Many cultures consider the first 40 days after birth a distinct time in a woman’s life. Referred to as “la cuarentena” in many Latino cultures, and the “lying-in” period during America’s past, mothers and babies are kept together and cared for in isolation, with others doing their household chores and taking care of older children.
Somehow in modern America, this concept and practice—once key to establishing breastfeeding—have been lost. Rather than planning to spend the early weeks recovering from childbirth and focusing on feeding her newborn, today’s U.S. mother feels social pressure to “get back to normal” as quickly as possible.
This relatively new attitude has wreaked havoc on breastfeeding and no doubt contributes significantly to the steep drop in early breastfeeding rates. Once well-understood, most mothers now give birth with no inkling that breastfeeding involves intense, sometimes constant feeding. As part of the natural order of things, newborns use these feeding frenzies to boost their mother’s milk production from 1 ounce (30 mL) on Day 1 to 25-35 ounces (750-1050 mL) per day by about Day 40, when most mothers reach full milk production.
If a new mother doesn’t understand or expect this intense early breastfeeding, she may assume there’s something terribly wrong. She may be fearful she isn’t making enough milk or decide that breastfeeding is just too much work. She may wean or start supplementing with no idea of what she stands to gain by simply responding to her baby’s feeding cues and surrendering to the experience.
By about Day 40, surrendering to the reality of early breastfeeding usually results in full milk production. But there is more. The baby who once fed for 30 minutes may now be done in 15. The baby who fed 12 times each day may now feed only 8. Over time, breastfeeding usually becomes much less time-consuming than the alternative. Intense early breastfeeding is an investment that pays back many times over.
But mothers who surrender to early breastfeeding enjoy another, often unexpected reward: the amazing emotional experience of getting in sync with their newborn. Many describe this as the greatest intimacy they’ve ever known, an experience that can influence parenting for a lifetime. Research has found, for example, that when older babies start solid foods, mealtime battles are less common in breastfeeding families because these mothers learned to trust their babies to know what they need and when they need it.1The trust and sensitivity that breastfeeding fosters enhances early attachment, which is the oil that greases the wheels of parenting for decades to come.
Why are many mothers afraid of surrendering to the intensity of early breastfeeding? Ignorance and social pressure are two reasons. Popular but misguided authors warn that letting baby “use them like a pacifier” (see my post on that HERE) will produce children lacking in discipline or at risk for drug addiction. Health professionals unaware of breastfeeding norms may recommend formula as a remedy for frequent breastfeeding. But when—out of fear and ignorance—a woman sacrifices or attempts to take control of breastfeeding, she loses much more.
One mother I spoke with yesterday shared with me her unhappy odyssey through early breastfeeding, which included frequent milk expression so her partner could feed the baby. The extra work of pumping convinced her that breastfeeding was just too hard and she began regularly feeding formula. Now at 4 months, her baby was mostly formula fed and she spent much of her time alone with her baby while her partner traveled for work. She felt regret at this state of things and wondered if she could somehow reclaim breastfeeding. I talked to her about normal feeding patterns in the beginning and afterward and she began to realize that many of her choices had made her life more complicated. Because she began our conversation by describing her need as a mostly single parent to simplify her routine, I suggested rather than continuing with regular pumping—which she was still doing even with her partner gone—to just breastfeed more often. As we discussed the resiliency of breastfeeding, I assured her that it was not too late. She told me, “You’ve made me realize I need to rethink some things.”
These moments of insight are not only satisfying, they’re key to becoming a breastfeeding-friendly culture. It’s a good day when we can serve as an antidote to the fear, ignorance, and social pressure that plague new mothers. By dispelling the myths and conveying the realities of breastfeeding, we can make it easier for mothers to surrender to the experience and enjoy the profound rewards that they and their babies can enjoy.
1Farrow, C., & Blissett, J. Breast-feeding, maternal feeding practices and mealtime negativity at one year. Appetite 2006; 46(1):49-56.