Breastfeeding Beyond Six Months

A CANDID CONVERSATION WITH LACTATION CONSULTANT, KRYSTAL KEY, IBCLC, OF KEY LACTATION IN PORTLAND, OR.

Key Lactation
image borrowed with permission, keylactation.com

This might be the post I am most proud of – because I got to interview my lactation consultant, Krystal Key, IBCLC, who saved my breastfeeding life.  Like many new mothers, breastfeeding did not start off on an easy path for me.  Well, I guess it started off kind of easy – I pre-produced colostrum about two-thirds into my pregnancy and had an abundant milk supply after my son was born.  I recognize that I was very lucky for this because so many mothers struggle with milk supply.

The problems for me came soon after I brought baby home – from painful vasospasms (it was cold in January and my body was still recovering from major surgery, which can keep the body cold, according to Chinese Medicine – thus the nipple stays cold and the tiny ducts can be excruciatingly painful); to thrush (a yeast infection in baby’s mouth and, thus, mama’s nipple, which is also excruciatingly painful and takes a long time to kill off the yeasts that are literally everywhere in our environment – this is a common issue for mamas/babies of C-sections because of the antibiotics); to engorgement  – needless to say it took months before nursing was pain-free.  I swore I was finished with breastfeeding until my doula introduced me to Krystal.

The lactation “consultants” provided by the hospital totally failed me.   Krystal saved my breastfeeding life.  She came to my home and helped me heal from the various issues and pains I was dealing with, and then she helped improve our latch so that we were soon onto smooth sailing.  I haven’t looked back!  Krystal is, to me, a medicine woman healer, a boob shaman, and an invaluable resource for all things regarding breastfeeding health and wellness.

Every woman’s decision to nurse or not to nurse is a personal one.   Most communities lack the kind of expertise and services Key Lactation offers.  I’m lucky to live in progressive Portland for the outstanding women’s healthcare available – and that really extends beyond traditional medicine where a team approach of service providers make for the healthiest experiences, especially for new moms.

While breastfeeding is a personal choice, there’s so much evidence based research supporting healthy breastfeeding practices and the benefits for both baby and mama.  Right now, as we are in the midst of a worrisome pandemic, I nervously researched the safety of breastfeeding.

The La Leche League International offered a helpful resourse for nursing mothers regarding Coronavirus.  It’s amazing to me how breastmilk of an infected mother will naturally produce “specific secretory IgA antibodies and many other critical immune factors in their milk to protect their nursing infants and enhance their infants’ own immune responses… at this time, these immunologic factors will aid their infants’ bodies to respond more effectively to exposure and infection.”

I actually interviewed Krystal several weeks ago, before the coronavirus outbreak.  My questions were geared towards nursing beyond six months – where mothers offer breastmilk not just for nutrition, with solid food becoming increasingly important to supplying your infant’s nutritional needs, but also for comfort and for supporting a healthy immune system.  We didn’t talk in depth about the latter, but I know where Krystal stands regarding breastmilk as medicine (and preventative medicine) for your baby.

Krystal is a fair and balanced lactation consultant and cares for the individual mama without judgement.  There’s no room for judgement with motherhood!  I encourage pregnant or nursing moms to reach out to her at any point of the lactation journey.  She truly is a miracle worker!  Here’s some of her incredible wisdom regarding nursing older babies.

 

Interview with Krystal Key, IBCLC, Key Lactation, LLC:

Leah: 
You know, many mothers feel guilty for breastfeeding their baby for comfort or as they drift off to sleep. So we’re looking at nursing, not newborns, but nursing beyond six months. And so just nutritional nursing, but now there’s also comfort nursing, other reasons for nursing. So what do you think about that?

Krystal:
For someone worried about going against their natural instincts in that way.
If comforting your child through nursing makes sense to you, I think that it’s a good thing. And part of where we come at it as a society is (A) we’re definitely a society that is uncomfortable with breasts outside of the context of sexuality. So the idea of letting our children to use the breast for comfort. That’s seems Really, really out there to some people. You know, we don’t talk about it as a society, we just don’t see it as normal yet. The other thing is, it is really actually very, very important to get off the bottle by around this age, because of oral development and dental development. And a lot of people don’t understand that the bottle and the breast are two extremely different things where the bottle can be really detrimental for development. As far as like, like the essential stuff, oral development, airway development, the breast is  actually very, very good for those things. Like we often will see or hear about you know, bottle rot, so you know, babies with their first teeth are getting cavities because the milk is going in their mouth as they suck on the bottle. The breast doesn’t do that. And as long as you know, there’s good brushing habits in place, breastfeeding is actually very, very protective against cavities. So It’s actually not a bad thing for babies and toddlers to nurse at night. Yeah, pending that otherwise, you know, the dental hygiene is happening.  There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation around that, and we’re making assumptions as a society as well – we’re not supposed to do this so we probably shouldn’t do that either.

Leah:
First of all, it’s fascinating. I had no idea about the dental aspect of it. But it makes sense.

Krystal:
Even a lot of dentists who really should know better don’t confirm bottle rot is an issue.
So breastfeeding may be an issue out there and when it comes down to it, it’s once again the difference of treating milk as a living substance.

Leah:
So now I’m kind of like wiggling into the sleep training thing.  Because that kind of introduces nursing at nighttime, making that choice to not use a bottle, bottle rot is an issue, among other things. Personally, I found that my baby gets the best sleep when I nurse him to sleep. And, it’s a choice that my husband and I’ve made knowing that the sleep training camp calls it a crutch. So many pediatricians, sleep experts – they discourage that practice claiming babies need to learn to self soothe and not rely on the crutch.  And I’m just curious, as a lactation consultant and expert, what is your advice regarding nursing baby to sleep?  Is it really a crutch when they’re this little?  Will a child eventually learn to self soothe or do you need to do it now? Right away?

Krystal:
Really, you know, everyone eventually learns and develops their own self soothing or coping mechanism. And so, this idea that we need to withhold this form of comfort so that they can develop them.  It’s kind of ridiculous. That’s not really how we work as humans.  And we see it backfire all the time that when we don’t develop healthy coping mechanisms, we end up latching on to unhealthy ones. And I mean, by taking away the breast, but being like, okay, now we’re going to have you sucking on a pacifier or sucking your thumb. We know that messes with the way their jaw and airway develops. So why would nursing to sleep, which is actually a natural palate extender be a bad thing? And I’m thinking about these things as habits, not necessarily good habits or bad habits,  but just habits that we have, certain sleep associations. And if nursing is one of them that works, why on earth are we intentionally telling people they can’t use that, especially when it’s something that really doesn’t have a drawback as far as safety goes. 

But honestly, a little part of me is a little bit snippy about you know, sleep experts saying like, don’t use this thing that works really, really well for you. Because it’s like, well, their business is built around helping you figure out other ways of doing that, so, of course, if they tell you to take away the easiest, most straightforward most, you know, imprinted into our biology. It works in their favor. Yes. Same goes for books that tell us that we’re supposed to do things a certain way, and pediatricians in general and you know, they’re really their birth all the way to 18 years old and so they know a little bit about a lot of stuff, and it totally makes sense, but you know, they may not always be as up to date on different things. And of course, everyone brings their own bias to their profession, you know, we all have our moments where we think things should be done a certain way because you know that power world view has been changed.  And there aren’t a lot of pediatricians out there that would encourage families to continue with bed sharing and nursing at night and things like that. They’re just a little bit harder to find because it goes against our mainstream culture.

Leah:
Well, sleep training often leans on the cry out method to tire baby out and eventually fall asleep. And I’m just curious, how is that a better way for a baby to soothe, then, you know, like you said, having something like breastmilk that you has all kinds of benefits including melatonin.

Krystal:
Yes, melatonin – and oxytocin production helps facilitate the sleep hormone, as well.  Because it’s definitely that brain gut connection.

Leah:
The point is I’m looking at two different chemistries – crying it out there’s been evidence, you know that some people go as extreme in saying there can be brain damage if you just let a baby cry and cry and cry.  I don’t think that’s what most people are doing with crying it out. They’ll go like three minutes. Sometimes we’ll even take the Montessori approach where you stay in the room in a chair and eventually work the chair out of the room.  But there still has been research or findings about the hormones that are involved when a baby cries like that.  I’m just curious.  Is it better to have that kind of chemistry going on in a baby versus the natural soothing-calming chemistry that they get from breastfeeding?  Let’s talk about just the science – chemistry – is it safer to do one versus the other? Or does it not matter? 

Krystal:
The overarching research around crying it out is when crying it out is done in a reasonable same way where it’s not like okay, good night, my child be by yourself and cry for hours – we know that’s not safe.  When people talk about cry it out being dangerous, oftentimes what they’re referring to is a study based on orphans in, I think, Romania (I might be wrong about that), where they didn’t get soothing contact – it was it was eerie. They made no noise and they were very, very complacent that but it is because they had shut down there was no contact. They were just so outnumbered with their caregivers that it just wasn’t possible.  And so when people talk about cry it out being dangerous, that’s the study they’re referring to. And that’s not what happens when people are talking about cry it out. That’s negligence.  That’s borderline abuse.  You know, what we do is cry it out in this society is generally for most people, I want to say and I want to believe that it’s people at the end of their rope. It’s people that have tried to do everything they can and that they’re either at a mental place of total exhaustion where something has to give, or people that are misinformed and think that this was just a milestone of parenting. That crying it out was just something you have to do. And, the reality is, you don’t have to do anything as a parent as long as what you’re doing is safe.   And I definitely over the years met and known, even as a parent, raised kids, that I thought (1), that will nurse to sleep and conk out in like two minutes and then will be anywhere from you know, 2am all the way through the night and then seek out comfort. And then the other one, we had one really, really rough night when she was about six months, where we cried it out that one night just out of desperation. And then she starts sleeping through the night with no crying whatsoever on her own from that point on. And so I do think that there really is kind of a middle ground where there are some kids that are totally fine with that, and there are some kids that it just wouldn’t work no matter what you do. And I think we would see and encounter that all the time when we talk to parents, because there’s always parents that are like, Oh, yeah, we did this and it was the best thing ever. And I’m so glad we did it. And then the parents are like we tried it, and we couldn’t, we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t hang in there. It didn’t work for us. So I don’t think that it’s fair to anyone to say that you either have to do this or you have to do that.  And there’s a judgment side of things.  It’s okay that something works for someone that doesn’t work for someone else.

Leah:
Well, I think what I’m hearing in some ways is that it goes to pretty much everything you learn once you start having children – that every baby is different. So what might work with your first child, the second one could come around and it’s a completely different story. You have to come up with a different tool.

Krystal:
Exactly. Yeah, that’s 100% true. Definitely, especially with sleep, it’s one of those things where sleep is very, very important. We, we just we can’t function as humans without a decent amount of sleep. And I’ve been friends with parents of babies and toddlers as far as development goes, they need sleep. And so whatever it takes to get sleep, and whatever, you know, gets you there with making a relationship feel as good as it is. And, you know, for some families, you know, bed sharing is the dream, you know that that works really, really well. And everyone feels well rested. And everyone is, you know, thriving.

Leah:
That’s a nice segue, because that was a question I was going to ask is that, you know, at what point is it – or can it be problematic to share a bed with a baby while you’re still nursing at night? You know,  are there pros or cons to that? I mean, because we’ve considered that and, you know, we’ve heard against people like, no, at this stage, don’t do it. And I’m like, Yeah, but you know, both of those work, you’re tired and sometimes you just don’t want to be in an uncomfortable chair in the nursery.

Krystal:
Even for a family where both parents are working outside the home – sometimes the most snuggle time you get with your kid is in bed at night.  That’s part of your connection, that’s part of your bond.  And so for families where that works for them, I think it’s absolutely cruel to tell them they’re not supposed to do it.  When it comes to bed sharing, ultimately, it’s about making sure they’re sleeping safely. There definitely are “rules” you know, safety wise, we can’t just blanket statement bed sharing is right for everybody.  But we have decades of research that shows that when bed sharing is being done intentionally and that it is following those rules, it’s a very, very safe option. And so, as far as the timing of it, the older the kid gets the safer and easier its gets.  Bed sharing a little baby, even when you’re doing everything right is little bit nerve wracking but you know, venturing with a toddler, on the one hand, you know, it doesn’t feel dangerous but on the other hand it can be dangerous for the parent – you can get a foot to the face (laugh). We sleep alongside other adults and parents and couples. So why would we deny that for children like, obviously we’re hardwired for safety in numbers and so it makes sense that our small children that are, you know, essentially vulnerable are going to seek out our comfort and seek out our protection at night – and if it works for a family then there’s no reason not to – and every bed sharing family I’ve ever known that, you know, now has older children or adult children – they eventually leave the bed. They eventually sleep in their own space, you know, for it to be a detrimental thing there, has to be some other like, big picture red flag stuff going on. For a typical family, of course bed sharing can be a safe and fun and reasonable option. And it’s one of those things that in the grand scheme of things these years are so short, that you know, if you’re a working parent and the time that you get to spend with your kid involves snuggling them to sleep at night, you’re not going to look back on that and regret it.

Leah:
That’s a good point. I’ve been reading a lot about this and how it relates to mothering, you know, and not just snuggling and nursing when they like roll over and just want it if it’s there.  And I was reading about the Montessori methods – including floor beds in the toddler’s room, and the many reasons to make sure toddlers are able to sleep – whether they are or are not in their parent’s bed.  I also read recently, when I was kind of just googling and researching some stuff, just for fun, that there was an interview, and this is where I’m starting to now look at the anthropology of this, like how have we evolved as a society,  because I tend to feel like our society is just mean to mothers and mean to babies, in general. And so I feel like everything that you think is supposed to be supportive of the family and, in some ways, I feel like we’re being lied to, you know, like I feel like it’s a kind of conspiracy.  I’m a little jaded, and maybe it’s coming out of my own personal experiences, but, there was this interview with an indigenous woman from Guatemala where they not only bed share but they nurse well on into early childhood, whatever age that might be –  maybe four years old, and, obviously the practice is not the same way you would nurse a newborn or young toddler, and I think that’s the thing people think – that you’re just giving your baby the breast all day, that it’s a kind of creepy behavior.

Krystal:
Exactly.  It’s just another area where our society, really, is so far off the mark. You know, a lot of people think that nursing an older baby is like nursing a young baby. When we look at it statistically when it comes to breastfeeding, and here in the U.S. about 80% of parents initiate breastfeeding over all – but here in the Pacific NW that number is closer to 90% where we have a little more support structure set up. But when we look at you know, by the six month mark about half a babies are still being breastfed. By the one year mark only about a third of babies are still being breastfed. So we have a lot of exposure and understanding about what nursing little babies looks like. You know, we all know someone that’s had a baby, but a lot fewer people are nursing older babies. And so our point of reference, of what we know and understand about that is super, super skewed that people just don’t know what nursing a toddler looks like because a lot of people don’t do it. And especially looking at, you know, with a two year old, like by that point most people aren’t nursing in public because you don’t need to, you can tell them that they need to wait until you get home – or, for a lot of people, by the time they’re two years old  they nurse when they wake up and they nurse when they go to bed. Or you nurse just a couple of times a day at intervals or whatever works right for you.  Whereas for newborns, you know, they’re the ones that should be dictating the schedule because they’re the ones that know what they need for growth and development.

Leah:
You kind of just went right to the question I was at when I asked if you find most mothers are reluctant to nurse beyond six months? What are some of the misconceptions about nursing past six months or reasons why they stop and quit? And I think you, you pretty much addressed it with we just don’t see it – well, I’ll let you continue with that. But, people don’t see breastfeeding outside of the home with toddlers so they don’t necessarily know what that looks like.  Are there other misconceptions or reasons that cause mothers you know or work with to stop and quit?

Krystal:
Oh yeah.  Well…as I mentioned – here in the Pacific NW we’re very much a pro breastfeeding bunch.  Somethings that, as a professional, I have heard people say is… I’ve heard of doctors telling families that breastmilk loses its nutritional value after X amount of time. I’ve heard three months, I’ve heard six months, a year, which is ridiculous. It’s like saying broccoli loses its nutritional value after a certain point. It’s food and it’s always, you know, custom made for your child wherever they’re at developmentally.  A lot of people don’t know or don’t realize the difference between the early milk, colostrum, and mature milk – is basically water content. And so, you know, in our society we hear a lot about that baby has got to have that colostrom becasue it’s so good for them and blah, blah, blah. It’s because it’s really concentrated breast milk.  And so as they get older and they start dropping those feedings again, guess what happens to the milk? It gets really, really concentrated again – toddler milk and colostrom have a lot in common nutritionally. And so this idea that, you know, they turn a year and all of the sudden your milk turns to water, or something stupid like that, is so scientifically inaccurate, it’s doing such a disservice to families. I mean, anyone that’s ever been around an 18 month old – they live on goldfish crackers and air. So we have nature’s multivitamin that’s gonna provide the nutrients and it’s gonna provide them antibodies, and help with growth. Why would we not do that?  Why would we not encourage that?  So there’s a lot of misconception coming at us from healthcare providers that don’t understand about human milk – which I mean, generally speaking, most doctors in the entirety of med school, residency, get about two hours of lecture on breastfeeding education – and that’s it.  Even the doctors we would expect to be knowledgeable – like ob’s and pediatricians – the knowledge piece is just really kind of missing.  There are a lot of gaps within our society and then a lot of parents, you know when, when the kid gets older, we find that we hit our stride with breastfeeding but it gets easier. But there’s still issues that come up later. You know, they get teased and sometimes they try to use you as a teething device and that’s not cool – that hurts. And a lot of people don’t know that you don’t have to push through it or just quit. You know, you can help teach them not to do that.  What it comes down to, you know, some kids ask for it like a thousand times a day that can be really annoying. Some people feel like the only thing they can do for that is to ween – and it’s like, no, you don’t, you can establish boundaries and limits and your kids will learn some really good rules about body autonomy by doing that.

Leah:
Well, I think the even the bigger picture of that kind of behavior – of being afraid of your child – so you have to cut something out.  It’s like the child is now in charge, not you. And not that you have to be in charge, it’s not a control thing.  But at the same time, you’re the parent, you’re the one who should be driving the ship.

Krystal:
Always.  It’s your body.  As a nursing parent, it’s your body, it’s your choice.  As long as it is working for you – keep going. And if it’s not working for you, you can make shifts, you can make changes. You can put in limits, you can put in boundaries – and not only is that going to be really beneficial for your kid because it’s gonna help preserve your breastfeeding relationship – it will be beneficial for your kids because it’s one of the earliest lessons in consent and about body autonomy and all the things that our society is really pushing for in the last decade or so.

Leah:
Okay, so, we kind of already talked about this, but do you think breastfeeding beyond six months is supported enough in our society? You know, we’ve talked about the challenge and some of the cultural professional, you know, their moms like who we have more families where both parents are working and some pump and, you know, one of those parents that I decided not to pump. But I had the flexibility to do that. And I understand that that’s not the case for everybody.

Krystal:
On the one hand, I don’t want to say, yes, I think that there is enough support for it. I think there’s a really, really big push for it.  But I think that the push without the support of how to actually make it sustainable. I think that’s one area that our society really, really falls short. Because, for a lot of people, even if they are back at work, and they’re pumping further and further out, and so a lot of people find that, you know, they feel like they’re losing their milk supply when they get around eight, nine months.  I mean, even when you’re not pumping, you’re just exclusively nursing, a lot of people find that they struggle with that, too, because you’re seeing nursing an older baby is different than nursing a little baby. So, oftentimes, you know, by the time we hit that three month mark, a lot of people are saying, they’re nursing every three hours, eight times a day and the stuff that you do, you nurse where you let the baby decide. But for a lot of babies when we get closer to the six month mark and you introduce solid foods that can interfere with if we don’t know that we should be nursing before and after we’ve had solid food.  And, so if we’re not nursing frequently enough, there is a diminish in milk supply, and then around six months to a year, kids will start to stop night feeding because they’re sleeping through the night, and that can have a negative impact on milk supply also because when they drop those night time feedings, they need to make up the difference in nursing during the day. And so a lot of families really actually need to have more of a parent nursing relationship – offering the breast every two to three hours depending on if the baby is sleeping through the night or not. And because so many people don’t know that, they’ll accidentally be nursing like six times a day, when they’re nine months, and then all of a sudden people are going I lost my milk and I don’t know what happened. And it’s like, we just don’t know what the normal system looks like – and that’s not the parents fault.  It’s a symptom of our society.  We don’t see it enough, we don’t know what it looks like.

Leah:
It’s interesting.  I’m about to make a blanket statement here.  I mean, it seems like as a society, and in some cases, maybe it’s the  parents, and depending on their schedule, knowing every family dynamic is different, but, it seems like, culturally,  we do want our babies to conform to our needs versus, you know, maybe sucking it up for two plus years, hunkering down and committing to making the baby’s needs the priority, not the other way around. 

And again, that’s not intended to be a judgment statement, but looking at this  issue from an anthropological examination or observation, it seems like, culturally, so many things, whether it’s nursing, sleep training, etc., so many choices are directed toward our desire to have our babies immediately conform to our lifestyle versus recognizing we brought in this new human into the world, into our home and their needs are going to trump our needs, we have to adjust ourselves to the baby.  And again, not a judgment I feel this just happens a lot in American, perhaps even Western society, because some of the things I’m reading – I’m reading a lot of mommy blogs that are not necessarily based on science or facts – but just opinions and thoughts. A lot of what I’m reading is about how new moms are just trying to get baby on track. And I’m seeing that a lot and it’s making me pause because I didn’t think about any of this before.  And I did study a lot of anthropology so I’m wondering about our intentions as new parents.  What do you think, as a professional? Do you kind of see that happening with our society and, if so, are there ways to kind of help retrain the parenting roles, to not hurry baby to conform to our immediate needs? 

Krystal:
I don’t see that as an individual failure.  I think we have a really interesting paradox being given or bombarded with “you have to put baby first” while also being bombarded with “you have to take care of yourself.”  And I think that’s really where we kind of see this kind of coming to a head. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.  There’s a lot of competition with the older the baby gets. Especially if you’re back at work or if you have other commitments.  And even if you have the luxury – even though it’s not really a luxury to be a stay-at-home parent, but we get bombarded with this message that we’re not good enough, that we’re not putting our kids first, etc. But then we’re like, simultaneously drowning as we’re trying to do that. Constantly trying to put baby first, is the other extreme where you then need to put yourself first or else your snap.  I don’t see that as an individual failure, it’s a societal thing.

Leah:
I was gonna ask you if that might have to do with support systems, too, I mean, I think a lot of families are not necessarily staying in the same core place where their parents are, or their siblings, etc.  Families used to live within a block, you know.

Krystal:
It takes a village.  It’s so true.  You know, if you’re two adults and one kid, you’re still outnumbered (laugh).  It got hard because as a society we don’t take care of families enough.  You have the choice of either give up  income and really struggle, or go back to work when you’re probably not physically ready for that, but also emotionally. The thing that’s really sad about that, and it really, really makes me angry, especially as a working parent, is the idea that you have to sacrifice getting to see the first time they rollover or seeing the first time that they crawl, or the first time they walk, the first time they say words.  As a working parent  you have to say to the nanny or daycare provider – when they do this don’t tell me because I want to believe that I got to see the first time.  It’s incredibly sad and it sucks for us as parents.  And on the one hand, having lots of different care givers can be really, really beneficial for children. But we should do that out of choice not out of necessity.  And so for families and just the structure that we have, we just did this because the support just isn’t there, it’s really sad because, you know, like, you mentioned, you’re looking at, other countries, and we have to ask ourselves questions like why don’t we have paid leave like every other country?  In Europe, for instance.  In Scandinavian countries their rates are really really high compared to ours. At the same time, when we look at the UK’s rates, they’re not as high as you would expect. They’re pretty close to ours in a lot of ways.  And so it’s like, what are we seeing in the bigger picture? What is going on culturally? What is going on with our society?  It’s not just about having the support piece but how do we make it through the first two years?  It’s also how do we support this, how do we use it? How do we value this? It makes a really big difference, because even though someone wants to breastfeed, if they don’t have access to knowledgeable providers, if they don’t have support from their families and their friends, if they don’t have support from their healthcare provider, it’s hard.  And that’s a really, really common thing that we face in the US.  Most pediatricians say they encourage breastfeeding – when breastfeeding is going well, they’re all for it; but as soon as we see it’s not where it should be, they don’t work with lactation consultants – they’re like “here’s your can of formula.”  Which, if someone wants to formula feed that is more than okay, that is absolutely someone’s choice. And every person has the right to treat or feed their body.  But if someone wants to breastfeed, that’s a huge blow. Like that’s really, really not fair to them. And especially because we put doctors on pedestals in our country – it really sucks because if no one’s telling those parents that there are lactation consultants – and some are better than others.  Then it’s the family that suffers.

Leah:
We’ve talked about some of the benefits – the obvious benefits – of nursing a baby beyond six months.  Let’s talk about mom.  I mean, we know that when you nurse a newborn, there’s a host of benefits to the mother, like, maintaining a healthy weight, producing oxytocin, you get the same exchange.  For me, it started out a little tricky, as you remember.  It took me a while to find my breastfeeding zen – it wasn’t all roses for me at first.  But once we got through the many challenges, and once breastfeeding became easy for me, I have to say, it’s the closest thing that I’ve experienced to meditation where I’m just completely present. My thoughts don’t go anywhere. I don’t know how or why it happens like that. But I literally don’t think about anything I’m just snuggled in and I’m completely present. And that to me is like that’s why I don’t want to give up nursing quite yet – selfishly! What can you say to that? What are the benefits to a mom once past six months of nursing?

Krystal:
Oh, absolutely. I mean, besides the obvious of having those moments where you get to really be more checked in in with your little one, there are so many health benefits to what people refer to as “extended nursing”.  With breastfeeding, basically the way it shakes out is it’s using your body the way it was designed to be used, and it has a positive impact on all of the “big bads” – when it comes to heart disease, diabetes, reproductive cancers. All of that. There are study after study after study that show that the longer a person breastfeeds in their life time, even if it’s not back to back, even if it’s broken up over a number of years between different children, the better the impact on overall health, the better we see with outcomes around, you know, all the scary health things we worry about and we try to keep in check as we get older. And so when it comes down to the fact that we don’t talk about the benefits for the mother as much as we talk about the benefits for baby,  in my opinion, I think they’re equal. Yeah, you know, all the things that nursing does for a baby or a child, we often see the benefit for a parent.  It really boils down to, you know, epigenetics, and, you know, altering or happening the way that it does – it makes a huge difference on how our bodies are able to function and able to do things. And it’s more of a thing that right now, even though we’re finally starting to study it, we’re not nearly where we should be in understanding and how and why. And I am really actually really, really excited about and hopeful for, by the time my kids are old enough to be having kids, what we’ll will know and understand and hopefully, the changes and the benefits that will be around all of that.

Leah:
I don’t want to get like woo-woo-out-there, but I really do feel some kind of sort of metaphysical, like, mind-body-spirit connection that’s going on that’s beyond just the biological. Do you know what I mean?  I’ve experienced it. I don’t know. It can feel very sacred. I mean,  I had no idea that would be the kind of experience I could have coming out of really difficult first few months.

Krystal:
A lot of people have that experience.  The thing where I mean, to be totally honest and totally fair, it’s not like that for everybody.  Some people don’t enjoy breastfeeding and they do it because they know the health benefits, and they do it because they’re choosing to which is really huge sacrifice. It’s the one thing to breastfeed because it works for you and you like it. It’s another thing when breastfeeding can be hard.  That’s beyond.  That’s like merit badge or gold star parenting.

Leah:
I’ve been on both sides of that because I almost gave up.  I mean, I really did. I was really set after a few months like it was so hard with the cold and the vasospasms and then thrush and, and one issue after the other. I was like, screw that – this is too painful. And I just didn’t expect there to be so much pain involved. You know, I had enough pain going through labor and recovery. I didn’t expect there to be more constant pain in this and it was emotionally draining for me. But once we got over that hill, and it really hasn’t been until like now like I’m talking like the past month and a half two months where I’m having this experience where it reminds me again I’m not trying to get woo-woo but like you know we know about the chakra system but I get the same sort of sensations like when I get acupuncture – I don’t know what it is and/or why, so I don’t have the understanding to name what I’m what I’m experiencing, but I’m experiencing something and the closest thing I can say it comes to is the mind-body-spirit connection I get when I’m getting acupuncture.

Krystal:
Yeah. And I one hundred percent agree – as for myself – between my two kids, I think I’ve nursed probably eight years or beyond. When it comes down to it, like especially as they get older,  it’s really interesting because there are times when it’s like, man, I can’t wait to be done. Like, y’all, you need to wait five more minutes, I have to go do this thing. Especially with an older baby. There’s a moment where that connection and you just try – it’s almost like a meditative state – where things will slow down and it’s that reminder it’s that checking in with the universe of like, okay, this moment is fading and we’re not gonna have this back.  Even though you’re so so big, you’re still so little.  And it’s just, it’s a peace moment and this has been going on physically and because so many people do experience that – and yet sometimes nursing a toddler is really, really annoying.  There’s got to be some kind of biological pay off to keep us going with that. 

Even if you have a toddler that is all about nursing, if it wasn’t at least somewhat of a positive experience, you know people would not keep going. And, from an anthropological point of view when we look at ourselves as mammals and we take out, you know, society and culture, what we think about nursing, and we know that as a species, we are designed to nurse each child for upwards of two to three years – it’s pretty average worldwide. And even in some cultures, upwards of seven years.  So I mean, we’re kind of the weirdos in the U.S. for weening our babies as early as we do.

Leah:
That article that I read about the Guatemalan woman from the indigenous tribe – not only were they talking about just how long they breastfeed, but in this interview with a couple of Guatemalan women, the interviewers were explaining to them that here, in the U.S., most parents will put their baby in a nursery in a crib by themselves.  Sometimes they cry it out – they explained the ways American parents get their babies to go to sleep. And these indigenous women look horrified. They’re like, wow, these poor babies! They were so horrified and scared for these babies. And when I read that piece in the article, I thought it was just very interesting because I came into being a parent with no judgment and no idea what I was doing.  I mean, I have great parents, and you kind of learn from them. But once it’s yours, o
nce you have a child, it’s a whole new world, and you’re learning as you go.

So I read that, and again, this is pulling me back to when I studied anthropology some 20 years ago, it’s really making me look hard at my choices. Now, again, this isn’t about judgment. It’s just being maybe more aware of what we are doing.  What are we putting out in the world versus other places that we think are “third world countries” that are, in many ways, way more civilized than we are!

Krystal:
I totally see and identify with that, you know, how does the way we raise our people, how do we interact with our children, how does that impact all of the bigger picture and downfalls of our society? You know, how is all of that connected – because it’s got to be. How would it not be, the way that we fundamentally raise and treat and teach our children to interact with others by the way that we model after them, by the way we interact with them. It’s really, really fascinating and you can be the most attachment oriented parent in the universe, and this is a moment where you lose it and you yell at your kid – and having to kind of find we’re what we want versus our reality – it’s hard.  It’s hard to rectify that sometimes.  We carry a lot of guilt in our society, and even the fact that, you know, throughout the conversation. Yeah, we’re both acknowledging and saying so many times that you know, “I don’t mean this with the judgment, I don’t mean, you know, I’m not trying to shame anyone” – the fact that we all kind of carry that around, that we all are still hyper vigilant about is someone judging me and am I being judgy?  In addition to teaching classes and working with families one on one, I have been facilitating the parent support group for five years. I know I can’t think of a single time I have ever encountered a parent that was full on like, out there like judging another parent in the room. And I mean, I’m a young, no-holds-bar, and definitely, nothing’s off the table kind of person – and we talked about everything.  So there were lots and lots of opportunities for judgments to come into play in those scenarios. And we’re also all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got. And we all want to do right by our kids. And so the fact that as a society we’re so hyper vigilant and aware and careful at not stepping on each other’s toes – that’s a whole other can of worms about how we view parenthood, about how we view child rearing.

Leah:
You brought something up that I don’t think I wrote it down as a question, but I think it is a good question in certainly the context of all this. So what about now you have one child, now you’re going on to potentially having a second baby. So there’s all kinds of you know, lots of questions about nursing.  Can you still nurse baby one while you’re getting pregnant – like my doctor told me because of my age – “Oh, if you’re trying to get pregnant now you need to wean him off immediately or else you’re gonna have a miscarriage”.  I kept wondering – are you just telling me this because of textbook studies or, like, is this really gonna happen?

Krystal:
One of my favorite, in the most sarcastic, irritated kind of ways, examples of the misinformation that doctors inadvertently, I want to believe, are spreading around breastfeeding – you’ll be six weeks out from birth and they’ll be like – you have to get on birth control or you’re gonna get pregnant even if you’re breastfeeding.  And, yet, you know, when you’re six months out and you’re talking about, well, I think we might want to have another baby now rather than later, and then it’s like all of the sudden you’re not gonna be able to get pregnant if you’re still nursing.  And that’s just not how the body works.

Basically, the way breastfeeding works,  as far as birth control goes, is about – if you are exclusively nursing, meaning no bottles and no pacifiers, and if you are nursing throughout the night and throughout the day you’re not separated from your child basically ever, then in that case, unless your child is under six months or they’re not getting table food, then you’re pretty darn protected against pregnancy – your body knows that you have a young child that’s dependent on you so it’s not trying to make another child.  But as soon as they introduce any of those components, fertility can return.  A lot of people absolutely get pregnant while they’re nursing.  We see in here you know all the time. “Oh, well, my Aunt Kathy’s cousin’s best friend got pregnant while nursing.” Because everybody is different, different people are going to experience that fertility threshold coming back at different points. And so that’s not to say that yes, you need to ween in order to get pregnant. Or because, you know, because nursing releases oxytocin for someone that is, you know, susceptible to miscarriage. Sometimes it is necessary to ween when you’re pregnant. You know, it’s not a hard and fast everyone must do it this way.  There’s so many people that nurse throughout pregnancy and go on to tandem feed those kids for years.

Leah:
What does that look like to a family that, let’s say they have one child, now a year old, and they’re actively trying to get pregnant, then they find out they’re pregnant (super excited!).  How does that change how the mom breastfeeds? Does that change breastfeeding? I mean, I know there’s no one answer. There’s probably different dynamics to that.

Krystal:
Oh, pending on the healthy mom, healthy pregnancy, for most people milk supply is going to drastically drop off once the placenta is fully formed and starts creating hormones.  I recommend if you’re intentionally trying to get pregnant wait until your kid is pretty darn close to a year in case you do lose your milk supply, nutritionally speaking you want to make sure that you’re first kid is going to be all right. And then, once those ducks are in a row, then take it one day at a time because one of the first signs of pregnancy is breast tenderness and so a lot of people that in that state of pregnancy just change their minds.  You have the intention of doing one thing, but, in the reality of it, you may decide to do something else.  And so, be flexible, be open.  And if nursing through the pregnancy works, great, and if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too.  And a lot of kids will ween during pregnancy because the hormones change the way the milk tastes and the supply reduces.  And when it’s a child-led weening experience, it’s usually lot more pleasant for the family, overall. So, if that’s how it shakes out, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s totally fine.  If you’re nursing through pregnancy and working, a lot of people, when colostrum comes in at around 16 to 20 weeks, nursing gets markedly improved.  So it’s one of those things where it’s like, once again, not knowing what normal looks like, it messes with us!  If you’re nursing a 10 month old and you’re pregnant, and it’s miserable, and you don’t know that it’s gonna get better again, then why would you stick with it?

Leah:
So, when you are pregnant, and let’s say you are nursing, occasionally, said child, you still produce colostrum right before the second one is born, right?

Krystal:
Yes.  Most people start producing colostrum about halfway through the pregnancy – and toddler and older babies can absolutely eat that.  Colostrum does have a laxative property to it.  So, parents deserve to have that on their radar – if it feels like your toddler has diarrhea when your classroom is coming in, it’s not that they’re sick, it’s that their body’s adjusting to the superfood your body is making.  In the long run, colostrum has a lot of benefits as far as antibodies and nutrition goes.  It’s definitely not harmful and then once milk comes in, there’s a biological feedback that happens between the breast and the baby’s saliva. And so even if you’re nursing two kids at once, you’re milk is still going to have a personalized special recipe, that perfect mix for each kid.  Your body is freaking amazing!  You know, when, as a society or as a culture when we think that it loses nutritional value or that formula is just as good – that’s not how the human body works.  We are mammals.  We are literally made for our ability to feed our children with our bodies.  So why on earth would anyone question that or think that it’s not amazing?

 

I want to thank Krystal Key for taking the time to chat with me!  For more information about lactation services in the greater Portland area, and beyond, please visit Krystal Lactation, LLC.

This interview was recorded using otter.ai recording app and services.  Teleconference recording is not a perfect art, so, the editing of this interview was done listening to a rough cut.  

Leah Jorgensen does not endorse a “breast-is-best” for everyone philosophy and recognizes the many nuances of motherhood.  We all do our best to make the best choices for ourselves and for our dear families.  Leah is a client of Krystal Key and joyfully shares her experiences and wholeheartedly endorses Key Lactation, LLC.

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