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I began as a skeptic with low expectations. My husband had not been breastfed and I had been largely formula fed as an infant. I wasn’t sure if breastfeeding was in my DNA, plus I was planning to go back to work. We attended a lactation presentation about a month before our first child was born. My goal was to learn more about it and breastfeed during my maternity leave. My husband supported me because - let’s face it - it meant saving a lot of money. With several unknowns and baby expenses already piling up, it was appealing. But it became more so for reasons that I could not have anticipated.
First, my husband and I were enticed by persuasive research we first learned at the presentation. There are marked benefits for breastfed babies. The risk of ear infections, childhood obesity, and SIDS (that mysterious syndrome that terrifies every new parent) decrease as a result of breastfeeding. Nursing incomparably bolsters the immune system in infants and results in higher IQ's. We did a double take on that one, but yes, it even impacts brain development. We wanted to give our child every possible advantage; knowing that no one can put a price tag on health, this research was compelling.
Breastfeeding provides the mother with benefits too. Immediately, it promotes uterine contractions and less blood loss. Soon after, it aids in postpartum weight loss - this is a blessing after what our bodies have been through! And a highlight of long-term benefits include a decreased incidence of female cancers (breast, ovarian, and endometrial) and osteoporosis. Because breast cancer is the second most common cancer in American women, this is essential information to have on our radar.
Nursing was appealing to me for these reasons, but I enjoyed it for different ones. For one, I loved being able to roll right out of bed and get to feedings at nighttime - no need to stumble downstairs and heat a bottle, or prepare one in advance. That was a major plus when I was already sleep deprived. Breastfeeding was also empowering. I knew there was something I could do when my child was hungry or hurting that could sooth him. Amidst the parenting uncertainties that arise with every new baby, our nursing relationship was one thing I could be sure of. There was an intimate relationship forming, one that brought us both comfort as we traveled the unknown road together.
There was something theological about our relationship too. I marveled when I was pregnant that my body knew how to grow a baby. God allows us to play a role in creation to such an awe-inspiring extent as mothers, from the little yoke sack with a heartbeat to the flutter of alien feet within. Pregnancy is a sacred time, but it is that much more astounding to be able to hold, caress, and cuddle that infant in your arms and still play a part in the creating. To produce a substance from our breasts that is superior for baby development, unique to every mother, and one that a newborn will literally crawl to is incredible. It is a gift from God that allows each creation story to come full circle.
I was inspired to learn there are actually many Bible verses that refer to nursing. In my favorite, the prophet Isaiah uses a nursing mother as a metaphor for blessing Israel. He says, "Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her - that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. For thus says the Lord: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you..." (66:10-13, NRSV). The image of a nursing mother is one of restoration and redemption for a hurting people; it describes how God will care for them.
Breastfeeding allows us a further role in God's creation plan and is a metaphor for his redemption. It initiates an intimate relationship between mother and child that's used in scripture to describe God's own work. Yet the nursing relationship is one of ups and downs, just like a faith relationship. It takes work, commitment, and sometimes struggle (it did for me) to get it right. But worthwhile things often do. I ended up exclusively nursing my children and doing so longer than I ever envisioned. It also influenced my decision to stay home with them. Because it was such an unexpectedly fulfilling experience, and because we can never go back to that time in our lives, I wanted to write this article. Amidst the plentiful formula commercials on TV, the conversation about breastfeeding needs to be more balanced and even entertain the theological - for a privilege awaits.
Are you considering breastfeeding? Here are some helpful things to have on hand if so:
Noelle Kirchner has served and preached in churches throughout the New York metro area. Her current position is Parish Associate at the Presbyterian Church at New Providence and stay at home Mom. She believes motherhood is a vocation, a special ministry, and explores its joys and struggles in her blog. She is the mother of two young boys and enjoys writing when her wrangling skills aren't needed! You can find Noelle at her website, on Twitter , and on Facebook.