Author: Nabila Fowles-Gutierrez
For the last few years, a multitude of international health agencies including UNICEF and WHO realized the benefits and importance breastfeeding. Maternal milk has been the subject of studies, academic papers and books. For midwives such as me and other healthcare professionals who have always supported the concept of breastfeeding, it has helped to arm us with the vital physiological, informational based on sound academic research.
However, one aspect of lactation seems to have been overlooked, and that is love. In our search for science and statistics, we seem to have forgotten the importance of something as basic as love within this process.
In my midwifery practice, I have spent many years helping women with breastfeeding concerns, and this can one of the most vulnerable times in a woman’s life, and it comes with many challenges. One of the challenges I face as a practitioner is balancing information-giving with practical and emotional support, making me realise how precious the years of motherhood are, and how supporting this passage in a loving way can help profoundly. Through this quagmire of information-giving, quoting statistics and focusing on offering “informed-choice” it can be easy to forget the basic and simple things which bring motherhood to life, without which the body sometimes is unable to function. The basic human connection of love.
Following birth, a great many physiological and hormonal changes take place in a woman’s body. One of the hormones which play a major part in this change is oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as a “love hormone”. It is produced deep within the brain by the pituitary gland. It is released by the brain and enters the blood stream, causing a number of physiological processes in the body. Following childbirth, this rise of oxytocin levels creates an overwhelming feeling of “love” between a mother and her baby, whist at the same time, triggering strong, powerful contractions within the uterus, causing the expulsion of the placenta. During the first hour or so following birth, this rise in oxytocin caused a surge of colostrums (first milk) from the mother’s breast. This understanding of physiology has led to a better understanding and approach to the management of childbirth in the first hour or so after delivery. Most midwives in the UK now understand that this first “golden hour’ following birth is extremely valuable in supporting breastfeeding.
You may ask “what has love go to do with it?” Well, our increased understanding of the role that hormones play in human behaviour is helping us to gain a better understanding of the approach we should take in supporting mothers who want to breastfeed their babies, and for me, it has helped me to gain a fuller understanding of the importance of supporting and nurturing “love”, particularly in these early days of motherhood.
During my years spent on busy postnatal wards, I have cared for and cuddled many crying Mums, who for whatever reason don’t feel that they can cope, and sometimes they feel like they have failed or are ready to give up, particularly when they feel unable to breastfeed. These Mums may have been up all night with a screaming baby, and unable to do anything at all. Sometimes, night staff have resorted to giving formula to babies, in a desperate attempt to calm things down. These poor women, in the morning, are often in a near-hallucinatory state of mind. My approach is always to go back to the beginning, and that means establishing one-to-one love. When I teach breastfeeding, I never start by teaching positions and attachment or giving too much information. I start with the basics of one-to-one human contact. This normally begins by stripping babies, down to a nappy, and asking Mum to undo her blouse, and I smile and hand Mum her baby, placing a big blanket over the two. Then I say “Breastfeeding isn’t just food…breastfeeding is everything to your baby, but most of all, it is LOVE”. I help Mum’s and babies to gaze into each other’s eyes, and I encourage Mums to talk or sing to their babies. I leave them for a while and come back to try to proceed to the feeding part and very often, I come back and find babies spontaneously feeding from a smiling Mummy. Other times, I might offer some hints and tips on positioning, and in nearly every case, with very few exceptions, with this confidence and empowerment, mums are able to breastfeed successfully.
Physiologically speaking this skin-to-skin contact, and increased sensory bonding helps to produce a rush of “love” oxytocin in both Mums and babies, and without these, there is no milk which will quench or satisfy a newborn. Babies need love, not just milk; literally, “the milk of LOVE”. A mother who is cooing and holding a baby will naturally be more inclined to feel love for her newborn, in turn the milk which is produced and stored in the breast can then be released to the baby. This surge of oxytocin also causes strong contractions in the uterus, which help to bring it back over time to its pre-pregnant state. The more time we take to reflect on the miracle of this simple act, the more we can be inspired. Love really is a miracle.
As Muslims, we can draw many lessons from this story of love, and indeed, it is at the heart of all creation. Firstly the story of love between Allah (SWT) and Adam (AS). Through His love for Adam, He created a companion who Adam could in turn to in love. The essence of how we are here is love, and without this biological and spiritual understanding, we would be disconnecting from the most basic of things. Being in tune with love at the most basic level helps us to connect our Creator and in turn the origins of mankind. Remembering that mothers’ milk is not just food but more importantly “love”, can help us to connect to the origins of mankind. What a wonderful and beautiful connection, alhamdoullilah!
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