So often, we hear a new mother lament, "I wish my baby came with an instruction manual!" Mothers want something tangible that will tell them how to care for their infants and children — something to tell them how to interpret their children's cries, how to distinguish needs from wants, how to help their kids eat and sleep and care for themselves, and many other unknowns.
I believe that babies do come with an instruction manual, and that manual is called breastfeeding. When used properly, breastfeeding not only teaches mothers how to feed their infants but also how to care for growing children and find fulfillment in mothering. When used properly, breastfeeding is a marvelous teacher of "How to Nurture 101."
Yet mothers are sometimes told by books, experts or popular culture that they should be the teachers. These mothers "tell" breastfeeding, "I want to nurse my baby, but on my terms. Every three or four hours works. And only in locations that work for me — never when I'm out of the house. And I'd like to sleep at least six hours a night, please." I find that when mothers try to "teach" breastfeeding what they want from it, they don't seem to learn all that it can teach them.
While each mother learns unique lessons from breastfeeding (depending on the needs of each child and mother), here are the mothering lessons breastfeeding taught me.
Holding my child close is healing for both of us
Breastfeeding has taught me that my children need to be close to me as much as they need food. It has also taught me that nursing my children is a great way for me to relieve stress.
Nursing a baby fixes so many problems. The breastfeeding instruction manual says that, no matter if it's a "hurt cry" or a "hungry cry" or a "lonely cry," sooner or later, nursing is usually the cure.
Once I learned this about my nurslings, it was so much more peaceful to nurse them. No longer did I wonder, "You just ate! How can you be hungry again?" Instead, I knew that whether it was for food or for comfort, my body was the solution.
At the same time, when my babies nursed, hormones released in my body, helping me feel more calm and peaceful.
Even though most of my children no longer nurse, I have found that holding them close for tough conversations helps relieve tension and stress in both of us. When giving my kids correction or reminders, or when telling them about something sad that's happened, I hold them close. When I am feeling extra frustrated with normal childlike behavior, I hold them close. Breastfeeding taught me that holding my children close benefits all of us.
I may need to stop what I'm doing now to attend to my children's needs, even when I wish my kids would wait a while.
Breastfeeding is very good at teaching mothers to trust that their infant's wants are their infant's needs. If a baby wants to nurse, the baby needs to nurse. Breastfeeding helps mothers understand that they can respond quickly to babies' early nursing cues, like fluttering eyelids or yawning.
Many mothers find themselves waiting to nurse their babies until they've finished the last few dishes or folded a few more clothes, but these mothers miss out on nursing opportunities — opportunities for nurturing and mothering. In many instances, a mother's milk supply, her baby's contentment and her own satisfaction with the role of mothering can be affected for the worse when baby is made to wait.
Breastfeeding teaches a mother to nurse as soon as her baby signals (or even before) and then finish the dishes or laundry. Then baby can nurse again when mom finishes her chores. By following this lesson, milk supply, baby's demeanor and mother's satisfaction are all affected for the better.
Breastfeeding taught me this lesson: to attend to my children's needs first, even when I wish my kids could wait a bit longer. I am actively using this lesson with my school-aged children. Stories from their days at school, their unexpected questions about life, their ideas about the present and the future — sometimes these things won't wait for me to finish my phone call or my email. My kids will get busy doing something else, or they'll forget what they were going to say. Frequently, I need to stop now and listen to them. If I don't, I'll likely miss precious mothering opportunities.
I can trust my mothering instinct
Breastfeeding teaches a mother that she knows her children best. It teaches her that she has the solution to her children's hurts, fears, loneliness and hunger. It helps mothers tap into their mothering instincts and to help those instincts grow and blossom.
Several distinct hormones, often referred to as "mothering hormones," are released in the body when a mother nurses. These produce feelings of calm and relaxation. Isn't it much more manageable to handle the stresses of motherhood when feeling calm and relaxed? In this state, a mother more easily separates her fears from her instincts.
These lessons on trusting our instincts continue to serve us as we mother our older children. While nursing, we become more sensitive and attuned to our children's needs, and that sensitivity continues in all aspects of our lives — both in and out of the home and even after the nursing years are over.
Through breastfeeding, I have been empowered as a mother and as a woman. I am endlessly grateful for the lessons that breastfeeding has taught me.
Marilee Kellis is a single (divorced) mother to four children, ages 4 to 10, including identical twin girls. She volunteers as a breastfeeding peer counselor, teaches cello lessons, and has been employed as an epidemiologist in public health departments for most of the past decade. Hobbies include researching her family history, cooking, writing, hiking, camping, and running. Marilee has a bachelor's degree in Biology from Arizona State University.