Friday, June 24, 2011

A Journey though the “Milky Way”: Nursing past a year and astrophysics

This is a continuation in a series about breastfeeding and being an astrophysicist. Note that all of us have a role in being supportive of mothers who wish to nurse their babies. Just as a reminder, breastmilk is best for babies and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends nursing until 2 years of age. Thus far, I have been very proud of astronomy as a discipline for being a leader among the hard sciences in sensible workplace practices and attention to diversity issues. Breastfeeding awareness is part of this!

My April 2011 blog was entitled “taking my own advice” in that I always encourage new mothers to not try to figure out nursing on their own. Nearly everyone has difficulties at the beginning and it does not mean that you are faulty and need to move to formula. I have been encouraging mothers to reach out to other nursing mothers to compare notes and support each other. After all, it used to be that everyone did this well past a year... it was not expected that you would figure this out on your own!

So, realizing that at nearly 15 months I could use some advice, I asked for mothers to share their stories of being astrophysicists and nursing past a year. I got several wonderful (long!) replies. I heard from tenured faculty, postdocs, instrument builders, etc.

Note that according to Baumgartner’s “Mothering Your Nursing Toddler”, the most intensive period for nursing is the time period from 12 months to about 18 months. It turns out that if you do offer, toddlers want to nurse. It continues to be very beneficial to both mother and nursling.

Interestingly, the women who wrote in were encouraging of me to keep it up. They were all astronomers. One mentioned that she was determined to make it to a year and after that, just took it a few months at a time. That is where I am right now. The women who replied nursed 20 months – 3 years and noted that weaning was something that happened fairly gradually, with nursing dipping to once per day or less often near the end.

I loved this quote from a woman who nursed her child to 2 years during grad school: “It is wonderful to cuddle them, and know you have a secret weapon that helps chill them out as their brains grow and grow.”

Folks definitely mentioned that the unwelcome comments increase during the second year. There was more unsolicited advice about weaning. According to Baumgartner, these comments actually peak during the second year. If you make it past the second birthday, I guess people have figured out you aren’t going to be swayed by their weaning advice.

Covering up becomes more challenging (one person noted that the child was doing “flips” during nursing). I recall being concerned about this just yesterday on a plane back from Boston. I had two male colleagues on the plane and made a point to sit next to strangers (Southwest! Choose your seat!) so if my daughter decided to put on a show at least it wasn’t seen by my colleagues.

From another astronomer came this, about the role we ALL play in supporting nursing:

"Supportive words from other women astronomers were also greatly appreciated -- in this respect, I was very fortunate that my advisor was a woman with a toddler, but even casual comments by senior women at conferences along the lines of "well, you just need to nurse during take-off and landing" were helpful. My husband accompanied me to a couple of conferences with my son in tow (in order to bring my son to me to be nursed during breaks), and I know that he was very pleased when MALE astronomers occasionally approached him and said things like "It's great that you and your wife have come to this conference with your baby... when we had our kids, everyone told us it was too hard".

There was quite a bit about the cuddling and re-connecting after a work day. One female astronomer mentioned that their son would crawl into bed to nurse and they would lounge around as a family, drinking tea together. This mirrors some mornings I have with my husband, our dog and my daughter. I don't have to get up to get some early-morning breakfast for our daughter, she can nurse and hang out for a while.

Several women expressed that after a year it was less stressful to nurse as their child wasn’t completely dependent upon them for nourishment. It was mentioned that when trauma in one’s life came up, that having this connection really helped them to nurture their child when in other ways it was or would have been difficult.

Several people mentioned seeking out support. This is still important after a year. Several people mentioned to me that I could do it. Yes, it really is possible to maintain an astrophysics career and nurse!

Speaking of seeking out support, at this point I would like to give a shout-out to the Chandra X-ray Center for amazing accommodation of my 15-month-old nursling this past week. I made it through 2.5 intensive days in Boston without having to pump as my mother-in-law was there and I was able to nurse my daughter at all the breaks. Several people on the CXC staff made sure we were well taken care of (my mother-in-law was able to eat meals with us, we had a refrigerator and crib, etc.). I think their policy is pretty smart: if they ask me to do something for them again, you know I'm going to be inclined to do it!