Code Milk! How I was over-prepared for breastfeeding

Last Tuesday night found Sweet Baby James and I sitting on the living room floor of a very nice apartment in the foggiest part of town. The room was crawling with babies, lactating women, and their relatives. Our first ever La Leche League meeting!

The La Leche League (LLL) is amazing. It was started in 1956 by a bunch of friends who were not convinced by their doctors' opinion that breastfeeding was bad for their babies. Only 20% of American babies were being breastfed at that time, and it was considered so uncouth to discuss nursing in public that they had to call themselves 'The Milk' League in Spanish. Code milk!

LLL was renegade, radical and revolutionary in its time; now it's a soft, welcoming place for people who want to learn more about breastfeeding. They have a book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, a magazine, a website, and groups meeting weekly in 68 countries.

In the Western world's reckless rejection of lactation in the 1930s-1970s (a squeamishness that accompanied the medicalization of birth and the rise of corporate interest in infant formula), an entire generation was raised without the nipple. While a woman could once turn to her own mama for support and knowledge about breastfeeding, that's not possible if she didn't breastfeed her babies and wasn't breastfed herself. So going to a LLL meeting is a bit like reaching back through the centuries to find a bit of knowledge that you kind of knew already.

Yes, I paid $25 for a one-year membership to a club where I listen to people tell me things I already know. It's strange but wonderful, sitting in a room full of the squeals of children and squalls of babies and feeling, "Oh yeah, I knew that" about something that, frankly, I didn't.

Like biting.

I had been being bitten by Sweet Baby James on a semi-regular basis for the past few weeks. His teeth came in all of a sudden (six teeth over the course of two weeks, both top and bottom in the front. wowza!) and it's as if he didn't quite know what to do with them. And so, as always, he did whatever he liked. Unfortunately for me, whatever he liked included something very sharp and something very sensitive. Ouch.

So I asked about this at the meeting. The leader, as she is directed to do, reflected the question back to the larger group -- had anyone else experienced this? There was one Lactation Consultant-looking woman there (yes, there's an LC look. It involves being well-groomed, doing yoga and wearing handcrafted silver jewelry -- you know who you are) who suggested I de-latch the baby as soon as my milk had stopped flowing, since biting happens when the nipple is further forward in the mouth than when he's really gulping milk down.

Someone else suggested raising the angle of the baby's head, since they most comfortably latch when they're looking upward; and another lady commiserated, saying that she is doing extended breastfeeding with her daughter and not to worry, he would soon grow out of it.

That middle suggestion -- that the angle of the latch might be causing him to bite -- was actually new to me. But as they described it, I really felt like it wasn't. I felt like it was something I had known and forgotten, or maybe could have figured out on my own. A feeling not unlike the one you get from assembling a piece of IKEA furniture without the directions, only to find them hidden under your (also IKEA) couch.

There's much ado these days about how 'not instinctive' breastfeeding is -- the LLL magazine New Beginnings is full of stories from new moms who had terrible difficulties establishing the "breastfeeding relationship" after their baby was born. Thalia says,
"I wondered what could be so hard about something so natural. Hadn't we as a species done this from the beginning? I thought it was going to be easy. Not only was I wrong, but I was woefully unprepared for how wrong I was."

Diane says,
"Looking back now, both... [my husband and I] should have read a lot more and given a lot more thought on the subject."

But this non-instinctive stuff seems *ahem* counter-intuitive to me. How could we possibly survive as a species if the womanly art of breastfeeding wasn't hard-wired? And how come, given that I'm not a 100% insufferable jerk, do I feel like I 'know' this stuff already? Anthropologist Meredith Small asks the same question in her excellent book Our Babies, Ourselves: How biology and culture shape the way we parent.

She tells the story of a captive gorilla (Small doesn't say, but I'm assuming she was raised in isolation). This lady gorilla was able to carry and birth her cute little gorilla babies, but they kept getting taken away from her because she didn't know how to nurse them. She had the idea to connect her nipple with something on the baby's head -- but she didn't know that she needed to turn it around to face her. So the keepers got a bunch of human mothers to nurse their babies in front of her. She watched. She learned. She was able to feed her next baby!

So there is a strong learned aspect to breastfeeding. And perhaps this is the essence of intuition -- it's a combination of instinct and learning. It's important that we have good prenatal and prelactation classes available. But maybe, in our drive to be the master of everything in our domain, it's possible to be over-prepared, too. Might we, in our drive for self-education, run the risk of extinguishing the instinctual aspect of the nursing process?

I paid attention in the lactation section of our prenatal class at Montréal's (incredibleamazingawesome, cannotrecommenditenough) Côte de Neiges Maison de Naissance. I knew I wanted to breastfeed my baby and I knew it wasn't going to be easy. The videos showed us how we should hold (but not assault) the baby's head, how we should slightly compress our breast/nipple into the "hamburger shape" (hungry?), and how to tickle the baby's chin or cheek so that he would open up wide and I could shove that nipple in as far as it would go.

And when the baby came, I did all this. My nipples were sore, and there was a blood blister on one. I used a lot of Lanolin (a nice word for sheep grease) and cursing... I did everything they had told me to do -- but he didn't seem to be born with the open-up-wide-so-you-can-shove-your-nipple-in reflex.

I'd tickle his cheek or his chin and he'd open up a little bit, but not as much as he would at other times; or he wouldn't open up at all, preferring instead to suck heavily on his own hands, despite the fact that he was wailing with hunger only a moment before. I had a hectic, heavy letdown reflex (which is when the milk sprays out of the nipple like a sprinkler -- or Niagara Falls, as the case may be) so I'd be sitting there getting madder than a wet hen as the baby's fresh onesie got drenched, too.

And I was in pain. That blood blister developed into two. One of the tough things about starting to nurse is that you still have to continue to nurse on both breasts, even if one of them has a damaged nipple. Sometimes I would end up making it worse, since because it hurt like hell whether I was getting a good latch or not. I had no way to tell if I was on the right track!

One day, I just gave up. Not nursing, but trying. I gave up trying.

Baby was at my nipple, we were doing our usual three-round latchfight, and I just let him win. I didn't touch him or my breast. I watched. He didn't open his mouth wide like the babies in the video, but he sucked the nipple deep into his mouth, closed his eyes and gulped away. A perfect latch.

This was just my experience. But I hope that as we start to accept breastfeeding as an important aspect of childhood and maternal health, we can relax a little and give the formulaic nursing methods a break. I'm glad that I attended prenatal classes, but a class could never really prepare me for my baby knowing more than I do.


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