LLL Today #4 – An art of imitation

Breastfeeding is natural, we often hear. By this we mean that breastfeeding is what nature intended for human babies. Human babies are indeed mammals and mammals have mammary glands whose function is to produce the milk necessary for the growth of their young. But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s “automatic” and easy. Just because we are equipped to breastfeed, it doesn’t mean that we have a magic wand. Certainly, as British midwife Suzanne Colson has shown, mothers have instincts that allow them to properly care for their newborn babies; she calls this “biological nurturing”. And babies are also born competent to attach to their mothers and suckle. All this provided that there is not too much interference between mother and baby. 

However, we are also cultural beings and we are influenced by our social environment, by what our parents, our sisters, our cousins, our friends and all the women and parents we meet in the street and see in the movies do. In short, we are influenced by our usual experience of the care given to little ones. In industrialized societies, we tend to see bottle-fed babies more often than breastfeeding dyads. In many hospitals today, bottles are still given to new parents. And during a natural disaster, humanitarian aid organizations also tend to distribute powdered milk. Even the dolls we buy for children are given bottles! It is not surprising that, conditioned from a very young age, parents spontaneously associate babies with bottles. This is not the norm in parts of the world where breastfeeding rates are much higher. We all learn by imitation. If our role models are bottle-feeding parents, chances are we expect to feed our children that way. But if our role models are breastfeeding parents, we are more likely to breastfeed ourselves. 

Breastfeeding is thus “an art of imitation”, a set of gestures and postures that are learned. Of course, it can be useful sometimes to read books and watch videos on the internet. But nothing is more effective than being able to observe others breastfeeding their babies in real life, if possible from a very young age. Nothing is more effective than direct, live learning by example.  Having an experienced breastfeeding mother on hand is always better than a theoretical book or the opinion of your neighbor who has never breastfed. Watch a woman who has experience; see how smooth and confident her movements are; notice how she puts her child to the breast almost without thinking about it; it is a very reassuring sight. Being able to observe “real” babies nursing makes breastfeeding feel achievable, simply human and natural. It feeds your sensory experience with images of breastfeeding women and breastfed babies, but also with the sounds babies make as they suckle. With this experience, you will feel more comfortable and confident when you put your baby to the breast.

LLL meetings are a great place for parents to “learn” about breastfeeding, peer-to-peer, in a direct and lively way, by observing breastfeeding dyads, as well as by talking and sharing experiences. This is probably the best way to “prepare” for breastfeeding. These meetings are places of sharing of an ancestral art that has been lost in many parts of the world and that women and families are trying to reappropriate. This type of place is still too rare in a culture that is mostly not one that supports breastfeeding.

But the more women around us who breastfeed, the more women will spontaneously want to breastfeed because nursing will be part of their ordinary life experience. Breastfeeding is not just an individual choice; it is a social experience in which all members of a community are involved. Parents naturally adopt socially valued and expected parenting behaviors. All of this gives the phrase “it takes a village to breastfeed a child” even more force, because it allows us to see the importance of  breastfeeding’s place in our community.

Daliborka Milovanovic