I've often remarked that Breastfeeding is the "gateway drug" to conscious parenting. While this is certainly an oversimplification – not every breastfeeding family parents in the same way, and parenting in a conscious manner can certainly happen without having breastfed – there does often seem to be an anecdotal correlation between those who would self-describe as "conscious parents" and those who breastfeed.
What is Conscious Parenting?
There is no dictionary definition of conscious parenting (at least not one that I could find). But in general, I believe it is thought to describe a method of parenting that is deliberate in its action and philosophy. A conscious parent tries to think outside of simply what might be "mainstream" or what was done by their own parents and make a purposeful decision, whether based on reason or instinct, and whether ultimately traditional or "alternative."
I don't believe that there would necessarily be a "right answer" to any particular issue in conscious parenting, but that a parent, if asked, could articulate why a particular decision is right for that child and that family. In that way, conscious parenting could be considered child-centered, striving to recognize children as equal, even if sometimes unreasonable and demanding, members of the family unit.
How Breastfeeding Affects Parenting
Breastfeeding is a profound commitment for mother. Nursing a baby represents a surrender – of sleep, of comfort and of the physical self. Nursing requires a faith in the ability of one's body to nourish one's baby despite the lack of visual confirmation offered by milk emptying from a bottle along a measurement of ounces. The successful establishment of nursing is felt by many mothers to be a significant milestone – the first big challenge met and overcome on behalf of our new baby. Breastfeeding gives a mother the confidence that she has chosen to do something hard and not always convenient because it is known to be what is best for her baby – even when an easier and generally acceptable alternative is readily available.
Nursing does create a physical bond between mother and baby that is unique, frequent and private. Personally, I believe that the connection formed through breastfeeding enables a mother to know her baby in an incredible intimate and instinctive way. I think that when a mother puts that much effort into what is fed to her baby, she thinks hard about other issues as well.
When I started a local chapter of the Holistic Moms Network in my area, a group committed to conscious parenting, but not dogmatic about any particular issue or even an particular definitely of "holistic," we noticed an interesting phenomenon. In polling the two dozen or so families in the newly formed group, we were all over the map on nearly every issue. In the room were those who supported public school and homeschool, homebirth and C-section, vegetarian and carnivore, liberal and conservative, and so on. But nearly everyone in the room had breastfeed their babies.
At least anecdotally, I have found that breastfeeding families tend to choose healthier eating options, eco-friendly practices, gentle discipline and other child-centered choices. I have noticed a willingness to slow down, to compromise lifestyle and to endure inconvenience for a larger cause that formula-feeding simply does not set up in the same way as breastfeeding.
Before I had my first daughter, I read a book or two and thought I knew just how everything was going to go. My daughter's quirks or personality preferences would just be issues to be trained or overcome in my efficient little life. By four months it would be all worked out and I'd be back to work. But nursing changed all of that. The harder it got and the more challenges we faced, the more I was committed to giving my baby the breast milk I was convinced was best for her. And it started me down a path of conscious awareness and surrender to challenge that I now gratefully walk each day.
For more exploration of this issue, La Leche League publishes a very inexpensive and lovely book about how what breastfeeding leads to is about so much more than nutrition:
Learning a Loving Way of Life (A La Leche League International book)