For many women, new motherhood is a time when wellness habits fly out the window—and rightly so. When you’re drenched in spit-up and the idea of getting three (let alone eight) hours of uninterrupted sleep seems like crazy talk, you do what you need to get by.
But as Jennifer Grayson explains in her new book Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy, there is something new and new-ish mothers can do for their wellness: breastfeed.
An environmental journalist and self-proclaimed extended-breastfeeding, tandem-nursing mother of two, Grayson views the maternal act as an inherent part of human development.
“For thousands, perhaps millions of years of human history, breastfeeding was a natural, intuitive experience,” writes Grayson. “It was a biological process that informed not only our personal physical development, but also our unique psychological evolution and even our earliest memories here on earth.”
While others may talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, she believes that it goes way beyond just being a nice, non-essential boost to mothers and children alike.
Here’s why Grayson says breastfeeding is an underappreciated part of overall wellness.
It makes moms healthier, as well as babies
For mothers, Grayson says, “not breastfeeding is associated with increased incidence of certain types of breast cancers, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.”
Plus, breastfeeding passes on a load of health benefits for your baby, including better brain development, a new study shows. Formula-fed babies are at greater risk of a lot of different health issues, Grayson says, including (but not limited to) gastrointestinal, respiratory, and ear infections, as well as obesity. “Risk of obesity doesn’t mean that if you use formula, your baby is going to be fat,” she clarifies. “It’s just one factor that may tip the scale in that direction.”
It also helps at that all-important mind-body level
“The two hormones responsible for milk production—oxytocin and prolactin—are also the ones associated with love, human bonding, and a sense of well-being,” Grayson says.
In Grayson’s mind, it’s a shame that society has focused largely on the nutritional aspects of breast milk and overlooked the human connection factor, which she says has deep physiological and emotional roots.
But the wellness angle needs more attention
Even men and women who have no interest in having kids have likely heard the maxim: breast is best.
But it doesn’t mean a whole lot in the face of what Grayson calls the utter absence of support for moms who want to breastfeed. She laments the fact that the US has not protected the right to breastfeed in public and that universal workplace pumping laws lack any enforcement provisions. So if someone objects, the law gives no guidance as to what to do next.
“Is it any wonder that while 80 percent of American moms now start out breastfeeding, half will give it up either entirely or start supplementing with formula within a few weeks?” she asks.
It’s tricky. On the one hand, no one wants to guilt new moms who are unable to breastfeed or who find it really challenging. But Grayson also argues that “because we’re not willing to talk about breastfeeding as a critical public health issue, as a critical societal issue—as a critical human issue—for fear of shaming mothers who can’t…well, unfortunately this issue is never going to be seen as important enough to warrant changing the system so that women get the support we so desperately need.” It’s such a key piece of the well-being puzzle, we can’t afford to not help mamas out.
You know what else is good for women? Plenty of rest and relaxation. Here’s how to go on a retreat like a celebrity. And if you’re pregnant right now, this celeb-fave smoothie specifically made for moms-to-be might be your superfood savior.