Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Kelly Durbin, Phoenix AZ, USA
Photos: Janet Fotheringham
An LLL Leader’s reflection recognizes breastfeeding as a complex communication system, not just calories.
Breast milk is often promoted as nature’s perfect infant food. Indeed, it has exactly the right balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrates for growing infants, but regarding breastfeeding solely as a means to feed a baby is incredibly limiting.
In the last century and into this one, breastfeeding and breast milk have largely been viewed one-dimensionally as a way to feed a baby, and breast milk just as food. In fact, thanks to manipulative marketing efforts by the baby food industry, infant formula has essentially been regarded as equivalent to breast milk, or even better, because anyone can feed the baby with it, freeing the mother from this work. Yet despite what industry would have us believe, the last few decades of research have shown that breast milk and the act of breastfeeding are far better suited for the purpose of feeding babies than artificial baby milk. However our cultural beliefs about breastfeeding still limit and dictate our breastfeeding behaviors.
Consider these statistics. According to UNICEF, less than 50% of infants are put to their mother’s breast during the first hour of life. Globally, this leaves 77 million babies with delayed access to breastfeeding. Even when babies are breastfed, only two out of five infants go on to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life. In addition, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card, only 22.3% of babies in the U. S. are exclusively breastfeeding at six months. This is a key insight into the status of breastfeeding in our culture. The current infant feeding patterns in the U.S. are born directly out of our long held, misguided cultural belief that breastfeeding, breast milk, and formula are fundamentally interchangeable.
I believe it’s time to embrace a much wider understanding of what it means to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is a multi-factored health system that has an immediate and future impact, reaching far beyond the delivery of calories to a hungry baby. Breastfeeding is, in fact, a complex communication system between mother and child. The messages of this communication spell protection and survival, for both mother and baby.
How a mother and her baby communicate
The mother and baby have been communicating for months in preparation for birth. When the new baby is skin to skin on her mother’s chest, getting comfortable with her out-of-the-womb environment, her first goal is to locate her food source. The baby is guided by a scent excreted from the Montgomery glands surrounding her mother’s nipple. This scent is very similar to amniotic fluid in the womb, which the baby can taste and smell as she licks her hands. That familiar smell attracts the baby towards the milk.
Once the baby has latched on to the breast, her suckling signals to the mother’s body, awakening it to produce milk and care for this new life. As the newborn latches on, the mother’s level of oxytocin increases. This hormone is often referred to as the “hormone of love” because its release enhances loving feelings and bonding between mother and child.
In effect, by breastfeeding, the baby is physically communicating to the mother that the birth has occurred, and that the mother now needs to respond with mothering behaviors that will ensure her baby’s survival. The heightening hormone levels cause the mother to be more nurturing and to respond to the baby’s cries. Changes in the brain, brought on by the oxytocin release, increase the mother’s ability to recognize nonverbal communication and cues—those from others as well, bringing an increase in her sensitivity to others’ feelings. Aside from enhancing maternal behaviors, high oxytocin levels help facilitate the let-down reflex, bringing breast milk to the baby, very obviously influencing her infant’s survival.
Oxytocin also has a crucial message for the mother’s uterus. The smooth muscle of the uterus responds to the dramatic rise in oxytocin by contracting and shrinking. As the uterus contracts, the blood vessels clamp down and prevent excessive blood loss, helping to ensure the mother’s survival by preventing postpartum hemorrhage. In effect, breastfeeding immediately after birth tells the mother’s body that the pregnancy is over and the baby no longer needs a food supply inside the womb and is now being nurtured outside in the world—at the breast.
Oxytocin is not the only hormone involved in the complex communication of breastfeeding. Prolactin levels are elevated during breastfeeding. Prolactin’s main job is to stimulate milk production, but it also has an important message for the mother and her cycle of fertility. When a baby is at the breast, high prolactin levels inhibit ovulation. In effect, by breastfeeding frequently, the newborn tells her mother not to devote any energy toward reproduction for the time being, because all of the mother’s available resources are necessary for sustaining the survival of her new baby. Interestingly, the level of prolactin increases or decreases with the amount of milk needed by the baby and the mother’s fertility responds easily to this very sensitive system. If the baby is exclusively breastfeeding and prolactin levels are very high, ovulation is usually suppressed, preventing pregnancy. This is nature’s postpartum birth control system to ensure that the mother’s physical resources are devoted to the newborn.
As the child gets older and begins eating solids, there is a shift in the balance of her calories toward more solid food and away from breast milk. As the mother’s prolactin levels drop in response, her fertility returns, and ovulation can begin again. A drop in prolactin can also occur in a mother who has just given birth but who is not exclusively breastfeeding, which will cause her fertility to return much sooner.
Through breastfeeding, the baby can communicate to the mother just how much milk to make. Infants are born with a strong need to suck, as this is a vital mechanism for survival. If the baby is meeting all of her sucking needs at the breast, the mother will likely bring in a very healthy supply of milk, because milk production is stimulated by suckling, and by milk transfer. In effect, the more milk that the baby removes from the breast, the more milk the mother will make. Demand stimulates the supply. The baby’s suckling tells the breast to make more milk. The reverse is also true: when there is no demand and little or no milk is removed from the breast, communication breaks down and milk production slows or stops. This communication system can be derailed when a new baby is allowed to meet her sucking needs with artificial nipples like pacifiers or when other feeding methods are introduced.
Breastfeeding is a way for a mother to communicate with the infant’s immature immune system. The mother makes antibodies to viruses, bacteria, and pathogens that she encounters in her environment and passes these to the baby through her breast milk. Assuming that mother and baby are always close, they will encounter the same germs so the infant will receive protection through the antibodies in the breast milk.
Clearly, breastfeeding is much more than a food delivery system. The mother-infant dyad’s complex communication system works to ensure the pair’s wellbeing in diverse ways long before the baby will speak her first words.
Right now, in the twenty-first century, we are in a position to make a major leap forward in how society thinks about breastfeeding, what we as a culture believe about breastfeeding. How will breastfeeding be defined in the twenty-first century? Isn’t it time to reevaluate and embrace a new definition of what it means to breastfeed and its significance to humanity?
UNICEF. From the First Hour of Life: Making the case for improved infant and young child feeding everywhere. October 2016.
Kelly Durbin is a La Leche League Leader, Certified Breastfeeding Counselor, childbirth educator and holistic health coach in Phoenix, AZ. As an author and educator, Kelly teaches women about birth, breastfeeding, nutrition, and mother-baby bonding.