Promoting Breastfeeding and Supporting Mamas

I started writing this post on MOMformation and it just felt too long, too serious, and too preachy…so over there I am publishing the TOP TEN REASONS I LOVE BREASTFEEDING and I thought I’d bore the 30 people who read this blog instead with my more philosophical ramblings

You’ve heard it all before, all the benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child and their relationship. And, no doubt, if you are planning to or are breastfeeding, you’ve read all the breastfeeding tips and advice on sites like BabyCenter and KellyMom. So, if the information is out there, why are so few U.S. mothers breastfeeding?

Certainly it isn’t a lack of willingness to try. Seventy-five percent of new U.S. moms start breastfeeding but by six months that number drops to just thirty-six percent. Some small percentage are, no doubt, physically unable to breastfeed. But is something else at play here?

Personally, I breastfed my daughter exclusively (no formula and she refused the bottle) for six and a half months. I loved the convenience. I’m lazy like that. And I appreciated how she enjoyed the milk and thrived. Despite a congenital heart condition that would usually make feeding and gaining weight difficult, she hit the 90th percentile curve and followed that until she started walking. And given her medical vulnerability, I felt that any immune boost was helpful. And speaking of weight, mine dropped off immediately.

But I’m well aware that there are as many different experiences with breastfeeding as there are mothers who try to breastfeed. Why is it that so many women struggle with breastfeeding and stop before six months? How can we support women who wish to breastfeed without pressuring those who do not?

I am not a doctor, nor a sociologist. I am a mother, a friend, and a confidant. Listening to my friends, I hear common threads emerge in their stories.

Some of my friends had experiences similar to mine, finding breastfeeding initially exhausting but eventually liberating. A few struggled through immense amounts of pain due to medical conditions or infections but persevered. I’m not saying a mother should have to do that–I’m not sure I would. I even met a woman on a support board who was an adoptive mother trying to stimulate lactation. Whatever your opinion about that, I have to admire the dedication.

However, quite a few of the women I know, after bouts with postpartum depression or other illness, attempts to pump exclusively, or returning to work full time, eventually decided that breastfeeding was not a fit for their families.

A family’s decision how to feed its baby any nutritious food is their own business. I never question any individual mama’s decision to stop breastfeeding–her child, her body, her call. At the same time, I find the trend that the vast majority of mothers are not breastfeeding to six months, let alone a year, concerning as a “big picture.”

I have a few theories about this trend, and I’d be interested in your ideas.

  1. Marketing of Formula: Many doctors claim they support breastfeeding and encourage breastfeeding, but yet the offices and magazines are jam-packed with glossy ads, coupons, and offers of free samples for formula. Thank goodness formula is available for those mothers who are unable to breastfeed or choose not to. And, I certainly have no issue with companies making money. However, there is little money to be made off of breastfeeding and so, in terms of marketing dollars, it just can’t compete with formula.
  2. Medical Interventions During Delivery: Again, thank goodness for modern science. Medical interventions save babies every day. At the same time, with incredibly high rates of c-sections, some mothers and babies miss out on the first opportunity to breastfeed. Often they are still able to breastfeed, but for some this sets the stage for a stressful breastfeeding relationship.
  3. Lack of Breastfeeding Role Models: I think this is a big one. My friends and I are mostly boomer children. Our mothers, with a few exceptions, graduated college and were determined to be more than housewives and technology promised to set them free. Now grandmothers, they have, with few exceptions, any breastfeeding experience to pass along.
  4. Fears of Breastfeeding in Public: Some women may be more naturally or culturally shy about breastfeeding in public. It certainly does not help when people make nasty remarks or even try to push the woman off into an inconvenient and sometimes even uncomfortable and unhygienic place to feed her baby. In certain areas bottle feeding mothers have received nasty stares and remarks, too. And no mama needs a judgmental stranger harassing her during a vulnerable time. Truth is, there are jerks of every stripe. My guess, though, is that the mom with the bottle is not going to stop feeding her child with a bottle (because how else would she feed her baby if she’s already stopped breastfeeding?), whereas the mom with the babe at the breast may be bullied into stopping.

What helped me feel comfortable with breastfeeding in public and keep going was finding a supportive online community to share thoughts, fears, and tips about breastfeeding. What challenges do you think create these low numbers? If you tried breastfeeding and stopped, why? And if you tried breastfeeding and kept going, why? I hope you’ll take a few more moments to let me know!

Photos: Pecho y lectura by Daquealla manera; Nursing in public, the horror! by karynsig; Oh my God! by chispita

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  1. Lesha says:

    I was actually very lucky I think. I had a c-section due to a breach baby, but my midwife was with me and made sure that before they wisked my baby away (another rant all in itself) we had time for him to nurse and rest with me skin to skin. I actually had several obstacles over the past 15 months, and yes we’re still nursing. When my baby wasn’t gaining weight fast enough, instead of telling me to supplement with formula, my midwives had me pump after each feeding and have my husband bottle feed an ounce of pumped breast milk from my last pumping to the baby. We did this for only a week until his weight was increasing and so was my supply. I pumped for a year at work, my supply dipped, I drank beer (half a home brewed dark beer a night) and took fenugreek and fennel seed. Even with four tubs of formula in the house I only added a total of 8 ounces to my breast milk and that was at the lowest point of my milk production when I switched jobs two weeks after the end of my maternity leave. I used a nipple sheild, which made nursing in public even harder. I was told to go the dressing room in Target and left the store instead of hiding away. I have and still do nurse wherever I need to now and I’m comfortable enough and yet descreet enough to do it with confidence. I had a blocked milk duct, sore nipples, and luckily a very supportive husband and family. But I was always determined I would not give in, which I think was how I pushed through the problems instead of turning to formula. I first pushed for 6 months and when 6 months came and passed I pushed for 10, and then 12, and now I’m looking at 18 but I’m sad knowing my nursing time is slowing now.

  2. Betsy says:

    As I mentioned over at Momformation, I’m a natural. That said, I didn’t want to do it for years upon years, like many of my friends choose to do. I did find myself feeling anxious to reclaim my body at times. I can remember both my babies crying a lot while nursing, early on, and it turned out to be gas in both cases.It was stressful but I just kept plugging, literally, away. I often wonder if some women are too quick to think they are doing something wrong, or their baby is not getting enough milk, when actually it’s just tummy bubbles. It’s so hard to keep a cool head when that little person is red and screaming. It’s hard to produce milk under those conditions as well. Who knows.

  3. Mama Luxe says:

    Lesha–That is amazing and inspiring. Thank you for sharing it!

    betsy–I think you are right…and that is where the medical establishment comes in. “They” as a whole like to measure everything. So, if the mom comes with concerns about the baby or the baby’s weight is the slightest bit off, they immediately want a controlled environment so they can evaluate. Breastfeeding just isn’t so precise.

    My mom had that experience–I wasn’t gaining weight, they told her to supplement, she got more stressed, both of which probably lowered her supply still more…and so I was formula-fed.

    Funny story: my husband’s grandmother, who actually did breastfeed her children, was shocked to discover I didn’t have an infant scale in the house. Apparently her doctor insisted she weigh the (perfectly healthy and normal) baby before and after each and every feeding!!! Could you imagine?

  4. Momma Lark says:

    I’m very happy for you, but reading this also makes me a little sad. I was extremely gung ho about breastfeeding, and I had a horrible time with it. My daughter and I struggled for the first three months of her life (first she wouldn’t latch, then when she would it was so painful it would make me cry and the pain would last for hours afterward). When things finally worked themselves out and everything was going great, my milk supply suddenly diminished to nearly nothing. My daughter wasn’t gaining any weight, so we had to switch to formula. I tried EVERYTHING to get my milk supply back up (two different lactation consultants, oatmeal, fenugreek, pumping, you name it) but it was gone, gone, gone. My daughter took to formula without a problem; now she’s in the 100th percentile for weight (another issue we’re trying to deal with, but she’s 9 months and the dr. says not to worry too much). However, I was devastated. I still feel disappointed whenever I think about it, like I was cheated somehow. I had planned on breastfeeding for no less than a year, and only managed to make it for about four and a half months.

    I blame my OB, actually. She *insisted* on putting me on birth control, even though my husband have only used condoms for ten years and never got pregnant until we decided to stop using them. So, like an obedient idiot I started taking them (mini-pill), but they made me start having periods immediately (isn’t BFing supposed to keep you from menstruating?), and instead of one a month I was having two or three a month. I decided to stop taking them, and it was around this time that my milk supply dwindled to almost nothing.

    I would like to have at least one more baby, and maybe I’ll get another shot.

    Oh, and I STILL haven’t lost the baby weight. :(

  5. Mama Luxe says:

    momma lark–

    I am sorry to hear about how your experience made you feel. I hope you will be able to let go of some of that hurt because it sounds like you are a great mama!

    I get very frustrated when I hear about medical professionals sabotaging breastfeeding.

    Some women do report supply issues while on the mini-pill.

    As far as menstruating/ovulating and breatfeeding, YMMV. It is true that breastfeeding can put extend the time before you ovulate again, but every woman’s body reacts differently.

    Some mamas breastfeed exclusively (no pump, no bottles, no paci) and still get their period back (or get pregnant) within months. Others can pump, occasionally supplement, use a paci, and still not be fertile for over a year!

    Most fall somewhere in between.

    In general, the more the baby is at the breast, the more effective breastfeeding is at postponing fertility. Introduce any other form of nutrition or comfort, and the effect lessens.

  6. Anonymous says:

    These have been really interesting. I have successfully breastfed two children until 16 months-and I have to admit I have been really lucky, no infections, difficulty with the children’s weight gain, or anything. I had C-sections with both, breast fed in recovery, and had the babies room in to ensure that my milk production came in. I always breastfed on demand which I felt helped me to avoid any production problems even though I breastfed through most of my present (third) pregnancy. I went back to work part-time with both kids and pumped so my kids could they would only have breast milk while I was at work. My son, my first, did not take to the bottle so I introduced cereal at four months (my original plan was to wait until six months)and water in a sippy cup to help get him through the day.

    I did have the benefit of a mother who breatfed and older sisters who did as well. And like you I love the sheer convenience of it.

    To a certain extent I agree with you-doctors are not terribly supportive of breastfeeding. I felt like my pediatrician couldn’t wait to give me the out so I could quit. And a college friend of mine-one of the few people I know who breast fed-felt her pediatrician was the same way.

    But I think the biggest reason most of my friends did not breast feed or gave it up within weeks is because they did NOT want to. Several of my friends have really negative feelings about it (I kid you not when I tell you I have heard the words “vile” and my persomal favorite “unnatural” and these are from very educated people with post-graduate degress). They associate it with a lot of self-sacrifice and I don’t think they’re willing to put the time in.

    It would be great ife people did recognize te benefits of breastfeeding and more people felt comfortable to do it. But while it’s one thing to educate people-and I believe a lot of people have already been educated about the benfits-it’s often very difficult to change people’s opinions and I don’t see opinions changing anytime soon.

  7. Audrey says:

    I am bfing one of my 6 wk old twins now, a reason to bf! I have a free hand with the baby on the boppy. With my first child I was able to bf for 11 months, mostly because I was determined to do so and my husband thinks formula is crap. He comes from a family where everyone bfed, even his grandmother who was told it was gross and common but she did it fir all 4 kids. So I think support from your partner is crucial to bfing success.

    I also bfed my son for 7 months, ended up using formula because I was depressed and quite frankly sick of breast feeding due to my mental state. I ended up on meds and could not bf anyway.

    Now I have twins and bf them all night and most of the day. I do give them about 2 bottles of formula a day so others can feed them and they will take formula. The one time I tried to give my firstborn formula she refused it. If you smell it, formula smells icky compared to breast milk. But I cannot be a milk machine all day, and decided to use formula with the twins.

    I have never been comfortable with a boob hanging out, so this time I bought a nursing cover. I think these are awesome and provide mom and any gawkers a level of comfort. I also think success in bfing is VERY dependent on what your spouse knows about the topic and supports it. I think the average man is clueless, and most pediatricians don’t care.

  8. Sweetassbabs says:

    I am a young mother and have made the choice to breastfeed. I was really hoping things would go well but they started off badly. My lovely daughter…4 months now just would not latch on correctly to my right breast. It was the longest and hardest 2 days of my life. I was lead to believe from all the nurses at this very pro breastfeeding hospital that things would go much better when my milk came in but yet again was wrong. We later found out that she had a bad case of G.E.R.D. so we had to start giving her an ant-acid once a day. It took a good 2 months till things got better. It has been a very long road and I would have to say it is worth it but things are still hard. My daughter only sleeps maybe 1 to 2 hours during the day and even then she has to be at the breast to sleep, it is very demanding. At night she sleeps good 8 to 9 hours. I can get very little done during the day cause she is simple to tired and refuses to sleep. I need to walk her around, the swing works but only for 30 min or so. I love breastfeeding but I have had hard time dealing with how demanding this life style is. Also I have been unable to lose any weight cause I really don’t have much time to do anything but sit on the couch nursing or trying to get her to sleep. I’m going to try to breastfeed for the entire year but it is going to be very hard.

  9. I just wanted to say to the new mamas who are at the start of their breastfeeding relationship and who are sharing their thoughts:

    1. Welcome! Best of luck with it all!

    2. It DOES get easier. I swear that if breastfeeding were as difficult the entire time as it is the first month or two, the human species wouldn’t have survived! So, if you are committed to breastfeeding, but wondering if it gets easier–it really, really does!

    Everyone, thanks for sharing your amazing thoughts and stories and keep ‘em coming!

  10. Katy says:

    My story:
    With my first, breastfeeding was incredibly painful for the first six months. The only reason I kept going was because 1) I was sure that the pain couldn’t last forever–people have been bfing forever, and 2) I knew that if I stopped it would bum me out. Plus, we couldn’t afford formula anyway. I think this is partly due to his meconium aspiration and being in the NICU for 5 days and the total lack of support the nurses and doctors at the hospital gave to my attempts at bfing. I wound up bfing him for 18 months, when he self weaned.

    With my second, it was incredibly painful, but only for the first two weeks. After that, it got progressively less painful.

    I think that there are a few reasons that people stop breastfeeding before 6 months. First, EVERY baby book I’ve read has the ‘weaning’ discussion in the 4 month chapter. Why? Sure, you can start solids then, many women go back to work right before then. But the AAP recommends bfing exclusively until 6 months… so why do the books rush it? My pediatrician also brought it up every appointment around her 4 month birthday, even though I made it clear that I was going to bf exclusively for 6 months. So I think that the media that we get promotes or implies that one should start weaning at 4 months.

    Also, I think that it takes awhile for sex drive to come back post-baby, and perhaps longer while breastfeeding. This has effects on the marriage relationship, and I imagine that some women want their boobs back, and probably their significant others do too. Of course, one can work around that, but it may be awkward for some people.