Breastfeeding: Baby’s First Milestone? Food for Thought

I have a master’s degree in education and have always been fascinated with child development. When young children are growing, they move from the concrete thinking to the abstract. Piaget’s ideas of brain development were always a favorite of mine. His theories propose that children move through a set of cognitive development stages.

DSC00134As a teacher and a parent, I loved watching children learn how to read! However, this was something you could not rush. The child’s brain had to be ready to move into an abstract way of thinking. Understanding that the symbols (letters) on the page created words which represented ideas.

The point is, that young human mammals have specific stages of development. They learn to crawl, eat solids, walk, talk, and read. We, as educators, look for these. They are a sign the child is developing in an healthy, age appropriate manner.

Years ago, I was reading something, I forget what, that was, as per usual, devaluing breastfeeding. We. as a culture, are so quick to toss breastfeeding aside. Well, I guess breastfeeding didn’t work! And it occurred to me that if breastfeeding was classified as a milestone, a developmental stage for human mammals, perhaps we would take the fact that breastfeeding appeared to not be working, as a sign that we better get serious about figuring out why.

paradigm-shiftI understand that this is going to take a huge paradigm shift! We would need to:
1. Stop looking at breastfeeding as something that is optional
2. Truly acknowledge the very real risks to formula feeding for the baby
3. Take seriously the equally very real benefits for the mother if she breastfeeds.
4. Embrace the benefits breastfeeding provides to society- Less health costs, less trash, less energy creating, shipping, storing formula, and the IQ points babies gain while breastfeeding.

Many health professionals already use breastfeeding as a marker of good health. When a baby is born, midwives all breathe a sigh of relief when a baby begins to breastfeed. The baby is doing well! If a baby is breastfeeding well, pediatricians and family practice doctors tend to feel the baby’s health “overall” is good.

DSC_0128Breastfeeding: It’s the mammal thing to do! Mothers get pregnant, give birth, and make milk. Baby’s drink the milk. Most babies thrive! All are happy!

There are many good reasons a mother might choose not to breastfeed. As long as it is an informed decision, it is up to the mother to decide what is best for her family.

There are also legitimate times when breastfeeding doesn’t work. The mother might be struggling with milk supply, the baby might have a physical or neurological issue that prevents them from breastfeeding. But these barriers to breastfeeding become apparent with time and can be documented. Something concrete prevented the mother from reaching her breastfeeding goal.

But what about all of those other mothers, over 75% of mothers in the US want to breastfeed, who want to breastfeed but don’t make it? Don’t we owe them an explanation as to what went wrong with this normal mammal process?

This is where the re-framing of breastfeeding as a milestone would help tremendously. Then we have to spend the energy and resources figuring out WHY.

Grace1.5years3We expect children to begin walking between 9-14 months. Some babies walk a little earlier, some later. However,  if a child is not walking well by 14ish months, we start paying close attention. Why? Because it is normal for a human child to walk by then. We want to know what is getting in the child’s way. We would send them to specialists to examine them carefully, both physically and neurologically. What would happen if instead of this concern, families, friends, health care providers, all just said, oh well, just use a wheel chair. Who needs to walk. They would say, some babies just can’t walk. With each stumble of the child, a helpful nurse pushes in a wheel chair and says, here you go! How would we all feel about that?

But this is what we do with breastfeeding! If it is not going well in the first few days, we shrug our shoulders and hand over a can of formula. And don’t really try to figure out why, why is this important mammal thing to do not working?

If we really valued breastfeeding, we would embrace the Baby Friendly Hospital movement. Not just in name, as many hospitals are jumping on, but by training all those who come in contact with mothers and babies to understand the importance of breastfeeding and how to best assist a mother and baby. We would replace fentanyl in epidurals with a medication that is not so hard on babies, making them so sleepy and uncoordinated. We would always keep mothers and babies together. We would embrace the research that shows if mothers have IV fluids their babies will lose more weight.

We would make sure all people have breastfeeding education, beginning in elementary schools, yes, in elementary schools, and through those years when they are learning about their bodies and infant feeding options. All midwife or OB would talk at each visit during their pregnancy about breastfeeding, how it works, the support that is available.

DSC00729IBCLCs, La Leche League, and WIC peer counselors would be everywhere! Ready to help! Breastfeeding support groups would be bursting at the seams with mothers and babies.

We know the things that can help. We just don’t care enough about breastfeeding to make them happen.

As an IBCLC, when I have a mother and baby who are struggling with breastfeeding, it is my obligation, my duty, to find out why and help them overcome the obstacles if possible. I am a breastfeeding nerd. But when I have mothers in pain, struggling with milk supply issues, and babies who are not latching, I must do something. So, I read, and listen, and ask questions to those who know far more than I do.

Twitter-AttentionIn one of my favorite plays, Death of a Salesman, a character says, “Attention must be paid!” I agree. We need to pay attention to why this very mammal thing to do, baby’s first milestone, is not being reached.




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