The New Breastfeeding Rules

by Paula Spencer

The New Breastfeeding Rules

One breastfeeding mother broke all the “rules,” and guess what? Her babies did just fine.

“Want me to take him to the nursery so you can get some sleep?”

I glance from the postpartum nurse to the still-unreal bundle in my arms. Henry. My son. There’s a nursery here? I’d chosen this hospital partly for its policy of having newborns “room in” with their mothers. Rooming-in was one of those items on the get-ready-for-baby checklists I’d lived by that sounded as critical as it was amorphous and alien. It had something to do with bonding.

Back when I was researching state-of-the-art birthing centers, though, I hadn’t counted on spending 39 straight hours awake — a day at work, an evening rabidly cleaning out the linen closet, then a long night and a morning in labor, followed by a packed day, counting amazing little fingers and toes, a lesson in getting a baby to latch on to a breast twice the circumference of his tiny head (mine, speaking of amazing), and making giddy phone calls. Adrenaline had powered me through that last part. Then it abruptly left the building an hour ago, along with my exhausted husband.

Take him to the nursery? Hey, you’re the expert. All I know about babies is what I read in books.

“Sure,” I say.

There is no painful, ripping Velcro sound as my baby separates from my arms. There is only quiet, and the relief of imminent sleep. I’m too tired to care that barely 12 hours into motherhood I’ve already veered perilously off course. I’d messed up my candidacy for Mother Supreme even before the umbilical cord quit pulsing.

For the record, that first night in the nursery, Henry didn’t appear to miss me either. The nurses did not feed him a bottle of sugar-water, as the pro-rooming-in tracts had warned they might. At least, nobody told me he got sugar-water, and I do have fuzzy memories of being awakened to breastfeed once or twice. But the nurses could have fed him coconut milk for all I cared that night, so long as they did him no harm. Rooming-in was just another abandoned ideal that suddenly didn’t seem important. I had sleep. The baby was still alive. So far, so good.

Once we are home, a precious pot of lanolin becomes my new best friend. I stock up on shirts with hidden openings and spend contented hours in my glider rocker, a water bottle at my side. I learn to nurse confidently in public — in cars, on planes, on trains (and possibly while reciting Dr. Seuss aloud in the rain). I can even suckle while simultaneously typing and talking on the phone, a breastfeeding hold described in no guide I’ve devoured.

When Henry is 4 weeks old, he outgrows the heirloom cradle next to our bed and I relocate him to a crib in his own room, down the hall. A few weeks later he’s sleeping through the night (or from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., which by this point is nirvana, not to mention a reasonable facsimile of “all night”). Then, at 3 1/2 months, my champion sleeper begins backsliding. My mom tells me to mix a little cereal with formula and feed it before bedtime. I ask my pediatrician what he thinks. My pediatrician tells me to mix a little cereal with formula and feed it before bedtime. He’s been a pediatrician for as long as my mom has raised five kids. It works.

I also leave the occasional bottle of half-and-half (half-formula, half-me) or a can of ready-to-pour formula for his day-care “teachers.” I try to express a few extra ounces for this before or after work, though only when I have both time and inclination. Fortunately, Henry is in a corporate child-care center near my office, so I can slip out at mealtimes to nurse him. If I had to pump several times a day (or more ambitiously, FedEx milk back home from business trips, as colleagues do), I’m sure I wouldn’t have bothered pumping at all, no matter how clean and private the pumping room or how understanding my boss. Without snuggling in the equation, making milk hardly seems worth the bother. Yet despite my slightly erratic production schedule, my milk supply never shrivels to the point of sudden infant starvation.

Naturally, I consider myself a “breastfeeding mother.” A successful one at that. I nurse Henry for six months, long past the national average.

Too bad that virtually every preceding sentence brands me a loser at the job, according to prevailing winds of advice and expectation that have whipped up the definition of breastfeeding mother to intimidating proportions. Sure, sure, “breast is best.” But breastfeeding advocates have raised the bar so high on what counts as the right way to feed a baby, it’s a wonder anybody dares to start.

Especially after she faces the much-hyped recommendation that breastfeeding ought to continue for a marathon 12 months. A full year of breastfeeding is a tall order when the typical maternity leave lasts six weeks. Emphasizing the endpoint (“You really ought to do this for 12 months”) makes the whole prospect a lot less inviting than lowering the bar to “Give it a try because your breasts will fill with milk anyway, and it’s really good for your baby, even if you do it for just a day or two.” Anybody might be game to give it a day. Making a commitment for a full year when you can’t even think straight is like sending yourself an invitation to feeling like Failure Mom should you slack off at any point along the way, for whatever reason.

What’s more, there’s little talk of combining breast and formula (or, heaven forbid, solid food) to keep it going. Today moms are routinely advised to lay off the baby food for six months and breastfeed exclusively — formula may as well be devil juice.

Another apparent mistake I made: all those working lunches and dinners using my patented multi-tasking breastfeeding hold. The new thinking is to use feeding times as an opportunity to stimulate your baby’s brain cells by making eye contact and chatting, not to preserve your own by getting caught up on the news. Your needs? Your sleep? How dare you be so selfish!

Woe, too, to the hapless new mom whose circle of peers includes someone a little too intoxicated with sharing news of the dangers of phthalates in plastic bottles or the politics of co-sleeping, after spending too many hours plugged into the more paranoid corners of the momosphere. Childbirth-class reunions that should be spent comparing stretch marks or developmental milestones — or, better yet, exchanging tips on how to avoid getting sucked into work before your leave is up — descend into harangues or debates. No, girlfriend, I don’t want to donate leftovers to the local human milk bank.

Back when I became a nursing mother, “attachment parenting” was still just the name of a chapter in a book, not a lifestyle with rules (and busybodies) of its own. Nobody was organizing “lactivists” into suckle-ins every time an intimidated mother collided with an ill-informed shopkeeper over her right to feed her baby wherever she chose. I’ve fed my kids while wedged between two men on a United Airlines flight, in Sunday school and even during business meetings. I was discreet and nobody ever gaped, much less showed me to the door, though if they had I’d have rolled my eyes and said, “Grow up.” Although a decade ago there were the occasional headline-making arrests over public nursing, the issue hadn’t yet been trumped up into a civil-rights campaign.

It’s a shame, really. Instead of being a natural extension of pregnancy and childbirth, something you just do right away to pass on all those protective antibodies (and save a little cash at a time when it’s flying out of your wallet as if it had been sprinkled with pixie dust back there in the delivery room), breastfeeding has been turned into a statement. A chore. Another series of tests on the way to “good” motherhood. I breastfed because I was convinced it was a smart start. I kept at it because it was much more pleasurable than I’d imagined (not that one can accurately imagine much about breastfeeding before actually doing it). I made it work for me. And then when my baby grew teeth and I grew tired of being tethered to the baby or the pump, I quit.

The message to mothers-to-be and new moms should be: Take breastfeeding one day at a time. Try it in the hospital — you’re just lying there anyway. And people there are glad to show you how. Then, if you and your baby are getting the hang of it, stick it out during maternity leave to pass all those health benefits to your baby, and to yourself. Plus, it’s free, and it can be easier to stuff a ready nipple into a hungry mouth than to prep a bottle while suffering extreme sleep deprivation.

And then, see how it goes. Maybe it will be easier, and more enjoyable, than you thought, the way it was for me. Maybe you’ll move on in a few weeks or months. Maybe you’ll stick with it right through toddlerhood. Whatever follows, everybody will be okay.

That’s the real definition of success: everybody coming out okay.

Henry is not a week old when I’m home explaining for the 20th time to my husband, George, that no, breastfeeding does not feel erotic. (Has he not noticed that I don’t have to grit my teeth during foreplay?) The doorbell rings. Again. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the chance to show off our son. (Our son!) But I’m jangly from new-mom fatigue, insecurity and the soreness of 10,000 stitches somewhere I can’t quite place on my lower body. Visits wear me out. Blessedly, most friends and neighbors coo at Henry, bestow a bib or even better, a ready-to-eat lasagna, and split.

Barbara brings beer.

“Here’s a welcome-home present just for you.” She sets down a wrapped six-pack of Michelob. “My pediatrician’s wife brought me some after Anna was born. She said it’s good for the let-down reflex.”

My milk comes in — and goes out — just fine. But the rest of me could use a little unwinding. If a pediatrician’s wife said so, it must be okay, right? I gladly down half a bottle. I do not “pump and dump the milk,” as a government Web site admonishes. And I really do feel much more relaxed.

In fact, the boy grew nicely, with nary a food allergy or ounce of excess fat. He’s on the honor roll and once won the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. He towers over me and looks his dad in the eye. He once made me a card: “To the best Mommy I ever had.” We’re bonded very nicely, thank you.

Same for his three younger sisters — despite the fact that I stuck each of them in a room down the hall at night and weaned them to fake milk before they were five months old. I never even warmed up the bottles. Then again, I never preheated their baby food — or their diaper wipes — either.

I did, however, chill the Michelob. It was good.

Paula Spencer is the author of Momfidence: An Oreo Never Killed Anybody and Other Secrets of Happier Parenting, and a longtime contributing editor to Babytalk. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.