Breastfeeding During the Holidays

By Ellen Rubin, IBCLC

Celebration! Lactation!! Aggravation???

Start with new parents, eager to show off their recent family addition. Combine with one extended family, primed with holiday excitement. Mix thoroughly in close quarters for a prolonged period. Now there’s a recipe for disaster that you won’t find in any cookbook!

While the holidays can bring many happy times, having a new baby in the family introduces some new dynamics to family relations, and parents may not foresee the stressful developments that can emerge. Whether you’re nursing a newborn or an older child, the holidays may bring out the best — and worst — in helpful hints and gestures from those closest to you.

“When can I hold the baby? Will I ever get my turn?”

If you’re the parent of a new baby, you’ll soon find that your relatives feel entitled to a piece of her. If she’s under one month old, you can truthfully say that your doctor has instructed you not to let anyone hold the baby. Babies have immature immune systems, and not only is this the season of celebration, but it’s also the season of viruses. If you think your baby needs a break from being held by others, you can try keeping her in a carrier against your body, which may help keep prying hands away. With an older child, you may feel more relaxed about the type of access you give, but the greater challenge can be getting the baby back. Whenever you feel you and your child need some time together, be assertive in letting whoever has your baby know that your baby needs to nurse.

“Can I give the baby a bottle? It’s not fair that you’re the only one who gets to feed the baby!”

People are often under the mistaken assumption that they need to offer a baby a bottle in order to bond with him, or that learning to take a bottle is an important developmental milestone. Neither of these claims is true. You may have already introduced your baby to a bottle and welcome assistance with feeding, but often if you are together with your child, then nursing is a lot easier than bottle feeding. After all, each time you nurse, that’s one less bottle to pump, a boost to your milk supply, and an opportunity to have your child to yourself for a while. When a baby is given a bottle, consider the motives: is this because Mom wants a break and welcomes the assistance, or is it for the pleasure of the person holding the bottle? Often a “relief” bottle is not much of a relief for Mom or baby.

“When are you going to wean that child? WHAT? You’re still breastfeeding?”

You can always quote the professionals when this topic comes up. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about the first 6 months of a child’s life and continued breastfeeding until the baby is at least one year old. Breastmilk will be your child’s primary food for the first 12 months of his life, but as soon as you introduce solids, then by definition, the weaning process has begun. At that point, if you’d like to, you can truthfully say, “We’ve started weaning him,” even though you know that you’re expecting this process to evolve over many months.

“Can she try a bit of mashed potatoes? I made my special jello casserole especially for her; she has to try it!”

In the 5 seconds it takes you to plunk your carrot into the sour cream onion dip, you look up only to see a relative about to offer your baby a bit of ice cream or some other “treat.” Chances are, this isn’t how or when you planned to introduce solid foods. “No thanks, all she needs right now is breastmilk” is a quick, appropriate response. Of course, you can also launch into a speech on the risks of foreign proteins and a greater likelihood of allergies for early food introduction as well, if you want to solidify your oddball standing in your relative’s eyes.

While you may feel game to play “pass the baby” for a while, your baby may not enjoy close encounters with your relatives as much as they enjoy him. Stranger anxiety can begin as early as 3 months, and most children experience a few months of it sometime during their first 12 months. And, let’s face it, what’s stranger than some of your relatives? When you do get your baby back, often all that is needed to diffuse her tension and reconnect is a nursing session. Breastfeeding satisfies a baby’s emotional needs, in addition to her nutritional ones.

At gatherings of family or friends, you’ll get lots of unsolicited advice about breastfeeding and babies. If you’re lucky, you may receive some great tips from other experienced mothers. But if the advice is unwanted or incessant, be prepared with a quick line such as, “Thanks for sharing your thoughts — I’ll keep that in mind.” Such escape lines offer an easy way to end the line of conversation without offending a well-intentioned advice-giver. You may also want to point out your philosophy about breastfeeding and other aspects of parenting with others. Some people may be interested in hearing more about your parenting without criticizing your approach, and you can express yourself openly and engage in healthy discussions with them. Sometimes, it just may not be worth the effort.

Finally, remember: Amidst the hustle and bustle of the holidays, a nursing session with your child can provide an island of peace for both of you. The release of oxytocin during nursing is calming to both you and your child. Whether you nurse among the party revelers or choose to find a private space, allow yourself to enjoy this baby time without feeling guilty. There will be plenty of time to hear about Aunt Petunia’s gout later on in the festivities.