnosis. Think of it as a natural “coping agent” that helps us deal with fatigue and focus on the essential—the child. It even blurs our short term memory to help keep us wholly in the present, the only place where our child can meet us. Nature is so clever in her strategic hormonal planning!

Breastfeeding in the hour following birth protects against postpartum depression. It supports the gaze-to-gaze “falling in love” process that releases a nurturing hormonal cascade of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. This in turn engages the mother’s brain in the delight of breastfeeding, while beginning to build the oh-so-magnificent and important scaffold for all development and learning in the baby—attachment. In the process, both mother and baby aren’t just enjoying the oxytocin, hormone of love, but also hormones of bliss!

A powerful soothing element in a newborn’s life has also been the most constant sensory presence in his intra-uterine world—his mother’s heartbeat. When a baby can look at his mother’s face (his very favorite landscape, which is also the primary stimulus for newborn brain development) and sense her heartbeat (that comforting, regulating constant), he is in what we might call an optimal learning state. Joseph Chilton Pearce points out nature’s perfect plan for supporting the earliest unfolding of our children’s intelligence: making human breastmilk the weakest and wateriest mother’s milk in the animal kingdom (the lowest in fat and protein) ensures that nursing will be frequent. And thus, the infant’s two critical needs, his mother’s face and heartbeat, will be met consistently and often, and learning (i.e., attachment) will unfold according to nature’s brilliant plan!

The composition of breastmilk changes in the course of a single feeding. One way to avoid colic is to make sure you entirely empty one breast before offering the other, so that your baby gets the rich hindmilk. Hindmilk contains digestiveenhancing proteins. Consuming more hindmilk prevents the baby’s stomach from emptying too quickly and dumping excess lactose into the small intestine, which can cause symptoms of colic.

All else aside, one of breastmilk’s most appealing benefits is a practical one for the busy, tired, new mother: it’s always the right brand, it’s always ready, it’s always at the right temperature, and you never have to stumble around in a dark kitchen to find it!

Cutting-edge attachment science explains that our attunement, our engaged emotional availability to our baby during those close times such as breastfeeding, is as critically important for her growing brain as calories. So rather than being a time to “exit” energetically by putting our mothering on autopilot, (watching TV, talking on the phone, hosting guests, etc.) breastfeeding is an exquisite opportunity for each of you to “learn about” the other.

As an adopted baby it was a given that I would be bottle-fed. But I knew nothing of such social arrangements; babies arrive knowing breastmilk is their birthright, this elixir of life. Thus, I found breastfeeding my son and daughter especially precious. And though they are now 19 and 15, I still enjoy a certain abiding confidence gained by breastfeeding them. I believe there is a deep connection and trust established through the joy of the nursing relationship. Once the teen years arrive with their tender challenges, it helps in a manner that is out of their conscious awareness but very much in mine.

We cannot overestimate the lifelong effects of breastfeeding… or not.