In America, many moms make the choice to not breastfeed. In fact, the percentage of moms in America who do choose to breastfeed to the guidelines of the World Health Organization are abysmal. When we talk about why this is, or why moms choose formula instead, we hear a lot of seemingly valid reasons.
“I was going back to work anyway, so I just went ahead and gave formula from the beginning.”
“Formula and breastmilk are pretty much the same these days, so I went ahead and gave formula.”
“Formula is so much easier than breastfeeding! I don’t have to worry about latch, or covering up, or any of that, and anyone can give the baby a bottle. So we just gave formula instead.”
“The baby was nursing all of the time. I don’t think he was getting enough milk, so we switched to formula.”
“The doctor said my baby was so big that I couldn’t make enough milk for him, so I had to stop nursing and switch to formula.”
“The baby wasn’t gaining enough weight, so the doctor said I had to stop nursing and switch to formula.”
“It hurt every time we tried to feed, so I stopped breastfeeding and switched to formula.”
“My baby was in the NICU, so we went ahead and gave formula.”
“I wasn’t making enough milk! When I pumped, I would only get about an ounce combined from both sides! So, I had to stop breastfeeding and give formula.”
“I was worried about nursing in public, so we just gave formula.”
“I feel like breasts are not meant for eating from. They are for my pleasure, not my baby’s. So, I gave formula instead.”
“I was sexually assaulted and the thought of having a baby at my breasts is just too much for me. I cannot do it. I used formula instead.”
The thing about all of these answers that people often don’t realize is that every single one of them is not totally an informed choice, but also a lack of support. Given the appropriate support, most of these “reasons” for not breastfeeding would not even be an issue. And if women are going to have a true choice to breastfeed or formula feed, we need to get the support issues out of the way, and give women a true choice in the matter!
Ways We Can Support Women to Breastfeed:
1. Employers must provide a private pumping room for workers. And this isn’t just my opinion, this is a federal law. However, many companies wait until there is a mother who asks for such a space before they institute one. The problem with this philosophy is that it puts the onus of support on a mother who may not know her rights and who may be too fearful of losing her job to ask for such a space. This is not support. Support is paving the way to make it easier for moms to make the choice to breastfeed, if that is what they want to do. This means that employers should set up a pumping area before a mom comes to ask about it, so that women can see that the employer is going to be respectful of her choice without putting her job at risk by asking for it. On a personal level, any employee can bring this up to management and ask that it be instituted – even men! Especially men who have secure positions at work can contribute to breastfeeding rates by bringing this up at work. If you are in a position to ask for or help to implement a pumping room for women at your place of employment, here is a great pamphlet about how to go about encouraging breastfeeding in the workplace, with information about setting up a lactation room starting on page 9.
2. We must expel formula mythology, in order to achieve proper breastfeeding support. Formula advertisers, magazines that receive monetary support from formula advertisers, women who did not receive support while trying to breastfeed, or who have never known women who breastfed all spread formula myths, including the myths of formula being basically the same as breast milk, formula being easier than breast milk, breastfeeding and working being incompatible, and that many mothers simply aren’t able to breastfeed. Getting rid of this mythology is difficult, at best.
First of all, we need to get away from formula advertising. It is very important that as mothers, we do not let our decisions be made by people who are hoping to make money from those decisions. In order for this to happen, we have to stop supporting the formula advertisements. Stop supporting places and products that promote formula use. Don’t subscribe to magazines that have formula advertising. Don’t watch television shows that have formula advertising – or at least not those with heavy formula advertising. Don’t take the “free goody bags” from the maternity stores, baby stores, hospitals or even insurance companies – these are full of formula samples and advertising and exist primarily to get you on the mailing list for free formula samples, coupons and other advertising. Boycott companies that don’t adhere to appropriate formula advertising guidelines, like Nestle.
Beyond that, don’t talk women out of breastfeeding, or tell them horror stories. If you weren’t able to breastfeed, or decided not to for some reason, that is your own experience. However, there is no need to try to force that experience on someone else. This is the exact opposite of support. If a woman is hoping to breastfeed, even if she is nervous about her ability, please do not attempt to change her mind based on your own experience.
Don’t buy formula for expectant moms to have on hand – just in case. That “just in case” formula is the equivalent of a “just in case” tray of brownies to someone on a diet. It does nothing but feed the mom’s insecurities about breastfeeding.
If you’d like to do something more proactive to help a mom nurse, give her some encouraging words! You can say, “I really hope you are able to do that! Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.” You can say this without saying, “I really hope you can do that, but I couldn’t because…” Another proactive way to support a mom past formula mythology is to help her find support people, even if you aren’t able to be practical help. Offer to take her to a La Leche League or other breastfeeding support meeting in her area, so she doesn’t have to drive. If mom and baby are having trouble getting started, listen to her talk, let her cry if she needs to. Don’t tell her that she should give up. Don’t tell her that it is just too hard. Just be there for her to talk to. Offer to drive her to a lactation consultant, if you can, so that she doesn’t have to drive (especially if baby is prone to crying in the carseat). Offer to come hold the baby so mom can shower or nap if that is what she needs, to give her a break from worrying.
3. We must get accurate information about breastfeeding behaviors to women. Unfortunately, many medical professionals are not up to date on breastfeeding behaviors. Even many breastfeeding professionals have varying opinions that come into play when they are helping mothers. Parents of babies who are successfully breastfeeding need to make it clear to medical professionals who deal with breastfeeding pairs that it is important to us that they continue their education about breastfeeding regularly. When it comes to medical professionals, we are the consumers, and our demand drives their business. If enough people let them know that this accurate information is important to consumers, they will listen and focus more on that area. And what they learn may not impact each of us directly, but it will impact mothers who are worried or struggling.
Parents who have successfully breastfed also need to be an ear and a support for moms who are just starting out, or who have concerns. Historically, this is how it worked. This is why there were not breastfeeding specialists back when everyone breastfed. We didn’t need them because our collective pool of information was so vast. But now, the pool of experience with breastfeeding is much more shallow, so those of us who have been successful need to put ourselves forward for those who are trying, or are worried!
Parents who haven’t been successful at breastfeeding, or who never tried, can still help with this! If you are a support person for a newly breastfeeding mom, or for a mom who has concerns, one of the best ways you can help is by helping her to do research! It seems like it is easy enough to do a Google search, but when you are spending the majority of your awake time holding a baby in one hand and a breast in the other, it can be a bit hard to look things up. If mom is worried about whether the baby is getting enough, Google “How to tell if breastfed baby is getting enough milk”. If mom is worried about how often baby is nursing, Google “How often should a ___ week old baby breastfeed”. Then either print up good articles and bring them to her, or call her and read them to her off the computer. A few good websites to start researching breastfeeding topics are http://www.kellymom.com or http://www.lalecheleague.org. Both are evidence based and are continuously updated with new information.
And if you are a mom who is breastfeeding, and people are telling you things that don’t sound or feel right to you, don’t be afraid to do research on your own. If the doctor says you need to switch to formula because of some issue, do an internet search and find out if this is the evidence based practice for this issue. Or, call a La Leche League leader (their phone numbers are available online if you have never been to a meeting) and ask them what La Leche League’s stance or advice on that issue is. Or, call a lactation consultant and ask what her training says (and if one lactation consultant says something that you think is off, don’t be afraid to call another one). Or call your local WIC office (even if you don’t qualify for WIC) and ask to speak to their breastfeeding peer – and ask her what WIC’s stance on that issue is. You will OFTEN find that the doctor is having you switch to formula not because it is what is best for baby, but because the doctor does not have the experience in dealing with your particular breastfeeding issue, and the only answer the doctor has is to suggest formula. Another thing that you will often find is that taking the advice of just one person on breastfeeding will be detrimental to your breastfeeding experience. We all have our own experiences that shape our beliefs about things. If the one person you talk to had a different experience in the area you are concerned with, they may not have a perspective that will help you. It is important to advocate for yourself enough to talk to more than one person. If you speak with 2-4 people who all have the same advice, then that is likely the best solution. But most times, speaking to 2-4 people will yield at least 2-3 different ideas.
4. We must support women’s selves, women’s bodies, and women’s integrity in general, if we are going to have higher breastfeeding rates. When women see their bodies as only sexual objects, they are missing an entire spectrum of self pride, and self-actualization. When we spend our whole lives being told by advertising that our breasts are meant to sell cars, there is going to be a good chance that we are going to feel odd about allowing those same breasts to nourish a baby. If we are shamed our whole lives into keeping ourselves covered up at all times, and told that “no one wants to see that” or that “only bad girls show their bodies off”, it is hard to bring those parts of ourselves out and share them with someone else – even our own babies. When men “just being men” involves unwanted sexual attention, touching, and especially rape, we are not supporting women. When this is the case, we are not supporting women’s bodies. And when we are not supporting women and we are not supporting women’s bodies, we are not giving women the support that they need to believe in themselves; or to believe in their ability to feed and nourish their babies. It is imperative for our breastfeeding rates that we start supporting women in just being women. We need to support them through growing up. We need to support them through becoming educated. We need to support them through becoming wives. We need to support them through becoming mothers. Then, and only then, will women actually be in a position to make true choices for their bodies.
Likewise, only when we are supporting women in all of these ways will they be able to make a true CHOICE about whether or not they will breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months, continue breastfeeding through at least the first year, and then continue to breastfeed as long as is mutually agreeable to mother and child (hopefully at least the first 2 years) – as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.