Breasts: Everything You Want to Know but Never Thought to Ask
When I started nursing my first son, my mother—who also served as my baby-nurse, doula, housecleaner and unpaid intern—provided all kinds of new-parent advice, particularly when it came to breastfeeding. (Unlike many women of her generation who were told formula trumps breast milk, my mother stuck with the real thing.) In any event, by day five or so, we became desperate to get my son to sleep at night rather than during the day. He would one day return home to his roots, New York City. But he was born in London, so perhaps he came out jetlagged. His sleeping schedule was backwards and there seemed to be nothing we could do about it. He was sound asleep by day. Alert and fussy, sundown to sunrise. My mom was determined to cure his topsy-turvy sleep pattern through my diet and breast milk.
Here’s what she ordered, I mean suggested:
1. Avoid caffeine. It seeps into breast milk, giving the baby the jitters.
2. Avoid garlic: It will upset his belly
3. Avoid too much alcohol. It will intoxicate the poor dear.
I really wanted my morning cup of coffee and my evening cocktail. Pasta seemed an overly typical dinner then—very easy. And I liked mine slathered in garlic. And while my mother was smirking when I drank my coffee, had my wine, and my garlic, I wasn’t convinced that my breast milk–or anyone else’s for that matter—was the waste bin for everything in my system. Wasn’t there some kind of internal recipe? I pictured my body as a pantry closet of sorts and my breasts as the cooks, picking and choosing the right ingredients to make my baby’s food.
So between my crankiness and my mother’s words of wisdom, I did what any reporter and daughter would do. As a diligent reporter, I hunted for scientific research about breast milk. And, as an immature daughter, I was motivated to prove my mother wrong. This was 1993 and I couldn’t find any valid scientific studies anywhere. I even proposed the topic to my editor at the time who liked the idea about breast milk research, but I came up empty-handed.
Florence Williams, a science-writer and reporter extraordinaire, did a much better job than I. She had the same curiosity years later and not only wrote a terrific New York Times magazine piece but developed that piece into a fascinating book, aptly titled, Breast. Nursing is only one small section, she has expanded her topic into all things breast.
Here’s a few things she found. But you’ll have to read the whole thing to get the other juicy stuff. I don’t want to ruin the ending.
1. Did you ever wonder why men have nipples. Well, here’s why? Because we all begin life the same. I’m talking just a few weeks post-conception. In the first month or so, our little pre-fetal bodies build the foundation to make us human. And at that stage, we are primed to go either way. So all babies have two parallel milk ridges. If you are XX (destined to be a girl) those ridges will eventually turn into milk-manufacturing machines, puffed up by estrogen. If you are XY (boy), testosterone stops the factory and you are left with two rudimentary dots poking out.
2. Another fun fact: In 2009, 289,000 women had cosmetic breast augmentation surgery. But to see what that really entails, you’ve got to read William’s chapter about her journey to a cosmetic surgeon in Texas. She’s from Colorado but ventured to one of the most popular big-breast-makers in the country. Apparently, he can make any self-confident woman feel physically unfit and in dire need of knife work.
3. What’s in your breast milk? Well, Williams sent off a sample of her stuff to Germany and had it tested for flame-retardants and it turns out that her breast milk levels were ten to one hundred times higher than those found in European women. What does that mean in terms of breast vs. bottle? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
BTW: I didn’t send my breast milk to a chemist—but after reading her book, I thought I missed a really good opportunity. I did do my own little unscientific experiment. Once my son was on a really great routine—sleeping 8pm to 8am, something my subsequent three babies would never do—I created a few variables. One day, while still nursing, I had a few shots of espresso. He still had the same sleeping pattern. (Though I felt horrible). Next day I drank two bottles of red wine (for scientific purposes, of course). He still slept the same, and didn’t act tipsy at all. And one day, I ate tons of sautéed garlic. Again, my son was fine. But my husband complained that I stunk up the whole bed with garlicky odors oozing out of my skin. I’m not really sure what I proved. And I have friends who swore that one Coke kept their baby buzzed for hours.
The point is that if you curious not just about breast milk about our societal obsession with breasts—and you are looking for a fun and informative read—you’ve gotta get a copy of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. It’s a fun book to walk around with. I notice raised eyebrows as I brought it on the subway.
Here’s a my short Q and A with Florence:
Me: What drove you to investigate your breast milk?
Florence: I think it occurred to me that modern life had really changed breast milk and also changed breasts in so many other ways. As I began to look at so many stages of breasts from mammary glands through puberty and pregnancy, and that modern life has changed it—not just because of industrial life, but because of reproductive life and diet. The breast is so responsive and sort of mutable. I began to wonder if evolution really designed it that way—to be so responsive to the environment. And yes, our breasts are designed to be sensitive to the world around us. During the last trimester of pregnancy, they pick up these cues both from the body and the outside the body.
Me: But aren’t other body parts—as in our entire body—responsive to the environment?
Florence: Yes, there must be other body parts that are sensitive. The liver, for instance. But they are not as fun to write about. You get that cultural weight with the breast, physically, environmentally. We demand a lot from them.
Me: Your book reads so well because it’s your personal journey into breasts, in terms of bras, nursing, plastic surgery, size, sexuality. What made you decide to write it in the first person, as opposed to say, a third person narrative about breasts?
Florence: It wasn’t really a stretch for me to add the first person, because my magazine journalism is often done that way. I find a little (but just a little) personality and guidance from the writer can help make the material more accessible, humorous and zippy. And as we all know, science writing sometimes needs help. Of course, you don’t want to be a cloying and self-absorbed. That distracts from the science. And you don’t want to come across as smug or smarter than anyone else, so that’s the cautionary note.
Me: So after your chemical analysis of breast milk, do you think breast feeding is safe?
Florence: I definitely wanted to ask this question: is breastfeeding safe? I learned formula isn’t perfect either. It’s contaminated and adulterated depending on the containers you use and the water. So it’s pretty clear the benefits (of breast milk) outweigh the risks. But as a mother, I feel pretty angry that we have compromised this perfect food. And so in a way, it politicized me and got me more interested in environmental health. I had been writing about environmental topics but it was disconnected from health. This really opened up this new world to me, just about how vulnerable we are.
Please share your stories about your breastfeeding, breast surgery, or breast thoughts.