As a girl, I always liked cows. We were a family of milk-drinkers, and my dad was a farm broadcaster who edited a newsletter for dairy farmers, so I knew milk as a food, an ingredient to cook with, and even as a commodity. But being the youngest of a trio of formula-fed babies, I missed getting exposed to the notion that milk would become a medium of communication between me and my children, someday when I had kids of my own.
My first baby was born in 1968. In tune with the rebellious spirit of the times, I decided to breastfeed, partly because my mother, a modern, liberated woman who had her babies in the 30s and 40s, had chosen not to. In 1968 nobody knew very much about how it all worked—certainly not the people who took care of us in the hospital. Luckily my baby took charge of things on our first night home, with a marathon of suckling and pooping that went on for hours, giving me tangible proof that she was drinking plenty of milk even if I hadn’t seen a drop.
Over the next few weeks I spent lots of time reflecting on my life as a mammal. I figured if the other mammals knew how to take care of their babies without any lessons, then probably I could too, but I sure had lots of questions. Why did I get so thirsty when the baby nursed? (It was like a wind from the Sahara hitting my throat.) Why did the baby’s sucking make me sleepy? Why did my daughter smell so enticing? I had a degree from an Ivy League college, but no clue about what this small creature needed from me. I just had to go with the flow, and luckily—because mammals are designed for survival—things worked out OK.
Forty years later, I look back on thousands of hours spent sitting beside nursing mothers and babies in my career as a hospital nurse and board certified lactation consultant. The process of nurturing young mammals still enthralls me. Lactation science has answered my questions and many more that I never thought to ask, and to me it is still a marvel, the way a mother’s body, which surrounded her baby before birth, protects him afterwards…by providing warmth and touch and a soothing and soporific elixir that programs the baby’s immune system and feeds only friendly bacteria in his gut.
Mammals are successful because, unlike birds, they are not limited to breeding only where they can find food nearby for their babies. Mammal mothers make their babies’ food themselves, and the babies control production by the amount of milk they drink. I believe it is essential to protect this collaborative bodily link between a human adult and her young. I believe that our breasts confer upon us—verbal, techno-savvy humans—a mysterious power to communicate with our babies, skin against skin, no words and no gadgets necessary. I believe that I spent some of my best years living as a mammal, and I wish the same for mothers everywhere, until the end of time.