To produce breast milk, mothers melt their own body fat. Are you with me? We literally dissolve parts of ourselves, starting with gluteal-femoral fat, aka our butts, and turn it into liquid to feed our babies.
Before and after giving birth to my daughter 10 months ago, I was inundated with urgent directives from well-meaning, very insistent health practitioners, parenting book authors, mommy bloggers, journalists, and opinionated strangers that “breast is best.” The message was clear: In order to be a good mom, I had to breast-feed.
But breast-feeding is more than being a good mom. And breast milk is much more than food: It’s potent medicine and, simultaneously, a powerful medium of communication between mothers and their babies. It’s astonishing. And it should be—the recipe for mother’s milk is one that female bodies have been developing for 300 million years.
Breast-feeding leads to better overall health outcomes for children, which is why the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that babies be exclusively breast-fed for a minimum of six months.
Those outcomes, though, are relative: A premature infant in the neonatal intensive-care unit or a baby growing up in a rural African village with a high rate of infectious disease and no access to clean water will benefit significantly more from breast milk over artificial milk, called formula, than a healthy, full-term baby born in a modern Seattle hospital.
We’re also told that breast-feeding leads to babies with higher IQs and lower rates of childhood obesity than their formula-fed counterparts. I understand why people find this appealing, but I don’t plan to raise my daughter to understand intelligence in terms of a single test score, or to measure health and beauty by body mass index.
More compelling to me are the straightforward facts about breast milk: It contains all the vitamins and nutrients a baby needs in the first six months of life (breast-fed babies don’t even need to drink water, milk provides all the necessary hydration), and it has many germ- and disease-fighting substances that help protect a baby from illness. Oh, also: The nutritional and immunological components of breast milk change every day, according to the specific, individual needs of a baby. Yes, that’s right, and I will explain how it works in a minute. Not nearly enough information is provided by doctors, lactation counselors, or the internet about this mind-blowing characteristic of milk.
I made the choice to breast-feed around the same time I was offered a full-time job writing about food. Every morning at 7 a.m., I nurse my daughter. At the office, I pump milk two times a day. When I come home, we nurse, and then at 7 p.m., we nurse before she goes to bed. A few nights a week, I go out to dinner for work.
For six months straight, I woke up every night at 3 a.m. and pumped milk for half an hour in order keep my supply ahead of her demand. (Three a.m. is possibly the darkest, loneliest, and most quiet hour of the night, but I had the reassuring, rhythmic sound of my pale-yellow breast pump to keep me company.) For the last 10 months, there hasn’t been one minute of my life when I wasn’t thinking about, writing about, eating, and/or producing food.
Food points to who we are as animals—human beings with a fundamental need for nourishment, survival—but also to who we are as people: individuals with families, histories, stories, idiosyncrasies. Every day, calories, vitamins, and even clues about the culture I live in flow, drip, leak, and squirt out of my boobs, staining my clothes and making my skin sticky. And every day, I wonder what exactly goes into this miraculous substance.
“People tend to underestimate what milk is,” says Katie Hinde, a biologist and associate professor at the Center for Evolution and Medicine at the School of Human Evolution & Social Change at Arizona State University. She also runs the very funny, highly informative, and deeply nerdy blog Mammals Suck… Milk!
“That’s in part because you go to the store and there’s an entire aisle dedicated to buying milk that is literally a homogenized, standardized food. It leads us to take mother’s milk for granted.”
But right now, researchers like Hinde—a mix of evolutionary biologists, dairy scientists, microbiologists, anthropologists, and food chemists—are examining milk, and the more closely they look, the more complexities they find.
Full story: The Stranger »