Saturday, July 19, 2014

Why it matters that we experience breastfeeding

breastfeedingcafecarnivalWelcome to The Breastfeeding Cafe Carnival!

This post was written as part of the Breastfeeding Cafe's Carnival. For more info on the Breastfeeding Cafe, go to For more info on the Carnival or if you want to participate, contact Claire at clindstrom2 {at} gmail {dot} com. Today's post is about your breastfeeding (when you were a baby!) story. Please read the other blogs in today's carnival listed below and check back for more posts July 18-31!

Why it matters that we experience breastfeeding == Hobo MamaMy mother breastfed all three of us — two brothers and me — when we were babies. I obviously don't recall the experience of being breastfed myself or seeing it with my older brother, but I was nine when my younger brother was born and was fascinated by the act of breastfeeding, as discreet as my mom was about it. For awhile after my brother was born, I used to pretend to breastfeed my dolls — in secret, because I wasn't sure it wasn't just a little weird or dirty for me to do so at that age — in imitation.

My mom's also told me stories of breastfeeding my older brother and me. For instance, my older brother stopped within weeks, self-weaning as she maintains; with my current knowledge of breastfeeding behavior, I'd be more inclined to call it a nursing strike, but I see no reason to change her perception of the past at this distant point. She's described trying to nurse me in a bridesmaid's dress (in private) at an uncle's wedding, and missing out on a family party nursing me in a back bedroom, feeling isolated from all the fun.

From seeing her breastfeeding behavior with my little brother, I suspect she supplemented my older brother and me with bottles of formula the same way she did with him, and I know she weaned me by about nine months. But I feel really grateful and impressed that she breastfed us at all and for as long as she did.

When my older brother was born in the early 1970s, U.S. rates for initiation of breastfeeding (any breastfeeding, not exclusive) were at about 28 percent; 5 percent of mothers were still breastfeeding at 6 months, and practically none at 12 months. By the time I was born, things were slightly better but still skewed toward exclusive formula use: A little over 40 percent of babies were breastfed at least a little, with about 17 percent still breastfed at 6 months, but so few made it to a year that were still no reportable data for that. For my younger brother in the mid-1980s, the rates were 58 percent initiation, 22 percent at 6 months, and still 0 at 12 months. At this point in the U.S. (with completed data from a few years back), over 75 percent of parents initiate breastfeeding, with breastfeeding at 6 months being around 40 percent and 12 months around 25 percent. That's a significant increase!

Given those numbers, I'm mightily proud of my mom for — honestly — even bothering to breastfeed us at all. Considering her story of breastfeeding in a back room, and my own witness to her discomfort nursing my younger brother in public, she obviously didn't feel culturally supported to breastfeed. I think that's one strong reason she supplemented with bottles of formula — because she could then feed my brother those in public instead of, ahem, "whipping it out."

When I wonder why my mother breastfed us, I know for sure it wasn't because she was a free-spirited hippie flower child. She grew up in the right time but not the right frame of mind, coming from (and embracing) a more conservative upbringing. My only conclusion is that her mother must have breastfed, too.

And breastfeeding in the 1940s through 1960s (when my grandmother was having her babies) was even rarer than in the decades immediately following!

It makes me wonder how likely I would have been to initiate breastfeeding if I hadn't seen it in my own life and so early on considered it the normal way of feeding a newborn. I also chose to breastfeed longer and more exclusively than my mom did. Would I have had the confidence to take those extra leaps without the foundation of the first big step — breastfeeding at all — modeled for me as a young girl?

There is evidence that primates, and humans in particular, require learning and observation (PDF study here) to be able to breastfeed. Apes in captivity do much better with nursing when they can see other primates, even humans, breastfeeding their young with correct technique. Humans especially do better with both the physical and psychological learning curves of breastfeeding when we're able to observe plenty of breastfeeding before we begin and as we continue and face challenges.

I hope my kids remember breastfeeding in themselves or their younger siblings in a way that empowers them to support breastfeeding as they grow older. (I so far have boys, but my husband also experienced a mom who breastfed all three siblings and grew up with his own nursing stories and expectations, and he's been a huge support for me as I've breastfed our kids.) I know there are plenty of people breastfeeding now who grew up without that example, and I have great respect for them to be the pioneers in their family. I just hope the resurgence of breastfeeding's popularity will be "catching" (in the same way that formula feeding was in previous decades but in reverse), passing along from one generation to the next a more general comfort and expectation that nursing is normal, natural, and possible to do.

As beneficial as it's been for me to have a strongly supportive online community and plenty of online videos of correct technique, I have to think that nothing planted the seeds better that it was possible and unremarkable for me to nurse my babies than seeing my own mother breastfeed. It certainly wasn't a widespread environment of other mamas breastfeeding around me, because I don't remember anyone else ever breastfeeding in my presence, even though that would have helped as well. So I can only hope that our own in-person examples as breastfeeding parents will encourage and inspire not only our own children but the next generation in general, and continue to catch on.

Were you breastfed as an infant? Do you think it's affected your choice to breastfeed or not?

Here are more posts by the Breastfeeding Cafe Carnival participants! Check back, because more will be added throughout the day.


Breanna said...

I was born in 1985 and nursed for 15 months. My mom was an attachment parent before she had ever heard the term, cosleeping and babywearing too. She said she just did what she felt was right and didn't let anyone tell her what to do. She nursed each of my three succeeding siblings even longer, and the youngest self-weaned at 3.

She herself was not breastfed, although her mother had wanted to and did nurse her other siblings. In my mom's case it was because her mother had to go back into the hospital for some reason right after her birth. Her dad had to figure out newborn care on his own.

I assume my grandmother was breastfed, as she was born in the 30s and I don't think formula was much of a thing then.

Breanna said...

Oops, got carried away with my history there! I am currently nursing my 8 month old almost exclusively (in that I offer him solids and he plays with them more than eating). I plan to continue until at least age 2 and then see what happens from there.

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