intensely trivial

The breast crawl

This past weekend, I was privileged, blessed, perfectly provided for to attend the 2009 DONA International conference. For those unfamiliar, DONA originally stood for Doulas of North America, and it is the premier doula organization in the world. About 1 1/2 years ago, I was certified through DONA’s relatively exacting birth doula training program, earning the right to add some initials after my name: Rachel Andresen, CD(DONA). DONA is an organization I’m proud to be part of, as it encourages evidence-based practice and respectful relationships among all members of a birthing woman’s support system.
And DONA puts on a heck of a good conference. I returned home yesterday with my head about to explode from two and a half solid days of learning and my whole body about to ignite from the glow of having been in the presence of such famous people as Penny Simkin, Marshall and Phyllis Klaus, Dr. Robert Sears, and Suzanne Arms. (OK, if you’re not into birth, women’s studies, or newborn stuff, you might not have a clue who they are; so sad. šŸ˜‰ ) Since there was so much good information shared, I really want to pass some of it on to you. Not that the topics were that esoteric or cutting-edge; they were just really relevant to people involved in birth — you know, like mothers and babies and those of us who love mothers and babies — and I figure that covers a lot of us.
Susan Ludington-Hoe, a neonatal nursing researcher at Case Western Reserve University, had to be my favorite speaker, with her gritty, irreverent humor, her obvious joy at the person she is, and her intelligence. She spoke on kangaroo care, the practice of putting the baby skin-to-skin, chest-to-chest, with the mother or the father in its early hours and days. Her research has shown that kangaroo care is safe for preterm babies, contrary to the popular belief that only a machine can keep newborns warm enough. It may surprise you to learn that a mother’s breasts respond instantly to the baby’s temperature. If the baby is even one degree Celsius too cool, the mother’s breasts respond by growing warmer until the baby is at its ideal temperature. They can also cool down a too-warm baby. In fact, when the subject was a mother of twins, one twin being too warm and the other too cool, the mother’s two breasts responded individually to moderate each baby’s temperature. Is that not amazing?
Not only does this skin-to-skin contact keep babies’ thermostats in the right range, but it also facilitates early breastfeeding. Astonishingly, babies know how to breastfeed without being taught. It shouldn’t surprise us, because every other mammal knows how to find its mother’s nipple and be sustained by her milk. You might argue that humans are less developed than other mammals at birth, which is true, but you must consider what human babies can do when given the chance.
Put a newborn baby — including one who has emerged from his mother’s body mere seconds or minutes ago — on his mother’s bare chest, and he will crawl to her nipple, latch himself on (correctly!), and have a good meal! I know it’s hard to believe in our culture, where we think we are the only ones who can ensure success. The way we jam the mother’s breast (yes, this is usually done by the caregiver, not even the mother herself) into the baby’s face on our own terms, it’s no wonder babies and mothers get upset and develop unsustainable breastfeeding habits. The good news is that stopping the madness can lead to great benefits — and not just in the realm of breastfeeding. The “breast crawl” has even been used to fix latching problems that have been established for weeks already.
Unfortunately, the reality is that there is so much chaos, and so many people, in what should be a quiet, sacred first hour, that I don’t know many mothers who would feel they have the space to do this. Our society places too many expectations on them to be “proper” (and this is a whole ‘nother screwed-up thing). After proving how strong and capable they are by giving birth to their babies, they should have earned the right to rip off any remaining vestiges of clothing in order to bond with their babies.
Instead of getting mired in angry thoughts, like the ones I just vented, I encourage you to indulge in a little dreaming. This six-minute movie is produced by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, who are pushing for more breastfeeding around the world, for all those wonderful things you know breastfeeding can provide. See how a beautiful, brand-new baby finds her mother’s breast for the first time. Cheer (or shed a tear) when she finally gets what she wants. Admire her perfect latching form.


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  1. * clbeyer says:

    Fascinating, Rachel, fascinating! I hope I will get to witness that breast crawl first-hand sometime.

    This post reminded me of how one of my friends described her first breastfeeding experience: the hospital nurse told her repeatedly to grab her breast “like a hamburger” to put it into the baby’s mouth.

    Posted 8 years, 9 months ago
  2. * Shelley says:

    Really amazing! Will the hospital staff allow this to happen if you ask for it?

    Posted 8 years, 9 months ago
  3. * manhattandoula says:

    Carrie, I’ve heard that advice, too: “Hold it like a sandwich and put it in the baby’s mouth.” For many babies it works. I didn’t do the “breast crawl” with my babies, and we did just fine. But I do wonder if we’re designed to do it in an easier and more “natural” way.
    Shelley, yes, I think the hospital staff would allow this to happen — taking into account other factors. The most frustrating thing I encounter is that the mom usually only gets to hold her baby for only 30 sec. or so (!) and then “has to” hand the baby over to the ped. nurse for its initial exam. That might take 10-15 min. Some moms don’t mind, but some do; and I really don’t think the baby would choose to be separated from his/her mother in those first few overwhelming minutes in the outside world. My belief is that the exam doesn’t need to take place in that first hour, as long as baby is doing well. (I have reasons for thinking that.) But it’s not as convenient for hospital staff to change their routine. I would argue that the welfare of mother and baby is most important. Sometimes you have to decide how hard you want to fight.
    Also, it’s not an all-or-nothing thing: Maybe the ped. nurse could have the baby for 10 min., and then you do skin-to-skin for the next hour.
    You didn’t ask for all that! Sorry if it’s TMI.

    Posted 8 years, 9 months ago
  4. * Terri says:

    This was amazing. Awe-inspiring. It was also so different from my own experience.

    Posted 8 years, 9 months ago
  5. * manhattandoula says:

    Terri, I know. And I’m so sorry — you had such a rough first few weeks (not that mothering is ever easy). I wish I’d known then what I know now; I think I could have been much more supportive.

    Posted 8 years, 9 months ago

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