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?
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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!