Our culture seems to be strangely schizophrenic regarding nursing. Everyone says you should do it, but no one will tell you what to do, and no one wants to be anywhere near you when you do it.
Although I am an OB/GYN, most of the things I knew about breastfeeding before I had my own children came not from my medical training but from my mother. The way my mother described nursing sounded easy enough-- the baby is born, crawls from the womb up to your breast, latches on, and stays there for 1-2 years depending on how long you want to nurse them. You can imagine my surprise when my healthy first child didn't want to latch on... or when I got mastitis, or cracked nipples, or had to nurse in public the first time. Our culture seems to be strangely schizophrenic regarding nursing. Everyone says you should do it, but no one will tell you what to do, and no one wants to be anywhere near you when you do it. I hope that at Sojourn we can have a balanced view of feeding our babies, and, in this article, I hope to give some insight into both common issues as well as how we can support the moms in our community.
Breast milk is the perfect infant food. It is created not just for "babies" but from you for your baby, and it supplies exactly the nutrients your infant needs at that specific stage of growth. The benefits for mom and baby are countless--suppression of various infections through passive immunity, weight loss for mom, prevention of maternal and childhood cancers, diabetes and countless other chronic health problems.
Because of all the health benefits, I encourage all my patients, "If you can give breast milk to your baby (whether by pumping or nursing) then do!" But not all women can do this. Some women have health conditions or are on medications that make nursing not possible, and some women simply don't produce enough milk for the proper nourishment of their children; this is more common with premature infants due to initial supply issues.
Despite all the benefits of breast milk, there are situations when I encourage women to switch to formula feeding. The most common situation is when breastfeeding affects a woman's ability to care for herself or her family. Some women find nursing to be very anxiety producing and or associated with depressive thoughts or feelings. God instructs us against anxiety and fear and some women find the best way to conquer that is by not nursing. I have also seen women whose infants require so much care that they are not able to ever have time or energy for their husbands. As a wife your primary responsibility at home is to your husband. If you are not able to care for and love him due to the constant needs of your infant you need to evaluate how to best remedy that situation. This sometimes means supplementing with formula so some of your energy can be for your husband.
It is important to remember that while nursing is a natural thing, all natural processes are forever changed because of the Fall (Genesis 3). Our bodies and our babies fail us, mothers often work, and often there is a lack of support in the community for breast feeding. This variety of situations and their combination can make nursing difficult if not impossible for some. We are so blessed in this country to have easy access to infant formula that is safe and nutritious. Ultimately, what parents choose to feed their child is a matter of freedom. I hope as a community we can have a balanced perspective regarding feeding our infants and encourage women who are taking on the difficult task of raising children, no matter what they choose to feed their babies.
Below, I will address the three most common issues that I see related to breast feeding and offer some suggestions for help.
Early Nursing Discontinuation I often see women who are very excited and motivated to nurse who, for one reason or another, end up stopping earlier than they had planned. God teaches us that human plans may not always be carried out, "Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand" (Proverbs 19:21). As a parent, you will set many goals for your children in regard to many different things--walking, talking, potty training, education. But what will you do when your children don't meet the goals you have set for them? Will you enjoy both the blessings and disappointments that come with parenting? Will you be able to give thanks to God in every circumstance?
The Lack of a "Bonding Experience" Many women have unrealistic expectations about nursing. Nursing is a way to feed your baby. In some cases it is a wonderful bonding experience for mother and child, but not in every case, and certainly not every time you nurse. If your motivation for nursing is anything other than to provide nutritious food for your baby, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Nursing can be painful, tiring, embarrassing, or frustrating. It takes practice and discipline. "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11). Again, in all things praise God who has given you the ability to feed your baby (not all women have that ability), have joy in the beautiful bonding moments and joy in the difficult ones knowing that God has promised your discipline to yield a fruit of righteousness.
Nursing Discretion I see two common issues with this: (1) a lack of concern for discretion with nursing ("I have a right to feed my baby wherever and whenever I want"), and (2) an inability to nurse due to total focus on what others are thinking instead of what you need to do for your infant. The Bible teaches us that women should have modest clothing--"likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness- with good works" (1 Timothy 2:9-10). In light of the Gospel, we never have a "right" that would allow us to cause others to sin or cause them not to be welcomed. We must be sure we are considering others to be more important than ourselves and making all attempts at modesty. However, it is very difficult at times to keep yourself covered and dry while a squirmy infant looks for lunch, so, as nursing mothers, we need to plan ahead and practice. Practicing at home will not only help you learn how to keep yourself covered but will get your baby used to nursing while covered. Planning ahead also means having a cover that works for you both and the appropriate shirt and bra to make it easier on you. It seems that a more common problem is the mother who is so afraid of making anyone uncomfortable or having anyone know what she is doing that they never nurse in public and can even be afraid to leave their house with the baby. Remember, modesty is the goal. It is okay for people to see you and know that you are nursing, but there is nothing immodest about nursing your baby--just revealing yourself while doing so.
Heather Lewis is a Sojourn member and an OB/GYN practicing in New Albany, IN. She is married to Chip Lewis and the mother of two daughters. Their third is due in June.