Plus, how we can better support the people who choose to do it.
But there is another type of feeding that deserves a lot more attention: chestfeeding.
While chestfeeding may not be as widely discussed as breastfeeding or bottle-feeding yet, it is every bit as awesome. As all parents who have ever fed a baby know well, chestfeeding can be beautiful and really hard—often at the same time. For many, chestfeeding carries with it additional complexities that deserve attention and respect.
So let's look into what chestfeeding is, and how we can better support the people who choose to do it.
What is chestfeeding?
Chestfeeding is the process of feeding a child human milk from a person's chest. It's is a term that can be used by anyone, but often is used by transgender and nonbinary people for whom the words breastfeeding or nursing are not an ideal fit.
Here are a few examples of people who may choose to chestfeed:
A transgender man may choose to use the term chestfeeding if they had surgery to remove breast tissue, known as a 'chest masculinization surgery,' 'top surgery' or 'male chest-contouring surgery.' A small study done in 2017 found that this was the most frequently cited reason for preferring the term chestfeeding.
A non-binary person (someone who does not identify as having a particular gender) may not be comfortable using the terms breastfeeding or nursing as these have historically been thought of as "female" acts. Chestfeeding is a neutral term that may feel more comfortable.
A cisgender woman (a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth) may have experienced breast-related trauma and feels better using a more neutral term (especially given the hyper-sexualization of breasts in our society).
Again, these are just a few of the many possible reasons that someone may prefer to use the term chestfeeding. While ultimately it's not anyone's business but the person who chooses to feed their child by chestfeeding, it's important for all of us to better understand people's stories so we can increase our empathy and decrease our judgment.
Can transgender people produce milk?
Transgender people can produce milk, or lactate. All humans have breasts, mammary glands and the hormones needed to produce milk. For some people, it may be relatively easy to produce milk, while some people will need medical support to induce lactation.
Transgender men may or may not have had surgeries and hormone therapies that have changed the ways their breasts look or act, but lactation is often possible.
Transgender women may also be able to lactate with the support of medications and pumping. Medical care is usually needed, as the medications require prescriptions and do have potential side effects that people should be aware of.
Okay, so now that we have covered the basics of chestfeeding, it is crucial to understand what really matters here: A parent is choosing to feed their child in the way they feel is best. Full stop.
We are (almost) all on board with the notion that whether a parent chooses to breastfeed or formula-feed (or both) is really none of our concern. This is no different with chestfeeding.
For a person who has not needed to make a choice about how to label their feeding approach, chestfeeding is nothing more than a word. That is a privilege. There are many people for whom choosing a word like chestfeeding is an act of tremendous empowerment. It costs nothing to stand with them.
It is everyone's responsibility—and honor—to support them in this choice.
Here's are a few ways to support someone who is chestfeeding:
1. Bring them food.
Producing milk is a lot of work and fueling the body to do it is essential. Bring your chestfeeding friend or family member their favorite foods or a gift card to order take-out.
2. Help them get comfortable.
If you are with your chestfeeding friend or family member while they are feeding their baby, help make sure they have what they need. Offer your chair, bring them water—help them with this important work.
3. Ask, don't assume.
It is okay to say to your chestfeeding friend, "Would you like me to stay with you while you feed the baby or leave?" People who are chestfeeding may want privacy or they may love to sit with you. Don't make assumptions, just ask!
4. Use the right pronouns.
This is not exclusive to chestfeeding, but it feels like a good opportunity for a reminder. Pronouns matter, a lot. In the study mentioned above, some of the greatest distress people felt while chestfeeding was when they were misgendered by people around them.
If you mess up someone's pronoun, own it and try to do better next time.
5. Stand up for them.
If you are out and about with your chestfeeding friend and someone makes a comment, help them to feel supported. You could say to your friend, "Would you like me to say something to them?" or "What can I do right now to support you?"
The same goes for when your friend isn't there to hear the comment—the only way we are going to make the world a kinder place is by doing what is right, even when no one is watching. Don't let hateful comments go unchecked.
People choose to provide human milk to their babies for any number of reasons: biological benefits and bonding, just to name a few. What they call that process is entirely up to them.
Ultimately, all parents want the same thing: For our children to be healthy and grow under our care. There are a million ways to do that. When it comes to feeding our children, let's continue to learn, respect and welcome all the choices. Our babies are depending on it.