“Why do you need a class about that?”

My teenage son, who has grown up listening to me talking about birth and helping moms with breastfeeding on the phone, asked a great question the other day when I told him I was on my way to teach a breastfeeding class.

“Why do you need to teach a class about that? I think it would kind of mean there’s a problem for the human race!”

This is a great question. It’s one that many expecting parents also ask. After all, if humans hadn’t been able to figure out breastfeeding down through the ages, we wouldn’t all be here. What makes this time in history different? Or do those of us who teach breastfeeding just do it for the thrill and the money? (In case you’re wondering, it is thrilling, but the pay isn’t so great.)

The answer is yes, this time in history is different. Here’s why.

1) Most of us no longer live with extended family members close by, or even friendly neighbors. Chances are good that the first time a mom ever sees a breastfeeding baby, it will be her own. This means there are few opportunities for new mothers to have absorbed the “teaching” of experienced mothers who can both reassure them (“yes, that’s normal”) and pass along tips and wisdom. Classes–and good support groups–can take the place of this lost community.

2) Birth is more medical, and medical care is more fragmented, than in earlier times. When family doctors came to the house to deliver the baby, they were just that: family doctors. They cared for the mother and the baby. As birth moved into a hospital setting and medical professions became more specialized, one doctor became responsible for the mother (the OB) and another for the baby (the pediatrician). This has meant that OBs often have little incentive to think through how various birth practices will affect breastfeeding and the health of the newborn.

I am by no means saying that all OBs practice this way; many are extremely integrative in their care and do think ahead in this way. I’m just pointing out that the system is set up to separate mom-care from baby-care. The exception in our modern system is the midwifery model of care. Midwives are responsible both for the mother and for the baby during the first few weeks of life.

3) As a culture, we believe that “experts” must know better than we do about most things we have never done before. After all, we hire contractors to build our houses, tax preparers to do our taxes, and mechanics to fix our cars. If we are going to attempt any of these activities ourselves, we make darn sure we’ve read a lot of books and consulted a lot of web sites.

What’s different about breastfeeding is that, at some level–and particularly for the baby–it is an instinctive behavior. And while we’re very good at gaining book knowledge, we’re not usually great at “listening to our instincts,” or even figuring out that we have them. In combination with our lack of built-in community, this can be devastating for breastfeeding. Left to her own devices, a new mom sometimes, through no fault of her own, may fail to wake her baby frequently enough to feed. Or she may believe she must suffer with traumatized nipples because “that’s just the way breastfeeding is.”

You might think that this last point actually is an argument against classes, but I don’t see it that way. In my classes, I try to fill in the knowledge and support gaps that used to be filled in other ways, and then encourage parents to listen to what their babies and their instincts are telling them. Most often, when backed up with knowledge, this will be the right message.

I didn’t say this to my son, but I am hopeful that by the time he has a family, some of the factors that now make it a good idea to take a breastfeeding class will no longer exist. (If this isn’t the case, at least he and his partner will have their own personal information and support team… me 🙂 )

–Audrey

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