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The Wisdom of Nature

Colleen Rachele Read
Eastchester, NY, USA
From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 6, 2008-09, pp. 13-14

It was my cat that first taught me to watch closely and listen for my baby's early feeding cues so that I would know to nurse my newborn son before he began to cry.

When my husband, Howard, and I arrived home from the hospital the second day after our son Benjamin was born, we realized that we had our work cut out for us as first-time parents. After all the discomfort of late pregnancy and the hard work, which is appropriately called labor, it dawned on us that the really hard part still awaited us. The first thing we did was to change our sleeping arrangements. Hastily set up outside our bedroom before the birth, the bassinet found a new home right next to our bed, so I could see and hear Benjamin throughout the night.

But the first few nights at home with the baby, I felt guilty about keeping my other "baby" from his accustomed spot in our bedroom, at the foot of our bed. My beloved, 12-year-old tabby cat looked forlorn whenever we closed the bedroom door at night now. After a few days "Little Kitty" seemed to have figured out that Benjamin was not actually a mouse, despite all that squeaking going on. And I could see that my furry friend looked more intrigued than threatened by the baby's presence. So one night I left our door open at night. Sure enough, Little Kitty joined the family bed, as he was wont to do before Benjamin's arrival. Then he curled up next to my legs and began to groom himself meticulously, licking his beautiful, long coat of orange and white fur.

Only this particular night, he surprised me by licking my face all over and awakening me from a deep sleep. "How odd," I thought to myself. He had never done anything like this before. Since I was awake anyway though, I got up, had a drink of water, and went to the bathroom. And wouldn't you figure, as soon as I crawled back beneath the covers, Benjamin began to cry loudly, needing to nurse. So I lifted him from the bassinet and proceeded to breastfeed him while sitting up in bed, since we hadn't yet mastered the art of nursing while lying down. Benjamin soon drifted off with a contented, Buddha-like expression on his face. I gently returned him to the bassinet, and then we all went back to sleep -- mommy, daddy, baby, and Little Kitty.

A few hours later, I was again awakened, rudely this time I thought, by my cat frantically licking my cheeks and forehead as he had done earlier. "What is going on?" I wondered. Since I was awake anyway, I got out of bed, drank a glass of water, used the bathroom again, and then lay down exhausted once more. Less than a minute later, Benjamin began to cry. Time to nurse again, already! When I opened my eyes and turned to look at the digital clock, in the dim light I could just make out Little Kitty up on his hind legs peering into the bassinet, swishing his tail, and nervously watching Benjamin fidget and fuss. Once again we settled down to nurse. Little Kitty's concern faded, and he cuddled up alongside us, warm and cozy. My feline companion seemed content at a job well done.

It was then that I realized what Little Kitty had known all along, all night long. With his acute sense of hearing, nocturnal prowess, night vision, and animal instinct, he could sense Benjamin's subtle, early feeding cues well before Howard or I did. We had been waiting to wake up from a deep sleep when the baby was already in full crying mode. My cat knew better. To know when it was time to nurse, he watched for the baby's signals and not what the clock said or what our convenience called for. At the first sign of hunger, at the first rustling and the first smacking of lips, he knew to jump into action and respond promptly to meet the baby's needs. And he also knew that breastfeeding was a time to lounge and purr contentedly, that it shouldn't be stressful or annoying or rushed. These were crucial early lessons in my breastfeeding and mothering relationship with my son.

It comforted me to know that as a mammal I shared a basic, common bond with my cat, in that mother's milk was exactly what nature had in mind for little babies and little kittens alike. All this, and my not-so-little kitty was an adult male cat, confined to indoor apartment living, never having fathered a litter, as far as I knew, nor had he been near a mother cat and her kittens since he himself was born, almost 12 years earlier.

Little Kitty is no longer with us, I'm afraid. Two summers ago his pancreas gave out when Benjamin was barely 10 months old, and we all said our sad goodbyes. But not before Little Kitty had taught me, beautifully, to listen and respond to my baby through breastfeeding. The need to be held, for nourishment, for comfort, for company, and for warmth, they are all necessarily part of the nursing relationship when you believe, as I most certainly do, these wise words from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding: "Breast-feeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby" (page 12).

Benjamin is now 26 months old and still nursing. Recently, while looking at a picture book of animals, for the first time he said the phrase, "like Ben-Ben's cat." He had a twinkle in his eye, and I wonder whether he really remembered our fluffy, orange and white friend. It made me promise to write down and share this story when I could, so that others can marvel at the wisdom of nature.

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