Thursday, April 3, 2008

My Soapbox and the Narcotic Benefits of Nursing

Two days ago, NPR aired a story entitled "Study puts breastfeeding benefits in question." In it Dr. Sydney Spiesel discusses a study done about the benefits of breastfeeding. The study confirmed some physical benefits, but focused on the absence of psychological benefits for children who were breastfed.

The article got a lot of press and a lot of angry e-mails, all of which is ridiculous given the thousands of studies that demonstrate a wide range of benefits for both moms and babies who breastfeed. Some of the more celebrated benefits include a decreased risk of breast cancer in mom and baby, a lower incidence of post-partum depression for mom, and even reduced gastro-intestinal problems for baby (spit-up not included). Nearly all of the research assumes six months of exclusive nursing, which is only half of the time the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

I wasn’t always a Le Leche apprentice. My first memory of seeing anyone breastfeed was actually in college when Winona LaDuke came to speak to my sociology class. She nursed her toddler (aggressively, it seemed) in the middle of her presentation while my professor turned eight shades of red, and all the conservative boys in my class either ducked their heads or stared in, um, shock. This was not the best introduction to mother-baby bonding.

When I was first pregnant, I wasn’t actually planning to nurse more than a few weeks. The closer I got to my due date, however, the more research I did on the benefits of breastfeeding. The more reading I did, the more comfortable I got with the idea. Beyond the demonstrated benefits, I began to see breastfeeding as such a simple, natural part of having a baby that it must be better than formula.

At first I committed to nursing for at least three months. After that, I told myself, if it’s too hard I can just switch to formula. Well, by three months I was a total convert.

It was not difficult or uncomfortable (after the first two weeks or so), plus there were lots of uncelebrated benefits that the research didn’t dwell on:
  • No late night bottle prep.
  • Wherever I go, there’s the baby’s lunch.
  • Guaranteed snuggle time – especially important when surrounded by a big loving family that likes to pass the baby around (have I mentioned I’m a baby hog?).
  • The comforting knowledge that I can provide my baby with everything she needs. Forget the diaper bag? Stuck in a blizzard? At least the baby can eat.
All of this easily overcomes the minor drawbacks of watching your garlic and alcohol in-take, being on call 24 hours a day (that’s true regardless, I think), and (when I was working) developing an uncomfortably intimate relationship with Medela

But even if the psychological benefits for baby are overstated, I would still be one of those annoying breastfeeding super-advocates. Not because of the all of the potential long-term benefits, or because neither of my babies have been sick. Not simply because of the snuggle time it mandates (especially important with the second baby); not even because it is such a fundamental part of our anatomy.

No, I’m in it for the uppers. Every time the baby snacks, my brain releases oxytocin, mostly to remind my body to start producing the next meal. Oxytocin just happens to be one of the best feel-good hormones we have. How spectacular that our bodies provide us with a coping mechanism for the demands of being a new mom. When you’re stressed about having to wake up in the middle of the night, again, you sit down to feed baby and all of a sudden you are flooded with feel good chemicals. It’s a drug. No question about it. We aren’t just meant to breastfeed; we’re built to enjoy it.

So, all of that said, Elliot is now six months old. She’s moving on from rice cereal and applesauce to Mum Mums, little organic, dissolvable crackers. Oh how she loves them!

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