31 May 2011

More Than Food

So often discussions regarding breastfeeding seem to omit the fact that breastfeeding is much more than food.  I see this fact being omitted when people talk about scheduling feeds, feeding in public, nightweaning, etc.

When people talk of scheduling feeds, the underlying assumption is that breastfeeding is purely for food.  I say that's the assumption because you cannot schedule when your child will need to be comforted.  I'm not entirely convinced you can completely schedule when they'll eat, either; I have a general idea of when my children will eat, but nothing is set in stone.  Kieran usually wants to eat after he wakes from a nap and has had his "wake-up milk", but sometimes he doesn't.  Of course, I can't even tell you with absolute certainty when I'll eat.  I laugh that I'm a hobbit, as I'm fairly certain I could easily follow a hobbit's eating schedule.

One rejoinder often heard in conversations about scheduling feeds or nightweaning is that the mother shouldn't let the child use her as a dummy.  Let's think about that one.  A dummy is something that is supposed to replace the breast and allow the child to fulfil his need for suckling away from the mother.  It's a substitute.  Why use a substitute if the mother is available?  Babies need to suck, and biologically this is fulfilled by breastfeeding, for food or comfort.

Perhaps part of this is that many do not recognise comfort-sucking as an actual need for the child.  Comfort is more than just a want for a child, but is a real need.  He needs to know his mother is there.  I participated in a conversation where a parent was asking if his child should nightwean, and another person asked if the child needed to breastfeed or if it was just for comfort.  See the assumption there?  The assumption that breastfeeding for comfort isn't a need?  While our culture may teach this, it just isn't the case.

It's also not true that a child who is comforted in that way will never learn to self-soothe or go to sleep on his own.  I've certainly not found this to be true.  As I've mentioned before, Kieran has always been a comfort-nurser and would still gladly nurse his cares away at times (he doesn't ask for it every time he falls, though).  Even with wanting that physical comforting from me, he's an independent boy who can calm himself down and can fall asleep without nursing to sleep.  He still gets milk before naps & bed, but doesn't fall asleep like that any more.  I say that Charlotte doesn't comfort feed, but that isn't entirely true, as she does breastfeed to sleep (for naps and bed).  She simply doesn't want to breastfeed if she hurts herself or otherwise needs comforting during the day.  I have no fear of her never learning to sleep without breastfeeding, for I know she'll stop that when she's ready.  There are many nights when she'll breastfeed some and then flop down so she's not touching me and fall asleep, and she's tried to put herself down for a nap.  She's making steps towards that, but I'm in no rush.

The conversation about breastfeeding in public also seems to assume that comfort-feeding is irrelevant (since it cannot be predicted), as well as assuming that you can/should schedule your child's feeds.  When Kieran was little, I'd always try to feed him before going to class (yes, he went to my university lectures with me) or Mass or whatnot, but he'd almost always want to eat again at that time.  Perhaps he needed to be comforted when in a larger group of people, most of whom he didn't know.  My choices then were to feed him, leave, or let him scream.  Some children can be held off, but not all.  Since all children are individuals, an arbitrary rule shouldn't be applied.

Ultimately, I think a lot of the debate on this comes from the fact that breastfeeding, sadly, isn't the majority practise here.  The majority bottle-feed, which as a different set of guidelines.  Dummies should be used with bottle-fed babes, since the need to comfort-suck isn't met with the bottle, which is reserved for food.  Because this is what is so often seen, I think a lot of members of society have forgotten what the biological norm dictates: that babies feed often, for short periods of time, for comfort as well as food, and that they breastfeed for over two years, on average.  Hopefully the tide is turning, as more information and support are available for mothers, though unfortunately some still aren't receiving the support and help needed and some healthcare providers continue to disseminate myths.

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