Birth is not just a painful hoop a woman must go through to meet her baby; rather it is a critical stepping stone that has major implications for breastfeeding and bonding over a lifetime. In fact, if we look at all other mammals (and remember, humans are mammals!), when birth gets messed up so does bonding, breastfeeding, sometimes even life itself. It has been said that if we want to fix breastfeeding, we must first fix birth. 1
When I was a child my friend’s cat had a litter of kittens. I thought they were the cutest little kittens I’d ever seen and ran to pick one up. But I wasn’t allowed too…because everyone knew that if I touched a baby and took it from her mother the mother might reject it and the baby could die. Now, of course humans have brains with great reasoning skills and we don’t typically reject our babies when the doctors take them off to be weighed and have other “normal newborn procedures” done to them. But the point is still the same. . . our births in the western world have become so medicalized, so far from natural, we don’t even recognize birth interventions as a valid reason for breastfeeding complications.
Other mammal mothers labor in a quiet, dark, relaxing place, upright, with as much food/drink as they like – without bright lights, stressful surroundings, medications, and time constraints. They immediately lick, touch, or nurse their young after birth. And when their babies are taken away, or when birth interventions are done, there is a high rate of rejection, breastfeeding problems, and even death. Among mammals, a sign of good mothering is being fiercely protective. 2
Contrast this scene to a common birth in the west: in a hospital, lying down, monitors on, with drugs, an unfamiliar setting, bright lights, stress of time constraints and medical staff doing “routine” checks and coming and going, dutifully “obeying” the system. Deliveries many times involve forceps or vacuum extractions, episiotomies, or even C-sections. Babies are promptly cleaned (we must get that icky goo off, we believe!), weighed, given an injection, oral suctioned, and the list goes on. The baby is then dressed, swaddled, and, finally, given to his mother. Delayed skin-to-skin, no opportunity for mom and baby to bond with the initial smells before cleaning, no chance to soak in such an amazing experience and bask in the wonderful hormones of love, attachment, and bonding those critical minutes/hours after birth offer. A typical hospital birth today is about as opposite to a natural birth as possible.
It’s incredibly rare for a normal mammal not to nurse. Why is it so common for human babies? Well, birth really does matter! And birthing practices definitely have an impact on breastfeeding success.