Breastfeeding Benefits--for Moms

Even if it makes no difference to babies' future obesity, allergies, or IQ, mothers should still nurse -- for themselves.
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It's a strange year for World Breastfeeding Week. In a wave of bad-parenting lit, it has become trendy to disown breastfeeding, question its benefits, admit not doing it, or admit to doing it only briefly (see Hanna Rosin's recent The Atlantic piece "The Case Against Breasfeeding.") But there is one great reason for a mother to breastfeed that has nothing to do with the infant benefits: It feels great. Even if it makes no difference to babies' future obesity, allergies, or IQ, mothers should still nurse -- for themselves.

Now, I'll add a few disclaimers for all the women that had mastitis, latching problems, too much milk, too little, engorged nipples, cracked nipples, vaginal dryness, painful sex, decreased libido, hormonal mood swings, infant thrush, or jobs that didn't make breastfeeding possible or easy. For those women who wanted to do it and were unable to, for medical, emotional or professional reasons, I am sorry. Society needs to do a better job of accommodating working moms, across the class spectrum, who want to breastfeed.

I was one of the lucky first-time mothers that had no physical problems with breastfeeding. And I had a baby who, despite getting her first bottle of pumped milk at just two weeks old (I had business meetings soon after she was born and needed to know she could take a bottle), never got nipple confusion. I was also self-employed, which meant I could feed on demand in the early months. I had a husband and sitter who supported my wish to nurse, even when it meant waiting to go out until I finished pumping a bottle. I know that I am lucky.

But I also know that I stuck with it in part due to my own luckiness, i.e., my own enjoyment. It did not occur to me that breastfeeding could be a selfish act until the late months of my pregnancy, when I found myself asking my mother questions about my infancy and my brother's. I asked whether she used crib bumpers and where I slept and how long she stayed in the hospital after I was born. For most of these questions the answer was, "You think I remember?" But when I asked how long she breastfed she perked up and said, "About a year, for each of you."

Then I asked, "Did you like it?" Almost overlapping with my question, she said, "Very much." My mother is not a demonstrative person but she was demonstrative right then. She quickly explained why she enjoyed breastfeeding, telling me about the bonding, and the peace. She said she remembered sitting in a rocker with each of us late at night, reading or just dozing, and that those were some of her most precious memories of motherhood. (I was not the easiest teen, so perhaps she was thinking about that when she said it.)

She said nothing about the perceived benefits (like most boomers, she herself was formula-fed, so a belief that breastfed children were more intelligent would have been an insult to herself). Yes, she seemed proud that she had done it for so long, which surely had something to do with the benefits to us, but she seemed more taken by her emotional memory of it. She painted a picture of mother-infant bonding that appealed to me. Was it possible you could be woken up in the middle of the night, and in nursing feel something other than anger or frustration?

I began to wonder if nursing could be as good for the mother as the child. I soon found out that it was. No, it wasn't quite erotic (but dudes, it is for many moms, which may be why she's negging you to go nurse) but it felt easy and natural. In the hospital I had a lactation consultant who came only once but taught me what I needed to know. My colostrum came in on time and my daughter latched well. After I came home, there were a few brief periods of pain but they passed within days on their own.

I enjoyed the ease and simplicity of breastfeeding, not having to take formula or bottles when we went out. It truly is the slacker's choice. In the first few days I kept a breast diary (L: 4 min., R: 6 min.). Then the list fell by the wayside and I got a bra with a pink plastic thing you could move to indicate which boob you'd ended on. Soon after that I realized I did not need the magic bra for help; I could tell by touching.

I enjoyed the way breastfeeding solved problems. Whether fussy, hungry or tired, she quieted when nursing. In the early months it's almost never wrong to breastfeed. Some would argue that even in the late months it's never wrong but I get weirded out when I see a mother eagerly unbutton her blouse for an only mildly whiny two-year-old. Yes, I live in Park Slope.

I enjoyed the calm I felt while breastfeeding, just as my mother had. I had postpartum depression and in the deepest depths of it the only aspect of motherhood that I was able to take joy in was the nursing. I had severe insomnia at the precise period (3 to 5 months post-partum) that my daughter was a great sleeper. There were nights I lay awake next to my husband as she slept on a co-sleeper next to me for eleven, twelve, fourteen hours straight. Many times I was tempted to wake her to nurse her but resisted, knowing that would only create more problems. When she did awaken at five or six, and cried for her first feed, I took her into my arms excitedly, feeling the joy of knowing I was needed. Later, as she got older, it became harder to take joy in being needed, especially when her needs were annoying or articulated through tantrums.

When the depression made me feel my brain wasn't working, I enjoyed knowing that my body did. I loved the self-esteem that came from being able to provide sustenance to another being solely with my own body - a miracle.

If I was upset or anxious breastfeeding calmed me. I did it once in a playground after seeing someone I didn't want to see. My daughter didn't seem to mind.

I enjoyed holding my daughter close, even if she didn't always look in my eyes, and having a connection with her that was different from my highly involved husband's many connections. I enjoyed having a bond that was nonverbal. Baby talk never came naturally to me and I liked bonding in a way that didn't involve speaking in a high singsong, or creating a game. Though I occasionally felt like a human pacifier I knew that someday I would feel nostalgic about the time that I was a human pacifier.

So if you're an expectant mom weighing the pros and cons, throw all the research out the window and do it for yourself, whether for a few weeks or a year. If you're an expectant dad, encourage her, but not in a sanctimonious way. Tell her you heard that some women have spontaneous orgasms while nursing and see how she reacts.

If you're a new mother and breastfeeding is causing you more stress than it's solving, wean. But if it's manageable, stick with it for as long as it remains pleasurable for both you and your baby, with "both" being the operative word. The baby won't regret it. Far more important, neither will you.

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