Ecological Breastfeeding–A Crunchy Catholic’s Dissent

For those unfamiliar with this blog, here’s a few of my crunchy credentials: I cloth diaper, I make my own granola, I’ve had a non-hospital birth, I shop at a farmer’s market, a good deal of my food is organic, I own the Ergo baby carrier, I exclusively nurse my babies for six months and I continue nursing well-beyond, I frequent Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog, and, as revealed in a previous post, I’m considering growing a moss backyard :-)

But despite my general tendency to embrace a “natural” approach to life, I must dissent from the advocates of Ecological Breastfeeding (EBF).

Before I begin, I would like to thank all of our wonderful readers for a lively and thought provoking discussion regarding the recent changes at CCL. A special thank you to Sheila Kippley for her comment on my post.

I posted the end of Ms. Kippley’s comment below, but to view her thoughts in full, please see the comments on my What’s going on at CCL? post.

One respondent considered that a 40% return by 12 months was insufficient for many. There is no contradiction between practicing EBF [ecological breastfeeding] and practicing fertility awareness. According to the two studies we have posted on our website (Remfry and Prem), only 6% of breastfeeding mothers become pregnant before their first period no matter how they breastfeed. Experience shows that many, many mothers have ample signs of fertility when they ovulate prior to their first menses.

The statistics still stand. On the average, mothers who practice EBF will experience 14 to 15 months of breastfeeding amenorrhea. The 70% who experience 9 to 20 months of amenorrhea provide an almost exact mirror of the 68% of events within the first standard deviation of a normal distribution. EBF remains a wonderful form of natural family planning, and it is the preferred form for many. The normal distribution found in our studies will be found in other real life distributions, but only if the mothers follow the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding. Not following them is not “bad” or doing something “wrong,” but the biological reality is that the consequent reduction in suckling will most likely lead to a shorter duration of amenorrhea. People deserve to know all such facts so that they can make an informed decision.

As one of our other commenters noted, Sheila Kippley was a real pioneer in studying the effects of LAM in breastfeeding mothers. Many women, including myself, are grateful for her hard work and dedication to NFP research and instruction. As Ms. Kippley noted, it is a form of NFP that works really well for many women.

That being said, I would like to explain my own thoughts on EBF a bit more, and why I think CCL made the right move in getting rid of the 7 standards of EBF and opting instead to advocate only exclusive and continued breastfeeding.

Since EBF alone does not work for all women, it must be used in conjunction with fertility awareness for real reliability and, as a result, I don’t think it belongs as part of regular instruction in NFP courses. I do agree that NFP books should explain the connection between frequent suckling and LAM (as CCL does), but to advocate the 7 standards of EBF is taking things too far.

In addition, and more importantly, I don’t think that EBF is the gold standard of “natural mothering.” While I realize that there are quite a few women who choose to practice EBF, and I don’t condemn them for doing so, I hardly think that it the “ideal” way or the most “natural” way to mother one’s baby. It is just one way, and for many of us, it is not so obviously “natural.”

There are certain ways of mothering that are superior and preferred parenting choices that are natural and obvious to just about everyone. For example, it seems pretty obvious that God created a woman’s breasts to feed her infant. Alternating from this norm should only be done for a good reason, as even Pius XII once noted. Likewise, it seems pretty obvious that God intended a woman to birth her baby naturally, thus a c-section should only be performed for a good reason.

I don’t see the 7 standards of EBF as quite so obvious, and some of the standards may be very unnatural for many women. For those unfamiliar, the 7 standards are below:

1. Do exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life; don’t use other liquids and solids.
2. Pacify your baby at your breasts.
3. Don’t use bottles or pacifiers.
4. Sleep with your baby for night feedings.
5. Sleep with your baby for a daily-nap feeding.
6. Nurse frequently day and night, and avoid schedules.
7. Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby.

(Emphasis added). Specifically, #2, #4, #5, and #6, can seem a bit un-natural to many women.

First, there is nothing “natural” about regular, long term, sleep deprivation. There are many, many, women for whom frequent night waking to nurse, even while lying in bed with their baby, leaves them feeling exhausted and unable to function well. Sleeping in chunks of less than 4 hours leaves most people feeling exhausted, especially after several months of this. For many moms, a baby in your bed means less sleep, not more.

A daily nap leaves many women more drained than before they laid down, AND a daily nap may result in hours of insomnia later in the evening. Everyone’s body reacts differently to sleep, and so for some a nap will actually result in less overall rest. Personally, unless I am pregnant, napping always results in a significantly delayed bedtime with poorer quality sleep. So again, this standard is not rising to the level of obviousness as, say, breastfeeding or natural childbirth.

Again, avoiding schedules doesn’t seem so obvious. To me, human beings thrive when functioning on a daily schedule. Sure, unexpected alterations are necessary at times and an important part of life, but a schedule is a very “natural” part of a healthy lifestyle. It seems the goal should be to get baby onto a loose schedule—like all well-functioning human beings—not to avoid schedules altogether.

All this being said, I’m not offering you my own 7 standards of breastfeeding. I’m not saying that you need to get your baby on a schedule, or that your baby should be in a separate bed, or that you should avoid taking a nap. If EBF’s parenting techniques are working for you, enjoy it. I am simply saying that the 7 standards of EBF are hardly magisterial or even obviously “natural,” though the old CCL regime seemed to think so, as evidenced by the prior CCL manual:

  • Ecological breastfeeding is the type of nursing that respects the natural order.
  • Because this pattern of baby care is so much more than just feeding, we also call it natural mothering.

While Ms. Kippley’s comment did not go so far as to say mothers are morally required to follow the 7 standards, it is hard to read the old CCL manual without coming to the conclusion that any alternative to EBF is less than ideal—that is, inferior.

No poor mother, especially a young mom having her first baby, should go into motherhood thinking that she has some sort of moral obligation to uphold the 7 commandments of ecological breastfeeding. I think this is the reason that CCL ditched advocating EBF and started advocating the more obvious elements of breastfeeding—namely, breastfeeding that is exclusive (for the first 6 months) and continued (until child-led weaning). And for that I give them 2 thumbs up!

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