I have two daughters, ages four and six. Friends who know me well know that I’ve been an advocate of breastfeeding throughout my children’s upbringing. With great effort and enthusiasm, I closely followed the World Health Organization’s recommendation to feed them solely with my breast milk until six months of age. After that age, I gradually introduced complementary foods but continued breastfeeding until they were 2. Today I want to share some very personal reflections about the key factors in my successful experience as a breastfeeding mother.
Harmony and dedication during the first month and a half: The first six weeks of a child’s life (or the six weeks after delivery) are key to establishing successful exclusive breastfeeding. Biologically, it’s during this period that the mother and baby establish the level of milk production needed so that the baby thrives. The amount of milk a baby consumes at six weeks of life is the same amount that he or she will require up through six months. The mother’s hormones allow for an increase in production up until the six-week mark. Hence, those six weeks are critical to the establishment of breastfeeding. First, this requires the mother and baby to be well-rested and in good health, and the mother must eat well during that period. But in addition, establishing breastfeeding requires the mother and child to spend a lot of time together, and the mother needs to be ready to nurse when the child requires it. The mother must accept that sometimes the child wants to nurse not because he’s hungry but because he’s bored, upset, tired or simply because he wants to feel close to his mother’s body or because suckling relaxes him. Being willing to offer the breast—even when the mother feels that there’s no milk left—can stimulate and establish the production necessary to sustain exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.
Information: Science has documented that babies are born knowing how to nurse; however, mothers don’t have that same instinct. Learning to breastfeed requires information and support from professionals who know the best techniques to overcome the challenges that always come at the beginning: finding a comfortable position for the mother and child; making sure the mother doesn’t feel pain when the baby latches onto the breast; regulating the production of breast milk day and night; establishing a breastfeeding rhythm that allows mother and baby to get the rest that their bodies require; recognizing a blocked duct or mastitis…just to name a few.
Technology: Exclusive breastfeeding is a task whose burden falls disproportionately on mothers. Fortunately, technology allows other family members to participate in this task. While the mother is solely responsible for milk production, breast pumps help stimulate production, and they also allow other people to feed the child while the mother rests or handles other tasks. Breast milk keeps well in the freezer and can last a long time without losing its nutritional properties.
Support: Exclusive breastfeeding requires a support network. It’s essential for the mother to have the support of other close family members who value and respect the enormous effort demanded of her, but it is also key that the community form part of that support network. For example, the community may play an instrumental role in accepting breastfeeding as a natural activity and not putting up barriers for mothers to nurse in public. Or as Florencia recently commented on this blog, it is essential to have the necessary facilities in the workplace so mothers who return to work after the birth of a child can maintain their milk production.
On a personal note, I have been very fortunate to have the time, circumstances, facilities and support to breastfeed my daughters, but the task was not easy. For that reason, based on my own experience, I wonder how we can ask the many thousands of women who do not have these privileges to give the same level of commitment and dedication to good nutrition for their children. For example, I can’t imagine how a single mother with little in the way of education, several children under her care, and no maternity leave can establish her milk production during the first six weeks of her child’s life and maintain it until the child is six months old. My impression is that if, as a society, we have decided that breastfeeding is a key protective factor during early childhood development (as suggested by experts), then we need to seriously rethink the circumstances and facilities available to mothers to achieve this goal and throw our support behind interventions and actions aimed at the most vulnerable groups.