She wondered out loud to me why breast feeding seems so hard. We (humans) have been doing it for thousands of years. Why is it that so many moms struggle?
That's the million dollar question! But here's my answer that I've come up with so far. It's not for lack of trying on the mom's side. I have worked with many, many moms and usually lack of effort is not the cause of breastfeeding troubles. I find that it comes down to cultural factors.
Over the last 50+ years, we have become a bottle-feeding culture. We don't quite know yet how to fully support a breastfeeding mom/baby pair. Here are some examples of ways you can hurt a breastfeeding relationship before it's had time to get established:
- Hospitals offering to take the baby to the nursery and offer a bottle so a mom can get some sleep. This might seem like a nice thing to do, but it can lead to a low milk supply for mom. Because that baby needs to be removing milk from the breast in order to signal to her body to make more. If you start skipping feedings at the breast, the mom's body gets the signal that the baby doesn't need as much and will start producing less.
- Doctors recommending that a baby should drink for 15 minutes on each side. I've heard this a lot from doctors or other professionals who don't actually have a lot of training in breastfeeding. In reality, some babies can feed for 30 minutes in order to get a full feed, and others take take in a full amount in 5 minutes! Some babies need to take milk from both breasts during a feeding and other babies are completely satisfied after 1 breast (and moms will just offer the opposite breast at the next feeding). The only way to know for sure if baby is taking a good amount is to follow baby's hunger/fullness cues, make sure they're gaining well from week to week, and if you're really worried, contact a lactation consultant to do a pre-post feeding weight check and assess their latch. But I digress. The point is that if you tell a mom who has a quick eater (in the 5 minutes on one side) range that she needs to have the baby feed 15 minutes on each side, then you're setting her up to think that she has a low supply, that baby isn't getting enough and she needs to supplement. Supplementing when there isn't really a problem (perceived low milk supply) leads to actual low milk supply.
- Friends or family offering to give baby a bottle to give mom a break, or because they want bonding time with baby. This one, again, has good intentions, but can actually make things harder for breastfeeding in the long run. If a mom is in those early weeks where her body is still learning how much milk to make and baby is still learning how to nurse with a good latch, a bottle used at the wrong time can complicate things. If a mom wants to pump breast-milk for her baby, that helps maintain her supply and gives baby the best nutrients, but has that really made it easier on the mom? You've asked her to wash her pump parts, pump for 15-20 minutes and put the breast-milk in a bottle so you can feed the baby. It might not have saved her any time. Also, not every women responds to a pump as well as a baby, so maybe she didn't get very much milk when she pumped and now she's doubting her milk supply and wondering if baby is getting enough. Then if the person offering the bottle feeds it too quickly (doesn't used breastfeeding-friendly paced-bottle feeding techniques) the baby might still seem hungry after a bottle and they'll tell them mom the baby was still hungry after. This leads to more doubt that the mother can make enough milk, when it didn't need to be there at all if she had just nursed the baby! If you want to offer a baby a bottle in the first few weeks, it's actually best to work with a lactation consultant to make sure you know the best way to offer a bottle without hurting breastfeeding. It can be done, but there are a lot of easy steps that someone can show you to make sure that you're doing it in breastfeeding-friendly ways!
There are many, many more examples of different ways that our culture is not yet breast-feeding friendly. This, in my opinion, is why breast-feeding is so hard right now. Not because moms don't try hard enough.
What can you do to help change the culture to be more breastfeeding friendly?
- Encourage breastfeeding moms you know to breastfeed around you. Tell them that if they're comfortable with it, they don't need to go to another room to feed the baby, pump and feed a bottle or use a cover (unless they want to).
- If you're a breastfeeding mom, feed your baby anywhere you are. If you're shopping at the mall and baby is hungry, pop onto a comfortable bench and feed your baby. Try not to worry about stares. People aren't used to seeing breastfeeding yet (we're still a bottle feeding culture) but the more they see it, the more normal it will seem. If someone says something rude to you, have a friend defend you. Or just say to them "I'm feeding my baby. There is nothing weird about that."
- If you're a health professional, learn more about breastfeeding. Don't just go off the 1 lecture you got in school that was way to brief (and possibly inaccurate). Talk to moms who have breastfed or had to stop breastfeeding earlier than they wished. Learn about their story, what worked for them, and what hurt them. Shadow a lactation consultant for a day. You'll learn a lot about what is helpful, what is accurate, and what small things you can say or do differently that will help your future clients.
What do you think? If you've breastfed, what things did people say that made you feel supported and confident? If you had advice for friends/family/professionals around you to help you on your breast-feeding journey, what would you say?