This year, I’m celebrating World Breastfeeding Week by sharing lessons learned from my first year of breastfeeding.
We may all know that breastfeeding has numerous lifelong health benefits for both the baby, including stronger immune systems, lower rates of respiratory illness, and lower infant mortality. These are in addition to the health benefits for the mother including less postpartum bleeding and lower risk of postpartum depression.
For these reasons, both WHO and UNICEF recommend exclusive breastfeeding on-demand for the first 6 months of life and complementary feeding while continuing breastfeeding up to 2 years and beyond.
But what does breastfeeding look like in practice, and why is it still so taboo to talk about anything beyond the benefits? This is what I learned in my first year of breastfeeding:
1. Breastfeeding is still stigmatized and sexualized
To be honest, I’m terrified of posting a picture of myself breastfeeding. And I’m even more afraid of writing about it.
Why? Because it’s breastfeeding. And as a society, we have sexualized this body part. It seems breasts are meant either for male-centric porn or clean-cut public health posters.
But to me, my breasts are so much more than those things; they are my child’s comfiest pillow, her first source of nourishment, her most reliable pacifier, and her favorite way to fall asleep or heal from an injury. And yet, they are also the reason I often hide in the car or duck into a corner when and if they are inevitably needed.
2. Because of #1, breastfeeding can make people feel incredibly awkward
Before having a baby, I could have guessed breastfeeding in front of others would be an awkward experience. But I didn’t realize the level of discomfort others would feel at the mere mention of the topic.
When it comes to discussing the practicalities or process of breastfeeding, it seems most people simply don’t want to hear it.
Inevitably, what’s even more awkward than talking about breastfeeding is doing it in public. Although people have the right to breastfeed in public in all 50 states, doing so is too often still taboo.
3. Most people who have never breastfed don’t understand breastfeeding – I know I didn’t
I was told breastfeeding would be painful (for me, it thankfully wasn’t), but I didn't know much beyond that.
Luckily, I had midwives who eased Snowpea and me into the process and a lactation consultant who made her rounds to check our latch in the hospital the day after her birth. In addition to this, Eira was born with an affinity for eating A LOT and often, or so it seemed.
Despite these advantages, for me, there was a steep learning curve to breastfeeding. It took me nearly the entire fourth trimester to become physically comfortable with the process. I spent most of the early days straining my lower back cradling Eira until my arms shook until I finally learned to use the carrier or to feed her lying on our sides.
4. I have never felt like a cow as much as I did in my first year of breastfeeding
When Eira, pink and softly crying, was placed on my chest after her birth, her first instinct was to latch on and begin suckling. Her first three months out of the womb were more or less spent nearly naked, chest-to-chest, intermittently feeding and napping as Eira slowly doubled in size.
In those early days of living in our milk, blood, and summer sweat, I never felt more primal. And yet, I also never felt more in love.
5. I have also never felt like such a goddess
Growing, birthing, and nourishing a human to life is an experience so sacred yet mundane. It fascinates me to think of how many other parents have created and nurtured this miracle of life. Despite feeling like an animal, breastfeeding makes me feel somehow more connected to magic, ancestral wisdom, and the divine. And maybe those things aren’t mutually exclusive.
6. When I breastfeed, I am the center of Eira’s universe – and wow, that’s a powerful feeling
I have never felt more loved, needed, and nurturing than when I’m breastfeeding Eira. Period.
7. The oxytocin rushes are REAL
Especially in my first few months of breastfeeding, the oxytocin rushes before a letdown would take me by surprise. At the sound of Eira’s tiny voice, whatever I was thinking about, I would suddenly want to cry for or cuddle, and my entire world seemed to turn hazy around the edges.
At the same time, I would become overcome by an insatiable thirst on par only to what I’ve experienced after running 20 miles with chafed nipples. It really is a remarkable thing.
I am told a late, horrid postpartum depression goes hand in hand with weaning, and because of oxytocin’s connection to our emotions, this makes sense to me. I don’t know yet how long I’ll breastfeed, but I dread the day it comes.
8. In my ideal world, there is NO shame in breastfeeding
Will there ever be a day when we are not shamed for breastfeeding our babies?
Or when formula companies don’t send us free samples to convince us to choose a “cleaner”, “more convenient” (translated: “less savage”) way of living?
Or when breasts are no longer seen solely as an object to entice the male gaze?
Even in writing this post, I fear the topic and my language will cause some readers misunderstanding or discomfort.
But these are my words, and I use them to spark dialogue and thought. With conversation, education, and advocacy, we can end the persistent stigma around breastfeeding and instead elevate it as a sacred, nourishing practice.