by Barbara L. Behrmann, Ph.D.
Several years ago, when asked if there were times when she was particularly grateful she was nursing, a mother told me,
When my son was a six month-old, we had a big flood and lost power for two or three days. Trees were down so you couldn't get anywhere and none of the stores were open because they didn't have power. But I didn't have to worry about running to the store to get formula or worry about what condition the water was in. I could just nurse him.
Her words came back to me during the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I thought about how tragic it was that so many babies would suffer because their food supply -- formula -- had suddenly vanished. With no transportation, electricity, refrigeration, or access to supplies, the conditions families faced were not unlike than those that plague poor families living in countries less privileged than the U.S. How much easier it would have been if those mothers had been breastfeeding. It's likely that some mothers were nursing, of course, but statistically, breastfeeding rates in the southeast are the lowest in the country. And African-American women -- those women whose lives were most devastated by the hurricane -- have lower rates than women in other demographic groups.
Coping with an emergency situation like a hurricane is seldom mentioned as a reason for nursing. But talk to any breastfeeding mother who has lived through such an event and she'll tell you otherwise. I know a woman, for example, who years ago was stuck in traffic during an unexpected winter storm. It took her eight hours to drive the fifteen miles home. She was famished by the time she got back, but her six week old nursing son was just fine. It's not just bad weather or a natural disaster that can make nursing women feel grateful. Preventing dehydration during illness. Avoiding ear pain. These are just two more advantages associated with breastfeeding that your health care provider is unlikely to tell you about.
There are other occasions, too, in which breastfeeding makes mothering easier and babies more content. When my first daughter was two, for example, she fell and hit her mouth on a car's metal door frame. Her hysterical cries quickly turned to rhythmic whimpers as I put her to my breast. I held a cold washcloth against the cut on her chin, while the pressure from her sucking stopped the blood from the cut on the inside of her lip. Before long, she had soothed herself to sleep. Magic.
A mother in Missouri discovered that when her daughter came down with an intestinal virus, she couldn't hold anything down. But even when she refused to drink water, she would nurse.
I had horrible visions of what could happen if she wasn't breastfeeding, she remembers,
things I knew other parents had gone through: dehydration, frantic efforts to force-feed electrolyte solutions, even hospital IV-drips. Fortunately, nursing both comforted her and kept her adequately hydrated. I was extremely grateful we got through her illness so easily without having to take drastic, unpleasant measures.
The scenarios are endless. Mothers who travel by plane discover that nursing helps prevent ear discomfort during take off or landing. A mother in Alabama found that applying breast milk helped with a mild case of diaper rash or pink eye. Another mother discovered that the only way she could convince her two year-old to lean her head back far enough to rinse out the shampoo was to sit in the tub with her and nurse.
Breastfeeding can ease personal challenges, too. When life seems overwhelming, breastfeeding can be a source of light during an otherwise dark time. One young woman, for example, became a mother during a very unsettled time of her life. In reflecting on those days, she recalls that nursing her daughter
was the one thing that remained constant during the chaos of not having a place to live, of moving from place to place, of having huge problems with my boyfriend. It was our comfort zone, the one thing we could rely on.
Pick up any pamphlet on breastfeeding and undoubtedly you'll read all about reasons breast milk is good for babies. But remember there are many other benefits not likely to make it into a scientific study. They may be harder to measure or quantify, but you never know when they may be equally important.