I’m an avid supporter of breastfeeding for those who choose it but I’ve never enjoyed the often polarized and unsolicited judgments that others offer up on the topic. Too often, breastfeeding gets presented as either love-it or hate-it relationship, a must-have or a mom-fail. But my own experience breastfeeding my five children, and my past work with new mothers as a Certified Breastfeeding Counselor, have shown me that the truth of the experience more often than not lies somewhere in between.
Here are a few simple truths I’ve learned along the way.
Truth #1: To breastfeed is natural, but learning how to breastfeed often doesn’t come naturally.
While breastfeeding is a totally natural process, success with breastfeeding doesn’t happen all by itself. It is a skill that needs to be learned for both mom and baby.
When it comes to breastfeeding for mom, education is power. The more you know about breastfeeding your baby before he/she is born, the easier the learning curve can be once the baby arrives.
But even with lots of knowledge under your belt, learning to breastfeed can still be tricky and hands-on help may still be needed when your baby is at the breast. Seeking out help doesn’t mean that you and baby can’t do it or that breastfeeding isn’t for you. It just means that you and baby are still learning and building your skills. And like most new skills, building skill with breastfeeding takes time. So seek help early.
Truth #2: You may not enjoy breastfeeding all of the time, and that’s okay.
As beautiful and fulfilling as breastfeeding can be for families, it can also get complicated, frustrating, and tiring. Even the moms who generally adore breastfeeding and have done it for years with many children can have hard times and not enjoy it all of the time.
I’ve met few mothers who enjoyed breastfeeding when their infant bit them at the breast, or when they ended up with a breast infection, or when their child woke up every hour during the night to breastfeed. I’ve even worked with mothers who did it but never enjoyed it.
Breastfeeding is not an all love or hate relationship and moms need to be allowed to feel a range of emotions along their feeding journey without being negatively judged or shamed for it.
Truth #3: Our emotional states can directly impact our ability to breastfeed.
While we are on the topic of feelings, one of the most underestimated impacts on breastfeeding success is our emotions.
Heightened negative emotional states such as feelings of stress, worry, fear, sadness, anger, or anxiety, can directly impact the hormones that trigger letdown, preventing mom from being able to express milk for her baby.
On the other hand, positive emotional states such as feelings of happiness, calm, and relaxation, can aid the hormones that trigger letdown, allowing mom to feed easier and for longer.
Many times when mom is in a negative emotional state and struggling to breastfeed her baby, well-intentioned helpers can rush in with directions, tools, tricks, personal stories of advice, or bottles of formula to “hold the baby over.” These responses can further increase mom’s negative emotions and make the situation harder.
What mom really needs is someone to let her feel her feelings, to validate her, to help her rest and recharge, and to create an environment of calm so that she can feel at ease in learning to feed her baby. Never underestimate the impact of a loving hug, a comfortable room, a hot shower, a fresh cup of tea, and emotional validation for a new mother.
Truth #4: The women we surround ourselves with tend to have a huge impact on how we choose to approach breastfeeding.
Our ideas and approaches to breastfeeding tend to come from the ideas and approaches that surround us. Friends, family, peers, co-workers, and cultural traditions all play a role in the decisions we make for our children.
I might never have begun breastfeeding had my sister-in-law not been through it first and introduced me to it. I might never have gotten certified as a breastfeeding counselor had I not made friends with an amazing group of childbirth and infant feeding educators who were all in the process of furthering their own education in the field. The stories we hear from the women we love shape our impressions.
If you are surrounded by a community of women who only ever bottle-fed their babies, it’s unlikely they’re going to be able to provide the support that you need for breastfeeding, despite all the love and support that they may have for you as a person.
If you want to breastfeed your baby for any length of time, finding the right support is vital. Seek out women who have successful breastfeeding stories to share. Run a Google search for breastfeeding counselors in your area. Sign up to attend a breastfeeding support group for new mothers.
Surrounding yourself with women who are aligned with your aims and approaches helps make it easier to set yourself up for success with your breastfeeding goals.
Truth #5: Breastfeeding without a support system is hard.
Breastfeeding without proper support is incredibly difficult. Many women who start off breastfeeding stop within six months after the baby is born. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of women who started exclusively breastfeeding their children drops to less than 50% by three months and less than 25% by six months.
Some of the biggest reasons mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than they wanted to is due to lack of education, lack of confidence, and lack of support at home and/or when returning to work. If you are a mother who wants to breastfeed, reaching out to create a network of skilled support for yourself is essential.
Do your research and take assertive steps to:
- Pick a care provider who is educated about breastfeeding and supportive of your choices while in hospital.
- Attend classes before birth, and speak with your care provider about who you can reach out to for practical support once the baby arrives.
- Pick a pediatrician who understands the specific needs of breastfed babies and can support you after the baby is born.
- Let your friends and family know that you plan to breastfeed and specifically how they can help you.
- Speak with your job about what support they will offer when you have to return.
If you have a loved one who is trying to breastfeed, supporting their decision is essential. It does not matter whether or not you understand it, agree with it, or ever did it yourself. Your job is to support mom, not make things harder for her with negative stories, comments, judgments, or offerings of “help” that negatively impact her breastfeeding goals.
The truth of supporting mom is simple: ask what she needs and be there for her. Period.
Melissa Barreto is a home-educating mother of five and the Co-Founder of Wildflower Homeschool Collective, a homeschool organization based in Northern New Jersey. She also holds a certification in Breastfeeding Counseling and spent many years working with mothers one-to-one after birth to breastfeed their infants, and leading community workshops to educate women about the benefits and best practices for breastfeeding success
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