An Open Letter to Doctors About Birth and Breastfeeding

Dear Doctors,

I want to personally thank you for dedicating your lives to helping people maintain wellness. You have gone through a lot of schooling and gained a ton of experience to be able to guide people through sickness and to live healthy, fulfilling and long lives. You have literally saved the lives of family members. When I am sick or injured you are the first person I call. We would be in a terrible place without you.

I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that you are a guide and support. I would like to speak specifically about when you are treating women, children and families. I understand you have worked hard and that we live in a culture where you have gained authority with your degree. However, you are a guide and not the final word in a woman’s decision about her body or a family’s parenting decisions. A woman is the ultimate authority over her body, and a child’s parents are the ultimate authority in their family.

Abby Theuring, The Badass Breastfeeder breastfeeding her son.

Many of you do so many things right for us. You refer us to lactation consultants when we are struggling to make breastfeeding work. You encourage us to keep going through the rough times. You have gone above and beyond your medical curriculum to educate yourself on information that is not included such as breastfeeding and natural childbirth. You lift us up and make us feel strong. You have faith that our bodies, which have grown a baby all by itself, can also birth this baby and nourish this baby. You encourage the family bed and breastfeeding around the clock.

Unfortunately many of you have gotten your information very wrong. You are wrong that breastmilk loses its nutritional value at 1 year, that a mother struggling to breastfeed automatically needs formula and that a child will have psychological issues if breastfed into toddlerhood. You are wrong that a mother needs to stop breastfeeding at any designated time just because that is your opinion. You are wrong that breastmilk is rotting my child’s teeth. You are wrong that breastfeeding while pregnant is endangering my fetus. You are wrong that sharing a bed with my baby is deadly. You are wrong that my baby should cry alone. You are wrong that homebirth is dangerous. You are wrong that our bodies are not powerful enough to birth our babies without your interference. You are wrong that a baby cannot be heathy without solid foods. You are wrong to make us feel diminished and afraid in our new role. You are wrong to threaten us either outwardly or indirectly on decisions that are none of your business.

I believe it would surprise you to find the amount of things that are none of your business. Your business is what I make it. You are a guide, a support, a resource. It is your job to give me the honest truth, the whole story and all of the information when I ask for it. It is your job to support us and encourage us while we educate ourselves on all of our options and then support us when we have made our final decisions about our bodies and our children.

Thank you for the awesome job you are doing. I hope to hear the same from you at our next visit.

Sincerely,

A mom

This is My Home: Nursing Past Toddlerhood

by Wendy Wisner, IBCLC

Most of us are comfortable with the idea of nursing an infant.  Certainly everyone agrees that breastmilk is the superior infant food.  And most people understand that an infant suckling at a mother’s breast is natural (though far too many people are uncomfortable with actually seeing a mother breastfeed!).

There is a lovely, ever-growing subset of people who are comfortable with toddlers nursing.  Even in the eight years since my first child was born, nursing a toddler has become more and more accepted.  We know that toddlers need “milk” and that breastmilk so neatly fills this need (after all, it was the original “milk” for humans before they drank milk from other species).

It’s the moms who nurse children who are most stigmatized.  I haven’t even read all the comments on this article that is going around, but I’ve read enough to recognize the extreme reactions people have when they see a nursing six-year-old.

And you may be one of those people.  Most people are.  But hold on just a second.  I’m not here to criticize you, or even to try to convince you of anything.

I want you to know that I get it.  I get the idea that a child—a lanky, chatty, independent child, who is on the course to be a big child—seems too old be breastfeeding.

I once thought that too.  I thought that because it was all I’d ever known.  It was what I’d been told all my life.

It might mean nothing to you, but did you know that all of this—every notion you’ve ever had about bigger children nursing—is specific to the time we live in, and is completely culturally defined?  Did you know that for most of human history, and in many parts of the world still, nursing through early childhood is normal?  Did you know we are the anomaly?

Did you know that it is a relatively new thing—and certainly a culturally specific thing—to sexualize breasts to the extent that we do?  To sexualize them to the point where any child who can walk or talk is “too old” to be still be nursing because (let’s just come out and say it) there might be something sexual brewing between a mother and her child at that age.

There is nothing sexual about a mother nursing a 4, 5, 6, or 7 year old child.  Truly.  It’s not a sexual act.  It’s an act of nurture.  And although breastmilk is not a main source of nutrition for these children, breastmilk contains antibodies and antiviral agents for the entire time a child nurses.  We all know that children’s immune systems aren’t as strong as adults’—maybe that’s part of the reason children so often have the need to nurse past infancy and toddlerhood.

According to the anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler, most children wean on their own sometime between the age of 2.5 and 7 years old.  These numbers are true to what I’ve observed working with breastfeeding mothers for the past five years.  There is a lot of variation here because all kids are different, and reach developmental milestones at different ages.

You can read this article by Dettwyler if you wish, which describes the cultural and biological imperatives behind natural weaning.  You may find it illuminating.

You may also think it’s irrelevant—that this is a modern world, and we shouldn’t be beholden to ancient history, and primate biology.

OK. I understand where you’re coming from. But here’s the thing.  There are many kids out there nursing—not just the ones in this newest article, or the kid who was on the cover of Time Magazine a few years ago.  They might even live down the street from you.  They go to school (no, they don’t nurse at school!), soccer practice, art class, etc.

They are normal kids.  And they grow up to be successful, flawed, happy, unhappy, thriving, imperfect, awesome adults.  Their moms are normal too.  They love their kids, they yell sometimes, they apologize, they are tired, trying to figure it out each day.

Here’s how nursing a child works.  At the end of the day, when you might cozy up with your young child in bed and snuggle—when your child might reach for a thumb to suckle, or the frayed end of a blanket to cuddle with or suck on—these children might nurse a bit.  Usually not much, once they are four years old or so.  Most older children nurse briefly, once or twice a day.  They will often go days or weeks or months without nursing.  That’s how weaning of older children usually happens.

Why do they still nurse?  It’s biology, baby.  The sucking reflex that we all know babies have doesn’t go away in babyhood or toddlerhood.  Like every developmental milestone, it is reached at different times for different kids, but usually diminishes sometime after about 3 years old, and is almost always gone by 6 or 7 years old.

And though some older children might meet their sucking needs by sucking thumbs or binkies or blankets, nursing was the way nature designed for children to meet these needs (without wrecking the alignment of their teeth, by the way).

I’ll tell you a story.  My story.  I didn’t plan on nursing my son for as long as he did.  He was a high-needs baby who always sighed a deep sigh of relief when he latched on and nursed.  Even as a young baby he taught me that milk was only a fraction of the reason he nursed.  When he was a bouncy, talkative, volatile, emotional toddler, nursing centered him, calmed him, slowed down his body and his breathing.  It brought him back to my arms, when he needed a break from constantly jumping and talking (the kid never stopped talking!).

The suckling itself released calming hormones in both of us (biology is cool like that, offering moms and their children lots of incentives to nurse).  His instinct to nurse, and my instinct to nurse him, continued for several years.  It tapered off just as his body grew, and his jaw-line lengthened, and his big teeth pushed themselves into place behind the milk teeth (there’s a reason they call them milk teeth).

Soon the three-year-old who needed to nurse every few hours became the four-year-old who needed to nurse just at bedtime and in the morning.  Then just at bedtime.  Then just some days at bedtime.  Then his body needed to do different things.  He needed to talk himself to sleep.  He needed to rest his head against my chest rather than nurse.  He needed to hold my hand.  He needed to roll into his own bed without me.

All of these changes took time.  His time.  Our time.

He was my child.  I was his mom.  If you had told me when he was born that I would be nursing him that long, I would have laughed.  But we grew into it together, and out of it too.

You can’t really know until you’ve done it, or you’ve seen it.  But it’s normal.  The media has sensationalized it, and sexualized it.  But it is none of those things.  It’s an exchange of love between a mother and child.  That’s all.

My two-year-old summed it up perfectly the other day.  He lifted my shirt, looked inside, and said, “This is my home.”  And I know it will continue to be his home for some time still.

You don’t have to nurse your child for as long I did, or as long as other mothers do.  I know you find ways to meet your child’s need for security, for touch, and for love.  I am not better than you, and you are not better than me.  But I ask you to think outside the box when it comes to mothers nursing their children past a certain age, past the age you feel comfortable with.

And if you are nursing a child past the toddler years, know that you are not alone, there are many of us out there, going with our instincts, and letting our children lead the way.

Wendy Winser breastfeeding; The Badass Breastfeeder

Nursing my son.  He was about 3 at the time.  By 4, he wasn’t really nursing much during the day, so I don’t have any pictures of him nursing then!

unnamedWendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC) in private practice.  Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in such publications as Prairie Schooner,Brain, Child Magazine, Literary Mama, Mamalode, The Spoon River Review, Natural Child Magazine, Lilith, The Badass Breastfeeder, The Bellevue Literary Review, Scary Mommy, Natural Bridge, and Verse Daily.  She blogs at www.nursememama.com.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Ask an Expert: Milk Supply During Pregnancy

By Wendy Wisner, IBCLC

Fan Question: Need a little advice on re-lactation!! Baby girl is 2 yrs old and I’m currently 32 weeks pregnant. I stopped producing “milk” about 8-9 weeks ago but that hasn’t deterred her from nursing on colostrum! Is it possible to start producing “milk” again, or do we wing it till the new baby arrives? I drink nothing but water, eat oatmeal everyday, and take my prenatals religiously! Any and all advice is appreciated

Unfortunately, during pregnancy your milk supply isn’t controlled by “supply and demand” (i.e., how frequently your child nurses), nor is it influenced by how much you are eating or drinking, or the types of food you consume. I wish there were more you could do to increase your supply, but the hormones of pregnancy are too strong for this, and your body is preparing primarily for your new baby. Pregnancy hormones affect all mothers differently, some losing their supply right away, some noticing very little change in supply, and some only noticing the drop later. It sounds like you were on the luckier end of the spectrum, with your milk disappearing in the second trimester, and your colostrum coming in soon after. Though it certainly isn’t as plentiful as a full milk supply, many babies are happy with colostrum. It’s full of good nutrition and immunities, and keeps your toddler interested. (Keep in mind that colostrum is a laxative, so don’t be surprised if your two-year-old has looser stools for a while.) The fact that your daughter is still enthusiastically nursing is wonderful if your plan is to continue nursing her once the baby arrives. In just a few short weeks, you will have a full milk supply again and both of your children will be VERY happy. Kudos for nursing during pregnancy, and for planning to tandem nurse!

unnamed Wendy Wisner is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), writer, and mother of two amazing boys.  In addition to her work with breastfeeding moms, she has published two books of poems, and a handful of articles about mothering and breastfeeding.  She blogs at www.nursememama.com.

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The Making of a Facebook Breastfeeding Photo

They’re everywhere these days. Those amazing breastfeeding photos that make breastfeeding look romantic, easy and fun. Even the ones featuring gymnurstic toddlers and tired moms can bring rush of wistfulness to us hormonal breastfeeders. But one of my last breastfeeding photos posted to the Facebook page got me to thinking…

I posted this photo.

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Beautiful, huh? Yeah, it’s exactly what I was shooting for. Me smiling down at my boys. Them holding hands. We look comfy and in love. It represents how I often feel inside. I feel like a powerful and beautiful mother who loves breastfeeding. I feel like I have it all figured out. I feel like we are living in harmony.

And after about 15 minutes of dealing with what actually happens in my life we got it. My sister was in town and I asked her to take some pictures. I have so many selfies, but I don’t have many tandem shots or shots taken from a few steps back where you can see the whole scene. I knew what I wanted to capture; with the extra set of hands I was able to put forth the effort. But seriously folks, it was an effort! When I read the comments under this photo I felt a bit bad. The worst of it is when some said I make it look easy.

Holy Fucking No Way.

No, there is not much easy about breastfeeding and not much easy about this moment! But I really wanted to have one of those special photos where it actually looks on the outside the way it feels to me on the inside. One the outside it’s chaos. Exley is popping on and off. Jack is poking his finger into Exley’s eye. Jack is sliding down my leg. My sister is trying to find a way to get both latches in the picture with no hands in the way. And on any day of the week this is how it is. Throw in the daily battle with nursing aversion, parenting stresses and all of the other wonderfully overwhelming situations that life brings. There is a major gap between this photo and reality.

But this photo does capture something real for me. On the inside I feel successful, empowered and strong. Despite all of the chaos and difficulties breastfeeding and being a mother has given me many things to feel proud of. This is why we love to share these beautiful breastfeeding photos. Not because we have it easy, not because we don’t struggle, not because we are trying to fool anyone, but because we just feel so awesome and wonderful sometimes that we want a really moving photo to represent it. Not always, but sometimes.

When I read the comments that I make breastfeeding look easy I felt sort of bad. I felt like I was being deceptive. So just so we are on the same page here are the rest of the photos from that photo shoot.

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Abby Theuring, MSW