Talking About Breastfeeding

Welcome 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 www.breastfeedingcafe.wordpress.com. 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 language and breastfeeding. Please read the other blogs in today’s carnival listed below and check back for more posts July 18th through the 31st!


A couple weeks ago, while composing an email on my phone, I began to type in the phrase “breastfeeding.” Normally my phone is pretty good at guessing what word I am going to type, even if I fat finger a few letters. There are times when it comes up with hilarious or shocking guesses as to what I might be meaning to say.

This time though, the auto text had no clue. Even once I filled in all the letters, it didn’t recognize the word.

To me this is just another reminder of the language deficit that exists in our society on breastfeeding. This language deficit is both a cause and an effect of the lack of understanding most in our society have about nursing.

In a world full of words both sophisticated and crude on the subjects of sex, childbirth, childrearing, and politics, few people even know the words to use to discuss breastfeeding. Is it any wonder then that so many women never are able to successfully breastfeed their children if they and the society they live in are unable to even talk about the subject?

The Problem

It’s not as if the words don’t exist. Terms like latch, foremilk, mastitis, and cluster feeding become part of a successful breastfeeding mom’s vocabulary, along with the experiences she has had with her child in the nursing relationship.  However these words and experiences really aren’t part of our vocabulary as a society. Why is this?

The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. Stop and think about the last time you saw a movie, sitcom, or television drama that showed mothers and babies. Did the program you viewed depict these mothers nursing their babies? Most likely the baby in the program was bottle-fed.

The few exceptions I’ve seen are reality programming such as “A Baby Story” on TLC, where mothers of newborns are shown attempting to breastfeed, or “travel channel” type programs, where the viewer is exposed to the lifestyles of foreign cultures. These programs, while at least depicting breastfeeding, either show it as one of the early headaches a new mom has to deal with, or a practice of “primitive” cultures far different than our own.

To be fair to the movies and non reality TV programs, showing bottle-fed babies is probably easier from a props and acting standpoint. But this is still a reflection of the common assumption in our culture that babies drink from bottles. Many of the best  movies and television programs go to great lengths to make everything about their production seem realistic. If Hollywood thought more real babies nursed, and it were an important part of an infants’ life, it would probably portray more fictional babies as nursing. With Hollywood largely out of the picture on breastfeeding, there goes one source that people often turn to for language and culture.

Formal education is one other place that people often turn to for vocabulary and knowledge. I remember in junior high, high school and college there were many courses available on health, reproduction, human development, and childcare. I took several of those classes because the subjects interested me. These classes emphasized the harm drugs, and alcohol could do to a developing fetus. We were also taught that a pregnant mother should practice good health habits such as a balanced diet and exercise. The childcare classes I took did a great job teaching about how to keep your child safe from hazards and help them grow to be happy and smart.  Yet nursing, which is one of the healthiest things a mother can do for herself and her baby, was barely mentioned. Strike two for opportunities in our society to learn about breastfeeding.

In reality, though, the best method for learning about breastfeeding is the way people have learned about it for thousands of years, from one another. I see this as the ultimate source of our current language deficit on nursing. When most mothers around you don’t nurse, or if they do, don’t show it or talk about it, how are you supposed to learn about nursing?

I am luckier than most in this regard, I have a mother who successfully nursed me and all my siblings. As the oldest child, I got to witness firsthand what nursing was like. I was sixteen or seventeen the last time my mom had a nursing baby, so by the time I began nursing my own child this year, I didn’t necessarily remember a lot of the specifics about nursing, but I was comfortable with it. I remembered that it consumed a lot of my mom’s time and attention at first with each child, but I knew that success was possible.  Along with my mom, my mother-in-law had also nursed her babies, so I had both of them to turn to when I ran into challenges or had questions.

Most people aren’t as fortunate as me. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 70% of new mothers initiate breastfeeding, but just 36% are breastfeeding at 6 months, and 17% are still breastfeeding at 12 months. This means that most people have seen very few successful instances of nursing to the minimum recommended age of 1 year. If I hadn’t had the example of my mother, I would have been a lot more doubtful of my ability to nurse. Of friends that I know that attempted to breastfeed so many have shared stories of how they tried to nurse but it was too difficult, painful, or they couldn’t make enough milk. I knew some that did nurse their babies successfully, but they were less likely to talk about it, either because they were very private about it or were afraid of starting an uncomfortable discussion with formula-feeding mothers who were already sensitive or insecure about the subject. When so much of the language of peers and family is ignorant of nursing, or negative about it’s potential for success, that is definitely a third strike against breastfeeding.

It’s Effect

It definitely helps a new mother a lot to have people around her who understand and support her and her babies needs. With so many people in our society basically ignorant of nursing, they don’t know how to talk about it or treat it. Although their are some people who actively oppose breastfeeding out of hostility, I have come to realize that most of the negativity others have toward nursing is out of this ignorance. If you have never been around nursing mothers and think breasts are only sexual and breastfeeding was something primitive people did in the old days, of course you are going to find breastfeeding disgusting and odd. If you are an employer that is part of the same society that says babies can live off formula just fine, you are probably at a loss to understand why your employee may want extra maternity leave or need a proper place to pump.

Even friends and family members who have some idea how healthy nursing is for a baby are often baffled by a nursing baby’s behaviors. Nursing babies eat more often, grow differently, and sleep differently. Establishing a supply can be very time consuming and exhausting during the newborn phase. Mothers, working or not, are often expected to quickly get back to their old routine by people that don’t understand the schedule of a nursing baby. Even well meaning friends and family see a crying hungry baby and a tired mom and, with good intentions offer to feed the baby a bottle so mom can rest, not understanding what problems this can cause. They think the baby must not be getting enough to eat when it is hungry every hour or two and wakes up four times a night to eat, not realizing that can be very normal for a breastfed baby.

Many people, like my husband, have heard many stories of from women who were heartbroken when they weren’t able to succeed at nursing. His concern was that I would be similarly depressed if it didn’t work out for me. He was very supportive of me wanting to nurse, but told me before our baby was born that I shouldn’t feel bad if I couldn’t. This attitude isn’t completely wrong, the last thing you want to do to a new mom who is trying her best to feed and care for her baby is tell her she’s horrible when she has struggles, mothers already do a great job beating themselves up about not being good enough. But the “don’t feel bad if you can’t” language also sets up the expectation that failure is likely.

Mothers get these kinds of messages from the world around them, and if their own vocabulary and knowledge on nursing  is lacking it also hinders their success. If a first time mom has never heard of many of the aspects and challenges of nursing, or maybe worse, has only heard of difficulties and not success stories, then the actual process of learning to breastfeed can seem scary and impossible. If you haven’t been around breastfeeding moms enough to know what is normal for a nursing baby and mother, breastfeeding can be baffling and stressful. If you don’t have people or resources to turn to with questions, or even the vocabulary to describe the nursing relationship and any challenges you might be facing, then it can be easy to give up. Negative messages on the “grossness” of nursing, and its inconvenience and primitiveness sure don’t help mothers feel good about trying to nurse either.

Ultimately the loser in this environment is the baby. Babies are designed to nurse and breast milk is designed for babies. When babies lose out on nursing for reasons of convenience to others, because of lack of support when challenges arise, or because their behavior and needs are poorly understood, it is extremely sad.

What We Should Do
The problems caused by the language deficit on nursing in our society can be corrected, but it will require active action by those of us with the vocabulary and experience.

Proper educational materials can be a great help. When I was concerned before my baby’s birth about whether or not I would be able to breastfeed, I found reassurance from books, such as “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” and online resources like Kellymom and online breastfeeding support groups and forums. Knowing these resources were available was a great help when I had issues after my baby was born with painful letdown, oversupply, etc. We need to do all we can to make sure new moms know they have these and other resources (such as La Leche League or lactation consultants)  to refer to with questions. If we see breastfeeding inaccurately portrayed, or not discussed enough in articles, media programs, or educational settings, we should advocate for positive and accurate information to be disseminated.

Probably the best thing we can do on an individual basis is to be willing to share our nursing experiences through word and deed. The more people are familiar with nursing, the more chance there is that babies will be successfully breastfed. This is admittedly a challenge when nursing is sometimes considered a “private” practice that is not polite to do or talk about in public. We need to get over that shyness for the sake of the babies, if for no other reason.  The act of breastfeeding and the discussion of nursing should be as normal as talking about any other aspect of childbearing and rearing.

I am naturally a very modest person and my first nursing in public experiences were nerve wracking to say the least. But I knew my baby needed to eat. After my first NIP experience, I felt bold and talented, it was actually a great confidence builder. I am making more of an effort now to be a good example of a nursing mom to friends and family. I’ve realized recently the impact my nursing has had on my four year old nephew. I babysit him sometimes and at that curious age, he has asked me questions about nursing my baby. He has shared what he learned telling his mom how I have “milk in my tummy” for the baby. He even once said to her at church, “I am thirsty, Aunt S. has a drink for her baby, do you have a drink for me?” It is fun to laugh at these cute things he says, but I also hope that I have in a small way contributed to his understanding that breastfeeding a baby is normal and good. I hope he will grow up to be a man that is ok with talking about nursing and supports the women around him in nursing their babies.

Adults in some ways are harder because they already have preconceptions and prejudices that little kids like my nephew don’t. I am at the stage in my life now where I am just beginning to make “mommy” friends, and it is sometimes more awkward to discuss or do something you are still learning to be comfortable about with peers. It is especially hard and sad to hear my new “mommy friends” repeat inaccurate things they have heard about nursing, or relate negative experiences. I try to correct misconceptions they have whenever I have an opportunity without being hurtful or sounding like a know-it-all.

The nursing relationship I have with my baby is one of the most gratifying things I have in my life. I know it makes her healthy and happy, and it gives me great fulfillment, even through the different challenges we’ve had. It is hard for me sometimes to overcome my shyness to share this special relationship and what I know about it with the world. But I know if I can help just one other mom or baby by opening my mouth and sharing my knowledge of nursing, it is worth it.

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Woodall Stoddard. Sarah is mother to an opinionated seven month old little girl who hates bottles and loves to talk to people. Along with being a mommy and wife, Sarah is a part time music teacher, freelance family history researcher, and pet parent to a very smart little dog who sits at guard duty whenever she nurses her baby.
 


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

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Talking About Breastfeeding

  1. theadventuresoflactatinggirl

    I love this post! It’s so true that if we don’t talk about it, new moms won’t know that they can ask us questions! Our society needs to stop seeing breastfeeding as something taboo. It’s a wonderful and beautiful thing and the RIGHT way to feed your child. Period. All moms should automatically have every source in the world to go to if they need help.

  2. Motherhood: Deconstructed

    Great post! You are so right about the deficit we have in our society on the subject of all things lactation. It is something that needs to change in order for our society to be able to accept breastfeeding.

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