Saturday, November 7, 2009

Feeding Ain't Easy (But It's Necessary)

Feeding a baby is one of those frustrating tasks where you have to rely on conventional wisdom, teasing out sensible advice from baseless truisms. Everyone's an expert, convinced that they have the nutritional key to raising a healthy, well-fed child. The problem is, there's a lot of different information floating around out there, a lot of it contradictory. Even among actual experts, such as pediatricians and lactation consultants, there's a lot of disagreement. And it's not something that can be easily cleared up through scientific experimentation; who on earth would enroll their child in a study where they could possibly end up malnourished or poisoned? So it's left to us, the parents, to figure out how best to feed our babies.

Take breastfeeding, for example. To new moms today, it is touted as the best, dare I say the only way, to properly feed your newborn. If you feed your poor defenseless child from a bottle of formula, you are condemning him or her to a life of bad health, below-average intelligence, and emotional attachment issues. Any woman can breastfeed, with the proper support and motivation. At least, that's what breastfeeding advocates (or lactivists, as they're sometimes called) swear by. If for some reason your breasts don't produce milk, it's because you weren't trying hard enough. You have failed your second test of motherhood (the first being an unmedicated "natural" birth).

This is, of course, total horseshit. What should matter, above all else, is that your child has enough to eat. If you can produce enough high-quality milk from your breasts, well, good for you. I'm serious. You're very lucky. Some women have problems, and this is where sound reasoning has to trump feelings of inadequacy.

My baby, for example, was born big and hungry. His blood sugar was dangerously low minutes after his birth. There was no question of whether or not a bottle of formula was appropriate. It was medically necessary to prevent long-term damage to his brain and organs. My husband informed me of this about a half-hour later, as I lay in the recovery room after my C-section. My first question upon hearing this, and the only one that really mattered to me, was, "Is he all right?" And yes, he was just fine.

While I still wanted to breastfeed (hey, it's free, readily available baby food), I didn't consider it a massive failure to have a false nipple inserted into my son's mouth before my real one could get there. I brought him to my breast as soon as I could. But it quickly became apparent that my colostrum just wasn't doing it for him. Rather than watch him scream with hunger, I supplemented with the formula provided by the hospital.

You're probably expecting me to say that he's now a formula fed baby, and doing fine, but actually, he's a titty baby all the way. You see, instead of feeling like I had failed hat breastfeeding and giving up, I stuck with it. It hurt at first, and sucked hard (no pun intended), but I was determined. Eventually, my milk came in, abundantly, and as soon as it did, bottles were history. If I had bought into the false either/or dichotomy of breast versus bottle, we'd be struggling now to pay for his formula, adding extra stress to our lives and further straining our budget.

He's five months old now, and we've added solid food to his diet. There are as many different opinions on this subject as there are kinds of parents. Some experts advocate starting early, around four months, and introducing baby to a variety of flavors and textures right off the bat. Others caution to exclusively breastfeed until six months, at which point single grains can be introduced, one at a time with at least a week between them. Some people say to introduce veggies before fruit. Others say it doesn't matter a whit what order foods are introduced in (I tend to agree). Some people are convinced that babies can easily develop food allergies if the wrong food is added at the wrong time. So how do we parents know who to listen to? Which of these experts has the right answer?

Hell, don't ask me. I'm trying to figure this stuff out, too. Ultimately I've had to rely on that old standby, observation and common sense. Basically, I'm feeding him stuff and seeing what happens.

I take precautions, of course. No big chunks that he could choke on, no citrus (too acidic), nothing too hot or spicy (though I do love to add a sprinkle of cinnamon to his fresh applesauce, and will continue to do so until someone gives me a good reason not to). Instead of having a rigidly timed feeding schedule, I feed him when he's hungry and stop when he's full.

How do I know I'm feeding him the "right" way? Because he's doing fucking great, that's how. He's robust, good-natured, and energetic. He sleeps well, poops fairly often, and has yet to come down with sniffles or a fever.

I worked in child care for many years and have seen scores of pale, listless, underfed kids. And all too often, they were the result of parents who chose one expert's advice to follow, at the exclusion of all others. They believed they were feeding their children the right way and nothing could change their minds.

The point is, I don't have all the answers. No one person does. It doesn't hurt to listen to the experts, but we all have to figure it out for ourselves, based on what seems to be working for us and our babies.

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