Tuesday, 14 April 2009

An Old Wife's Tale about Breastfeeding

In September of 1967 we decided to visit the Centennial Expo in Montreal; our younger daughter was two months old, a sturdy, easy, breastfed baby. In all of that huge site there was one (1!) 'changing station' for babies. The YD was a happy little lump in her knapsack, packed in with diapers, until she got hungry. Once she decided she needed feeding, she became very noisy. So she got nursed in some peculiar places.

One day at noon our best option seemed to be a huge cafeteria beside the Russian Pavilion; it was almost empty and we could all eat while she did. So I established myself at a table, unbuttoned my jacket and blouse and fed her. My husband and his parents went through the cafeteria line and brought the food over, giving me a carton of milk, with a straw. Just then the YD, who was very hungry indeed, gulped some air, air-locked and shrieked. As I hoisted her up onto my shoulder to try and get the bubble out a waiter came over to see what was up and, looking at the milk in the carton, cleared his throat and asked if he could warm up the baby's milk. My husband and FIL, a wonderful guy with a big sense of humour, both grinned widely. And then the poor waiter must have realized what was going on because he turned a fine shade of scarlet and slunk away. My FIL told the story for years.

I'm not sure why I decided to breastfeed my kids. It was not common to do that in 1966. I had some problems nursing the firstborn and ended up switching her to a bottle at about five months. My doctor advised me to feed her rice cereal before I nursed her and spread the feedings out to every four hours; you can imagine how well that worked. But the next baby I took successfully to drinking from a cup. Mind you, she was what was called an 'enthusiastic nurser' then. Industrial level vacuum system was more like it. And, in the sixties, the received wisdom was to start solids with rice cereal at six weeks, adding fruit and vegetables starting about three months. With all that in their little tummies, I think babies in the sixties slept more and longer. We won't talk about the diapers, please.

Your mother might well have breast fed you and your siblings but when I decided to breastfeed I did not know one woman who had successfully done so. Women in my family swore by bottles. My friends with kids? All using bottles and regarding me with a very sceptical eye. Between my first, born in April '66, and the second in July '67 (yes, the second pregnancy was planned. Did I ever say I have any common sense?) a La Leche league formed in the city where I lived and I at least had some peer support. And, thanks in part to things like La Leche, by the early '70s breast feeding was much more common. By the '80's many, many women were breastfeeding successfully. As my peer group left their bearing years behind, though, I stopped paying attention.

When my granddaughter was born and I started to be interested again, I found that the landscape had changed. There were all sorts of gizmos and gadgets, lactation consultants, support groups, books and pamphlets. And there was the Internet and mommybloggers. Advice, support and success stories on all sides. It was a steep learning curve for me. How do you offer advice on 'a good latch' when you have never heard of the term? I watched the ED popping the baby off the nipple and reattaching her with unbelieving eyes. The nurse who handed me the ED just simply checked to make sure I wasn't going to drop her and trotted away.

I have been reading mommy blogs, including the nursing mothers' posts, for two years now. Nursing stories are thick on the ground, as are opinions about the value, spiritual and physical, of breast milk and bonding. I have learned a huge amount about the things that can go wrong, the sheer intense sleepless labour of raising a baby for six months on breat milk alone, the tricks and travails. Some things are still the same. I can trade bitten nipple stories with anyone. But....but...it all seems so complicated now. So much to learn, so many things to watch for. So much to do! So many voices raised in praise and sometimes overdone advocacy. So much shame if nursing doesn't work out.

The only thing that bothers me about having switched the ED to formula is that I got bad advice. Some of the mothers of today, however, sound so desolate, so shamed, if they can't nurse their babies successfully. They believe that they aren't good mothers. I think that's sad.

Breast feeding is cheap, convenient and if it goes well, very rewarding for both mother and baby. But in my observation you can be just as good a mother holding a bottle. And your baby will do well.

This post appeared first at Canada Moms Blog, where I am on the roster of contributors. I would like to direct you to the post there. However, probably because the site is still under construction, I cannot seem to access an archive and find that post. And so I am repeating it here.


  1. Boy, you're not kidding about the pressure to breastfeed. It's intense. It didn't work out for me with #1, and I felt like a criminal. That just shouldn't ever be.

  2. I try to not even comment on breastfeeding posts anymore b/c I am not of sound mind when I do so. The shame of failure sent me into such down spiral that I don't see clearly. I am pleased for women who can make it work. I will lobby for any woman's right to breastfeed but beyond that I have to step back b/c the judgment can be so emotional and so intense.

  3. It must have been a critical time for change because we had our first in 1972, and there never seemed to be a question then.

  4. I didn't start following any of the literature until my first child was about 5 months old (I didn't even KNOW there was literature!), and thank god for that. I also had no friends with babies, which I didn't consider a blessing until y'all started talking about the pressure to breastfeed. I was lonely, but I also never felt like I was "doing it wrong."

  5. I vividly remember being told that if I was breastfeeding "properly" it wouldn't hurt. Such baloney - every mother I have ever met who breastfed agrees that it hurts a bit to start with, but oh the guilt of knowing for absolute certain that I was doing it "wrong". I am amazed to this day that I kept going.

  6. Your last paragraph sums it all up perfectly for me. But how amazing to hear your personal story, a universal story, but unique b/c it's you and in a different time than my own mothering story.

  7. Mostly people thought nursing mothers were nuts in the early sixties; Anvil Cloud, I was right on the cusp. By '67 there were a lot of nursing mothers. Mad, Loth, nANCE, it is that guilt trip stuff that makes me furious. It is pernicious, no question.
    But, you know, my grandmother (kids in 1906, 1909, 1918, 1923) felt guilty because she did not have, as she put it, 'enough nurse' (gesturing vaguely at her chest as she said this.
    Jennifer, I doubt there was ever a primipara that did not feel 'alone' some of the time. I had a friend with two nursing degrees who was seriously nervous with her first. We used to compare disasters large and small.

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