Friday, August 21, 2009

Our Lady of La Leche - A Patron for Motherhood (aka Why Do I Mother through Breastfeeding?)

I think I will turn this post into one in the "Why Do I" series that I promised to write. We visited the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine on the Friday afternoon the day before we left the beach. It was a rainy afternoon, and so hitting the pool or beach one last time was out. So we braved the rain to come here. Above is the statue in the tiny chapel there, showing Mary nursing the infant Jesus.

Of note before I move into the Why Do I part... Caroline was so excited in the gift shop here. She kept saying things like, "Look, a statue of St. Anne!" and "It's a painting of the Last Supper!" Not stuff she typically sees in a store! We couldn't resist buying a few books and medals.

So, as we were finishing up in the gift shop, Cecilia began to ask for "nuh-nuhs." I told her we'd nurse once we got to the chapel, which was through the rain about a hundred yards or so from the gift shop. What a perfect place to nurse!!

So, why do I mother my children through breastfeeding?

The short answer: Because I don't know how else I would do it! That, and I am lazy. ;P

As presented in the statue of Our Lady of La Leche, breastfeeding is so much more than a mechanical act of putting food into a baby. It is about bonding between a mother and her child. It is this first relationship where the child learns about love, unconditional love. It is a source of food, yes, but also a source of warmth, a source of comfort. The baby is provided with skin-to-skin contact with his mother while nursing, which has many benefits which I will not go into here.

So, what do I mean when I say "mothering through breastfeeding"?

This phrase means that I view breastfeeding as so much more than just feeding. Nursing a baby naturally provides him with more than food. It is a God-given means of caring for an infant. Hungry baby? Nurse him. Crying baby? Nurse him. Sleepy baby? Nurse him (and he'll probably fall asleep). To me, it is about believing that my body was made to fully care for this little one.

Babies are born pretty helpless when compared to most other mammals. They can't even walk for about a year after they are born... think about horses and cows, whose offspring walk soon after birth. Human babies are designed to be in-arms, which also happens to be close to the breast.

Contrast this type of breastfeeding (on-demand, for comfort, for bonding) with "cultural breastfeeding" - as merely a source of food. The infant is left with an unsatisfied sucking urge (he recieves comfort from sucking). In cultural breastfeeding, the non-nutritive sucking need is often filled with a pacifier, perhaps along with other measures in attempts to provide comfort, such as a swing or bouncy seat. Not that these items are inherently bad, but they can be overused (especially for complacent babies who don't protest being in them for long periods) in place of the mother and her breasts. Babies don't want or need all these gadgets - they want to be in their mothers' arms and at her breast, because that is how they were naturally created to be.

When thinking of the Virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus, one does not picture a baby with a pacifier. One does not picture a baby being carried in a "baby bucket" carseat. Instead, one sees a portrait of natural mothering in Mary's perfect nurturing of baby Jesus, who, as the times dictated, was probably nursed until he was about three years old. Another aspect of maothering through breastfeeding - there is no set weaning date, no rush to get the child weaned from the breast, because to do so would be to give up a very powerful mothering tool! Breastfeeding can soothe a hurt or upset child, provide comfort during teething, give stability during times of stress in the child's life, calm a tantrum, and put a cranky and tired toddler to sleep... and it is portable and always ready! That's what I mean when I made the "lazy" comment above - tongue-in-cheek, of course. It is not about being lazy - it is about doing what is natural and God-given, but it also happens to be simplistic overall... no need to overthink every situation because nursing can so often be the solution.

But, you may ask, won't this spoil the child?

This seems to be the major objection that our culture has to mothering through breastfeeding - that it will create a spoiled and clingy child. Interestingly, this is not a concern at all in cultures where breastfeeding on-demand and for comfort is the norm. The early years are a time for the child to learn about love and trust. He learns that his mother is there for him, as a comforter as well as a nutrient-provider. It is based upon this first relationship, the biologically-intended relationship with his mother, that a child learns about unconditional love and receives a strong foundation from which he can gradually learn to become independent. He knows he can depend on the security of his mother's love and thus learns to form other loving relationships as he grows and matures. It may take longer than what our society deems as the "appropriate" age for a child to become "independent" from his mother, but it will happen. It is this natural mothering that enables the child to confidently go out on his own, when he reaches that point.

A term that was coined by Sheila Kippley, founder of the Couple to Couple League along with her husband John, is ecological breastfeeding. This term refers to the type of natural mothering through breastfeeding and how it affects the return of a mother's fertility. God designed us to have natural periods of infertility, and the time following the birth of a child is one of these times, so that we would not be having a baby every year. Makes sense - built-in times so that the woman's body can recover, so the baby gets to be the baby for more than just ten or so months. But - this natural infertile time happens with on-demand, mothering-through-breastfeeding types of nursing and not so much with cultural breastfeeding. Although each woman's body can vary and there are probably other environmental factors affecting each person's fertility as well, for the most part, following the norms of ecological breastfeeding are what keep a woman's body in that infertile post-partum stage for longer than it would if she was not breastfeeding or was breastfeeding on more of a schedule.

The standards or "rules" (I prefer not to think of them that way) of ecological breastfeeding are:
* nursing on-demand around the clock
* all sucking needs met at breast (no pacifiers or bottles)
* no supplemental formula, water, juice, or early solid foods ("early" means before about 6 months of age)
* pacifying the baby at the breast
* sleeping with the baby for night-feedings
* mother-baby togetherness (mother does not leave baby)

It is ecological breastfeeding that first got me interested in mothering through breastfeeding, in natural childbirth, in La Leche League... everything. So, it began with reading this book which was recommended through the Natural Family Planning home study course we were using in an effort to avoid artificial birth control and follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. Natural Family Planning really did change my life... to the point that it showed me this wonderful way of mothering my small children!

whispering a prayer of thanksgiving for my children and asking for the grace to be a patient, loving mother who is able to raise them to know God

I have found this way of mothering my babies and toddlers to be very satisfying overall. Of course there are difficulties, there were times of self-doubt... but the confidence that I have built over time helps me through when I know that I am parenting in a way that is very different or "weird" compared to most people in Western society. Mothering through breastfeeding helped me to feel more competant as a first-time mom (and even if I didn't know what I was doing, I could look like I did since I was doing something that made my baby stop crying! ;). Of course, there are times when mothering through breastfeeding isn't the perfect cure-all: just today, in fact, the offer to nurse didn't stop Cecilia from throwing herself to the ground because Caroline was on the rocking horse that she wanted to ride... but after a couple minutes of tantrum, she did nurse and get over it. Sometimes minimizing the issue is the best one can hope for!

click the photo to be able to read the words

I hope this gives some insight on why I choose to use breastfeeding as my number one mothering tool in the first few years. Seeing it tie in so clearly with my faith is very comforting as well... I know that Our Lady mothered Jesus in a similar fashion. A feeling of peace and belonging swept over me as I visited the Our Lady of La Leche shine and nursed my 18 month old there.

A few links related to mothering through breastfeeding, including one I just discovered today:

Breastfeeding in the land of Genghis Khan
Mom describes ecological breastfeeding/link to Sheila Kippley's books
Standards of Eco-Breastfeeding

Our Lady of La Leche, pray for us!


Maureen said...

This is really great and I enjoyed reading it, thank you. There is a bit to take in so I will certainly be re-reading it a few times. Just a minor question, does this mean that you wait for your child to choose to stop breastfeeding? Did Caroline stop when she decided to sleep in her own room? Is there an age you would say "No more"?

Erin said...


For me, I did wait until Caroline was ready to stop nursing. She stopped for good when Cecilia was two months old and she had just turned three herself (to the very day, in fact!). Another pregnancy usually dries up or at least significantly reduces/changes the milk supply in such a way that many nursing toddlers will wean because of these changes in their mothers' milk. Caroline, about halfway through my pregnancy with Cecilia, did stop nursing in that she no longer sucked and swallowed milk... she was just "going through the motions" of latching on at her typical times (before naps and bedtime), so it was just a connection thing, a comfort for her at that point. Some mothers find that a toddler who weans during a pregnancy like this will want to nurse again (for real, not just pretending like Caroline) once the next baby is born and the milk comes in - and that choice is up to the mother to make as to whether or not she wants to resume nursing the first child in addition to the new baby.

Under perfect conditions, I think a totally natural, child-led weaning is best. That said, most mothers who are nursing toddlers do things that come naturally which gradually decrease the nursings. Many mothers of nursing two year olds will begin to do things like telling the child that they will nurse when they get home (if the child asks, say, while grocery shopping). So it comes down to a balance of mother and child and not just 100% of the child doing the leading.

When Caroline decided to sleep in her own room, she was about 2.25 yrs old. She had already stopped nursing at night at that point - which was more mother-led in for us. She had become restless when nursing at night and it didn't help her go back to sleep as it had before (this is around 16-18 months of age), and she would go back to sleep quickly for Chris when he laid down next to her - so we "night-weaned," meaning I no longer nursed her at night. It was a pretty smooth transition which she accepted pretty well, so it seems like she was ready for it. Cecilia is different - she sometimes is restless nursing at night, so I think she is getting into the same stage as Caroline, yet, she does not always resettle well or for very long with Chris. We get a better night's sleep if she nurses in the night and then spends the rest of the night sleeping next to me - generally. It looks like her transition away from night-nursings is going to be more gradual.

Since I have only nursed a child up to age three, it is hard to say when I'd say "no more" or if I would at all... ideally, I would not place an age limit on it. I know a few moms who have perfectly well-adjusted children who nursed until they were five, six, even seven. Personally, I cannot imagine nursing a seven year old, but I also don't think I can choose an age limit ahead of time - I would have to take into consideration the child's personality and any other factors that came into play in each scenario.

Kate said...

love love love this post! can i post a link to this on FB? it puts into words so many of my feelings about nursing...

Sheila Kippley said...

Thanks so much for promoting eco-breastfeeding and natural mothering. To clarify the record, my husband and I founded CCL in 1971. We have not been affliated with the Couple to Couple League since 2003. When we saw that CCL was changing directions, we founded NFP International. CCL had abandoned the teaching of ecological breastfeeding among other things. The new update to complement the classic edition of Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing is The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor, written for the skeptics or those who say it doesn't work. Daily blogs on breastfeeding infertility during World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7) can be read at (upper right corner of the home page). In addition NFPI offers at this website a free online NFP manual, free charts, and much information to support Church teaching. Chapter 6 of the on-line manual is devoted to eco-breastfeeding. This manual, "Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach" is also available in printed form and can be ordered at our website. We would love to see bishops and the Vatican teach natural child spacing via breastfeeding. It is God's plan for baby care and baby spacing and is revealed in His book of nature. The book, Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood, offers breastfeeding support through Church teaching. Sheila Kippley, volunteer, NFP International, .

Erin said...

Sure, Kate! And then I won't be one of those "12 annoying types of Facebook users" - the self-promoter - because you'll post the link for me, ha ha! ;)

That Married Couple said...

Thanks for posting - so interesting! The Mongolia link was also great, and I can't wait to read the others.

Just a question (which you are of course free not to answer): How was your husband with all of this? I can see my husband being fine with the ecological breastfeeding, but I think he'll need to be convinced of the co-sleeping. (Well, when I explain that it's the only way for us to space kids with NFP, he'll have to be okay with it, but I'd rather him want it instead of me force it on him!) Also, will he still feel like he has enough opportunity to bond with his children if Mommy's milk is the answer to everything?


Erin said...

Since part of eco-bfing is the co-sleeping, then one must support it in order to support eco-bfing. But the co-sleeping is a hard part for many people, esp dads, since it is so ingrained in our culture that babies should sleep alone.

Some things that might help convince somebody who is on the fence about co-sleeping:
First - the fertility aspect as related to eco-bfing.
Second - the fact that it is much easier to lay there and nurse the baby back to sleep than to get up with the baby. If dad insists baby should be in another room, then I personally think he should be the one to get up and get the baby and bring him to mom every time! My husband likes this benefit in the early months (before baby gets old enough to become squirmy, which has the potential to interfere w/ his sleep), that he doesn't have his sleep interrupted. And, w/ that in mind, I would seriously consider a king-size bed - once baby grows bigger, the queen feels so much smaller than it does with a newborn!!
Third - The case can be made to those who are reluctant that co-sleeping is protective for babies. They have a much lower risk of SIDS when sleeping close to mom. The AAP actually recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents for the first 6 months for this very reason. I plan to do a more in-depth post on benefits of sleep-sharing, so more to come on this.

My husband said he will comment on this himself in a bit to better answer your question.

On the bonding issue, there are many things the dad can do for the baby besides feeding: bathing, changing diapers, singing, etc. Dads can even wear their babies in a sling. I read something the other day about skin to skin contact with dads, and how this can really help early bonding between dad and baby... Overall, it appears that biologically, babies were designed to form the primary bond with their mothers (although they can form this bond with others if need be and still be securely attached) - it is from the primary bond w/ mom that baby can branch out to form meaningful bonds with others. My husband has found that he really begins to feel more bonded once the babies are 18 months or so. Sometimes it takes awhile, but it will happen eventually if dad has been present from the beginning, and I bet it happens sooner with dads who are more involved with their babies (say, a work at home dad might feel more bonded by 12 months than a work outside the home dad, and a dad who does things like bathing the baby, playing with the baby, etc. might bond better by the age of 2 than a dad who baby just sees briefly at dinner but doesn't really interact much with).

Chris Lewis said...

Ok, so here's the deal. When Erin introduced the idea of co-sleeping, I was so sleep deprived that I agreed to it. Caroline was a week or two old. So I am in a weird conflicted sort of place. On its face I don't _like_ cosleeping. It doesn't give me the warm fuzzies that it gives Erin. It makes me feel a little crowded and a little less comfortable in my bed.

But it gets me out of getting up with the baby in the night for feeding; for that matter, I don't get awakened by a crying baby in the night because she's right there with Erin ready to latch on if she stirs.

On top of that I have the head knowledge that my wife and my baby are happier with a strong bond which is fostered by cosleeping; that a whole host of attachment issues can be avoided or at least reduced by cosleeping, and, that it won't last forever.

As for bonding, I think the natural order of things is for the baby to basically be an extension of mommy for the first year or so (definitely for the first 6 months, and from there it becomes a cultural judgment). With both Caroline and Cecilia I feel like I really started bonding with them after a little more than a year. With Caroline it was around 16 months and with Cecilia it was at 13 or 14. Cecilia warmed up to me sooner than Caroline, and that was just a personality difference. What that meant was that when Caroline was born I felt kind of left out - like I was just present to do chores around the house; but the thing is that this was in reality my act of devotion to my wife, my living out of the covenant vows I made with her, because by doing all the "manual labor" around the house I was enabling her to live out her vocation with great intensity. I didn't enjoy it at the time, it seemed almost lonely sometimes, that's where you come to recognize you don't built a marriage covenant on emotion. And of course it wasn't static - it changed. I "got my wife back" (to an extent) after some time. When Cecilia was born, it was different. In addition to stepping up my around-the-house work again as I had with Caroline's birth, there were other variables. The first was, I had a little companion. Caroline was 3 which was a great age for doing daddy-daughter activities, be they going for a bike ride on Saturday morning, or playing a game, or just cuddling and reading a book. And, Erin was much more laid-back since Cecilia wasn't the first child, so she was able to do more "manual labor" sooner than with Caroline.

I have gotten long-winded and touched on more than just cosleeping here, but mainly for the purpose of illustrating the all-encompassing nature of attachment parenting. With regard to cosleeping, I think the primary selling point for any man (presuming all men are pigs) is this - you will sleep better and you won't have to work in the middle of the night, generally speaking.

Carrie said...

This is a great post! Thanks for all the info and I also enjoyed reading through the comments!

That Married Couple said...

Thanks to both of you for your honest and informative responses!