Breastfeeding is one of those things I always planned on doing. But, just as most things with parenthood, I found so many things surprising (and amazing) about it! Here are eleven things I’ve learned from research and experience.
1. Breastfeeding is Instinctual for Babies
During our classes at Lifecycle Woman Care, we were taught about the importance of the first “golden hour” after birth. During this time, the baby is alert and intent on connecting to the mother they previously only knew on the inside. When newborns are placed on their mother’s bare body, they have an innate drive to connect to the breast, and the breast crawl ensues. Babies will literally scoot up to their mothers’ breasts and try to suckle on their own, some even attaching successfully without any help. I remember being an awe of seeing a video of this, than even more shock and amazement at seeing it after the birth of my own babies. It’s amazing.
2. Breastfeeding must be Taught to Mamas
Mother’s don’t have breastfeeding instincts, but do best while trained by others. In La Leche League’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, they note that it’s easier for women in tribal settings to breastfeed because they’ve seen it and been around it their whole lives. American mothers struggle more because breastfeeding is less normalized and less common than bottle feeding.”Even elephants struggle to feed their babies if they haven’t learned it by observation,” they argue. That’s why it’s important for breastfeeding mamas to get support.
3. Breastmilk is “Demand and Supply”
I remember talking with a friend about her over-abundance of milk. She said she continued to pump after feedings because she was choking her baby. In fact, what she thought was going to help reduce her supply increased it. Breastmilk is completely “demand and supply.” The more a baby suckles, even if he is not getting any milk, the more the body is triggered to create more milk. This is why breastfeeding on-demand is the best way to keep your supply up; the breast will give up producing if it doesn’t sense a need to.
4. Breastmilk Sprays
Do you know how the Milky Way galaxy got its name? According to Greek mythology, Zeus’s illegitimate son, born of a mortal, was abandoned. While sources differ on how it happened, the child ended up on goddess Hera’s breast, and when he was suddenly pulled away, the resulting milk spray went into the heavens to create the milky way galaxy.
I suppose I didn’t think about it much, but I had no idea that once letdown happens, the nipple is essentially a shower-head of milk. I’ve accidentally sprayed up to 3 feet when one of my babies pulled off suddenly. I feel ya, Hera.
5. Breastfeeding Takes a lot of Energy
According to Professor Peter Hartmann, founder of the Human Lactation Research Group at the University of Western Australia, “The energy output in lactating breasts is about 30 percent of a mother’s resting energy in total. That’s more than the brain. That’s more than the heart!”
It takes a lot of calories to keep up with that, which may be why I feel like I could eat my weight in ice cream almost every day.
6. Breastmilk Adapts to the Needs of the Child
In Michael Pollan’s documentary, In Defense of Food, he interviews experts on food science about breastmilk. Daniela Barile, an associate professor of food science and technology, calls breastmilk “the perfect food” because it’s alive and adaptive. “If you have milk from day one and milk from day ten, the vitamin content, the lipid content, the protein, the carbohydrate is evolving to match the needs of the baby,” she states.
Her colleague, Bruce German says: “Everything that the infant requires has to be in milk. So milk is literally a comprehensive diet in one product. All of the essential nutrients. Every vitamin, every mineral, every amino acid, every fatty acid that the infant needs has to be in milk.” Though people have tried to duplicate it, the documentary goes on to say, there is nothing as ideal for infants than their mother’s breastmilk.
7. Breastmilk is Medicinal by Nature
Breastmilk is the ultimate probiotic. Up to 21% of milk is an undigestible substance called oligosaccharides that actually feeds good bacteria in the child’s digestive tract that protects the baby.
Breastfeeding mothers also naturally produce antibodies to any pathogens in her immediate environment, meaning if there’s a sickness going around, the breastmilk is already changing in order to protect the baby.
Breastmilk is microbial without any the toxicity of antibiotics. You can use breastmilk to help heal a cut, heal pink eye, help an ear infection.
In 2017, this photo of breastmilk in a petri-dish warding off bacteria M. Luteus went viral. The scientist mom behind it said it did the same with E. Coli and Mersa.
It’s truly amazing stuff.
8. Historically, Globally, and Biologically Speaking, Americans Wean Super Early
Historically, women breastfed longer. Aristotle said weaning should happen between 12 and 18 months. The ancient Hebrews breastfeed for around 3 years. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that mixed-feeding and early weaning was recommended, and infant mortality increased. That was during a time when infant formula was not available, so take it with a grain of salt.
This current recommendation comes from WHO’s website:
As a global public health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed1 for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health2.
Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond. Exclusive breastfeeding from birth is possible except for a few medical conditions, and unrestricted exclusive breastfeeding results in ample milk production.
Some scientists that studies primates noted that the mother’s weight correlated to her offspring’s weaning age. Using the same mathematics, the average human child should naturally wean between 2.8 and 3.7 years.
According to the CDC, in 2012 only 27% of American infants are still being breastfed at 12 months. 49% make it to 6 months.
9. Breastfeeding is Bonding
Snuggling time with baby and the skin-to-skin contact that occurs during breastfeeding creates an intense bond between mother and child. Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, is released to ensure letdown, and along with it comes feelings of love, attachment, and security for both mom and baby.
10. Breastfeeding is Controversial
Feeding babies is more complicated than it should be. In Jennifer Grayson’s amazing book Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy, she explains the cultural shifts that have made breastfeeding such a polarizing issue. From the influence of formula companies to the sexualization of the breast, the choice to breastfeed is complicated by bias. Then there’s the issue of whether or not a woman feels she can breastfeed and the emotional stigmas attached to that. There are a lot of opinions, feelings, and arguments that surround breastfeeding, and it can be tough to navigate.
11. Breastfeeding is Beautiful
I have learned to love breastfeeding, not only for what it’s done for my children, but what it’s done for me as a mother and a woman. It’s taught me to slow down, to relish the little moments with my children, to make nurturing a priority. It is an intimate, yet simple act, one that feels significant even if its most insignificant moments. It has made me marvel at the design of the female body, and I am so grateful that I’ve been able to be part of the legacy of breastfeeding mothers.