Human dairy


(Also, while I am doling out warnings: it is pretty disjointed. I pretty much just wanted to write a post that was like HERE’S EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT BREASTFEEDING, but I don’t have a central argument or anything, so if you’re looking for that kind of thing I suggest you move along.)


In the Target store at home, the aisle where you find bottles and things like breast pumps has two helpful signs on it.

In the bottle section, it reads “BOTTLE FEEDING”.

In the section for nursing mothers, it reads “NATURAL FEEDING”.

I’m never sure if the Target people are just trying desperately to avoid putting the word BREAST up in large type, or if they’re a bunch of hippies making a statement. But these signs highlight the basic problem with breastfeeding, and talking about breastfeeding: IT INVOLVES BREASTS.

That makes people uncomfortable. It taps into this whole web of brain activity where breasts=WHOO! (see: Hooters). Of course, people who are not total morons get that breasts, when involved in feeding a baby, are somehow suddenly NOT supposed to make your brain go WHOO, but they can’t help it, in literally every other circumstance, boobs=whoo!, so then there’s this terrifying vortex of panic and paranoia and BABY+BOOB=OH SHIT DON’T LOOK THAT LADY IS JUST FEEDING HER KID BUT OH MY GOD THAT’S A BREAST – AHHHHHHH or something, and, unfortunately, it turns a certain number of people into raging assholes. The kinds of people who tell nursing women to cover up, or say ridiculous things like “This is a family restaurant!”, just as though the baby isn’t trying to eat dinner, too. I wasn’t totally sure these people actually existed (because… really, this is your pet peeve? There are oil spills and Wall Street corruption, but THIS is the target of your rage. ???) but they do. You periodically read about them on parenting blogs. Like some poor family will get kicked out of a terrible buffet in the middle of the country, a buffet that called the cops on the mom. Or a security guard in a mall will tell a mom “You can’t do that here.” or whatever. Or I read a hilarious one recently where a woman had gone into a bathroom to feed her baby* and another woman was all “ACK I CAN SEE YOUR BOOB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SOMETHING ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

…However, mostly I figure that people know they can’t be jerks about it – even when it makes them uncomfortable.

Like when H. and I were flying, and he needed to eat, so I found the farthest corner of the already-empty airport cafe, and sat with my back to the rest of the room, and H. settled in for a snack, and then a businessman came over and sat down at the adjacent table with his laptop, facing us. And then he clearly went “OH SHIT!!!” but also couldn’t really move, because that would make it clear that he had noticed my boob and was uncomfortable, so instead we both looked down and pretended not to notice each other.

That guy wasn’t a jerk. And he can’t help that he’s uncomfortable. Of course he’s uncomfortable! How could you possibly live in a culture that is obsessed with boobs and then suddenly be able to turn off that part of the brain loop once there’s a baby? I imagine you can’t – or at least it’s very difficult. So I do feel some sympathy for people.

And I also periodically feel awkward when I need to feed H. in public: I am a modest person**, and in the beginning I would get the “OMG YOUR BOOB IS SLIGHTLY VISIBLE FROM CERTAIN ANGLES IF YOU ARE REALLY LOOKING FOR IT!!!” thing, but on the other hand, if seeing a flash of boob for two seconds until the baby latches on is really going to traumatize you, you may be a good candidate for Having A Drink. Like once Seth and I were in a terrible restaurant at the end of a terrible day, with a tired baby, and it was a very awkward situation – I couldn’t really turn away from people or anything – and I kept saying “Is this… awful? Am I flashing everyone?” and Seth looked incredulous and said something like “No, but what if you were? They can just deal with it. Also, this is terrible steak!” (Only with more swearing…)


TL;DR: It’s kind of a shame that breastfeeding involves, you know, boobs. I bet more people would nurse their babies if we had special milk-secreting glands on our elbows or something.


I’ve read some interesting things recently about the language people use to talk about breastfeeding. You’ve heard it a million times: “Breast is best.”

But breast isn’t “best”. Human milk doesn’t give your baby super powers. It doesn’t make your baby smarter or healthier or more symmetrical or whatever. It’s just normal. It’s what human babies are evolved to eat. It’s the standard.

The way formula companies talk about this makes it sound as though formula will net you 100%, and breast will net you 105%. But that’s not true – breast isn’t “best”, it’s just ordinary – and also, I don’t want to be paranoid, but formula companies are trying to sell you something.

When we brought H. home from the hospital we were supposed to give him a bottle a day of breast milk fortified with formula, for extra calories. We rapidly knocked this off because we are super-lazy, and pumping the milk was a drag, and also the formula smelled disgusting. Human milk smells sweet-neutral. It tastes like very sweet, creamy milk.

(Yes. I have tasted my own milk. If that freaks you out, I should point out that I have WALKED AROUND WITH BABY VOMIT IN MY HAIR. I HAVE HAD MY BABY DROOL DIRECTLY INTO MY MOUTH. I HAVE RINSED POOP OUT OF MY BABY’S DIAPERS BY HAND.)

Anyway. Formula! It seems to me that commercial infant formula and C-sections are life-saving advances of modern technology that are pretty overused.

Some number of mothers and babies need C-sections to make it through the birth alive, and it is a miracle of modern technology that lets these moms and babies live on. This is awesome, and we should be thankful. But the number of people who need C-sections may not be 30% and rising.

Similarly, commercial infant formula is a great leap forward for those babies whose mothers are unable to feed them human milk. It’s not a perfect facsimile, but it’s much, much better than feeding your newborn cow milk. A real cause for celebration for those who can’t breastfeed. But the number of people who feed their babies formula should maybe not be so very high.

On the one hand, talking to women about breastfeeding or formula can feel eerily close to horning in on issues of personal choice, but honestly I think the discussion of this stuff is pretty muddied by the fact that there’s a lot of money at play here. Formula is expensive, whereas breast milk, as Seth says, costs just “pennies a day for some extra cheese for the mom”. And there are actual health costs associated with formula use. People say things like “breast milk has a protective effect against ear infections”, but bearing in mind the “best/normal” thing – you should maybe think of that instead as “Formula leads to increased rates of ear infections.”

And of course you can’t say that, because nobody wants to make a mom who chose formula for her baby feel crappy and guilty. But it can’t be good for individual mothers or society at large to let formula companies steer the conversation. I kind of feel like the “best/normal” issue makes breastfeeding seem aspirational – “The baby-feeding habits of the stars!” – just another Perfect Parent Thing you can’t cope with, like putting your kid in 300-dollar car seats or reading all the right parenting books and knowing exactly how to handle public tantrums – instead of “Boob: it’s what’s for dinner.”


I had a lot of support for breastfeeding. I was raised by and around hippies, so I’d seen many women breastfeeding. It was not a mysterious thing to me. And: my mom breastfed her babies, my mother in law breastfed hers. My dad emailed me while I was in the hospital to say that I should get “some kind of La Leche League medal for pumping in the ICU.” (WHERE DO I SIGN UP. “Is that… a Purple Heart?” “It’s the Order of the Slightly Chafed Nipple, actually.”)

Also, I had my baby at a Baby Friendly-Certified hospital, which is a hospital where all the nurses are all “Breastfeeding is so awesome! Let me hold your boob for you.” all the time and about half of them are lactation consultants and call you after you go home to find out how you’re doing, etc.

Also, I did not have to go back to work after just six weeks.

So. Lots of support. I was very lucky. I think, barring the rough beginning with the eclampsia and the NICU, I pretty much had the ideal situation for someone to succeed with breastfeeding.

And I still had this total breakdown about a week after H. came home, because BOOBS ARE NOT TRANSLUCENT, and you can’t see how much milk the baby is getting, and neither of us really understood what we were doing yet***. And I can totally see how if you didn’t have two grandmothers standing by to tell you that you were doing fine, or a husband to tell you that you were doing fine, or the hospital lactation consultant to tell you you were doing fine – you know, I can see how people might go AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH and switch to Enfamil.

And I think that’s a shame. I don’t think the way to more breastfeeding moms and longer duration of breastfeeding (just 12% of American babies are exclusively breastfed for 6 months) is to yell at women. I think it’s probably the same as it is with everything else: you try to figure out what is causing this problem, and you notice that it’s hospitals and nursing staffs and women having increasingly medicalized births that make it mentally and physically tough to breastfeed right away, and American women getting crazily short maternity leave, and of course a culture where Target can’t put the word BREAST on a sign.

But breastfeeding has so many benefits that I really think it’s worth it to try to tackle this problem in a productive way.

(Hmmm… that’s a pretty mild soapbox, now that I see it written out. Man! I was hoping for more fist-shaking and “I AM A SOVEREIGN PERSON!!!!” at the end.)

*People seem to frequently suggest “the bathroom” as an appropriate place to breastfeed a baby. I fed H. in a bathroom once. We were in a really busy restaurant waiting for a table, and there were no seats in the waiting area, and my brain kind of locked up and I couldn’t come up with any other ideas. So I went into the bathroom and into a stall and fed him, and I immediately realized the huge problem with this plan: other people would like to use that bathroom stall to pee. So maybe feeding your kid in the toilet appeases the jerks, but it also punishes innocent bystanders. Sigh, such is life.

**Other women should feed their babies however they please. If I have figured out anything from becoming a mom, it’s that I don’t know anything, and other people should do whatever works for them.

***If you are a person who found this through a Google search, something like “HOW LONG UNTIL BREASTFEEDING GETS EASIER”, the answer is “six weeks”. You just have to hang in there. Your baby is NOT starving. If he’s eating all the time it’s because he’s going through a growth spurt and is trying to get your supply up. Boobs have a mystical process of supply and demand happening. If you let your baby eat or comfort-nurse whenever he wants to, you will make the right amount of milk.

You are doing a good thing for your baby. Any amount of breast milk you can give your baby is great. Don’t give up. If you’re having a hard time, there is help. Try:

Kellymom – “evidence-based” info on breastfeeding. You won’t find any claims that breastfeeding will turn your child into a magical unicorn. Just solid, helpful, non-judgmental information.

La Leche League – tons of info on their various websites, as well as contact info for your local meeting.

Dr. Jack Newman – this guy is some kind of breastfeeding guru. I know, I know, yuk it up! But I found his videos really useful. If you’ve wondered if your baby is actually getting any milk, the videos will help.

Ask Moxie – Moxie is “just a mom” who writes advice columns on parenting. She is super sensible and not crazy and just very common-sense. I find her extremely soothing. Try the breastfeeding category for answers to moms with problems Just Like Yours.

Finally, I am not an expert, but I figured out how to breastfeed my baby. My advice is probably of questionable value, but if you need support, leave me a comment and I’ll do my best.

But seriously. Six weeks. If you can stick it out for the first six weeks, things (not just the breastfeeding) magically improve. Good luck!


4 responses to “Human dairy

  1. I like anything that gives me a chance to eat extra cheese. I’ll shake my fist for that cause!

    I’ve been considering writing a breast-feeding post myself, but wondered how my offspring’s grandfathers would take it. Thanks for writing this one. It was very tasteful despite being about … you know … boobs.

  2. True true Elana! I have asked several new moms if they are breastfeeding and one Mom ( a doctor, no less) said she was using formula because her daughter was having trouble latching on. And the other said it ‘didn’t go well’ so she started using the bottle. Both after 2-3 weeks of giving birth – they gave up. Babies will naturally lose a few ounces and it takes time for babies to really get the hang of it instead of falling promptly asleep. If you are changing wet diapers, then your baby is getting enough milk. DONT GIVE UP! That should be written on a new mom’s boobs in permanent marker after the baby is born.

  3. Great post. We made it to 6 months exclusive by the skin of our teeth and it was one of the best experiences of my life, but my supply sucks and now I have work and stress and I’m always dehydrated because of my caffeine addiction, so we’re supplementing with (hypoallergenic, stinky) formula, and so far it’s a good balance.

  4. Oh – Jen, working and breastfeeding is totally hard. I didn’t go back until H. was 9 months, and I have found pumping to be a total strain and just sucky all around. I am amazed that women who have to go back to work much earlier than that are able to breastfeed at all, honestly.

    Kudos to you for getting to 6 months! That’s great. 🙂

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