I’ve been trying to teach my now one-year-old son the sign for nursing since he was old enough to open his eyes for longer than a minute. I squeeze my hand together in a “milking” motion, and I ask if he’d like milk. I’ve had other mothers giggle at my sign choice, as it’s actually the sign for cow’s milk, which is something Andrew’s tummy is not designed to be able to process, as he is not a calf. But I chose the “milk” sign over the “nursing” sign because I didn’t want to assume that my baby would always be able to breastfeed. I didn’t want to take for granted the health of my body, my ability to stay off medicines that would transfer to my infant via my milk.
I’ve had a wonderful first year of breastfeeding exclusively, and I’ve been able to give my third child all the milk he could want or need–just as I was able to do for his sisters–for his first year of life. I hope to continue for as long as it works for both of us.
I realize the privilege inherent in those last few sentences. I know that not every new mother can breastfeed. I know that a lot of parents find other ways to give their babies human milk. And I know there are parents who don’t, for whatever reason, have the resources–who turn to formula because of a health challenge, or financial resources, or geographic difficulties. There are just not enough human milk banks. Nor is there enough awareness about the benefits of mother’s milk. And, sadly, there are far too many hospitals that don’t support breastfeeding. Just reading about my friend Sarah’s amazing fight to breastfeed her baby in the NICU was enough to make me wonder if things will ever change in the hospital environment in favor of the nursing infant and her mother.
My hospital experiences with childbirth were far easier, and for that I am thankful. But even so, I had to adamantly refuse formula with the births of my babies. I fought well-meaning nurses who wanted me to get some sleep, and that meant taking my babies into the nursery and giving them formula. My babies slept in the room with me, and we only separated long enough for me to shower.
Today, with my crawling chaos of a son, separating long enough to get in a shower is STILL a challenge, but breastfeeding isn’t. It’s the easiest thing in the world. And all my attempts to teach him how to communicate his need for sustenance were unnecessary. He tells me what he needs, and he always has. I just had to learn his evolving means of telling me. At first, it was a particular cry. And then, it was rooting. Biting was next. Eventually, he started pointing at my breast and saying “That!” And THAT is what we do.
So, do what you can to support nursing mothers. When you see a mother nursing her baby in public, give her a smile and a wink. Offer her a glass of water. Allow your children to see how human mothers nourish their young. It’s not something to be kept behind closed doors. Teach women through your words, through your actions, that this is something worthy. It’s worth the effort, the time, the discomfort, the inconvenience. We are a generation of change. Let’s stop this culture that discriminates against the biological rightness that is breastfeeding. In our hospitals, in our shopping malls, in public places all over this country.