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The ‘Natural Act’ That Takes Practice: True Stories About Breast and Chestfeeding

An Asian woman in a grey sweater breastfeeds a baby in a yellow onesie.
Marc van der Chijs, Flickr, CC
When, or if, parents choose to breastfeed or chestfeed, and for how long, depends on each parent and child.

Nursing looks different for every parent and child. Parents can develop new, sometimes unexpected, connections with their bodies, and community plays an important role in supporting nursing people.

If you’ve ever heard that nursing a baby comes “naturally,” we want to welcome you to the messy, painful, awkward truth: You sit so long to feed your child that your butt starts hurting. You feel like you need eight hands to keep everything together. You feel like you’re struggling. But you’re not alone.

Host Anita Rao explores the science and lived experiences of lactation with Janiya Williams, lactation consultant and program director of the Pathway 2 Human Lactation Training Program at North Carolina A&T University; Trevor MacDonald, a researcher who has written about his chestfeeding experiences; and Aaminah Shakur, an artist, art historian and graduate student at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Rao also talks about structural support for infant feeding during emergencies like COVID-19 and hurricanes with Aunchalee Palmquist. Palmquist is an assistant professor in the department of maternal and child Health at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, as well as an affiliate of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute and a medical anthropologist.

Learning how to feed a baby through nursing raises a LOT of questions. Thank goodness for lactation consultants and parents who’ve been through it before! Here are the answers to six of our burning questions.

What is human milk?

Janiya Williams: Human milk is actually composed of hundreds and thousands of distinct bioactive molecules. And a lot of them aren't even fully understood yet by scientists themselves.

How long should you nurse a child?

JW: With nursing, it has to be a mutual relationship. And because there's two people involved, and so as long as it's working for the nursing parent and it's working for the baby, then I say: Go ahead and continue. And then when it stops working from one member of the party, then we need to start talking about how we can alter those things.

What if I have had chest surgery?

Trevor MacDonald: I had had chest masculinization surgery as a part of my transition. So I thought: Well, I don't have breasts, so there's not going to be breastfeeding. … But early in my first pregnancy, a really close friend of mine, she offered me some information. … And it was a book by Diana West, the title is: “Defining Your Own Success: Breastfeeding After Breast Reduction Surgery.” And it was just such a gentle way of offering this, like without any pressure whatsoever. And so I did glance at the book. And then actually, I ended up reading the whole thing.

How might a history of sexual trauma influence my nursing experience?

Aaminah Shakur: There's just an awful lot about childbearing that was impacted for me by a history of sexual violence. And the issues are really very much around issues of body autonomy and control, mostly. And that looks different for people. I think it's really worth recognizing when you are uncomfortable, that it's okay that you feel uncomfortable, even when you aren't able to articulate the why. ... It's okay to lean into it, though. And to just say: I don't feel comfortable with this, so I'm not going to do this.

I don’t make enough milk to feed my child all on my own. What’s it like to work with milk donors?

TM: When we first got in touch with [the donor] — I mean you never know when you are meeting a milk donor how much is a lot of milk to that person. Because honestly, any amount of human milk is precious. And we were grateful for any kind of help. But when we first met her, she said over the phone: Can you guys bring a large cooler? Because my freezer is absolutely full. I don't want this to go to waste, but I really do want to stock up on some bread from Costco. I want to put that in my freezer.

How have milk banks, which provide supplemental milk to hospitals, been affected by COVID-19?

Aunchalee Palmquist: We sort of see these networks adapting. And there's also an increased interest and demand for customers who don't even look in the hospital setting as a result of COVID-19, because many hospital policies sometimes are disruptive to lactation: They're not as supportive of lactation, which increases the need for supplementation immediately postpartum, along with sort of different conditions that make lactation, nursing or expressing milk more difficult. And so within hospital settings there's an increased demand, but you also have more disruptive lactation happening in the community and less donations to milk banks happening.

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Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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