Friday, July 20, 2012

Kids Need to See Women Breastfeeding

The other day, we were at a community barbecue at the Rabbi's house. I wandered into the living room of the house, where several of my friends were sitting around and chatting. One friend said she was sorry, but she thinks she made a faux pas. I couldn't imagine what she could have done. She explained that NJ had come in while one of the other mothers was preparing a bottle of formula for her daughter. (Not that she needs an excuse for this, but her daughter is 2.5, autistic, and has feeding issues, so she takes a bottle of formula to supplement her food intake.) He said something along the lines of, "I didn't have that when I was a baby!", to which my friend replied that he had. He argued, and she wasn't going to push the issue, so she just said, "Okay."

I shrugged and said, "No big deal. He doesn't know that he was formula fed." It's not that it's a big secret or anything. It just hasn't come up as a topic of conversation. He watches me nurse GI, and I think he has a vague awareness of my having nursed SB, and he's seen several of my friends nurse their babies, and he has always just assumed that (a) that's how you feed a baby, and (b) that's how he was fed. I call him my little five-year-old lactation consultant because he's very interested in breastfeeding and knows that it's the best choice for a baby. I haven't made a big deal of it, just exposed him to it by feeding his brothers. It has imprinted as "normal" on his brain, and I hope he carries that image with him into fatherhood so that he can be an awesomely supportive husband when his wife (G-d willing) has a baby (G-d willing).

I told my friend not to worry about it and that, if he asked me, I would talk to him about it. Apparently the whole episode didn't make much of an impression on him, because he hasn't mentioned it. It does make me wonder if I should sit him down and have "a talk" about it with him, but I mostly feel that it just isn't that important. At some point, it will come up in conversation, or he'll ask, and I'll explain that when he was born, Mommy wasn't as well-informed as she is now, and she was also very sick, and it was very hard for her to nurse him, so he got bottles of formula instead because he had to eat something. I'll tell him that we don't need to judge other mothers for how they feed their babies. (I wouldn't want to deal with the embarrassment of having him say something rude to a mother giving her baby a bottle! And he's the type who would say something, too, if it occurred to him.). I'll just say that some mothers decide to feed their babies formula from a bottle instead of nursing them for whatever reason, and that's their choice to make.

I'm glad that my sons are growing up exposed to women nursing. I think the image of a baby drinking from a bottle is so ingrained in our society that many girls (and boys) grow up thinking that's the only way to feed a baby. I know that when I had NJ, I didn't even really know what breastfeeding should "look like," or how it worked. I didn't know much about bottles, either, granted, but I think if I had grown up with more exposure to breastfeeding women, the idea of breastfeeding might have come more naturally to me. I didn't wrestle with the decision to breastfeed - I had intended to, before the circumstances of NJ's birth led me down a different path - but I didn't educate myself, and that was the mistake.

I think growing up knowing that babies are fed from the breast will serve more than one purpose. First, it will make breastfeeding normal, and that means that when they have their own babies, these children will think first of breastfeeding rather than bottles. Second, they will know how breastfeeding looks. How to hold the baby will come more naturally, because they'll have seen it live. They'll know how it should sound, and what the baby needs to be doing. They might even have talked to someone about how it feels or what problems she might have had. Certainly, they or their wives will need help and support from friends and relatives and medical providers and society as a whole in order to start and maintain a successful breastfeeding relationship, but they'll be motivated to breastfeed and motivated to seek out such support, knowing that their breasts were designed to feed their babies.

Growing up seeing breastfeeding as a regular and normal thing will also decrease the "breastfeeding in public" debate. If breastfeeding is just another thing you see every day, then it is no longer sensational or controversial, so there will be no need for debate. Feeding a baby is feeding a baby. It's not sexual or indecent or offensive. And if a baby suckling from a breast is as ordinary a sight as a child eating french fries, women will feel more confident in starting and continuing to breastfeed because it won't seem weird or unusual or "out there" or uncomfortable.

So, to my little five-year-old lactation consultant, my son who is so concerned for the welfare of babies, thank you for already being so supportive of breastfeeding. Thank you for showing that a child can process the idea of breastfeeding as normal, take it in stride, and establish a vision of baby feeding that will encourage him to champion breastfeeding for his own babies one day. Kids are not offended or put off by breastfeeding. It's kids who will become the next generation of breastfeeding supporters because they have been exposed to it as children and don't find it exceptional at all. And that's what we want.

And, if my son asks me how he was fed as a baby, he will also get to learn that sometimes we do need to use formula, and we don't think less of a mother just because she isn't breastfeeding. Maybe the next generation of "Mommy wars" won't include a breastmilk-versus-formula category at all.

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