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Talking Frankly about Ecological Breastfeeding

Kate Wicker

I'm reading books to my older girls when my 16 month old starts opening and closing her chubby hands (the sign for "milk"; lest you be too impressed, she knows about four signs: "book," "more," "milk," and "please," all the important things in life).

"Maa! Maa!" (her word for milk) she says emphatically, hands still opening and closing.

And so I nurse my little milk-monger for a couple of minutes before she scrambles off the couch in search of world domination.

When she tries to scale a table and bumps her head in the process, she cries and through her tears says, "Maa!" She nurses again for a few minutes, and then she's off, looking for other ways to injure herself.

We repeat this process over and over throughout the day.

My daughter and I connect through nursing. At 16 months, and with the voracious, adventurous appetite of a gastronome, she no longer needs breast milk for nutritive purposes (although more liquid gold can't hurt and likely does her body good); yet, she still frequently nurses throughout the day and night. I put very few restrictions on how often or how long she nurses. I don't do this because there exists no ceiling to my mommy martyrdom (being the solipsistic sinner that I am, the ceiling is, in fact, very low at times). I do it because it's an easy way to comfort my child and to give her extra cuddle time in the midst of activities with my older children.

I nurse on demand for another reason, too. Nearly a year and half since giving birth to my third child, my fertility has not returned. After a difficult postpartum period that included struggles with depression, I felt like I needed a break between babies. Breastfeeding as a form of natural mothering has given me the grace period I found myself praying for.

By embracing what's known as ecological breastfeeding (EBF), I've been given the gift of organically spacing my children -- no scrupulous natural family planning charting required. 

When I first became a nursing, NFP mom, I'd never heard the term ecological breastfeeding. What I had heard is that breastfeeding doesn't work in spacing babies. Even my most recent NFP instructor was surprised that I hadn't had a cycle after I'd introduced solids to my baby at six months. Most every NFP-lovin' (or begrudgingly but obediently practicing) Catholic warned me: Never, ever count on breastfeeding as a way to space babies. So I didn't.

What I did do is nurse my firstborn by her cues, not by the clock. I nursed her when she was hungry, bored, sick, happy, needy -- whenever she wanted to. When she was upset, when all else failed, I offered her my breast. And it almost always soothed her (and it frequently soothed my frayed edges as well).

I first discovered a name for EBF -- which, in a nutshell, means nursing your baby for nourishment as well as comfort without restriction -- when I went to see a Catholic health provider well-versed in NFP after I was having trouble conceiving baby number two.

My midwife took one look at my charts and said, "You're still nursing, aren't you?"

I was, I told her.

She proceeded to tell me that ecological breastfeeding was the explanation behind my infertility. She also went on to say that a lot of American women think they're feeding on demand and without restriction, but they're really not, and this is why so many women think breastfeeding doesn't work in spacing children.

Most Westerners practice what's known as cultural breastfeeding. They breastfeed for nutrition and often according to a schedule, but they may not nurse on demand or as a means of comfort or diversion. Cultural breastfeeding does not have much of an effect on postpartum infertility; EBF does.

In my midwife's home country of South Africa, almost all mothers practice EBF (without even giving it a fancy name -- it's just what they do) and if they get pregnant in the early postpartum period, she calls it a miracle.

My midwife went on to tell me to pray about weaning and, if I felt it was time, I'd likely conceive within a month or so of ceasing to breastfeed. I prayed. I weaned. And -- poof! -- one month later, I was with child. My children were spaced two-and-a-half years apart, and I soon learned I was a perfect case study for EBF since, on average, frequent and unrestricted nursing helps to space babies approximately two years apart. 

So why don't more Catholic women know about EBF?

During my "I-want-more-info-on-this-component-of-NFP-no-one-bothered-to-tell-me-about" Google binge, I discovered a lot of women cringe when they hear anyone sing EBF's praises. In fact, I learned that mentioning EBF as a means of natural child spacing as a part of NFP curriculum has become taboo. Since there was no mention of it in any of my personal NFP resources, I turned to Sheila Kippley, co-founder of NFP International and the Couple to Couple League, who has been a strong (and sometimes controversial) proponent of EBF as a complement to NFP. I picked up Kippley's The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor to learn more. In the EBF primer, she outlined the seven standards of this form of breastfeeding, which include:

  1. Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life; don't use other liquids and solids, not even water.

  2. Pacify or comfort your baby at your breast.

  3. Don't use pacifiers or bottles.

  4. Sleep with your baby for night feedings.

  5. Sleep with your baby for a daily nap feeding.

  6. Nurse frequently day and night, and avoid schedules.

  7. Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby. (And continue to stand by the assertion that you should feel free to nurse at Mass if your baby needs to, and don't feel like you're being scandalous doing so)

A-ha. Upon seeing these standards written down on paper, as opposed to just intuitively nurturing my child through nursing, I started to understand why women were afraid of EBF -- especially when, after reading the standards (which I imagine can feel a little like impossible ideals to a tired, strung-out new mom), I felt a twinge of guilt for relying on a plastic impostor, a.k.a. "Binky," to soothe my second child. Taking a newborn home is hard enough without the fear that, if you pop in a pacifier in your cherub's howling mouth, you'll no longer be a natural, A-plus Catholic mother.

Yet I also know these standards were never meant to be a moral code that must never be broken; they were meant to help increase mother-and-baby togetherness, the frequency of nursing, and to make NPF easier, not more difficult, on mothers.

While we shouldn't present these standards as rigid, guilt-inducing rules -- and certainly not as the Holy Grail of Catholic mothering -- we shouldn't be telling moms that ecological breastfeeding is unnatural or unfair, even if mothers today exist more as islands of isolation rather than village-dwelling nurturers with grandmas around to help when Mom needs a break. Consuming healthy, whole foods isn't as easy as it once was, due to the overabundance of processed foods, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't espouse the benefits of eating wholesome foods.

If EBF doesn't come naturally to women, it's not because it isn't natural or beneficial to moms and babies; it's because our society, which encourages and even at times demands moms to be separated from their babies, has made it that way. Maybe we don't need to complain about how unfair these standards are, or how impossible they are to live up to; rather, maybe we should question why they're so hard for Westerners to embrace, when millions of women around the world practice EBF -- not because they're earthy or green, but because they know of no other way to parent.

And we shouldn't be telling moms that breastfeeding isn't a reliable form of spacing children, either, because it can be for many women. There are, of course, women who defy the biological norm and see their fertility return with surprising speed, even if their babies are latched on constantly day and night. These women shouldn't be made to feel like they're not doing something "right," or that they're less of a mom than a woman with prolonged amenorrhea. There are also women whose life circumstances may make EBF difficult or impossible, and they should never feel like less of a mother for choosing a different route. There are moral absolutes within the Church, and then there's all this gray area we fallible humans muddy up with our self-righteousness or simply our own insecurities and desire to validate our own decisions.

This isn't why I've become an EBF cheerleader. It's not because I think it's the only way to parent, a holier way to parent, or even a method of NFP. It's a complement to God's plan for the family, but it's not a method.

But I will continue to sing its praises, because I believe there are plenty of women and babies -- like my children and me -- who might benefit from EBF. When I asked why EBF is rarely mentioned in NFP materials, I was told that the Couple to Couple League made a decision to remove it from its curriculum for fear that a woman who is unable to practice this form of breastfeeding (or able to breastfeed at all), or sees an early return of fertility despite embracing the seven factors, would feel like a failure. But shouldn't we give women and their husbands the opportunity to choose whether EBF is right for their family? 

In my vocation as a wife and a mother, EBF has been a beautiful way to complement my feminine design and God's plan for motherhood. It's allowed me to cooperate with the way my body was made, and I'm blessed because my body was made to pump out gallons of milk. It's made NFP easier for me to accept and follow, because it has helped organically space my babies.

Likewise, with EBF, couples don't have to dwell on "just reasons" for avoiding pregnancy. What's so beautiful about embracing this form of breastfeeding is that, as a mother, I take care of the baby that's in my arms now, responding to her needs, feeding her when she's cranky, hungry, or just in need of some mommy time -- and in doing so, ovulation is suppressed and babies come more slowly.

When women breastfeed babies on demand and fulfill their needs for frequent sucking, they're also cooperating with the way God made their babies. For example, a high-need baby might need to nurse more frequently than a more laid-back child. A mom with a high-need baby may find herself feeling overwhelmed and hoping for a break between children, and blessedly, more frequent nursing may lead to a longer delay in the return of fertility. I've found this to be true; and while I know EBF may not work as seamlessly for others (or at all for some women), it's worth having a dialogue about it.

When I set out to be a parent, I hoped to be a natural mother in the secular sense, partly because, I hate to admit it, it was trendy and hip to wear your baby in a sling and to breastfeed in many of the circles in which I ran. However, discovering EBF and using it in harmony with NFP has helped me to act according to my feminine nature to nurture a child and to embrace children and mothering -- not according to my own plan, or even society's, but according to God's. EBF is more than just a "green" and natural form of mothering; it is one way to more closely follow God's plan for my family.

"Maa!" my toddler says for the umpteenth time. And I get a glimpse of why the Catholic Church portrays charity as a mother nursing her child. Breastfeeding, and mothering in general, involves a total gift of self, but that's exactly what makes it sanctifying.

See also: Why I Nurse at the Mall... and at Mass By Kate Wicker

 

 

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