The Breastfeeding Experience

breastfeeding elephants
Yes, elephants are mammals. What about you? (Image by Flickr user rkimpeljr under Creative Commons)

I’ve just stopped breastfeeding. My son is eight months old.

I know some of you have chosen to breastfeed shorter, longer, or not at all. I know some of you would have like to but couldn’t. I won’t enter the debate. There shouldn’t even be a debate, actually. We own our bodies. It took long for women to win this right. To breastfeed is a very peculiar thing, so I completely understand these ones who don’t want to. Don’t let other people make you feel guilty!

On the other side, the (otherwise interesting) book by French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, has recently blamed breastfeeding mothers for being anti-feminist. Again: don’t let other people make you feel guilty either!

I respect… no, I even understand all these choices. All are honorable. It’s your body. It’s your decision. My point here is to talk about my own breastfeeding experience, especially in a geek perspective.

I was lucky: no sore nipples after the first few days, a baby with a strong appetite, ready to absorb anything from breast to bottle and solid food, a few friends able to help me when I wondered about breastfeeding rhythm. I enjoyed breastfeeding very much. However, it was the strangest experience in my life.

As geeks, we usually relate to the world in quite an intellectual way. Breastfeeding has nothing intellectual. Breastfeeding reminds you you’re an animal. No matter how complex, how civilized, how knowledgeable you are. Suddenly you’re an animal. A mammal.

Did you know it was Linnaeus, in the eighteenth century, who

renamed the category ‘quadrupedia’ (four footed) in ‘mammalia’ (mammals)? With this act he made the lactating female breast the icon of this class of animals in which humans were classified.

(according to Wikipedia’s History of breastfeeding).

So we’re mammals. We knew it, of course. We’re good girls who seriously followed their biology classes. But we never felt it. We never experienced it.

The pregnancy was a beginning, of course. When you’re crying for no reason, dropping objects, sleeping eleven hours a night, then almost none, and so on. All these things reminded us how… chemical we are.

But breastfeeding goes farther. You produce milk. Yes, like cows. Sometimes you express your milk with some (creepy) device. Still like cows. If you skip one or two feeds, you’re suddenly very uncomfortable. You feel a real empathy for poor cows waiting too long for their milking. Don’t laugh. I really did. Even worse: when you produce a lot of milk and carefully range the bottles of expressed milk in your fridge, you feel proud. Even stranger: when the baby cries, you experience a milk surge.

Such animal things may scare, or disgust, or simply displease some of you. I understand. For me, it was a great lesson. Perhaps the greatest I ever received. Because it should have displeased me, being what I am, and it didn’t.

Of course, I’ll stay this very intellect-centered person. But I hope I’ll remember these eight months as the time I become fully aware of our origins.

Bonus: since I’m still a geek, I cannot resist ending on a lighter note, with a few geek things about breastfeeding.

  • A gadget: The breastfeeding pillow “My Brest Friend.” It’s not a gadget, actually, but the most useful tool I possessed for my nursing months. You can move, or even stand up, and the baby is still perfectly in position. It even has a pocket for your smartphone. And it frees your hands (at least if your baby’s a quiet one) so you can read or browse the internet on your tablet while breastfeeding. A must-have!
  • An (official) complain: Hello, ThinkGeek, where are geeky breastfeeding shirts? You offer some maternity shirts, but we’d really appreciate some funny nursing ones. The closest one I found on the Web was this “I Make Milk, What’s Your Superpower?” t-shirt.
  • Some trivia: Did you know why babies have these lovely round cheeks? No? Neither did I before the bit of research I did for this post. It’s because of Bichat‘s fat pads, which help babies to make vacuum in their mouths when they’re feeding. In short: that’s not only to look cute, but to suck more efficiently.
  • A (literary) regret: Fantasy literature makes little use of breastfeeding’s magic. However, “Mother’s milk was considered a miracle fluid which could cure people and give wisdom. The mythical figure Philosophia-Sapientia, the personification of wisdom, suckled philosophers at her breast and by this way they absorbed wisdom and moral virtue.” (Still Wikipedia’s History of breastfeeding.) Human milk could easily figure on a list of magical ingredients. I even imagine a fantasy story whose heroine would be a wet nurse.
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25 thoughts on “The Breastfeeding Experience

  1. I couldn’t deal with it after two weeks, I stayed a milk machine though and pumped until he was 9 months old. He had nothing but breast milk for ten months, we had a ton in the freezer. I’m very proud that I could do that for him. I have no idea what I’ll do with the next one. My favourite picture from when I was nursing is of me reading Slaughterhouse V while Toby ate!

    1. Wow, awesome job, Sarah! I admire pumping moms so much–it takes so much commitment! You certainly should be proud of yourself for accomplishing that. 🙂

  2. I have to disagree with you. Breastfeeding is very geeky and intellectual. If you look at what you are giving your child. It’s very scientific. As hard as they try they can’t produce anything as perfectly formulated to feed an nourish a baby as breast milk. Not only are you giving your baby all of your immunities so the child isn’t going to get sick as often as a formula fed baby, but also breastfed babies have showed to have higher IQs than formula fed babies. That’s pretty geeky! Both of my kids are breastfed and both are gifted. The one that breast fed longer gets sick much less often than the one that self weaned early. Smarter , healthier kids is a very geeky thing.

    1. Of course, Beth, the decision is quite intellectual and the results may be quite geeky.
      But the experience itself appeared to me as very animal. Didn’t you feel the same way?

      1. not at all it was all very biologic and natural. its Why we have boobs. Never felt like an animal.

        1. I suppose it’s a problem of wording.
          I never meant “animal” as negative, only as “biologic and natural”, as you say, then non-intellectual. Sorry if I misspoke.

  3. Breastfed both my children for the first year. You cannot deny the convenience of not having to pack bottles and formula for a day out. Plus the money you save! And my body; bigger boobs then I have ever had and the weight just dropped off without any effort. Who cares about the benefits to the baby, look at all the great stuff for me!

    1. I enjoyed the same benefits, Tracey, and feel especially grateful for losing all my pregnancy weight while eating more than ever !

    2. I agree Tracy! the convienance, bigger boobs ( I have none to speak of when not breastfeeding) and weight loss are reason enough lol.

  4. I had a similar reaction on the other side of the feeding fence – last week I gave my baby his last bottle of formula. Like the post you link to, I desperately wanted to breastfeed my kids, but with both I tried everything (seriously, everything) and couldn’t produce more than 2 ounces a day. I always thought about how I failed as an animal, but how science saved me and my kids. Formula is pretty great, and I’m thankful for it.

    Comments like Beth’s still burn me a bit, because guess what? I have a gifted, healthy, formula-fed 5-year-old! (And the baby shows promise, too. 🙂

    Delphine, I agree with and thank you for your point that there shouldn’t be a debate. There’s science on both sides, and we should support all GeekMoms.

    1. I’m completely with you, Amy. I actually read your reaction on Twitter to the latest papers about breastfed kids being proved “smarter”. And I have a few friends in your case.
      I’d like society (including other women, alas) to stop making women guilty about their choices, whatever they are. I even know a few doctors who had reproach some women in their thirties to not having babies! How crazy it is!
      Just because I chose to have a baby and to breastfeed him for 8 months doesn’t mean I’m allowed to tell other women they should do the same!
      As I wrote in my post: we own our bodies. Giving birth (or not), breastfeeding (or not), should never be a reason of guilt for women.

    2. Amy, you can’t deny the studies done on the subject and there is a difference between someone who tries to breastfeed and can’t and someone who just chooses to not breastfeed on basis of , “it’s weird” or ” it’s gross” or they are misinformed. Or for convenience sake ( which I never understood the convenience of packing up all that stuff, and having to constantly wash and boil bottles and nipples, my first took bottles and breastfed and suddenly decided I don’t want to lay here and eat I wanna walk around and do it so yes I have been there) I can’t imagine what you went through wanting to breastfeed and not being able ,that must have been heartbreaking.

  5. Good job on nursing your little guy for 8 months! And I admire how you have been able to balance and understand both (all?) sides of the very controversial baby-feeding “conversation” (more of an argument with mud-slinging). It took me a long time to truly understand that what is best for the mommy is truly best for the baby because an unhappy, resentful, angry mommy is NOT good for the baby. One of my friends recently switched from breastfeeding to formula feeding (after trying it for 4+ months) because she resented having to let the baby be attached to her (and the baby was being difficult) and I was glad I was able to fully support her through that decision and be happy that she had realized what would help her continue to be the best mommy for her baby.

    I just finished weaning my 28 month old daughter (at least, I think we’re weaned). She loved (still loves) nursing even though it hasn’t been my favorite thing. The convenience and thriftiness of it were the winning factors for me. We have a new baby due in 4 months and I plan to nurse him, too, but hopefully also teach him to take a bottle so that we are a little more free to leave him with babysitters if need be. My daughter absolutely refused to take bottles and as much as it wasn’t a big issue, it did become ones at times, especially as she got older and I began to feel a bit trapped. We’ll see how this little guy does…

    And I totally understand you about the “animal” experience of breastfeeding. It constantly amazes me how much my body can regulate based on chemicals alone and how much of mothering in the early days is instinct. I’ve done a LOT of research about how breastfeeding works and it’s simply amazing. I’ve become something of a breastfeeding geek and hope to become some sort of breastfeeding counselor (or maybe a board certified lactation consultant) someday.

    1. Thanks, Regina !
      A friend of mine had the same problem with her daughter refusing bottles of expressed milk and they had some difficult times. I’m lucky my son always accepted them. You were very strong to go on so long in spite of that !

  6. I breastfed both of my kids. Or I should say I breastfed my almost 7-year-old and am still breastfeeding my 3-year-old. When I first started I knew I wanted to breastfeed for all the health reasons but had a lot of trouble and had to supplement with formula for a few weeks while I attempted to ramp up my milk supply by attaching myself to the breast pump far more often then I care to remember. I was lucky that it worked and I was then able to breastfeed exclusively until 6 months and then well beyond. When I first started it was indeed the strangest experience I had ever had. There is no way to describe it at first. It was just weird, but as I got used to it became one of my favorite things in the world. The snuggly one-on-one time just can’t be beat. To me the “animal” description does come off with a negative connotation though I don’t think it was intended that way. It is to me a deeply visceral, personal and natural experience.

    1. I realise some of you feel the “animal” as negatively connoted… which is part of our problem as a specy, I suppose. I don’t blame you, for that was also pejorative for me, a year ago !
      So we choose other words, more comforting, more neutral, such as “natural”. ^^

  7. I really get what you mean about the “animal” aspect. We’re so in control of our own bodies these days. We pierce them, tattoo them, have surgeries done to alter them cosmetically or functionally. And as women we’re more in control of our own fertility than in any other time in history. We can choose to be infertile temporarily or permanently; we can even decide not to menstruate if we use specific types of birth control.

    But when it comes to pregnancy and the post-partum period, we’re totally out of control and at the mercy of our own biology! It’s fascinating and scary at the same time to watch our bodies change with no intervention from our conscious selves. At such times we’re no different than a woman who lived 1,000 years ago, or from any other primate or mammal. From a scientific aspect, so interesting, but also so personally unsettling to watch your body remake itself for pregnancy and then remake itself again to support the newborn infant.

  8. I just want to second the My Breast Friend nursing pillow recommendation. They have a twin model that has been absolutely essential to me tandem nursing my twins for almost a year. Being snuggled up on the couch nursing my girls together twice a day has been great for me as a working mom. I know it’s not the case for everyone but the oxytocin rush during breastfeeding really lifted my spirits when things were rough for us.

      1. That’s a good point, Elizabeth. I hadn’t thought about it. Perhaps you should write to them? That shouldn’t be too difficult to fix for further production, and all mothers deserve a great breastfeeding pillow!

  9. It is nice to read a piece on breastfeeding that acknowledges mixed and conflicting feelings on the subject. It is often so polarized. I pumped for my first for 10 months. I had enough milk stored to get her through 12 months on mostly breastmilk. (I had been supplementing with 1 bottle of formula per day since 7 months.) My second I was determine to breastfeed and went about researching and learning as much as I could. It was definitely a geeky endeavor! I nursed my son for 26 months and only weaned when I developed a chronic illness that required a non-breastfeeding-compatible medication (methotrexate). I felt, at that time, that being so dedicated to breastfeeding and being a breastfeeding advocate that I should be devastated at having to wean – and I was, occasionally – but a part of me was also soooo glad to be done. For a long time I felt guilty about feeling that way, but I think it is important to acknowledge that breastfeeding – like all aspects of parenting – can be a big drag sometimes! And now my little guy is almost 5 and I do look back on his nursing years fondly but I am also quite pleased that they are in the past!

    1. Thank you, Katie. I often find posts about breastfeeding very “polarized”, as you said, so it was important for me to avoid it.
      I don’t really feel proud of my 8 months of breastfeeding. I feel grateful, for I acknowledge how lucky I was.

  10. Delphine, what a wonderful post! I have experienced both sides of the spectrum — my oldest son had latch-on problems and was spitting up so much of the breastmilk, and cutting my favorite vegetables AND all dairy from my diet was making breastfeeding a very ANGRY experience for all of us. I tried for FOUR weeks and learned to dread feeding time with my baby. Not good.

    Being that I had to go back to work — where breastfeeding wasn’t an option, since I worked in a top-secret facility where family members weren’t allowed — it was a good thing on many levels when we switched my son to a soy-based formula. I continued to supplement with my part-time pumping. He’s a happy, healthy, so-smart-I-can’t-keep-up 8 1/2 year old!

    On the other hand my youngest son was our nursing CHAMPION! He latched on perfectly, I produced perfectly, he didn’t have any gastrointestinal problems no matter what I ate! It was pure heaven. I was able to breastfeed him for 13 months, and even weaning wasn’t traumatic. He merely lost interest…he’s a happy, healthy, smart 6 year old now 🙂

    Here’s my geek breastfeeding story: I remember reading in books how much formula a newborn is supposed to consume. And how many diapers a newborn should be filling up. Some NICUs even measure this information. I found that fascinating and wondered if I could keep such data, but then got annoyed that I couldn’t measure input and output when breastfeeding! I could only note how many diapers were filled, and from that assume that my son got enough milk. Ha ha!

    I remember someone having a blog years ago where the father was logging how many ounces of formula, how many diapers, how many hours of sleep, etc. It was a real time counter: if the baby was awake, the clock was running for “awake time”, and when the baby went to sleep, Dad must have switched something, because the “sleep time” counter would be ticking. There was a daily log, yearly log, and even a running count for the lifetime of the child. It was cool but I can’t remember the name of the website for the life of me. I followed it for several months…

    1. I love your two-faced experience, Patricia. That’s really illuminating and proves both choices are valid (does such a word exist in English ?)

      But I never kept such a count: you’re probably far geekier than I am !

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