Lori, a mother of four, describes herself as loud, overwhelming, even aggressive. Never comfortable as a female growing up in the south, that all changed the minute she started breastfeeding. When I started using my breasts to produce milk and make a difference in a babys life, I acquired incredible respect for my body, she asserts. It was the first time I ever felt comfortable in my own skin.
Julie, a teenage mother in Texas, reflects: This body of mine, the same one Id put through drug addiction, denial, and self-mutilation, is on the same side as me now .the pale stretch marks I used to despise were transformed into a lacework of self-carved rivers to carry my sweet milk into the belly of my hungry child.
What Lori and Julie discovered is the unexpected power of breastfeeding. They are not alone. Many women may start out breastfeeding for nutritional, health, and immunological reasons, but discover many unexpected benefits along the way. Some are pragmatic; e.g., breastfeeding saves time, money, and helps them get more sleep, while others are personal; e.g., nursing calms tired and cranky children, soothes away bumps and bruises, and creates a deep kind of connection and intimacy. But perhaps the most profound is the emotional and psychological impact on women.
If I could carry a baby for nine months and then nourish him just from the milk my body was creating, asserts another Renee, I could do anything!
Like Renee, many women describe breastfeeding as empowering? Although I, too, had felt this way while nursing my two children, why should a natural function generate this kind of response? I gradually realized that one of the reason women find nursing empowering is because of the cultural roadblocks we have to overcome.
The hurdles begin during childbirth, if not before. For decades, American women have given birth in a culture that promotes insecurity and plays on our fears. For over 50 years, asserts Marsden Wagner, a neonataologist, perinatal epidemiologist, and former director of Womens and Childrens Health for the World Health Organization, women have been told how dangerous and terrible childbirth is. Doctors convince women that their bodies dont work. This insecurity carries over into breastfeeding. If we cant trust our bodies during childbirth, how can we expect them to adequately feed a baby?
Within this climate, millions of us are subjected to childbirth practices and medications that can adversely affect the baby and breastfeeding. Its a wonder why any of these kids can suck at all, much less properly, declares Linda Smith, a lactation consultant and well-known lecturer on this topic. All drugs used to manage labor pains for example, are documented to affect the babys breathing, sucking and/or muscle tone, she explains And the more drugs the mother gets, the more the baby gets and the more likely the babys ability to breathe, suck and swallow will be affected.
It is not simply what happens to us during childbirth, however, but how we are treated. Laboring women are often disrespected; denied support and compassion; robbed of an authentic birth experience; and psychologically and emotionally harmed. After our babies are born, medical personnel and hospital policy may unknowingly sabotage breastfeeding by giving babies pacifiers and bottles without the mothers consent; by separating babies and mothers; by not understanding basic breastfeeding mechanics, and by treating women with disrespect and paternalism.
Many women are then discharged from the hospital before breastfeeding is established and receive inadequate or non-existent post-partum breastfeeding assistance or follow-up. Biologist Sandra Steingraber asserts, Given that breastfeeding is a learned art and that few new mothers have lactation specialists waiting in their homes to assist them new mothers [are] in the same position as captive chimpanzees who give birth in zoos and dont have a clue how to nurse their offspring.
But it doesnt end there. The marketing of baby formula, for example, also undermines nursing success. Hospital discharge packs may contain formula samples, coupons or bottles, all items that suggest the likelihood of nursing failing.
The majority of women today clearly want to nurse their babies. But many are unable to overcome the hurdles they face. They talk about failing their babies and failing as women. Stacy, a mother in Nebraska, explains, What many dont realize is that when a woman fails after wanting so badly to succeed at breastfeeding, she is literally going through a phase of mourning.