Saturday, March 24, 2012

Breastfeeding: All or Nothing?

I read an interesting point in a blog post recently, and I only wish I could remember which blog, because I read so many and rarely keep track of who said what (bad blog reading, I know). In any case, the point was that while you can choose not to breastfeed, you can't then later choose to switch to breastfeeding. However, you can choose not to formula-feed and then later choose to switch to formula if your situation calls for it. Basically, you've got to start out breastfeeding, and then make the choice either to continue or let your milk dry up and switch to formula.

This isn't exactly true, of course. It is both possible to relactate - that is, ask your breasts to start making milk again after having let your milk dry up - or to induce lactation - that is, ask your breasts to start making milk even if you never even had a baby. Some adoptive mothers do the latter, inducing lactation by tricking the body into thinking it's pregnant and then tricking the body into thinking it's delivered a baby through the use of hormone therapy and 'round-the-clock pumping. It's not easy, and it doesn't work for everybody, but it can be a very rewarding effort if you wanted to go that route. As for relactation, it's nearly as difficult. It's possible to bring your milk back in within the first few months after giving birth if you pump about every two to three hours around the clock for several weeks, as well as putting baby to breast as often as possible (if possible), but it takes serious dedication. After my first son was born and had been on exclusively formula for about four weeks, I thought about relactating. I spoke with a La Leche League leader about it, and she said I'd basically need to treat my breastpump like a newborn, pumping at least eight times in a 24-hour period (including in the middle of the night). She also said that since I had never established a full supply to begin with, it might never be possible to do so. I gave it a half-hearted effort, but never really was able to extract more than a few drops of milk, and I gave up after a couple of weeks of seeing no change.

So if you think you probably do want to breastfeed but you're not sure, you should start out doing so. Bring in your milk, breastfeed your new baby, and if for whatever reason you decide you don't want to do it, or there is a medical or psychiatric reason that you shouldn't or can't do it, you can always stop, wean to formula or bottles of donated breastmilk, and let your milk dry up. But, if you don't bring in your milk and start breastfeeding, it's pretty darn difficult, if not impossible, to change your mind six weeks in.

So in the beginning, yes, breastfeeding is "all or nothing." That is, either you do it or you don't. But, once you've established your supply and the baby has learned to feed effectively, and you give it a few weeks, or months, or years, things become a bit more flexible. For example, let's say that after six weeks, your maternity leave ends and you have to go back to work full time. You intend to pump and have your baby drink your milk from a bottle while you're separated from her. This would be ideal if you can't be with your baby all day, which many, many women can't. But, what if you just can't pump enough milk? Some women's bodies just don't respond well to the breast pump, and they can't produce enough, or they can't produce anything at all, or they can't keep up with their baby's needs by pumping. Other women's jobs are not ideal for pumping milk. Even though new federal law requires most workplaces to provide adequate break times and space for pumping milk, it still may not be entirely possible. Does this mean you have to stop breastfeeding and give your baby formula?


Certainly, and I stress this because I believe it, it is most desireable to feed exclusively breastmilk for at least the first six months of your baby's life. That is the general recommendation from the AAP, the WHO, and other health services. Breastmilk is the best food for your young baby, and if you can provide it, and you will provide it, then you should provide it. The enormous benefits to your baby's (and your!) health, from nutrition to immune system to brain development to priming the digestive system, make exclusive breastfeeding the natural choice for every baby.

However, some breastmilk is better than no breastmilk. If you simply cannot provide exclusively breastmilk to your under-six-month-old baby, then continuing to nurse as much as you can is still good! Even if that means you only nurse at night, or in the morning and evening before and after work, or three times a day, or just for bedtime, some breastmilk is better than no breastmilk.

After six months or so, once you've introduced solid foods, you are no longer exclusively breastfeeding anyway. The benefits of breastmilk never go away, of course, so if you can continue to breastfeed as your baby's major source of nutrition, you should go on doing so. But, if you've given it six months and you're going a little nuts, backing off at this point is not as harmful, since your baby is eating other foods anyway. Remember that solid foods cannot and should not replace breastmilk and/or formula as your baby's major source of nutrition until after 12 months of age. Especially early on, six or seven months of age, solid foods shouldn't be more than 5 to 10% of your baby's daily intake. By one year, solid foods may be up to closer to 50% of your baby's intake. After one year, solid foods can be the majority of your baby's caloric and nutritional intake. Between six and 12 months, if you do decide to breastfeed less, you should replace most of the feedings with donated breastmilk or formula, not solid foods. One to three small meals of solids should be fine, but babies still need breastmilk or formula to thrive at that young age.

The AAP recommends breastfeeding for at minimum of one year. The WHO says two years. By one year of age, many babies are eating a fair amount of solid foods. At this point, you can choose to wean without taking away a significant portion of your baby's diet. However, if you want to continue to nurse, you certainly can. There is no psychological or physical harm to continuing to nurse to two years or beyond. The value of breastmilk and breastfeeding is not diminished just because the Earth has circled the sun one time since your baby was born. But, toddlers can survive on solid foods, assuming you are providing a variety of foods to create a balanced diet for your child. Children under two still need milk fats for brain development, either from your own milk, cow's milk, other dairy products, or another source. I am not a nutritionist or pediatrician, so I can't make a recommendation about what sort of milk to feed your toddler to replace breastmilk, but most pediatricians will tell you to give whole cow's milk to replace breastmilk or formula after one year of age.

If you do decide you want to wean at one year, you may need to start cutting back slowly. What you may find is that once you're down to two or three feedings a day, instead of six or seven, for example, or once you find that you no longer need to pump at work, breastfeeding may become an enjoyable break, rather than a burden or responsibility. Cuddling up with your toddler to nurse at bedtime or for an afternoon snack may be a time of closeness you and your toddler need during your otherwise hectic days. At this point, breastfeeding really isn't all or nothing. Weaning doesn't have to mean stopping completely, and weaning can be a slow, gentle process. I know of women who continue to nurse just once a day for months before they or their child finally drop that last feeding. I also know of women who continue to nurse six times a day, or more, throughout the second year. I found that SB gradually cut back over the course of his second year, until he was really only comfort-nursing at night. By the time I cut him off at 25 months, I didn't even get engorged, he was nursing so rarely and so little. A slow weaning process is more comfortable for both mother and child.

I don't really feel comfortable encouraging anyone to cut back on breastfeeding until her baby is at least one year of age. I wouldn't be writing this blog if I didn't feel that women should be supported and encouraged to choose exclusive breastfeeding. However, I also don't think it's fair to insist on breastfeeding as the only right choice, as if you either breastfeed or you don't. I think that places a lot of burden and blame on women who, for whatever reason, choose to use some formula. I also think it's important to let women know that breastfeeding some of the time is better than not breastfeeding at all. Just like some exercise is better than no exercise, and eating some vegetables is better than eating no vegetables, and getting some sleep is better than getting no sleep, breastfeeding some of the time is better than breastfeeding none of the time. To keep some supply, you have to breastfeed regularly, but if, for whatever reason, you don't breastfeed all of the time, that doesn't mean you have to stop completely.

I've been thinking about NJ's early weeks on this Earth, where he was getting perhaps 3 ounces of breastmilk per day when I pumped for him. I asked my LiveJournal audience if that measly 3 ounces a day mattered. I wish someone had said, "YES! Any breastmilk is better than no breastmilk!" I wish someone had said to me, "Try just nursing once a day. Maybe you'll find you want to try for a second feeding, and then a third." I wish I had known I could combination feed, or bring up my supply over time, as I healed, rather than just stopping. I wish I had known how important it could be in the future. I wish I had known how badly I would feel about stopping.

It is those regrets that drove me to two successful VBACs and two successful subsequent nursing relationships. (I've officially made it to six months of breastfeeding with GI, and we started solids a couple of weeks ago but are still mostly nursing. I'll be blogging about that soon.) It is also those regrets, and my subsequent successes, that drive me to write this blog. So I say, Yes! Do breastfeed! Give it a shot. Give it six weeks.  Breastfeeding some is better than not breastfeeding at all. Some breastmilk is better than no breastmilk. And it is not all or nothing.

Most importantly, find help and support so that you can meet whatever goals you have set for yourself. Knowing that you've reached or surpassed those goals will allow you to look back with pride rather than with regret or guilt.

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