So often we hear a new mother lament, “I wish my baby came with an instruction manual!” Mothers want something tangible to go to that will tell them how to care for not only their infants but also for their children as they grow into childhood -- how to interpret their cries, how to distinguish needs from wants, and how to help them eat and sleep and care for themselves, among so many other unknowns.
I believe babies DO come with an instruction manual, and that manual is called breastfeeding. When used properly, breastfeeding can teach mothers not only how to feed their nursing infants, but also how to care for growing children and how to find fulfillment in mothering. When used properly, breastfeeding is a marvelous teacher of How to Nurture 101.
I find that when mothers try to “teach” breastfeeding what they want from it, they don’t seem to learn those same nurturing lessons. Mothers are sometimes taught in books or by experts or even by their culture to “tell” breastfeeding, “I want to breastfeed, but on my terms. Every three or four hours works. And only in the locations that work for me, never when I’m out of the house. And I’d like to sleep at least six hours a night, please.”
But breastfeeding teaches mothers something different. While these lessons start out as lessons in feeding the baby, breastfeeding trains mothers on lessons they will need throughout their mothering journey.
Breastfeeding teaches each mother slightly different lessons, depending on the needs of each child and each mother. I find it to be helpful to reflect on the mothering lessons that breastfeeding has taught me. Here are a few.
Holding my child close is healing for both of us.
Breastfeeding has taught me that my children’s need to be close to me is as important as their need for food. It has also taught me that nursing my children is a great way for me to relieve stress.
One of the reasons breastfeeding is such a skilled teacher is because bringing a baby to the breast fixes so many problems. As an instruction manual, breastfeeding says that no matter if it’s a “hurt” cry or a “hungry” cry or a “lonely” cry, sooner or later, nursing is usually the cure.
Once I realized this about my nurslings, it was so much more peaceful to nurse them when needed. No longer did I wonder, “You just ate! How can you be hungry again?” Instead, I knew that whether it was for food or for comfort, my breast was the solution.
At the same time, when my babies nursed, hormones would be released in MY body that would help me feel more calm and peaceful.
Even now most of my children no longer nurse, I have found that holding them close for tough conversations can help relieve tension and stress in both of us. When we have a tough conversation -- giving them correction or reminders, or hearing about something sad that happened -- I hold them close. When I am feeling extra frustrated with normal childlike behavior, I hold them close. Breastfeeding taught me that holding my children close benefits all of us.
I may need to stop what I’m doing NOW to attend to my children’s needs, even when I
wish they would wait a while.
Breastfeeding is very good at teaching mothers to trust that their infants’ wants are their infants’ needs. If a baby wants to nurse, the baby needs to nurse. Proper breastfeeding management helps mothers understand that they can respond quickly to babies’ early nursing cues, like fluttering eyelids or yawning.
Many mothers find themselves waiting to nurse their baby until they finish the last few dishes they are washing, or folding a few more clothes. But then they are missing out on nursing opportunities, and thus opportunities for nurturing and mothering. In many instances, a mother’s milk supply, her baby’s contentment, and her own satisfaction with the role of mothering can be affected for the worse when the baby is made to wait to nurse.
But breastfeeding teaches a mother to nurse as soon as her baby signals (or even before) and then finish the dishes or laundry. And then her baby can nurse again when she finishes her chores. Following this breastfeeding lesson, the baby has nursed twice as much, and milk supply, baby’s demeanor, and mother’s satisfaction are all affected for the better.
Thankfully, breastfeeding taught me this lesson: to attend to my children’s needs first, even when I wish they could wait a bit longer. I am actively using this lesson with my school-aged children. The stories from their day at school, their unexpected questions about life, their ideas about the present and the future -- sometimes these won’t wait for me to finish my phone call or my email. They will get busy doing something else or forget what they were going to say. Frequently, I need to stop NOW and listen to them. Because if I don’t, I will likely miss a precious mothering opportunity.
I can trust my mothering instinct.
Breastfeeding teaches a mother that she knows her children best. It teaches her that she has the solution to her children’s hurt, fear, loneliness, and even hunger. Breastfeeding helps us to tap into our mothering instinct, and to help that instinct to grow and blossom.
Several distinct hormones are released in a mother when she nurses, often referred to as the mothering hormones. They produce a feeling of calm and relaxation. And isn’t it much more manageable to handle the stresses of motherhood when feeling calm and relaxed? In this state, a mother can more easily separate her fears from her instincts.
These lessons on trusting our instincts that we learn when breastfeeding continue to serve us as we mother our older children. While breastfeeding, we become more sensitive and attuned to their needs. That sensitivity continues into all aspects of our lives, in and out of the home, and even after we are no longer breastfeeding.
Through breastfeeding, I have been empowered as a mother and as a woman. I am endlessly grateful for the lessons that breastfeeding has taught me.
Ideas and information in this article were inspired by:
Many of my wonderful, compassionate, and wise La Leche League Leaders and The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (https://www.llli.org/thewomanlyartofbreastfeeding/
This blog post is from on of our great Intermountain Moms. This should not be taken or substituted for medical advice. Always check with your provider if you have questions.