I had a conversation this morning with a group of moms at a school camping trip about how long people breastfeed. There were a lot of opinions flying around the breakfast table about how long it's healthy and appropriate to breastfeed. Suddenly everyone stopped and looked at me, perhaps expecting that I, as a lactation consultant, could clear up this matter authoritatively and definitively.
Sure, I recited the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (at least a year) and the World Health Organization (at least two years), but the moms wanted to know what I tell my clients. So I admitted that I don't tell my clients anything about how long to breastfeed. Instead, I ask them what their breastfeeding goals are. Everyone answers this question differently, and in many cases, a length of time is never stated. Moms tell me that their goal is to give their baby milk and comfort at the breast. Or to exclusively breastfeed. Or feed some breast milk and some formula. Or to nurse until their toddler outgrows the need. Or to breastfeed until it's time to return to work. Or to do it as long as the AAP or WHO recommend. And on and on and on...
So I listen to my clients, and I meet them where they're at. Because ultimately, there isn't a standard recommendation that I could give (even if I had one) that holds up in the face of so many different mother-child relationships. One size would never fit all. And who I am to stand outside that sacred relationship and dictate its course? That is not my role, nor would I want it to be.
I have always found it puzzling that so many people want to apply a deadline to breastfeeding. The question usually rears its head very shortly after the newborn rears its sweet little head: how long are you planning to breastfeed?
Have you ever heard anyone talk about how long they plan to let their baby ride in a stroller? I suppose that in the course of human history, this has come up, but it's not a common question. In fact, it sounds rather silly, doesn't it? You push your baby in a stroller until you and baby no longer have any use for that arrangement. And that's it. I would venture to guess that most people would keep their noses out of another family's stroller business and not give the matter a whole lot of thought.
Not so with breastfeeding. It's emotionally charged. People take stances. Friendships are strained. Family members stop speaking.
And it's really no mystery why this happens. Breastfeeding is, and has always been, about so much more than milk. It is two people connecting and communicating. It is dynamic and complicated and sweet and frustrating and beautiful and heartbreaking. Which is why every mom at that table this morning had something to say. She was tapping into her own experiences and the experiences of those around her. Such an electric part of human existence could never adhere to a prescriptive timeline. Breastfeeding is love, and love is boundless.
A friend and I were geeking out about breastfeeding today, and she said, "So what is the deal with foremilk and hindmilk?" She was referring to the thirst-quenching, lower-fat milk that babies get at the beginning of a feed and the satisfying, higher-fat milk that comes toward the end of a feed. These terms can be confusing, and some parents worry that their babies aren't getting enough hindmilk.
So do humans really make two types of milk? Are our breasts like those old-fashioned sinks that have separate faucets for hot and cold water? How much time does it take for a breast to "switch" from foremilk to hindmilk during a feeding?
The fact that we have two separate terms is at the root of the confusion around the fat content of human milk. Our milk always has fat in it, and as milk is removed, the level of fat gradually increases. There is no magical point during breastfeeding or expression when the foremilk shuts off and the hindmilk turns on. Several years ago, I came across a wonderful blog post that explains very well how this works, including a lineup of 12 vials of milk expressed over the course of a pumping session.
I couldn't pull up that blog post as I talked to my friend, who had just poured me a cup of tea. Looking at the tea, just beginning to steep, I saw an apt comparison. I told my friend that even freshly poured, the tea was starting to infuse into the hot water. The longer the tea bag stayed in the water, the stronger the infusion. This made sense to her, thinking of human milk as hot water and a tea bag as the fat. Spot of tea, anyone?
© 2017-2020 Sarah Quigley