Over this past summer, I had the amazing privilege of personally corresponding with Sheila Kippley, a renowned breastfeeding and natural family planning advocate and co-founder of NFP International.
A few months back she sent me The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor, her latest book to hit the shelves, and it’s about time I gave it as well as ecological breastfeeding some attention here.
Back in July I wrote what I’d assumed was an innocuous article about how I overcame my misgivings about nursing at Mass for Inside Catholic. I was not prepared for the barrage of dissenting comments about nursing as well as some of the negativity expressed about the presence of babies and kids at Mass in general that my article provoked.
Many thoughts rifled through my mind as I read some of the accusatory remarks calling me selfish and comparing nursing a baby at Mass to engaging in sexual acts in public. (I know. That one really blew me away, too.)
However, one thought that has really stuck with me is how not one naysayer referenced my mention of using ecological breastfeeding (EBF) as a part of natural family planning. (Surprisingly, only a handful of my supporters who personally emailed me acknowledged this point either.)
In fact, I realized that even many ardent advocates of nursing moms – Catholic or otherwise – who understand that babies need to be fed on demand don’t really know much about EBF. Nor do many women who practice NFP.
I used to be no different. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue about EBF, which in a nutshell means nursing your baby for nourishment as well as comfort without restriction, or how it encourages natural child spacing even as I was practicing it.
In fact, the only reason I discovered a name for this method of breastfeeding is because I went to see my certified nurse midwife, who also happens to be Catholic, after I was having trouble conceiving baby number two.
I arrived at her office armed with my spiffy NFP charts.
She took one look at my charting and said, “You’re still nursing, aren’t you?”
I was, I told her.
She proceeded to tell me that this was the explanation behind my infertility. She also went on to say that a lot of American women think they’re feeding on demand and without restriction, but they’re really not.
As Kippley explains it, many Westerners practice what’s known as cultural breastfeeding. Moms breastfeed for nutrition, but they “may not be satisfying [their] child’s other needs for comfort and bonding at the breast.”
Cultural breastfeeding does not have much of an effect on postpartum infertility; EBF does. (Now, of course, there are exceptions to every rule and even some women who fully embrace EBF may see an early return of their fertility, but this is not the norm.)
In my midwife’s home country of South Africa almost all mothers practice EBF (without even giving it a fancy name – it’s just what they do) and if they get pregnant in the early postpartum period, my midwife calls it a miracle.
I, like those South African women, didn’t know I was an EBF mom until my midwife told me I was. I just believed in feeding my baby on demand. I didn’t personally see it as natural (or easy despite what some of my mom friends claimed) to make babies (or moms) conform to a rigid feeding schedule. On the contrary, I found it required less effort (not to mention stress) to feed her when she was hungry and to respond to her cues before she started wailing.
I didn’t use a pacifier with my first child, and I often took naps with her. I nursed her frequently – when she was hungry, bored, frustrated, hurting – and I wasn’t planning on weaning her until she was ready. (I did end up gently weaning her at 22 months, so I could conceive baby number two.)
Now before I go any further, the purpose of this post is not to bash other moms’ parenting styles, to pile on the guilt, or to put my own personal mothering style on a pedestal. This is just what has worked for my children and me in our journey together. How I or any woman mothers her child is not up for debate. Nor am I suggesting that I’m somehow a superior mom or a better Catholic NFPer because I EBF.
What I am trying to do is to make people more aware of the benefits of EBF. And there are many.
To name a few:
- EBF naturally spaces babies approximately two years apart on average. The hallmarks of EBF are frequent and unrestricted nursing, which leads to natural lactation amenorrhea, or the absence of menstruation due to breastfeeding, and infertility in most women. My first two children are two and a half years apart. My second child and third (due in April) will be about 22 months apart. (NOTE: I became pregnant shortly after my second daughter had a five-day nursing strike. I had only one cycle and viola! I conceived.)
- EBF promotes healthy moms and babies. Generally, EBF moms and babies nurse more frequently and for a longer period of time, which allows them to maximize some of the health benefits of breastfeeding. I’m not going to expound on all the merits of breastfeeding in this post, but if you’re interested, check out some of the benefits La Leche League International outlines here.
- EBF often reveals that “nature knows best.” As Kippley writes in her book’s foreword:
“One of the things I have always liked best about the way breastfeeding spaces babies is that it is responsive to the needs of an individual baby. If you have a high need baby, who nurses frequently around the clock well into toddlerhood, you’ll probably find your fertility takes longer to return. That means this child has more time to receive the focused attention he or she needs.”
I couldn’t agree more with this. As I previously mentioned, I was frustrated when I couldn’t get pregnant sooner with my second child even after my cycle had returned. I’d always planned on having my kids closer together.
But God had a different and better plan.
My firstborn has never been a sleeper (she’s 4 now and was up at 2 AM last night; she still doesn’t always get the whole “sleeping through the night” idea). She was one of those babies who nursed constantly. Even as a preschooler, she still occasionally asks about nursing – more out of curiosity, I think, but she’s always been attached to me. Mom (and now sometimes Daddy or a grandparent) serve as her lovey. In other words, she demanded my full presence for a long time and having another baby too soon would have been very tough on the both of us. Truth is, I remember being very thankful my kids were 2 1/2 years apart after I had my second child. It worked out beautifully.
My second little one is still nursing occasionally, but she’s never nursed as much as her big sister, and she’s a sleeper (thanks be to God!). Breastfeeding has always been more about nutrition than comfort for her, and we did end up giving her pacifier to help with reflux. She also doesn’t co-sleep with us (although she did as an infant). We’ve tried to bring her in bed and she either starts playing or crying to go “night-night” in her crib. She has an elephant stuffed animal that’s her lovey. She’s not nearly as high need as her big sister, so again, my third pregnancy was perfectly planned by God. We thought we’d start “trying” for baby number three a few months after he or she was conceived. I realize that even though this baby was a surprise, it is meant to be and was tied into my current baby and my nursing habits (the nursing strike, as I mentioned, appeared to have kicked my fertility into gear).
I suppose all of this supports why my midwife prefers to call NFP God Family Planning.
- EBF is far more than just a “green” and natural form of mothering. In fact, for Catholics practicing NFP EBF allows couples to not have to brood over “just reasons” for avoiding a pregnancy. For those of you unfamiliar with Church teachings, the Catechism explains that,
“For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.” (CCC 2368)
What’s beautiful about EBF is that as a mom, I take care of the baby that’s in arms now, responding to her needs, nursing her when she’s cranky, hungry, or just in need of some mommy time and in doing so, I naturally suppress my ovulation and organically space my children.
- EBF also beautifully complements Pope John Paul II’s teachings on the Theology of the Body. When we breastfeed our babies on demand and fulfill their needs for frequent sucking, we are acting according to natural law; we are cooperating with the way God made us. That’s what “natural” mothering really boils down to: Acting according to the nature God created us and created our babies.
Now, some will argue that following the seven standards of EBF (outlined below) does not come naturally to mothers. And they may not in today’s society – just as natural childbirth or healthy eating are not as “easy” as they once were. For instance, we have a healthcare system, telling us birth is scary and medical interventions are necessary to keep mom and baby healthy (and sometimes they are, but more often the case, birth is not pathological, and a woman and her baby would be much better off if she was taught to trust her body and the labor process rather than fear it). As for wholesome noshing, our access to processed and convenience foods means we often opt for unhealthier choices simply because they are what’s on hand.
So if EBF does not come naturally to women, it’s not because it’s not innate; it’s because society has made it that way, and we need to do a better job of supporting moms in their roles as nurturers.
I’ll get off my mom soapbox now.
Perhaps you’re sold on EBF or you’re at least interested in learning more about how it works. This is where Kippley’s wonderful little handbook comes in.
Her book not only discussed ecological breastfeeding, how it is done and how it’s used to space babies, but it also touches upon the benefits of natural mothering.
The book outlines the seven standards of EBF and offers tips on how to apply them in your mothering life.
The seven standards include:
1. Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life; don’t use other liquids and solids, not even water.
2. Pacify or comfort your baby at your breast.
3. Don’t use pacifiers or bottles.
4. Sleep with your baby for night feedings.
5. Sleep with your baby for a daily-nap feeding.
6. Nurse frequently day and night, and avoid schedules.
7. Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby.
Again, I have to reemphasize that embracing EBF does not automatically make a woman a better mom. Moms can bond with the babies whether they breastfeed or not. Similarly, even the most committed breastfeeding moms may not follow all of the standards of EBF, and they will still forge a strong and healthy bond with their babies.
However, following these guidelines becomes more important if a woman is interested in the breastfeeding infertility that is achieved through EBF.
I do see EBF as a very natural form of mothering, partly because I just ended up spontaneously practicing it without even knowing what it even was initially. Thus, I have to assume there’s something instinctive about it. I admittedly didn’t follow all of the “standards” with my second child. And that’s okay. I still feel I met her needs (at least most of the time!).
One of the toughest standards for me to embrace is the daytime nap-feeding. The Type A in me has a hard time going down for a siesta, even when my body’s screaming at me to take a load off. Sleep when the baby sleeps? Ha! Not me. Nap time is when Mommy kicks into high gear and gets things done. Yet I’ve found that when I do allow myself to take a break and to snooze with my little one(s), we’re all better off. Sometimes “getting things done” involves cuddling with your baby and relaxing.
My resistance to napping aside, EBF has been rewarding and relatively easy for me. Yet, all moms have an upper limit to their martyrdom. What I’m saying is that there have, of course, been times when nursing on demand and without restriction can be tough. The truth is, whether you nurse or not, whether you adopt or give birth to your children, the call to parenthood is not always easy to answer.
I can remember being absolutely exhausted with my first who wanted to nurse endlessly through the night. But it’s during my toughest mothering moments that I remind myself why the Catholic Church portrays the virtue of charity as a mother nursing her child. Breastfeeding, and mothering in general, involves a total gift of self. And that, even though it’s sometimes far from easy, is a beautiful, sanctifying thing.
To purchase The Seven Standard of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor and to learn about Sheila Kippley’s other books, please visit the books page at NFP International.