Michele Thompson, a lactation specialist for Altoona Regional Health Systems, nursed her first child, Kristin, just six weeks before introducing a bottle.
Kristin was born in 1987, and by the time her third child, Ben, was born in 1996, Thompson had become more comfortable with breastfeeding and gained more support from family and friends.
She nursed Ben for two and a half years.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
New mothers like this unidentified woman at Altoona Regional can have difficulties with or questions about breastfeeding.
"If you ever asked me if I would nurse a baby longer than a year before him, I would have said you're crazy," Thompson said. "[It's] only because I thought it would be inconvenient, not so much because I worried about what other people thought.
"But that was my time with Ben. He didn't rip my shirt open in public. I did nurse him in public, I walked around the soccer field. I was a soccer coach. I was a Brownie leader. ... But at two and a half years, it was just, 'I'm going to bed, I just need a little Mommy and Ben time.' He'd nurse a couple of minutes, and he'd go off to sleep. So it was more of an emotional thing for me and for him."
Breastfeeding has long been a public debate. In more recent times, the idea of long-term breastfeeding as discussed in the media made headlines when Time magazine featured a picture of a California mom breastfeeding her 3-year-old son on its cover last month.
Local support for breastfeeding
Breastfeeding Classes, Altoona Regional
6 to 8 p.m., first and second Wednesdays of the month in the hospital rotunda. For more information, call 889-2557.
Breastfeeding Support Group, Altoona Regional
10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., every fourth Wednesday of the month. Call for room location, 889-2557 or 889-2310.
La Leche League International
10 a.m. every second Monday of the month at Penn Mont Academy, 131 Holiday Hills Dr., Hollidaysburg. For more information, call 946-7061.
Thompson said she believes there are more people breastfeeding now than when she started working at Altoona Regional 28 years ago. Maureen Mitchell, also a lactation specialist at the hospital, said other advances have been made, including hospitals gaining incentives for being breastfeeding-friendly and employers becoming more willing to allow mothers to pump breast milk at work.
But our society, locally and nationally, still doesn't view this natural act the same way as it's viewed in other parts of the world, the specialists said.
"Breastfeeding is the norm," Mitchell said. "Maybe not here in Altoona, but it is the norm. ... If we see girls walking in the mall with half their breast showing [because of the clothes she is wearing], that's OK to many people, but it's not OK to have a mom discreetly breastfeeding. To me, that is a conflict."
"Our society has made breastfeeding more of a sexual thing than a nurturing thing," Thompson added.
Breastfeeding has proven benefits for both mother and child, spanning everything from health to heightened emotional attachment to decreased expenses. Thompson and Mitchell go through these and many other benefits for attendees at their breastfeeding classes and support groups held at the hospital.
"If [mothers] have support, family-wise, that makes a big difference. ... Being a new mother is a very vulnerable time, they're very easily influenced," Thompson said.
Alison Keating, a leader for the Hollidaysburg chapter of the national La Leche League International organization, said there aren't too many people in the area who are "real breastfeeding supporters." But anyone who comes to a La Leche League meeting will find a place where the primary focus is addressing whatever a breastfeeding mother experiences or goes through.
"Our country, our society, is a little off base," Keating, 41, of Altoona said of breastfeeding. "[Many] human beings are doing it differently than we are in Western civilization. ... The more we talk about it, the more normal it becomes."
Keating said the biggest challenges for breastfeeding mothers are the lack of information, especially when they are expecting, and acclimating any new mom to breastfeeding, especially in public.
"All of us in healthcare need to really promote this and really educate not only women who are expecting, but their husbands, their mothers, their mothers-in-law," Keating said. "It's for all of our good. It's for the health of the population."
Christina Cullen, 37, of Altoona always knew she wanted to breastfeed, and has chosen to prolong breastfeeding her daughter, Rylee, two years and three months old.
Other than minor supply issues that briefly forced her to go on medication, Cullen said it has been a "wonderful experience."
"I'm one of the lucky ones because it's been fairly easy," she said.
Cullen said going to support groups and support from family has been very helpful. She always knew she wanted to breastfeed at least two years, even though society has "brought out the worst in it" by sexualizing the act. Now that Rylee is older, Cullen said breastfeeding usually only takes place privately, though she has breastfed in public in the past.
"There are so many benefits for both [mother and baby] long term," she said. "If she gets hurt, I can comfort her. That's how she goes to sleep at night. It's the best for the child and the mother."
Mitchell said it's not that mothers who choose to bottle feed are "not good moms," it's just a different style of parenting. But for moms who do choose to breastfeed, she added they usually feel as if they get a lot out of the experience.
"It's pretty powerful to be a mom and know that you are producing absolutely everything your baby needs to be the healthiest your baby can be," she said. "This day and age, we women, anybody, needs as much reinforcement so we feel secure about ourselves."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.