Question: What does Donald Trump have in common with a pair of breasts?
Answer: Not as much as he’d like you to think.
As my little human has grown, so has her interest in seeing other babies nurse. She makes happy squeaks when she gets to nurse along side another little friend. Watching her interest got me thinking about the impact that experience has on her development.
From birth till about kindergarten, children are immersed in the throws of what’s called “exuberant synaptogenesis,” a period of rapid brain development. What is particularly important about exuberant synaptogenesis is that it is during this time that the majority of experience-based synapse formation takes place. In simple terms—early experience translates to later skill, a theory proven across human and animal studies. For example, a study involving rats found that environmental enrichment enhances and accelerates synaptogenesis, while other research has demonstrated that when children have early, repeat experiences, they are better equipped to excel in those areas later in life. By ensuring children have a sensory rich environment to learn from, and in, we set them up for success. This is one of the many reasons why every child should have access to a high quality preschool program, but we’ll save that topic for another time.
With that little snippet in mind, how does the experience of seeing another mother/child dyad nursing impact my child? It turns out, there’s not a lot of research on this. But we can make some guesses.
- Seeing breastfeeding in public makes it the norm: Arguably, one of the reasons why breastfeeding rates continued to decline throughout the 20th century was because women saw fewer people breastfed in public following the rise of formula. It became unusual to see women nursing “in the wild,” inviting stigmatization and making it less acceptable. Not only did this trend make it difficult for breastfeeding women to leave their house with their new bundle of joy, but it also resulted in fewer opportunities to learn about breastfeeding through observation. The more breastfeeding we see, the more comfortable we are with it, the more we accept it, and the more we understand it. I want my daughter to grow up thinking breastfeeding is normal, healthy, beautiful, and to not be afraid to ask questions about the process.
- You learn what boobs are for: We live in a society where breasts are sexualized. Despite these disturbing trends, the breast is not inherently a sexual organ, and while it may be fun to include breasts into our sexual identities we are mammals, and the biological purpose of our mammaries is to feed a baby. I want my daughter to grow up with a firm understanding of the biological function of her breasts, and I think one way to fulfill this goal is to ensure she sees that purpose in action as often as possible.
- Nursing is love: At two-years-old, my toddler is forming synapses left and right. I strive to ensure that that development includes an understanding of love. That means providing her with many opportunities to practice what it means to be inclusive, kind, and caring for each other. And what better way to provide an environment that invites many opportunities to practice love early, then to observe a nursing bond between a mother and a child.
Recently, Donald Drumpf eloquently noted that “breastfeeding a child in public is one step away from becoming a professional stripper.” All I can say is my goodness. What early experiences encroached on your childhood to give you such a perverse view of breastfeeding, dear Drumpf? How did you whittle away at your period of exuberant synaptogenesis so that you missed the opportunity to learn about compassion, and failed entirely to grasp the true purpose of a breast? Science may have discovered that even an adult rat has the capacity to form new synapses when placed in the right environment, but I fear that our GOP front-runner may fail to share this quality with our rodent friends.