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The Alien Zookeeper’s Guide to Breastfeeding – an introduction

One of the hallmarks of the human species is our ability to complicate just about everything.

Like, for example, breastfeeding.

Which is ironic, because as a species, humans are classified as mammals precisely because we breastfeed. We’ve been breastfeeding for thousands of years.

But we’ve gone way beyond just doing it.

We’ve studied it, analyzed it and researched it.

We’ve written instruction manuals on how to do it.

In fact, we’ve even created an entire profession (Lactation Consultants – I am one!) dedicated to helping mothers learn to do it.

Nowadays, long before their baby is born, most parents have:

  • Learned how frequently, and for how long, baby should feed – every 2-3 hours, for x number of minutes
  • Learned how to position baby at the breast – generally in one of 4 specific positions – cradle, cross-cradle, football, or side lying
  • Learned what, exactly, baby is supposed to do in order to latch correctly – up to and including the precise angle of his lips
  • Read several books on breastfeeding
  • Taken a class on breastfeeding

(All this preparatory education would be awesome if we were giving birth to baby robots.)

Then, just in case we hadn’t overwhelmed new parents-to-be enough, we humans developed a bunch of cool (and essential) gadgetry to “help” them. Here are just a few:

  • Apps – yes, there are breastfeeding apps to keep track of how often, how long and on which breasts a baby has fed.  Apps have been a convenient replacement for the now antiquated necessity, the clock, which we had been using to determine if baby was hungry.
  • Wet diaper indicator – yes, it’s true, some diapers have little lines on them that change color to indicate that baby has peed. You can see it from across the room.
  • Breastfeeding pillows – to help position baby at the breast – I have never, in all my life, seen any other mammal use one of these, but hey….

Basically, we’ve replaced the “art” of newborn care with the “science” of newborn care. We’ve broken breastfeeding down into clear and concise steps and guidelines. In the process, the principles and concepts behind those guidelines are often left behind.

And this works fine and dandy – when following those steps leads to the desired outcome.

But, without understanding the “why” behind all the steps and guidelines, breastfeeding becomes incredibly challenging, overwhelming and frustrating when even the smallest hurdles arise.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We humans haven’t really changed much in the last thousand years or so. Babies today breastfeed the same way that babies did then.

The only thing that has changed is how over-complicated we, as an educated, technologically advanced species, have made it.

So, how do we unburden ourselves of the fruit of our own brilliance?

I suggest approaching breastfeeding from a different perspective – the Alien Zookeeper’s view.

If we visited a zoo on an alien planet and watched moms and dads caring for their babies without the benefit of books, technology and gadgetry, what might it look like?

No, I’m not advocating that we surrender to the nearest alien and beg to be abducted.

But I’d like to share an experience that opened my eyes.

A few years ago, a nurse asked me to visit a new mom who she thought needed additional help.

I asked the nurse what the problem was.

She gave me a look that suggested it was patently obvious. “She’s eighteen.” She said, as if that explained everything.

It didn’t.

***Soapbox – in my not so humble opinion, young age, in and of itself, does not an incapable parent make. Young parents may be at increased risk for co-existing factors that contribute to parenting struggles. But youth, all by itself. Nope. Just my opinion. Okay, off the soapbox.***

Perhaps sensing my confusion, the nurse added that the mom hadn’t taken breastfeeding classes, and wasn’t positioning the baby correctly.

So, I toddled off to see her.

Lo and behold, I walked in to catch this young mom in the act of breastfeeding her baby in a position that she’d somehow managed to figure out all by herself. The nurse was right, this mom was not using the cradle, cross-cradle, or football hold.

Amazingly, despite, and probably because of, that, she and her baby were comfortable and content. Truth be told, everything was going rather splendidly.

The mom seemed surprised to learn that her nurse had requested a lactation consult for her. She hadn’t thought she was having any difficulties.

Probably because she wasn’t.

We chatted briefly and then I asked her if she had any questions.

“Like, what kind of questions?” she asked.

I told her that many people ask me about how often to feed baby and for how long and that sort of thing.

She looked at me as if I must be joking. “Don’t I just feed him whenever he’s hungry, and feed him until he’s done?” She asked.

“Um, yep,” I said, “That’s about it.”

I considered adding that I’d appreciate it if she didn’t go around spreading such blasphemous nonsense, after all, I’d hate to be out of a job!

She never mentioned anything to do with apps, clocks, minutes, hours, breastfeeding pillows, or wet diaper indicators. She couldn’t tell me when he’d started feeding. She’d put him to the breast, well, when he was hungry.

Feed him when he’s hungry. Feed him until he’s done.

Just like the mothers in the Alien Zoo.

No, breastfeeding is often not that easy. But sometimes, it can be. After all, we are mammals. It is what we do.

I’m not eschewing breastfeeding education and support. Quite the contrary.

Breastfeeding is as fraught with challenges as any biological process. And I’m extremely grateful that because of our current state of scientific advancement, we can provide babies with options beyond the “figure it out, get a wet nurse, or perish” option that nature and the Alien Zoo provide.

However, what I would like to propose is that we do another one of those things that we humans do well – have our cake and eat it too :-).

  • Study the humans in the Alien Zoo, learn from them, maybe even go for a visit and give their methods a spin
  • But know when to set sail for the Zoo of Earth with all its scientific and technological advancement

Welcome to the first installment of The Alien Zookeeper’s Guide to Breastfeeding! A breastfeeding guide with a special Casey-flair :-).

I hadn’t intended to write about breastfeeding when I began This Human Journey. There are a gazillion breastfeeding guides already out there – see the Resources section.

But parenting a newly born person has to be one of the most exciting, exhilarating and terrifying of all the journeys we can take on This Human Journey. And feeding our babies is the first big step we take on that journey.

If I am going to write about experiencing our humanity, how can I not write about breastfeeding?