Monday, September 2, 2013

Parenthood: Week 14 - What Every Man (and woman) Should Know About Breastfeeding

A mother produces milk, a baby nurses from his or her mother for a couple months and then the baby moves onto solid food when the baby is about a year old. Seems pretty straightforward right?


I like to think of myself as a pretty knowledgeable man. However, I knew little to nothing about breastfeeding when my wife got pregnant. Our societies’ puritanical squeamishness of the female body extends beyond sexuality to basic biological functions like breastfeeding. For a culture that is fascinated with images of women’s breasts, our lack of awareness about the biological function of the breast is astonishing.

So here’s a primer. Here are some things about breastfeeding I’ve learned in the past year that every man (and every woman) should know.

1. It’s a natural activity that doesn’t always come naturally (or quickly): Some women have no problem with breastfeeding. Other women end up formula feeding, because breastfeeding is so difficult. For many mothers, it takes weeks or even months before the baby consistently "latches" on to the breast.

The process of learning how to breastfeed can be emotional, frustrating, and exhausting. A mom may have no problem getting her first child to breastfeed and then struggle with a second child. A mother who is successfully feeding her six month old might have gone through sessions with a lactation consultant, hours of failed attempts, or breakdowns. You never know.

2. It’s not always a choice: The choice to breastfeed or not isn’t always a choice. Breastfeeding requires a mother to have access to her child. In order to pump breast milk, a women needs a room and enough break time to pump. (By the way, pumping really isn’t “break time” for women, so don’t imply this to a woman even if you see her texting on her iPhone while she is hooked up to a breast pump. Pumping takes a lot of time and dedication, and it's a chore. It is not fun.)

Even though this is mandated by law, it's still not actually an option to many women, especially those in lower income brackets. And let’s not go with the “well, if the job doesn’t provide those things, then she should quit that job and get a different one” argument, because that’s just offensive and ignorant.

For women who pump at work, they need to do it every 2–3 hours without fail. Most give up their lunch breaks, prep time, or other free time to do this, every single day. They can't skip a day, a week, or even a feeding. Some women (quite legitimately) choose not to do this. Breastfeeding as a working mother is a huge commitment.

3. There are more reasons than it seems: Beyond economic situations, there are many different reasons a woman may or may not breastfeed. Here are just a couple reasons: supply issues (not producing enough milk), cultural traditions, sexuality, psychological issues (postpartum depression), physical limitations of the mother or the child, multiples, social norms, and gender roles. Also, some women simply don’t want to breastfeed. If that’s the choice a woman makes, that decision makes sense, because...

4. Breastfeeding is not the most important thing you do for your child: There are approaches to child-rearing that argue that breastfeeding is the most important thing you can do for you child emotionally and physically. While there are many benefits of breastfeeding backed up by scientific research, children reared on a combination of breast milk and formula, or on formula alone do not become the dregs of society.  One of the smartest and most successful people I know never had a drank a drop of breast milk as a baby.  In my own life experiences, I have found no correlation between the success and happiness of people and whether or not their parents breast-fed them.

5. There’s a war out there: One of the first questions expectant moms are asked about are their plans to breastfeed or not. Between girlfriends, doctors, mothers, grandmothers and complete strangers, expectant moms are inundated with unsolicited advice and arguments around breastfeeding. There are people who in an almost militant way try to convince women to breastfeed their child. This contributes to depression and shame in woman who can’t or choose not to breastfeed and superiority complexes in a some woman who do. The conversation out there can sometimes be divisive, making the challenge of child-rearing only more difficult.

Men, now that you have an idea of what’s out there, what are we suppose to do as prospective fathers? Well, first off, support whatever choice your partner makes about breastfeeding. Help her unpack her reasons and make sure she has thought it through.  Whatever her choice is, help her out. If she chooses to breastfeed then do extra diaper duty and research nipple ointments. If she is using a breast pump, help her out by cleaning the parts of the pump, and if she chooses formula than make sure you are doing your share of the bottle feeding and cleaning.

This is not an easy issue for mothers to deal with and there’s a lot more than five points of information about this topic. Be informed, listen to your partner, and be present during these discussion. I guarantee there is someone in your partner's life who doesn’t agree with her choices surrounding breastfeeding and doesn’t support her.  So she needs you to have her back and to constantly reassure her that she is making a great choice for your child.

Choosing to trust your wife and support her in her decisions around breastfeeding and other difficult decisions related to being a mother is one of the most important things that you can do for your child, your wife and yourself.  

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