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The Colors & the Seasons

Delicious Milk

It's dawn and because of the atmospheric conditions and the temperature (temperature 36 degrees, humidity 59%, overcast with a chance of snow), the sky on the horizon is this amazing baby pink, lacking some of  the usual orange tones of sunrise. The traceries of silouhetted leafless trees give our yard the look of a children's book illustration. And by the time I finish the sentence, the pink has vanished, replaced by bluegray light with only a hint of pink.

I've been reading two seemingly unrelated books, Fiona Giles's Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts (mentioned in an earlier post) and Michael A. Schmidt's Brain-Building Nutrition. I'd gotten through much of the Schmidt book before we left for Thanksgiving. I took the Giles book with me to Massachusetts.

We stayed at the Fairview Inn in Brant Rock (in the Powder Point room, which can be seen on the virtual tour), where we also had Thanksgiving dinner. (David's mother has sold her house to a relative, though she still lives in it. So we don't stay there anymore as there isn't room.) Our room had a bay window facing the ocean, so I watched the sunrise from the bed, reading Fresh Milk and occasionally nursing Elizabeth. There was a seal out on the rocks. At first I though I was mistaken, that it was just a couple of birds I saw, but when we went down to breakfast, our hostess pointed it out, calling it "our resident seal."

Fresh Milk is a scattered, digressive book -- part survey, part anthology of essays, part collection of essays by Giles -- which tries to take on the deeper issues involved with breastfeeding which mostly don't come up in the usual books on breastfeeding

I'll digress myself and say that as someone who had breast fed for over two years of my life, I have read my share of breastfeeding tracts. They are usually part how-to, part pep talk. They have their uses. Back when Peter was first born and I was having problems breastfeeding him, the solution to my problem was not in any of them. Nor did the hospital's lactation consultants solve the problem for me. (Instead, they rented me a breast pump, which bought me the three weeks I needed to figure out how to solve it.) I found the solution in an older, more scientifically oriented book on infants which contained a longer list of infant reflexes than any of the current books. As it turned out, if I was very careful not to let the breast touch the skin between Peter's upper lip and his nose, he could latch on just fine. He nursed until thirteen months, when he seemed to lose interest. In retrospect, I perhaps should have pressed the point, since he had wall-to-wall ear infections until he was two, and also several bouts of pneumonia. He could have benefitted from the support of my immune system, I think.

Elizabeth is now thirteen months old. She seems to be going through a growth spurt and so nurses very frequently, day and night. She shows no signs of giving it up, which is fine. Nonetheless, how to proceed when she starts to lose interest is a subject I've been thinking about.

The two subjects most important to me in the Giles book are (1) the actual nature of breast milk and what it really is and does and (2) the child's view of breastmilk.

My body is producing a unique and miraculous substance. Should I leave the decision of when and whether to stop producing it up to an infant? And if I take charge of this myself, what does this entail? And what are the costs and benefits to me of being the family cow?

Taking the child's point of view is a shock to me because it's so obvious. When babies are born, their behavior seems half-instinct, half-reflex. And it is in the newborn phase, when everything within six feet of me seemed to get coated with breastmilk, that I'd formed my ideas on this: it's not very palatable to an adult, but babies are programmed to want it. But when one-year-old Elizabeth approaches the breast saying "Yum yum yum yum yum," and smacking her lips, this is not reflex and instinct. She means it. She's a walking talking sentient little girl who thinks breastmilk is delicious. Breastfeeding is so seamlessly integrated into my life that I had ignored this.

Brain-Building Nutrition has extensive discussions of brain nutrition and breastfeeding. In significant respects Elizabeth is what I eat. My diet has not been high is trans-fatty acids to begin with, but having read this book, I've resolved to try to get off them as completely as our food supply allows. Trans-fatty acids cause the body to produce a compound which replaces essential DHA in the brain, changing nerve conduction. It is more concentrated in the breast milk than in the maternal diet. (There is, by the way, a really good piece on dietary fats and the human brain on the Franklin Institute's web site.)

Also, thinking about nutrition, breastfeeding, brain nutrition, and brain development connects you immediately to larger issues: How, exactly, did all that mercury get into the ocean and into the very fish that are richest in Omega 3 fatty acids? The next book I want to read is Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber. There's a very intriguing interview with her I found on the web this morning. She says that coal-fired power plants are a main source of mercury in the world's fish supply. I've ordered a copy of her book.