It’s the last day of World Breastfeeding Week, and the theme this year is “Breastfeeding Support: Close to Mothers” with an emphasis on peer counseling, so it seems like a good time to address this all-important topic. World Breastfeeding Week commemorates the WHO/UNICEF Innocenti Declaration of August 1990 to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. I applaud the work of these lactivists, but I worry that promotion of breastfeeding has taken on an evangelical quality that leaves those who struggle to breastfeed feeling like pariahs.
Of all the new baby myths, one of the most harmful (in my opinion) is that breastfeeding is an easy choice. Every pregnant woman I’ve met (admittedly, I live in an area of particularly well-educated, high-achieving women) knows she should breastfeed her unborn child. However, not all of the new moms I know could breastfeed their babies.
Just about every book, blog, doctor, and stranger will tell why you should breastfeed, touting its benefits for babies (including greater immunity, protection from allergies, lower likelihood of obesity and cancer later in life, improved cognitive development, etc.) and mothers (weight loss, bonding, lower cancer and osteoporosis risk, cheaper and easier than formula, etc.) and even for our planet (see How I Breastfed My Babies and Saved the World, which declares “[b]reastfeeding is not only nutritionally correct, it’s also environmentally ethical” because it does not require the deforestation, cow abuse, manufacturing chemicals and shipping pollution of formula and even cuts down on the waste created by sanitary pads, since breastfeeding women rarely menstruate).
Although slowly increasing, the U.S. still has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the industrialized world. Recent studies show that approximately three in four American babies are initially breastfed, but that almost half of these babies are no longer breastfeeding by six months. However, I wonder how many of those sixty-six percent of moms chose not to nurse their six-month-old.
If a woman does not want to breastfeed because she (or her partner) thinks breastfeeding is “icky,” immoral, socially unacceptable, painful, or too much work, then hopefully the widespread promotion of breastfeeding will prompt reconsideration. However, if a woman wants to breastfeed, but cannot (for any of a number of reasons I will touch upon below), I imagine that it feels like a slap in the face when the American Academy of Pediatrics declares that “[b]reastfeeding and human milk are the normative standards for infant feeding and nutrition” or NYC Mayor Bloomberg requires maternity nurses to espouse the benefits of breastfeeding before fulfilling a patient’s request for formula for her newborn.
Due to a diagnosed hormonal disorder, I was very concerned that I would not be able to breastfeed. I had to look beyond the breastfeeding promotion materials to find information about ways to overcome obstacles to nursing. So whenever anyone asked (“Are you going to breastfeed?” was the second most common question I received while pregnant, after “Is it a boy or a girl?”), I replied honestly that I planned to, but understood that it might not work out. Most folks seemed shocked that it was possible to want to breastfeed, but to be unable to do so. At the time, even I did not appreciate how common that is.
Some of the conditions that may make it physically difficult (if not impossible) for a woman to breastfeed (without going into detail, since I am not an expert and have not suffered any of these conditions myself) include: the mother’s poor health (anemia, recuperation from a c-section, or any illness that requires strong medication); inverted or flat nipples; plugged milk ducts and/or sore, cracked nipples; baby is tongue-tied; baby will not latch; breast infection (mastitis) or fungal infection (thrush); or an insufficient milk supply. A woman who made the “easy choice” to breastfeed while pregnant, but then encounters one or more of these obstacles (sometimes called “booby-traps”), may give up trying to breastfeed. Or, even after taking steps to overcome the challenge, she may decide that breastfeeding is detrimental to her physical, emotional, and social wellbeing. Or she may start breastfeeding but then stop due to lack of support from her partner, family, or employer.
I wish there were more resources supporting women who must make the (in my view, more difficult) choice to abandon breastfeeding despite their best efforts. For my part, I am extremely grateful to have been able to breastfeed without any complications. I love natural childbirth and breastfeeding because they make me feel connected to mothers across time and space; there is something so primal about giving birth to and feeding a child from my own body. Even so, I do not believe that women who have had c-sections or feed their babies formula are any less mothers.
So my wish for Breastfeeding Week 2013 is that every mom does what is best for her and her baby and takes comfort in knowing that that is the “right” thing for her family.