In my recent quest to inform myself about birthing and baby rearing before countless people start offering me random advice, I have read Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding by Ina May Gaskin. I never thought I would need a book about breastfeeding since it seems so simple to the uninitiated, but boy am I glad I read it. Not only do I now feel like I have a good handle on what appears to be a complex task with a big learning curve, but I have also learned some fascinating things about these tatas that I have been carting around for most of my life. Below is a list of my favorite factoids about breasts that I have learned so far. All but number one were taken from Ina May’s book.
1. Fun new vocab word: galactagogue- any substance that promotes lactation in animals (that includes humans, of course). Alfalfa, blessed thistle, and red raspberry leaf are just a few of the commonly used herbal galactagogues. Alfalfa is so effective in increasing milk supply that mothers are often told to stop taking it for a few days following birth to prevent engorgement. Farmers raising milk cattle have known this for years. Mooo!
2. Breasts should be a suds-free zone. Nipples are naturally antimicrobial due to small glands on the areola which secrete oil and help to maintain the nipple’s acid balance, so rinse with water but avoid soap or you’ll wash off that good stuff. Also, avoiding soap on your boobies preserves your body’s natural smell which babies prefer. In a study on the subject, a group of mothers washed just one breast before nursing and the babies choose the unwashed breast more than 70% of the time. You can think of yourself as a fine, stinky slice of delicious, aged cheese. Your smell is gouda to your baby!
3. Breasts are made-to-order chefs. A woman’s breasts will continually adjust the composition and amount of milk they produce according to her baby’s specific needs and gestational age. For example if her baby is premature then her boobies will make a special blend of milk with just the right nutrients to nourish a premie.
4. Babies are natural-born breast-hunters. If given enough uninterrupted skin-to-skin time with mom, newborn infants placed on mama’s tummy will scoot themselves up to the breast, find the nipple, and start to suckle automatically, usually within the first 30-60 minutes of life. I’m going to ask the doctor to leave my little one down by my knee to see just how hard it will work for the good stuff. Just kidding, but seriously- how cute is it to think about a newborn baby crawling across your abdomen looking for the food sacks?!?!
5. Breastfeeding benefits moms as well as babies. Not only do you burn an extra 500-600 calories a day when breastfeeding, research also shows that women who breastfeed have far lower instances of osteoporosis and breast cancer later in life. In a small fishing village near Hong Kong where the custom is to breastfeed only from the right breast, post-menopausal women had a fourfold increased risk of cancer in the left breast than in the suckled right breast!
6. Night time is the right time! You produce the most milk between the hours of 2 am and 6 am, and your most nutritious milk comes down after midnight. So apparently there is some reason for that up-all-night phenomenon, not that that makes it any easier to tolerate, of course. I wonder about the evolutionary reason behind the late night surge of goodness.
7. Babies can drink uphill! No need to sit straight up to feed your baby- you can feel free to adopt whatever feeding position feels comfortable to you, including being semi-reclined. Because of the way a breast works- it ejects milk when baby stimulates the nipple- reclining while feeding can actually help the baby have more control and less gagging while feeding. Feeding in a semi-reclined position is known as “biological-nuturing position,” which women have naturally used for millions of years, but for some reason is rarely taught to new mothers these days, and is sometimes even discouraged. Medicine has a long way to go to catch up with the wisdom of the body.
8. Breasts don’t retire and can relactate if stimulated. There are numerous examples from other cultures and from old medical textbooks (nineteenth century and earlier) of women in their 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s being able to produce enough nutritious milk to sustain a baby, even if they hadn’t produced milk in many years. One famous wet nurse Judith Waterford was documented in several books as being able to express milk at the age of 81! In fact, in some cultures mom, grandma and even great-grandma share the job of breastfeeding the baby. Even women who have never had children of their own but spend time in close proximity with babies that they feel affection for can also occasionally produce milk. What fascinating and fabulous creatures we are!
Let’s hear it for our amazing breasts!!
Here’s a picture of a kid who totally gets it:
Look at the sweet way he makes eye contact with the statue. What a little gentleman!
Bonus Boobie Fun Fact (this one is not about women’s breasts): The men of the African Aka tribe have been called the best fathers in the world because they spend more time in close contact with their babies than fathers in any other part of the world- about 47% of the child rearing is done by the men. But Aka men don’t just sit the kid on the floor and glance at it occasionally- they carry their babies with them at all times, sometimes even allowing the infant to suckle on their own nipples if it needs pacifying! While the men do not produce milk, holding the infant close to their chest or even allowing it to suckle is an effective way to calm a crying baby and they do it in public, even while standing around at the local equivalent of a pub, without any loss of status. I learned this fascinating fact in the delightful book How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and everywhere in between) by Mei-Ling Hopgood. I’ve coined the term “nerple” to describe the male act of allowing the baby to suckle at their breast, and try as I might to get my husband on the nerpling bandwagon, he remains steadfastly resistant. Oh well- guess my boobies will have to do.