“Watch Your Language: Should ‘Intimate’ Be Used To Describe Breastfeeding?”, a post on the site Blacktating, stimulated a lively discussion. Author Elita’s point: a photo of a woman breastfeeding (she shares a specific example) should not be considered intimate – “intimate” implies something private and sexual. Although breastfeeding can be a tender time of bonding, it’s often “just a meal”. It should be openly engaged in anywhere and not necessarily given special attention, or any attention. “Although I did stare into my son’s eyes and kiss his fingers and yes, cry, while he nursed, I also read books and magazines, fooled around on Facebook, watched TV and was downright bored.”
Commenters disagreed with Elita about the term ‘intimate’ connoting sexuality, but most concurred that while breastfeeding can be a time of love and intimacy, it is just as often “servicing” a baby. “Fast food”, one mom called it.
‘Intimate’ is not just a sexual word in my book (or the dictionary for that matter), and there’s no getting around the fact that breastfeeding is a physically intimate activity. My point (and infant expert Magda Gerber’s belief ): babies need it to be emotionally intimate, too. That doesn’t mean we have to be behind closed doors, staring in each other’s eyes. But it does mean being present, whether we’re feeling bored, tired, impatient or lonely, whether our eyes are open or closed, whether we’re in the middle of a shopping mall, on a bus stop bench, or cozy in our chair at home. Our baby needs us to share the experience, to include him, not be somewhere else.
What disturbs me is not a mom’s choice to make a particular feeding session “just a meal”. It is the assumption that our choice makes no difference to a baby. There is a perception implicit in the comments in the Blacktating discussion, elsewhere on the web, and pervasive in our culture that babies are not as conscious and aware as you and me. They are not fully present, not quite real people yet. I once had this view myself, so I understand it. But, in fact, recent studies like the ones reported in Jonah Lehrer’s Wired Science – The Frontal Cortex show that babies are even more aware than we are, because they lack the neurological ability older children and adults have to tune out stimuli.
What is our baby thinking when we’re watching TV or on Facebook while he’s sucking away? Does he feel valued…or totally insignificant? How might our inattention affect his self-worth? Granted, it is easy to underestimate and ignore a person who has very limited communication abilities. Babies can’t ask for our attention. They accept what we give and come to expect it, but isn’t that all the more reason to give them the benefit of any doubt?
Our baby is new to the world, and every moment we spend touching and holding him is a lesson about intimacy, about what it means to be in a relationship with another. We don’t have to be a perfect parent — stuff happens, and we can’t always be attentive while we feed our baby. We just have to perceive our baby as a person, a partner, and have the good intention to include him whether it works out each time or not. That might mean acknowledging, “I’m sorry, I’m so tired that I’m going to close my eyes while you drink, but I love you.” Or, “It’s loud and distracting here, I know. “ Or even, “Just let me accept this friend request and I’ll be right back with you.”
Bloggers like Elita, who created her site “because of her passionate commitment to breastfeeding”, are admirably spreading the word that breastfeeding is the optimal choice for mothers and should be openly accepted and encouraged by society. I share her concern that the notion of attentive feeding can be intimidating and overwhelming for new moms, who may be struggling to establish breastfeeding, needing to do whatever it takes to get through the early months. But the issue is not about being perfectly attentive every time. It’s an attitude. It’s making those times when we’re distracted the exception, so our babies can learn that physical and emotional intimacy belong together.
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