Milk for All! Nursing in Community.
Feeding our babies can be a lonely job here in America. After our babies arrive, we as families are solely responsible for keeping them healthy and fed, and that can feel so overwhelming. Our lives have evolved to the point of being so connected technologically and so disconnected face-to-face. Early parenthood is a time where that lack of in-person contact can feel terribly isolating, especially if you are facing challenges where feeding your little is concerned. Nursing is natural, so how come it's so tough? Has it always been this hard to feed a baby? And how can we combat the loneliness?
If humans had always existed how we exist now, we never would have made it. As early humans, living in close-knit groups of extended family members and others kept us safe and alive...a large, noisy group is better at keeping the saber tooth tigers at bay than a single, solitary family. And it served to keep our babies safe and alive as well. After all, feeding problems like insufficient milk supply, or tongue tie, or poor latch aren't modern issues. But our ancestors didn't have formula and lactation consultants. How did we survive?
The answer is community. Our ancestors lived in close-knit groups of friends and family. The work of feeding the community was the work of everyone in it: hunting, gathering, and early agriculture in the form of herd animals or small-scale garden plots for cultivating staples. This was the case regardless of geography: communal living was the anthropological model from the northernmost tribes to islands along the equator; from Africa to Asia to Europe and the Americas. We also know that raising children was a task undertaken by many members of these communities working together. And so was feeding babies.
Typically, there would be people in all stages of their reproductives lives in our early community models: from babies to the elderly. During the prime reproductive years – those of childbearing, nursing, and childrearing – there would be community members in every stage of pregnancy and nursing. Remember, too, that in these spaces, there was no "wean at 6 months" dictum; in fact looking at the work of anthropologists (especially folks like Sara Blaffer Hrdy and Dana Raphael), we understand that children breastfed well into childhood...kids still nursing occasionally at ages 5 or 6 would not be uncommon. That's potentially a lot of people who can feed a baby!
And we know that this is how early communities kept babies alive. The baby with the poor latch would have access to community members who produced ample milk, so that even a baby with a poor suck could be fed. New parents who needed help increasing milk supply might also nurse a baby with a healthy appetite to help bring milk in. Flat or inverted nipples? Make sure that you also feed the baby with the great latch and they will be drawn out in no time! Additionally, children who grew up in these communities saw babies nurse all the time, so when it was their turn, there was nothing mysterious about it. Although not formally trained, each community was filled with lactation consultants...the elders who had nursed babies for years and passed along their wisdom to younger generations.
As our communities became more structured, we lost these benefits. Certainly, the Industrial Revolution did communal nursing no favors, as we became more isolated from the larger group we had once inhabited, and contact with other nursing people became less constant. Some cultures did manage to keep communal feeding intact...milk kinship has a long history in Islam. In certain Arab and Hindu communities, milk sharing remains the norm. It has survived in parts of Australia and Turkey, and on Pulau and other islands. And we hear anecdotes of milk sharing today, even in the US, between family members or close friends, or when a mother has died and a community forms to breast feed the baby she suddenly left behind. (http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/12/01/marquette.moms.nursing.moses/index.html)
Largely, though, we've lost our community feeding model and have put so very many things in it's place to try and replace it: organic formula and human milk banks and International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) and nipple shields and breast pumps...the list goes on. But it's all in isolation: YOU birthed this baby, now YOU feed this baby. And that can be hard, lonely, confusing work for parents who have been raised in a culture like ours, where breastfeeding is to be private, and breasts are sexualized, and families are harassed for feeding their hungry babies in public because it is viewed as indecent. It's challenging enough to feed our own babies; feeding another family's hungry child feels not like the biological imperative it once was, but is now entwined with puritanism, radical individualism, and sex.
What can we do? A cultural re-examination of our feelings about nursing is long overdue, to be sure. But little shifts in everyday life can make an impact. If you feel comfortable, don't feel compelled hide your nursing, at home or in public. Laws are in place to protect nursing families who feed their babies while out and about – you may still deal with some closed-minded people, but at least the law is on your side. Surround yourself with other nursing parents whenever possible. You probably won't be passing babies around for feedings at PEPS or play group, but there is comfort in having a place in your life where you can just be and feed your little without worrying about the side-eye.There are also some groups dedicated to making nursing visible, staging feed-ins in public spaces to actively challenge the status quo in our culture.
Most importantly, take a deep breath and be gentle with yourself...sometimes knowing that one parent feeding one baby was not a model that would have enabled humans to survive long term helps make the bumpy journey easier. Go to a La Leche League meeting to be with other families in all stages of the nursing relationship, and bring your kids along. Reflect on our history as humans and the things we have lost in our drive toward becoming ever more enmeshed in all that is technical, and discuss your reflections with others. Surround yourself, in person and online, with folks who share your values where nursing is concerned. Seek help and support where you need it, from family, friends and professionals. Know you are NOT alone.
UPDATE: While originally written in 2018, everything here still holds true, even (and maybe especially) as I now wear my IBCLC hat. Additionally, I'd like to acknowledge that this post was originally written thanks to Penny Simkin. When I was assisting in Penny's childbirth education classes, we got to chatting one night and I reflected on the idea of milk sharing and communal living being vital to the successful evolution of humankind. Penny said to me, "You need to write that down!" When Penny Simkin tells you to write, you write. Thanks for all the inspiration, education, and encouragement along the road, Penny.