At Balanced Breastfeeding, we have a core value of kindness. As you are reading this mother’s story, remember that this is not your story. It is not yours to live.
Try instead to feel compassion for this mother’s courage for sharing her story. It is only then that you will feel connected to her in a way that leaves no space for criticism or judgement–only love and belonging. –Katie Madden
“Extreme” Ecological Breastfeeding
by Kasey Stacey
No bottles. No pacifiers. No cribs. No babysitters.
It sounds extreme, but this is how I breastfeed my babies. As closely as I can manage, I follow the seven standards of ecological breastfeeding, known primarily as a method of natural child spacing.
But ecological breastfeeding is about much more than naturally spacing pregnancies. The term ‘ecological breastfeeding’ hints at the style of mothering it supports, a view of the mother-child relationship in which the two are inseparably intertwined on a biological level, not much different from when baby still resided in mama’s womb. When babies nurse, mother and child provide one another with continuous bio-feedback regarding body temperature, heart rate, the immune system, sleep patterns, the emotional state, milk supply and nutritional content, and so on. Ecological breastfeeding maximizes this loop of bio-feedback, providing ample opportunity for mama and baby to communicate about exactly what baby needs to grow and thrive. For this reason, above all others, I value the practices and employ them with my infants.
I do enjoy the lactational amenorrhea that ecological breastfeeding affords. This, however, is not guaranteed, and, personally, I have to work extra hard to achieve it. Some women can latch their children merely once a day and still not see the return of their fertility. I am not one of those women. After Vinny, my cycles returned at seven weeks postpartum, an unwelcome surprise. I have to breastfeed very, very frequently to produce enough prolactin to keep my fertility at bay. I am certain that tandem nursing is also a major component of lactational amenorrhea for me. Letting the toddler nurse almost on-demand during the day is crucial. (I ecologically breastfeed my infants and tandem nurse with my toddlers—a double whammy of extreme breastfeeding.) And even with all that, it only buys me about ten months before my body starts trying to ovulate again. (Let me emphasize again that lactational amenorrhea is never guaranteed—you must chart your fertility patterns if you’re seriously relying on this as a means of delaying or avoiding pregnancy.)
It seems irrelevant, perhaps. Why do I care so much about when my periods return? There are a few reasons: For one, when people say that breastfeeding contributes to a decreased risk of developing certain cancers or other health issues, the benefit comes from not having the constant hormone fluctuations that come with the menstrual cycle—it comes from lactational amenorrhea. The big one is that, for religious, health, and other reasons, I do not use birth control. With all the love and respect due my Celtic ancestors and their incredible fertility, this Fertile Myrtle is very much not interested in having Irish twins. I’m hoping to have a large family, but I appreciate being able to utilize the natural child spacing methods my biology affords me.
I know, of course, that ecological breastfeeding isn’t possible for many women. I was not able to ecologically breastfeed Vinny at first. In fact, I was latching him only once each day and then pumping the rest of the time for about an eight-week period. I mentioned earlier that my cycles returned at seven weeks, but when I was finally able to get him back to the breast full time, I implemented all of the seven standards of ecological breastfeeding despite knowing that it wouldn’t impact my fertility. It was how I had assumed I would nurse him before his tongue and lip ties derailed my expectations. Vinny never learned how to take a pacifier (to be fair, I only half-heartedly tried to introduce one) and I was very much over pumping. We were already co-sleeping and, since I love naps, I was definitely napping with him daily. It was easy to transition to full ecological breastfeeding. By the time Brigid and Walter came to be, my mothering style was pretty firmly cemented; starting off with ecological breastfeeding came readily.
So, what does ecological breastfeeding look like on a day-to-day basis? Different mothers will establish different routines to make these practices work in their lives, but for me, it basically means that baby nurses on-demand 24/7 for at least the first year. There’s a lot of babywearing and, during the early months with an infant, a lot of mothering the older children from the couch. Sometimes there’s a lot more TV being watched than I prefer so that I can hunker down with all the kids in the spare room and doze while baby takes an afternoon nap in the crook of my arm. (I think most ecologically breastfeeding mamas who also have older children find the afternoon nap to be the hardest of the seven standards to regularly employ.) It involves letting baby have unrestricted access to the breast throughout the night, which obviously means safely co-sleeping, often with one breast flopped out of the top of my pajama shirt, because I most definitely have no intention of waking up every time baby wants to nurse. It means popping the baby onto the boob at any and all signs of distress. And it means that I’ve had to redefine what self-care looks like. There isn’t much alone time during baby’s first year, but I have adapted to this paradigm and have come to understand that there are numerous ways I can take care of my needs even with a baby in tow.
You know what else it involves, though? No pumping. I typically only pump to provide milk for someone else’s child (which has only happened once this time around). Even if I am trying to get ahead of a clogged duct, I hesitate to pump and prefer to hand express. I hate pumping. Loathe it. I find it way easier and more worthwhile to pack the baby into the car and bring him wherever I need to go. My reluctance to pump is a huge motivator for me when constant nursing feels a little overwhelming. Pumping is a lot of really hard work and I don’t want to do it.
No bottles. No pacifiers. No cribs. No babysitters. Is it extreme? It doesn’t feel extreme to me. It is my normal, my day-to-day. Sometimes it’s hard, but no harder than anything else motherhood has thrown my way. I recently considered that perhaps I would try to force an earlier return to fertility by not ecologically breastfeeding my next child, since I feel emotionally healthier when I am cycling. I couldn’t really conceptualize how that would work, though. Given my circumstances as a stay-at-home mom who does the bulk of the parenting work in my family, I don’t really want to add extra steps to my daily routine. Ecological breastfeeding has streamlined my life in ways that I would be reluctant to give up, and I like the way my breastfeeding choices work in my life. Plus, how could I say ‘no’ to all that snuggling? With ecological breastfeeding, the snuggle is so, so real.