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a primer

By Kathy Parkes


Issue #49 • January/February, 1998

Unfortunately hospital practices that negatively affect breastfeeding are often the cultural norm. Our society pays only lip service to breastfeeding and then makes women feel guilty if their efforts are not successful. For example, while the baby is learning to breastfeed in the early weeks it is important not to confuse the baby by giving him bottles or pacifiers and yet this is often done in the hospital. A confused baby may latch on and then break off, turn his head from side to side, and cry in frustration. After several hours a mother may be exhausted from trying to get her baby to nurse, feel rejected by him and out of desperation give the baby a bottle. Over several days her milk supply may diminish if the baby is not nursing effectively and more bottles need to be given. It is a downward spiral, one that usually ends with the baby weaned and the mother feeling like a failure because she was told that nursing was "easy" and "natural."

One way to increase your chances for success is to become informed. Read as many books on breastfeeding as you can and attend La Leche League meetings. La Leche League is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization dedicated to "empowering women to breastfeed their babies." You can watch happy babies nursing and network with other mothers at League meetings. The women in the group help take the place of grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and our own mothers who may no longer be nearby or who may have bottle-fed their own children.

Throw away the clock

Bottle feeding is so different from breastfeeding that sometimes well-intentioned advice is actually harmful to the breastfeeding relationship. An example of this is feeding on a four-hour schedule as was popularly taught to mothers in the sixties and seventies. When a baby cries before four hours is up, a mother may be told that her baby is "spoiled" and that he should be "taught" to wait, but the baby may really be hungry because breastmilk is digested much faster than formula. Feeding only every four hours may also cause a decrease in the mother's milk supply as breastfeeding works on a supply and demand basis—the more a baby nurses, the more milk a mother makes. Most successful breastfeeding mothers find it helpful to "throw away the clock" and nurse their babies whenever they seem hungry. It is also a relief to hear from an experienced mother that a baby is not capable of mental manipulation.

Here are a few tips to set you and your baby on the road to feeling self-reliant:

  • Nurse early and often. Listen to babies' cues and nurse on demand.
  • Try to avoid artificial nipples, bottles, pacifiers, or nipple shields in the first six weeks. Both of you are learning and babies get confused easily.
  • Pay close attention to proper positioning. This is where watching babies nurse can be extremely valuable. It has been found that improper positioning is the major cause of sore nipples, so positioning of the baby at the breast is crucial!
  • Arrange for help with meals, housework, or other children in the early weeks. You are doing extremely important work bonding with and breastfeeding your new baby and it can be physically and emotionally demanding.
  • Read everything you can get your hands on and develop a network of support. Attend La Leche League meetings while you are pregnant, if possible. Be aware that a lot of so-called breastfeeding advice is put out by formula manufacturers who do not necessarily want you to succeed. (Along the same vein, if you are going to use a breast pump avoid one made by a formula manufacturer.)
  • Throw away the clock. Contrary to popular belief, limiting feedings to five or ten minutes per side will not prevent sore nipples. Nurse on one side until baby shows signs of slowing down, then switch and nurse as long as baby wants. This, along with nursing as often as baby needs to, will help ensure a good milk supply and a full baby. One way to tell if baby is getting enough is by counting wet diapers - 6-8 wet cloth diapers a day (5-6 disposables), and 2-5 bowel movements in a 24 hour period (after the meconium is passed in the first couple of days.)

Breastfeeding your baby is an important skill that enables your family to be more self-reliant. There is no need to rely on clean water or power sources or gadgets of any kind, and breastmilk is free. To succeed with breastfeeding a woman may have to arm herself with information so she can weed out the poor or contrary advice and have a back-up support system for times when she may need it. Breastfeeding is an important step towards taking the responsibility for the health of your family away from the so-called "experts" and placing it back where it belongs—with you.

Sources of Information:

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding - La Leche League International. This book has all the basics of breastfeeding and also serves as a survivor's manual for the baby's first year.

Breastfeeding Pure & Simple - Gwen Totsch. Getting breastfeeding off to a good start - covers the early weeks.

Bestfeeding: Getting Breastfeeding Right for You - Mary Renfew, Chloe Fisher and Suzanne Arms - the basics of breastfeeding - positioning and latch-on emphasized.

La Leche League International - P. O. Box 1209, Franklin Park. IL, 60131-8209 USA. Call 1-800-LA LECHE for information on groups or leaders nearest you.

The Fussy Baby - William Sears - breastfeeding friendly tips on soothing fussy babies.

Read More Health Articles

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