I love to take pictures of my children. I share them with family and friends on Facebook and Instagram. Sometimes I share them on my blog, if they fit a post. In some of them, my children are running and playing. In others, they are sleeping (I love watching them sleep, after they’ve finally fallen asleep!). In some of the pictures, my younger son is nursing.
Some have expressed surprise that I post the breastfeeding pictures publicly. There are a few reasons why I do it, often without a moment’s thought.
Breastfeeding—like so many aspects of parenting—is wondrous and fleeting. It’s something I want to savor, remember, and share. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of nursing a child, looking down at him looking up at you, you’ll know what I mean. It’s pure peacefulness, a milk-drunk smile, a love-struck gaze between the two of you.
I am not concerned about my children growing up and feeling unhappy about pictures of themselves breastfeeding being out in the world. My children have grown up thinking breastfeeding is normal. It’s not something to gawk at or look away from. It’s just something we do, like playing Legos on the carpet, reading books, kissing boo-boos. Would a child who saw a picture of himself drinking from a bottle feel uncomfortable? I was raised to feel comfortable with images of babies breastfeeding—including the many photos that my mother took of my sister and me—and I believe I am instilling that same comfort in my own children.
But it’s bigger than own my life: I share the breastfeeding pictures to make it normal to others, to contribute to a needed change in how we view breastfeeding in this country.
I have spent the past six years helping mothers breastfeed, first as a volunteer breastfeeding counselor, and now as a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC). I have helped hundreds of mothers at their most vulnerable times of breastfeeding challenges, doubts, and fears. I am in the trenches, so to speak.
If you look at the breastfeeding rates in our country, you will see a disturbing trend. Almost all mothers start off breastfeeding their babies at birth, but by three months, a large percentage have stopped. Why? Well, there are lots of reasons, including the fact that many mothers in the United States have very short maternity leaves compared to other developed countries. Many have to go back to work by 12 weeks or earlier and have trouble keeping up with pumping and nursing. Other mothers have breastfeeding issues soon after birth and don’t have access to adequate, skilled help to help them resolve these.
But do you know what one of our main problems is with breastfeeding duration in this country? Most new moms have never seen another mother breastfeed. This causes several major roadblocks to the fostering of positive breastfeeding experiences for women.
First, most women need to see breastfeeding to know how to do it. Some women have never seen a baby breastfeed until they watch a video in their prenatal breastfeeding class. Others, not until they are holding their newborn in their arms and attempt the first latch.
Seeing breastfeeding growing up helped me breastfeed my own children. Pictures of how my mother nursed my sister were etched into my brain, in much the same way that babies sucking on baby bottles are etched into the minds of many young children. I instinctively knew how to position my baby at the breast, what on-demand feeding was, and that babies nurse for comfort as much as nutrition. I had some intense, difficult breastfeeding challenges in the early days—as do many first time mothers—but knowing what normal breastfeeding looked like helped me immensely.
For some women, breastfeeding comes easily, but for many, the act of putting a baby to their breast for the first time feels awkward and foreign. Can you imagine how much easier it might be if these women had seen breastfeeding all their lives, publicly and privately? Certainly not all breastfeeding difficulties would be solved, but breastfeeding would at least feel like a familiar, natural activity. Women would feel like they had a fighting chance to work through the challenges they faced, knowing that so many women had succeeded, right before their eyes.
Second, women need see other mothers breastfeeding outside their homes, in public life. They need to know that it is normal and safe to do so.
Despite the fact that most states have laws that protect a mother’s right to nurse in public [note from editor: Virginia finally passed a law to make it legal] many mothers do not feel comfortable nursing outside their homes. They don’t know if there will be a discreet place for them to nurse. They don’t know how little or how much of their breast will be seen, and what an appropriate amount would be. And so they don’t go out. Or they go out without their babies, or give their babies pumped milk or formula, which ends up feeling like a lot of trouble. And they start to resent breastfeeding, or do it less, or give up.
Of course, this is certainly not the experience of every breastfeeding mother, but it does happen often enough with the mothers I help that I believe it is one of several major reasons women don’t breastfeed for longer durations (the Academy of American Pediatrics, for example, recommends at least a year of breastfeeding).
So, I post pictures of my children nursing because nursing is beautiful and ephemeral. And because by doing so, I am planting a seed. For every person who might sneer or snicker at my picture, there is an expectant mother—or a young woman who will one day become a mother—looking at the warm embrace between myself and my child. I hope she is feeling the love radiating from her screen. I hope she will pick up on how extraordinary, but entirely ordinary my picture is. I hope she will breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that she will be supported and lifted up in her choice of how to feed her child.
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