Breastfeeding- A Dance
We often hear about the benefits of breastfeeding and studies that support this or that. With the advent of the perfect parent, via invisible online communities like Facebook, we often hear mothers fighting about, getting defensive about, and even mean about the benefits, effort, or ability to breastfeed.
But to me, breastfeeding, or nursing, or feeding on cue, is so much more than something that can be proven with a study. It is more than live food, let down, proper latch or attachment parenting. It is the first intricate and beautiful dance between a mother and her baby.
Nursing your infant is the continuation of the birth process. I like to think of birth as a dance. You need to learn it's moves. You need to listen to it and your body. You need to work with and move with it. If you choose to fight birth and the powerful sensations that accompany it, birth will be quick to step on your toes. No, for birth to go well you don't just need a little luck, you need to learn to listen to it and learn what it is trying to teach you without words, just as you need to feel the music and your partner and the mood as you learn to dance.
With the end of birth the baby enters the world. The first person he touches of course is mother, because that is where he just emerged. The continuation of the natural birth process is for mother to lift the baby onto her chest soon after and nuzzle, cuddle, love and nurse her new baby. If all has gone well and the environment is peaceful and supportive, this may begin naturally. Both mother and baby are geared to begin this new and first step in their relationship where they are still close, but are no longer sharing the same body.
How are they prepared by nature for this first step together? Mother's body has changed to prepare in particular for the nursing relationship. Her breasts have gotten bigger, her aureoles darker and the golden drops of colostrum have been prepared within. The baby is born without the ability to walk, talk, or function independent of mother. There is very little that the newborn can do alone. But he can eat. Divine creation or natural selection or both have ensured that this baby instinctively roots. He will turn toward food. He will instinctively suck.
Now, maybe it sounds like with all this natural predisposition towards breastfeeding that nursing will be smooth sailing. Obviously this is not always so. Many suspect that some problems in the nursing relationship can be traced back to unnatural aspects of modern birth like medications or mother/baby separation. This makes sense to me on many levels as those things are obviously an interruption to the natural process.
But even with the most natural home birth or the most medical and intervention riddled modern birth, nursing can be a challenge. There are literally thousands of things that can go wrong, from physical problems to emotional ones and everything in between.
No matter how your birth goes, nursing is often a learned art, not just for the mother, but for the baby also.
Have you ever seen a new mother interact with a brand new baby? Have you ever been that mother? There is so much more involved here than just food. This first dance is a chance for mother and baby to get to know each other. They learn from each other. They teach one another how to do this. It is a complicated and beautiful flow of intuition, reflexes, learning, pain, and love. It is one of the first things that teaches us how to mother.
First we must learn baby's cues. What does he do when he is hungry? Does he turn his head? Suck on his fingers? Does he start to smack his lips together?
Then, how does he like to be held? How can we fit what has become a gigantic breast into this tiny little mouth? Mama must learn how to feed the baby and the baby must learn too.
Babe must learn to open his mouth and stick out his tongue. He must suck and wait for the milk to come. He must learn how to get your attention. Mother must often teach baby how to do this properly so that mama doesn't end up hurt in the process.
We often think of the first few days and weeks of nursing as painful and a struggle. Indeed they can be, but it is so much more than that. It is more than learning proper latch and tongue position. It is more than cradle verses football hold. It is patience. It is persistence. It is struggle sometimes and even pain- but the struggle and the pain, when they end in success, make the nursing relationship that much more enjoyable, bonding, and powerful.
Nursing your baby is one of natures ways to teach us how to love our babies. When literal breastfeeding is impossible, we can still nurse our babies. We can hold them when we feed them, love them, look at them and enjoy them and feed them when they are hungry but before they are screaming without even having breasts.
I love that you can get into a rhythm with your baby. How amazing that a young mother can awake in the middle of the night for no reason, only to have her baby rouse and turn and search for her in hunger a few moments later? How priceless is the sensation of letdown when a baby is asleep, only to have him awake hungry within minutes? Few things can give a new mom more confidence and joy than knowing that she and her baby are finally working together in perfect harmony to grow and teach one another.
I hope that all women who are able can find joy in the journey, the learning, and the dance that is the nursing relationship. It is worth any missteps and stubbed toes along the way. Breastfeeding can be a beautiful dance between mother and baby.