Since long before there were people, mammal mothers from anteaters to orangutans to whales have been suckling babies at their breasts. It’s a profound animal instinct for which no instructions are necessary.
A generation ago, physicians and infant formula manufacturers thought they could improve on that natural process. The bottle, they said, is a better way. Breast-feeding was too old-fashioned, no longer appropriate in a modern world.
Now, however, medical experts are practically unanimous in their belief that nature was right all along. Mother’s milk, they agree, is a nutritionally perfect food.
But that does not mean nature can’t use some help, especially in a fast-paced world where maternity leaves are brief and most mothers spend their days in offices, their babies miles away in day-care. Even if mothers do have the luxury of staying home with their babies, they can benefit from the advice of experts.
That is where lactation consultants such as Mary DeNicola come in. After earning a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing and spending 10 years as a pediatric nurse, DeNicola went back to school to study lactation. Now, working out of Placentia-Linda Community Hospital in Placentia, as well as her own Anaheim Hills home, she uses her training--as well as her experience as a mother of three--to help nature take its course.
“There isn’t a mommy school out there anywhere to teach us how to become mothers,” DeNicola says. “And babies are not born knowing exactly what to do. A lot of parents think that breast-feeding is something that just happens instantaneously and instinctively, but it isn’t that easy. Sure, if you leave a normal healthy mom and baby together long enough, they’re going to get it. But the more information you have, the easier it is.”
She says that because “breast-feeding just wasn’t the thing to do in the last generation,” the problem is now worse, because “now we have a whole generation of grandmas who don’t have that information to pass along.”
Without assistance, DeNicola says, too many new mothers become frustrated and give up. “Part of the problem is the way we live here in Orange County,” she says. “The pace is so fast, and we’re used to having everything instantly.”
Because of the high cost of living here, more families need two incomes to survive. New mothers may only be able to take a few weeks off when they have babies, which makes breast-feeding inconvenient.
“Moms have been nursing since the beginning of time,” she says. “But this is really the first generation of mothers who’ve been working and nursing. It’s hard to be the full-time dairy for a baby when you also have a job. But it’s very possible to work full time and have a full supply of milk.”
In addition to its nutritional value, DeNicola says mother’s milk is beneficial as a protection against disease: “When babies are born, their ability to fight infection is not mature. During their infancy, they rely on mother’s milk to get the special proteins, called immunoglobulins, to protect them. The wonderful thing about it is that mother’s milk gives them protection against the specific things that are in the baby’s environment.
“If the family is exposed to the flu, for example, the mother’s going to pass on that immunity to the baby.” DeNicola begins her work with mothers before birth, offering breast-feeding classes similar to the childbirth classes that have become a standard part of obstetrics.
“Then I see all the breast-feeding moms in the hospital before they leave,” she says, “and afterwards they can call me or meet me back at the hospital at no charge. And they do call, months later, or even years later, when they’ve had another baby and some new question comes up.”
Although a few mothers can keep their babies nearby while they work, most do not have that option. “The workplace is still very male-oriented,” DeNicola says. “Men don’t have babies, they don’t nurse babies, so they don’t really think about it. But things have begun to change, and I think it’s going to get better.”
Meanwhile, working mothers must use pumps to express milk and store it to feed their babies later. “I know teachers that pump, grade papers and eat lunch all at the same time,” DeNicola says.
“I try to help mothers custom-design a schedule for the day. There are a lot of little tricks, such as getting the baby as full as possible before you leave for work in the morning. Then you can go longer before you have to pump. And when you come home, it should be in reverse. Then you can sit down and feed the baby right away. For one thing, it’s a good excuse not to have to make dinner as soon as you come home.”
Pumping and saving milk, either in the refrigerator or freezer, can also allow fathers to participate in feeding their babies without sacrificing nutritional benefits.
Lactation consultants also help in special situations, such as premature births, in which breast-feeding was once considered impractical if not impossible.
“A lot of premature babies are surviving now that didn’t used to,” DeNicola says. “And that immunity is even more important to them.”
Even adoptive mothers can often nurse their babies, although they may need to use formula as a supplement. “It’s sort of like jump-starting the system, but it can be done,” DeNicola says. “And it really helps with the bonding between mother and baby.”
How long should a mother nurse her baby?
“I get asked that question all the time,” she says. “And my answer is, as long as you want to. That’s usually 4 to 6 months at least, but I don’t want any mother to feel like she’s doing it wrong. And if mothers don’t want to breast-feed, I won’t try to twist their arms or make them feel bad.”
Besides professional lactation consultants, she recommends that mothers seek support from the local chapter of the La Leche League, a support group that has promoted breast-feeding since the days when it was considered medically and socially inappropriate.
Breast-feeding offers one more benefit for mothers: weight loss. “It takes at least 1,000 calories a day to manufacture the milk,” she says, “and you can shed that fat without even trying.”