Doing It Right

Today my guest blogger is one of my favorite people in breastfeeding, Diane Wiessinger, coauthor of the new The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and author of the seminal article “Watch Your Language,” which forever changed how we think about the “benefits” of breastfeeding.   

I took my young son to a Chinese restaurant for lunch years ago.  I asked our waiter to show us the right way to use chopsticks.  “Well,” he said, scanning a nearby table of Chinese waiters, all busy eating lunch, all with chopsticks, “None of them are doing it right.”

Whether we’re eating, walking, or putting on socks, we don’t have to do it “right”; we just have to do it so it works for us.  So why are there so many rules about breastfeeding?  And why don’t they work very well? 

More than 30 years ago, when my first child was born, there were no rules at all about how to make a baby take the breast (there was no such thing as The Latch).  All anyone knew was that if a baby’s cheek is touched when he’s hungry, he responds by turning his head with a wide, searching mouth.  It was the height of the natural childbirth movement, and many of us who were interested in breastfeeding also had medication-free births, which meant our babies were competent from the start.  Skin-to-skin was unheard of, our babies were kept in central nurseries, often they had a bottle before their first nursing… but most of them latched with little or no difficulty.  It didn’t occur to us that they might not.

Trouble is, we were sore, often for weeks.  So the field of Lactation Consultants began – not to help babies latch, but to figure out what caused the pain.  We LCs looked carefully at each tiny piece and realized that the pain was usually from holding the baby as if for bottle-feeding.  But we broke everything into tiny steps, created rules about how to do each step “right”… and the whole thing worked even less well.  Now we began seeing non-latching babies!  So we added more rules, and more, and mothers’ confidence eroded.

When a baby learns to walk, he’s pretty awkward.  He falls a lot, he wobbles, but no one says, “Oh dear, if you don’t take that baby to a specialist, he’ll never walk right.”  Everyone knows he has the basics built in, and just needs time.  Making him follow a detailed set of rules would probably drive him back to crawling! 

That’s what happened with breastfeeding.  We laid down rules for something that had never had any, and we left mothers feeling incompetent and babies feeling totally confused. 

So try this:   lean back comfortably, your baby’s whole front on you, and let gravity take care of the holding.  Your baby lies there with his cheek against your breast.  If he’s hungry, he turns toward his cheek, and there’s that wonderful nipple right nearby.  You’ve done nothing in particular (in fact, any fumbling that you do probably helps), and he chooses the moment that suits him best.  What a concept! 

Are you doing it right?  Well… if both of you are comfortable and the milk is flowing, what else could possibly matter?  Let the Lactation Consultants save their problem-solving for if you have a problem.