The Breastfeeding Debate: Is It Innate Or Learned?

International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) Sarah Siebold explores how breastfeeding is something we were born to learn.

feat_breastfeeding innate or learned

I was pregnant with my first child when a friend arrived at our lunch date with her infant son, a pile of hand-me-downs, and a book about breastfeeding she said I had to read. I wasn’t a lactation consultant at the time, and all I knew about breastfeeding was that my mom breastfed my brother and me, and that I’d breastfeed my children. I expected that everything would be fine, and that breastfeeding would come naturally. After all, we’re mammals, and mammals breastfeed their young, right?


Expectations gone awry


A few weeks before my son was born, I read the book from my friend, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. I especially loved that the dedication “to mothers and babies everywhere” imparts the hope that “you find your own way, with confidence and pride, as you experience the womanly art of breastfeeding.”

I was ready to start our breastfeeding journey when my son’s unexpected NICU stay changed things. I wasn’t nuzzling my baby after birth and experiencing his breast crawl. Instead, I was expressing my milk with a hospital-grade pump. I wasn’t feeling his mouth latch onto my breast, but futzing with a slippery nipple shield. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to go! Still, I pumped every 2-3 hours around the clock to protect my milk supply.

Once we settled into life at home, I suffered from overactive letdown that covered my baby in a misty milk spray and I was perpetually engorged. It took  six weeks of trial-and-error, and visits with a lactation consultant to get into a manageable groove. Luckily, we made it out on the other side and I’m now tandem nursing my son and his younger sister. 


The science and art of breastfeeding


Part of my impetus to get into this field circles back to The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and the mismanagement of my own early breastfeeding life. I didn’t understand until I became a breastfeeder how beautifully the book weaves together science and art. It explains that breastfeeding is the biological norm for our species, but that to get it “right” requires finesse, technique, and practice. 

In hindsight, I know why breastfeeding felt insurmountable with my first child in those early weeks. It’s that the support I had was so clinical, so cold. No one ever really held my hand and said that breastfeeding is a dance between two bodies, a getting-to-know-you kind of initiation.

So the question becomes: Is breastfeeding innate or a learned art? It’s a tough one to parse out because we live in such a historically fragmented moment when it comes to breastfeeding. I either hear stories from great grandmothers who breastfed in the Old Country, or ones from grandmothers whose milk was intentionally dried up shortly after baby’s birth because everyone was formula fed. These days, we live somewhere in the middle with increasing breastfeeding rates once again.

What I’ve learned is that breastfeeding is both a science and an art. It’s about building a nuanced rapport with our babies within the physiological framework of what our bodies are expecting to do.


Our bodies actually prepare us for breastfeeding


Our little ones have some of the pieces of the puzzle – the reflexes to feed – and our bodies have the others – the milk itself and the landscape on which to feed:

  1. Healthy newborns are hardwired with reflexes that help them navigate extrauterine life (i.e., life on the outside). When it comes to feeding, newborns are born to root and suck: they root or turn towards a stimulus that touches their cheek or mouth and open wide as if to feed, then innately suck when the stimulus is in their mouth. These reflexes set them up to breastfeed and, on a more macro level, help ensure our species’ survival.
  2. Pregnant women begin to make colostrum, baby’s first milk, between 10–14 weeks of pregnancy. Colostrum is stored in special milk-making sacks in the breast until baby is born, at which point the body gets the message to secrete the milk and allow baby to root, suck, and swallow it.
  3. Pregnant women also often notice a darkening of their areolas, which is nature’s crafty way of creating a bullseye or target that a newborn with hazy vision can see to initiate feeding. 


A natural skill we need to learn


While our bodies prepare us for breastfeeding, this is actually a learned skill, one that takes practice, patience, and perseverance:

  1. Practice. Did you know that newborns needs to feed at least 8 times in 24 hours, but often want to feed close to 10 or 12 times? Normalizing this frequency means lots of practice time for you to get into a groove, troubleshoot, and reach out for help if things feel difficult.
  2. Patience. We don’t expect ourselves to get in shape our first day back at the gym, so why would we expect ourselves to instantly master breastfeeding? Learned skills always include missteps and setbacks. Breastfeeding is no different, and that’s okay. 
  3. Perseverance. If you’re committed to breastfeed in any capacity, know that you can and you will. Remember that support groups and connecting with lactation professionals make the tough days feel more manageable.

Above all else, remember that we were all born to learn how to breastfeed. 


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Blanqi Lift Up Nursing Tank

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