Lactation – A desert trek or a river hike?

How we think about lactation makes a big difference to how we feed our babies.

Bags or glands?

If we think about breasts/chests as bags that fill up with milk, and then are drained by the baby, and then take x-amount of time to refill, we are going to believe that we MUST wait a certain amount of time before putting the baby to the breast again. And if the baby gets fussy in the middle of that time, we believe are “out of milk” and have to give something from a bottle (expressed human milk or formula).

But breasts/chests are not passive “bags”. They are glands that make milk in response to being emptied. An empty gland makes milk faster than a full gland. And much of the milk is made DURING the feed in response to the baby’s suckling (and cuddling, and little massaging hands, and lovely smell…). So there is ALWAYS some milk available.

Desert Trek – Oasis Model

One way to think about breast/chestfeeding goes like this. The day is like a long gruelling trek across a desert. Every 2-3 hours you come to an oasis, and there you have to drink as much as you can, because then there is no more water for 2-3 more hours, across this arid terrain, and the baby might not make it to the next oasis.

If we think about feeding this way, we get anxious about how much the baby gets at each feed. We may encourage the baby to take more from a bottle, after some time at the breast/chest. And we are in a rush to get the feed “done”, so that we can move on the next chore, move on to trekking across that desert. And if the baby shows signs of hunger before 2-3 hours have gone by, we may think “I’m not good at this. I can’t make enough milk. I’m inadequate.”

River Side Hike Model

Another way to think about chest/breastfeeding goes like this. The day is like a pleasant, easy hike along a beautiful, clean, free-flowing river. Anytime we are thirsty we can walk down to the bank and take a sip, or a gulp, or a great big cupful. Sometimes we stop and drink for a long time, sometimes, we just take a quip nip, and then keep on going.

If we think about feeding this way, we don’t need to worry about how much milk the baby gets at any one feed. Some feeds will be long and some short. Some feeds will be leisurely and cuddly, others more business-like. And we don’t need to think about how to tell if the feed is “done” because we know we can always put the baby back to the breast. If we’ve been sitting on the couch, feeding for half-an-hour and suddenly get really hungry, we can say “I’m going to get myself a snack now. We can come back and give you more milk in a bit if you still want it then.” We don’t have to sit there feeling trapped and desperate.

What if there’s not enough milk?

I know, of course, that there are some parents who cannot (for whatever reason) make enough milk in 24 hours to completely satisfy their baby’s needs. That may be sad, and frustrating, and if that’s where you are sitting, my talking about walks along beautiful rivers doesn’t help at all. But even if that is the case, we don’t have to go to a “desert-oasis” model of feeding.

If we have to supplement, maybe we can think about it like this. The walk along the river sometime leads us up onto a cliff where we can’t get at the water easily. And so we have to carry a bottle of water for those bits of the trip. We don’t need to drink from the river AND from the bottle every time. Sometimes we can use one and sometimes the other.

When we supplement our babies from a bottle, we have to think a little further ahead than a parent who is exclusively breast/chestfeeding. But we still don’t have to do exactly the same thing at each feed. Some feeds (typically between midnight and noon – the AM hours) may be ones where there is a lot of milk, and the baby needs no supplement. Others (typically between noon and midnight – the PM hours), may be times when the baby needs two or three or four ounces of supplement. You are the one who knows your baby and your body best. You will figure out the best way to proceed, in a way that works for you, your baby and the rest of your family.

Relaxed and confident

But please, let’s all leave the desert trek model of breast/chestfeeding behind us. It doesn’t help us feel relaxed. And if we feel relaxed and confident, our baby can relax and trust in us. And that makes life so much easier!