Boobs!


I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me

There’s no denying it: Ariel and I have begun our weaning journey in earnest.

This is a time I knew was coming but tried not to think about. I don’t know how to parent without breasts, without milk. I don’t know how to feel like a mother if milk is taken out of the equation. What’s the difference between a mother, then, and just some woman whose house you happen to share? Is there one? Does it matter?

I wrote some weeks ago that a night came when Ariel chose not to have MummyMo at bedtime. She chose CowMo instead. I think she had been impressed by some chance remark of mine that the reason Oliver Dunkley had CM at bedtime was because he was too big for MM. (Yes I know. It seemed like the easiest answer at the time.)

After that first night of abstention, the choice between CM and MM for bed-time milk went about evenly one way or the other, but mornings were still the undisputed territory of Teh Booby. One day maybe ten days later, Ariel overslept and completely missed out on on her morning MM (a very rare occurrence indeed – this is not a girl who oversleeps, never mind missing out on mo as a result) – but still decided to have CM at night. That was the first time she had ever gone 24 hours without mummy mo.

Last week she hurt her tongue. I think she managed to strain one of those little muscles or whatever at the root – ever done that? it hurts! – so that it really hurt her to use her tongue for suckling. She told me she couldn’t have any mummy mo, and had CM instead. She was upset, and I told her that if she felt better later on she could have some mummy mo then. She didn’t. In the morning:

ME: How does your tongue feel? Do you want some mo?
HER: I will try… (trying)… oh I can’t mummy.
ME: Poor old you. I’ll get you some CowMo and then we will try again tonight if your tongue is better at bedtime. I’m sure it will be.

For the next three days – the same, morning and night. She would go to latch on, and then pull back – it doesn’t work, mummy. I began to wonder if that was it.

Then on Saturday afternoon, she tried surreptitiously to lift up my T-shirt:
ME: Hey, what are you doing?
HER: I’m going to have some Mo now.
ME: At bedtime you can have some.
HER: Well I am too big for Mo now because I am three.

And at bedtime? She “tried” – but it doesn’t work anymore mummy.

I wondered whether she was putting it on. I couldn’t believe her tongue was still hurting and she wasn’t really complaining about that. Nor was she making much more than a show effort at latching on. Could she be pretending? Why would she?

I began to wonder if this is how it goes when children forget how to, or lose the ability to suck. Even though I also believe that this theory is probably nonsense (grown-ups, even those who haven’t sucked mo for years, could manage it – why not a little girl who had some only a couple of days ago?) and in any case three is too young given that everything I have read points to a natural weaning age of at least four… Anyway.

Fast forward through the night to Sunday morning. Ariel woke early. By 7am she had run out of ideas for amusing herself quietly and came back to bed, wanting Attention. Which I was not ready to give her. Do you want some Mo? I tried. (In the past this would have been sure-fire – this time I was less confident.) So she made her now familiar half-hearted attempt to latch on, complained that it didn’t work, and sat right back up. But you didn’t really try! Have another go, properly this time.

And she did. It was so nice.

After she’d had her fill (and I’d had a bit more dozing time) she said But mummy – I am too big for Mo. We cuddled. I told her that she wasn’t too big. I told her that she could have Mo if she wanted, that she could choose and that she was still quite small, that she could still have mo if she wanted, even if she was quite big as well.

[If it hadn't been for her obvious conflict, her conflict between wanting mo and wanting to be big (like Oliver Dunkley?), I would have been cautious about writing this. I would have felt like one of those women that feature in the minds of anti-breastfeeding Daily Mail readers, a woman who manipulates her child into breastfeeding for her own selfish purposes. I freely admit that I had selfish reasons on this occasion for wanting Ariel to have some milk, a good long milky cuddle - huh, I wanted to sleep! But also, my little girl had full agency in this. I wasn't manipulating her. I was giving her permission. I was telling her that she didn't have to grow up all at once, that she could be getting big and at the same time still be quite small. That it was OK to want and need her mummy. My words to her were not commands, not imperatives, but permission.]

She had a bit more.
In the afternoon, she tried the T-shirt-lifting trick again.
And at bed-time she chose CM…
…this morning MM, at bedtime just now, CM again.

So, yes, weaning is definitely on her mind. I think she knows that she isn’t quite ready yet, but she is starting to look towards the day when she will be ready. She realises that big people don’t have mummy mo, and she sees herself as someone who is getting bigger. She knows the time will come and she is trying to wrap her mind around the idea of living without Teh Booby. She is experimenting, practising. This is good, I guess. This gentle lead-up is giving me the chance to wrap my mind around this weaning idea, to experiment and practise breast-free parenting before she weans for real. She is weaning us both – gently…

I know I look so big to you,
Maybe I seem too big for the needs I have.
But no matter how big we get,
We still have needs that are important to us.
I know that our relationship is growing and changing,
But I still need you. I need your warmth and closeness,
Especially at the end of the day
When we snuggle up in bed.
Please don’t get too busy for us to nurse.
I know you think I can be patient,
Or find something to take the place of a nursing;
A book, a glass of something,
But nothing can take your place when I need you.
Sometimes just cuddling with you,
Having you near me is enough.
I guess I am growing and becoming independent,
But please be there.
This bond we have is so strong and so important to me,
Please don’t break it abruptly.
Wean me gently,
Because I am your mother,
And my heart is tender.

Scene 1

Three or four nights ago at bedtime.

ME: “Oliver Dunkley has a pond in his garden, and on that pond lives Mucky Duck…”

(I’ll cut to the final scene in which the two of them have just had a bath and are settling down to a bedtime story with a cup of milk each – which, incidentally, gets spilled, which is the punchline up to which the whole story has been building…)

HER: What they got there?
ME: Some milk to drink at bedtime.
HER: That’s not mummy milk.
ME: No, it’s cow’s milk.
HER: Don’t they have mummy mo?
ME: No they’re having cow mo. I guess they are too big for mummy mo.
HER: Oh. I’m not too big for mummy mo.
ME: No, you’re not.

Scene 2

Last night, about 1 minute before bedtime, shortly after glugging down a cup of cow’s milk.

HER: Mummy, can I have some more cow mo?
ME: We’re just about to go to bed! You can have some mummy mo upstairs.
HER: I don’t want mummy mo I want cow mo.
ME: You want cow mo instead of mummy mo?
HER: Yes, like Oliver Dunkley.
ME: Are you sure?
HER: Yes, I want cow mo. I don’t want mummy mo.

(I was somewhat dubious, but sure enough after half a cup of warm milk in bed she went to sleep perfectly content… First time *ever* that she has gone without her bedtime mummy mo, unless you count the two or three times when she passed out from sheer exhaustion and had it later after two or three hours sleep.)

Scene 3

This morning, whilst not doing anything in particular. NB we were fully clothed in case the content of the following exchange should leave you with any doubt…

HER: Oh look mummy there’s your booby.
ME: So it is.
HER: Can I have some mo now?
ME: You can have some at bedtime.
HER: And I can have some now as well?
ME: Nope.
HER: Yes I want some at bedtime please.
ME: Unless you want to have cow’s milk instead like Oliver Dunkley?
HER: No I want mummy mo.

:D

A survey out yesterday, courtesy of the National AIDS Trust, has shown shocking levels of ignorance among old people and young on the subject of AIDS and HIV. About a fifth of the adult population could not identify “sex without a condom” (man/woman or man/man) as a way of getting HIV or AIDS. About a third could not identify that “sharing a syringe” might lead to infection. Only a handful (mostly women) knew that a breastfeeding mother could pass infection to her child.

Almost all the figures were worse than the last surveys in 2000 and 2005. Scarily, the group that seemed least clued up is the group in my age range, those who were subjected to relentless awareness campaigning back in the 1980s and early 1990s when people actually seemed to give a damn and Tom Hanks was in Philadelphia and everything. This is the group who are now raising their own children.

Why is sexual health awareness going backwards? How did we get so ignorant? How did so many of the children I went to school with just forget what was drummed into us all those years ago? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I want to know. This shouldn’t be happening. It is the stuff of despair.

****************************

Having said that, it is not surprising if some people are getting confused when sloppy reporting results in misinformation.

Take the Metro. Oh, how I despise the Metro. Today, they report that “the four main ways” that HIV is spread are: “unprotected sex, blood transfusions, shared needles and via breast-feeding” (my emphasis).

That is just wrong.

The NAT survey and press release did NOT suggest that breastfeeding is one of “the four main ways” that HIV is spread. What the survey did was to list possible transmission routes (e.g. “Blood transfusions”, “Spitting”) and participants had to say which were correct and which were false. Although the survey report did suggest that the four transmission routes mentioned were “key” and could itself have been clearer, it certainly did not say that these were the main ways of passing on HIV.

And anyone with any knowledge about this area – let’s face it, someone working as a health correspondent on a national daily newspaper ought to have some background knowledge – knows that breastfeeding is not a main way of catching HIV.

Breastfeeding can in some cases be a transmission route* , but it isn’t either fair or accurate to say it is among the top four risks.

[* Especially if appropriate precautions are not taken e.g. ensuring that breastfeeding is exclusive for six months, and that breast problems such as sore nipples or mastitis are treated promptly.]

For one thing (according to UNICEF) breastfeeding only accounts for about a third of parent to child infections – which is less than the number that occur during delivery (about half), so that right there is one way of spreading HIV that is more significant than breastfeeding.

More to the point, the problems of sexual transmission / infected needles / infected blood are much much bigger than parent to child transmission. Breastfeeding isn’t even in the same ballpark.

In fact, the dangers of denying breastmilk to children can be so serious, especially in developing countries where access to clean water and adequate supplies of formula is just not readily available, that they significantly outweigh the risks of infection.

One study in Africa showed that (a) the risk of a mother passing on HIV to her breastfed child is as low as 4% if the child is breastfed exclusively for six months and also (b) the mortality rate for exclusively breastfed infants was much lower than for exclusively formula fed infants: Fifteen percent of babies with HIV infected mothers who did not breast feed them died by age three months. Only six percent of babies who were only breast fed died at age three months.

************************

Incidentally, when I visited the NAT site they had a survey: “Do you think Gordon Brown should make sex and relationships education compulsory in schools?” I think you can guess how I voted. 91% agreed.


As anyone who knows anything much about breastfeeding an older child will tell you, “twiddling” is a fairly common phenomenon. For the uninitiated, “twiddling” refers to the nursing child playing about with the spare nipple as she or he nurses on the other side. Can be annoying, can be nice – either way it stimulates oxytocin and thereby gets the twiddled breast ready to deliver loadsa milk once the child is ready to switch sides.

I’ve often wondered how a child learns this, that twiddling a nipple will increase milk flow. Turns out, based on my statistically insignificant sample of one, that they don’t.

ME: Hey you, why do you play with my boob like that?
HER: [No answer, too polite to talk with mouth full]
ME: Honey? Why are you playing with my booby?
HER: [Mouth still full, but not so full that she can't reply witheringly - I could almost here the "duh" at the end.] BECAUSE, I like your booby.

So there you go. She just likes it, no ulterior motive involved, any lactational advantages an unlooked-for bonus.

[Image: Taken by me on Haresfield Beacon, June 2007]

I have been following the antics of Swedish women’s group Bara Bröst with interest ever since I first came across them in the news two or three months ago. They are a small but dedicated group of activists who are concerned to normalise the breast and eliminate discriminatory modesty policies. Their name means “just breasts” or “bare breasts”. Their manifesto? Anywhere that men can bare their chests without being evicted or sexualised, women should be able to do so as well. They stage bare-breasted protests in places like swimming pools. Hooray for them!

Now it seems that they have scored their first success. Staff at the municipal swimming pool in Sundsvall, northern Sweden, have decided that (at least if the other swimmers do not complain) they will not take action to evict topless women from their pool. Their spokesman Per-Erik Ulander said:“We’re used to naked people. Nobody cares.” What a great start for a Just Breasts campaign :)

Since I blogged a couple of weeks ago about “Extended” breastfeeding, I think I have worked something out.

Most of the people who criticise or condemn longer-term breastfeeding do, on the surface at least, accept that breastfeeding a child is in principle a good thing. Most of them understand, up to a point, that it is healthy for the child to have breastmilk. Up to a point.

Yet so many, many people think that once you cross some sort of line it becomes unnatural / selfish / harmful / wrong.

Why? It’s not plain ignorance, because even when information is offered it is ignored. There must be something deeper in action than mere reasoning from false premises, because even when you point out the flaws in the premises not one person is moved to change their view.

I think the answer is actually quite simple: pleasure.

As long as we are making our breasts available to our infant children for selfless reasons, child-centred reasons – as long as we are doing it out of necessity and/or because it is clearly more healthy or nutritious for the child than any available alternative – that is fine. It is laudable, and moral, and praiseworthy.

But as soon as it becomes apparent that we do it “unnecessarily”, breastfeeding is no longer fine. As soon as breastfeeding is more than a selfless sacrifice of our own body for the benefit of the child, it becomes self-indulgence. At best, it is lazy (and ultimately harmful) indulgence of the child. It breeds an unhealthy dependence, something like an addiction. It satisfies the mother’s selfish and pathological need to be needed.

All the anti-extended-breastfeeding comments seemed to point this way, imagining bad motives and harmful effects. And I think that these imagined motives, projected onto breastfeeding mothers and used to condemn us, all serve to deflect attention away from the unpalatable truth: that we do it because we like it, because our children like it, because it makes both nursing partners happy.

So why is it, then, that so many people find it so difficult to stomach the idea that for some nursing partnerships, breastfeeding is pleasurable?

The more I think about it, the more I think I nailed it in my Sensual Art post:

“If we think of sex [as something special, magical, unique, essential, vital, irreplaceable, crucial, needful... the Ultimate], we elevate and isolate sexual feeling to a point where the possibility of anything which is like sex but which is not sex becomes impermissible, an aberration, wrong.”

If we equate sensual pleasure with sex, then it becomes impermissible to allow that breastfeeding could ever involve sensual pleasure. And if we cannot compute the idea of breastfeeding being a sensual (and “therefore” a sexual) pleasure, we end up casting about for other explanations when mothers breastfeed “unnecessarily”.

We imagine all these unhealthy, pathological and downright sinister reasons because the most obvious reason (because we like it, dammit) is so inconceivable that even the most absurd alternatives are considered plausible.

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