On Breastfeeding

It’s World Breastfeeding Week. First celebrated in 1992, the first week in August is meant to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding worldwide. And as I am in the midst of my own breastfeeding journey, I wanted to share some things I learned over the last year.

Breastfeeding my newborn daughter

Breastfeeding is hard. I was at a prenatal checkup toward the end of my pregnancy, and getting nervous about sustaining another life entirely from my own body. I had already started some reading (The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and kellymom.com are great resources), attended a La Leche League meeting, and started trying to figure out my new electric pump. I asked my midwife why it seemed like breastfeeding was so hard. She said it’s a dance, some days you take the lead and it feels very natural with everything going gracefully, beautifully. Other times, baby tries to take over and you end up stepping on each others’ toes and falling over.

How right she was! From the get-go I was inundated with different and sometimes contradictory advice from the nurses at the hospital. I couldn’t tell if it “felt right” because I’d never felt that sensation before! When we got home, it started to hurt when my daughter latched. It felt awkward. I didn’t know how or where to position myself and my baby that would actually work. My nipples started getting bloody. I finally went to see a lactation consultant. She watched me, then dug in and showed me a specific technique to use until I felt more confident in it. (Football hold, with the Breast Friend pillow not connected around my back, but instead a big pillow behind my back and a small pillow underneath the Breast Friend right around where my daughter’s head was so she was at a bit of a slant.) I did that for every feeding for at least the next two months.

To try to keep this post relatively short, I’ll just mention a few of the other issues I faced early on: engorgement, oversupply, strong let-down, painful let-down, leaking EVERYWHERE, navigating nursing in public, decreased energy and sex drive, difficulty finding functional/comfortable/affordable bras and clothing, how to store milk and how much to store, Postpartum Anxiety, fluctuating thyroid levels (I had a total thyroidectomy in 2017), pelvic floor dysfunction (more to do with breastfeeding than some may think), and feeling a huge lack of freedom and support. Some friends experienced other issues like mastitis, low supply or even totally drying up, and baby tongue tie. Sure, there are resources out there. (Postpartum doulas can help, too.) But there are also so many hurdles—money, availability, and energy to name a few—to get the right support needed to make this a successful journey. And sometimes it just doesn’t work. I know someone that said she went to four different LCs before she found a solution that worked. Not every mama has the resources, knowledge, or motivation to keep seeking support like that.

They say that it gets easier once the baby is old enough to hold their own head up (~2 months). While, yes, holding and positioning gets easier, that doesn’t mean you’re not dealing with some other issues like I mentioned above. And then they start teething. Ouch! And how do you wean? And how long do you continue to breastfeed? And I didn’t even think about the emotional toll weaning would cause! And… sigh. I think I’ve made my point. This s*%# is HARD!

Formula is a great option. I once went to a LLL meeting in which a woman was crying because she felt like a failure when she had to supplement her son’s diet with formula. I regret that I responded with more useless advice instead of acknowledgment. Even by just being there, she was being a great mom. I have several friends that had to switch their babies’ diets totally to formula for one reason or another. I know others that actually had the opportunity and wanted to get donor milk for a needed supplement, again for various reasons. None of these moms wanted the cards they were dealt. All of these moms are doing their best, and are the best for their babies.

There’s a saying, “Fed is best.” Supposedly, this replaces a former, “Breast is best.” I say supposedly because at least in the US, there’s undertones of the latter being the unspoken motto. There’s still this pressure that can be felt if you’re not breastfeeding. My favorite show The Simpsons had an episode in which Marge is ashamed and has to hide the fact that she formula feeds Maggie from her new friends. When they find out, she’s kicked out of the group.

Take the example of the LLL meeting I went to of the woman crying. Those of us in the room weren’t focused on supporting her emotional struggles or saying that having been fed formula, her son can still grow up perfectly happy and healthy. We were trying to find solutions that didn’t involve supplementing all the while making her feel even more terrible. (Again, I regret not being the support I could have been.)

A friend of mine once asked an online moms’ support group a question. The very first response: “Is your baby breastfed?” When she said no, she was offered tips on how to “get back to breastfeeding,” offered donor milk, and flat out berated for formula feeding. Mamas, that is unacceptable. Where’s the #WomenEmpoweringWomen attitude? Or better yet, just answer her original question.

One more thought on this: In the book Bringing Up Bébé, the French almost all go to formula as quickly as possible. Formula is completely subsidized there and probably a few other countries. In the US you may be able get help with the price of formula but only if you qualify for WIC. (A low income federal assistance program.) Some pediatricians’ offices may offer a free formula option as well, but not all. This may be a factor in the stigma against formula, but I’m sure more goes into the equation. So is it just the United States that has this idealized obsession with a very personal parenting choice (or sometimes NOT a choice at all) without requiring the help and support needed for new mothers? No really, I’m asking.

To all the first time expecting moms: I’m not saying all this to scare you. I’m saying this to hopefully bring awareness to the challenges you may face, offer ideas and resources, and let you know that you are not alone.

To all moms: You are NOT any less of or a failure of a Mom if breastfeeding hasn’t worked out the way you wanted/thought/hoped. You are the best Mom for your baby. If you need someone to talk to, you are absolutely welcome to reach out to me.

To everyone: What if instead of protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding this week we acknowledge, accept, and support new moms? Can we move our focus from bottle vs. breast to the person feeding the newborn?

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