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Tweaking The Conversation About Breastfeeding

Being honest with women about the challenges of breastfeeding

 

By V.K. Harber

 

As a post-partum doula, breastfeeding is hands down the thing I spend the most time on with new

mothers, and I love it. Supporting a mother in the first few challenging weeks of breastfeeding is enormously satisfying because I know firsthand the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby. I want to help any woman who wants to breastfeed to do so successfully.

 

Finding women who want to breastfeed is not hard. The campaign to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding over formula-feeding has been very successful. Women understand that breast is best, without a question. And yet, they’re still not having the success that one would expect, given the number of mothers who express the desire and intention to exclusively breastfeed and given the number of mothers who start off trying. I believe a study puts the number of women who wish to breastfeed exclusively for three months or more at 85%, while the success rate is only 32.4%.

 

This is not a post about the usual culprits, though. We know the influence of the healthcare industry and standardized maternity care and societal pressures and expectations and the horrific formula companies. But I wonder if the conversation we’re having surrounding breastfeeding needs to be tweaked a bit. Just to be clear, we cannot discount the effects of the baby industrial complex or the lack of fair maternity leave policies and all the other things that we know are working against women when it comes to this most natural way to feed a baby. But, I think there is something that a lot of us who care so passionately about this issue are missing.

 

Oftentimes, when the new moms I am working with run into a challenge with breastfeeding, they seem surprised and they almost always think they are the only ones to have whatever problem they are having. These are women who have read some really great books in preparation for childbirth and breastfeeding and have taken time to educate themselves about both. Yet, even though they may have read a book like The Nursing Mother’s Companion, which extensively covers the various difficulties that can arise while nursing, they are still completely overwhelmed and, many times, feel as though they have failed when a problem arises.

 

Somehow, the reality that breastfeeding is hard, not because formula is better and not because our bodies aren’t meant to do it, and not because it is inconvenient, etc. has somehow not been impressed upon these women. Breastfeeding is hard work. It is a full-time job at first and many tears are shed by both mother and baby as they work together to figure it out. It is a learned skill and like all learned skills it requires patience, determination, and time.

 

There are a few things going on, I think. For one, before we have children, we have this idea in our head about how it will go and how it will look. Then we have the baby and realize just how far off our expectations were. But there is more to it than self-imposed expectations. I feel like those of us who have breastfed successfully and who feel so strongly about breastfeeding in general have somehow glossed over the difficulties. I am certainly guilty of this. Not in any intentional way, but because I have been successful (20 months and still going strong) and because I love, love, love what it has done for me and my baby, I don’t dwell on the first few weeks and months that were loaded with challenges and opportunities to feel like I had failed. Mind you, I had mastitis four times. Four times! And yet still if an expectant mother asks me about breastfeeding, I go on and on about its virtues and how wonderful it has been and how much I know they will love it.

 

I know that part of the reason I do this is because I believe wholeheartedly in the power of words. I only mention the good for the same reason that when an expectant mother asks me about natural labor I only talk to her about what a rewarding choice it was for me and my confidence in her body and her baby to have a natural birth if that’s what she wants. What good is it going to do her for me to describe my 27 hours of active back labor? And why mention mastitis if there is a strong possibility that they will never deal with it? Fear-mongering is not my thing. We have the aforementioned mainstream baby industrial complex for that.  I absolutely believe that we must always speak about childbirth and breastfeeding in positive terms around expectant mothers.

 

But perhaps I am misguided? Despite my well-intentioned attempts to encourage confidence in an expectant mother, am I somehow undermining her by not highlighting the difficulties that are sure to arise? Is there a way to do this without scaring her?

 

I think that we, as women, are put under a lot of pressure to make everything we do look easy. Perhaps sometimes we do this without realizing it. And while there are a lot of conversations going on over the internet and among close friends about the challenges of motherhood, I’m not sure that the broad and general discussion that happens for public consumption is adequately addressing the areas where women need the most support. Somehow we need to figure out how to let women know that breastfeeding is absolutely best, but also hard, and although completely natural, does not always come naturally.

 

Women have always had challenges breastfeeding, but it used to be that they were surrounded by other women who helped them through it. They had mothers and sisters and aunts and cousins and neighbors who used their collective experience and wisdom to guide them through the rough patches. Surely there is a way, even in our very different world, to recreate this kind of support for mothers.

 

 

 

YOUR NAME

About V.K. Harber

 

YOUR BIO—V.K. Harber is a yogi, writer and mother of one. She is the co-founder and former managing director of Samdhana-Karana Yoga: A Healing Arts Center in Tacoma, WA, a non-profit yoga studio.She currently resides in Seoul, South Korea where she works as a yoga teacher and post-partum doula. (www.vkharber.com) She is also a contributing writer at World Moms Blog and can be found on twitter @VKHarberRYT.

Comments (6)

I could not agree more! I absolutely loved breast feeding, but the first six weeks were hell. My husband, out of complete sympathy, kept encouraging me to just use a bottle to give myself a rest. But I persisted. If it weren't for my sister, who had recently had a baby and had a similar experience, telling me that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and would get completely easier and even enjoyable, I'm not sure if I could have stuck it out. You're right - we need to talk more about this. We need to hold womens hands and support them until they reach the light at the end of their tunnel.
I currently live in East Africa. The breast feeding rate here is 97%. But the women I've spoken to tell me that they too struggled with the initial pain of breast feeding. But they have a much larger extended network of support helping them, encouraging them and telling them it will improve.
Great article and glad to see you here!
I really appreciate you writing this article. I suffered from low milk supply with my son and none of the pumping, teas, supplements, foods and other methods of increasing milk supply ever worked over the months that I tried them all. I eventually made peace with the fact that my son would never be exclusively breastfed and would always need formula after nursing to meet his nutritional needs.
Despite all of that, I still breastfed my son for 14 months and experienced the hard parts about "normal" breastfeeding on top of the milk supply issues. It was not easy.
Throughout it all, I only met one lactation consultant who acknowledged the difficulties that accompany breastfeeding, including the supply issue. She was the only one who made my difficulties feel normal and she inspired me to continue breastfeeding when I thought it wouldn't be in my future.
We absolutely need to talk about the "hard stuff" so that other women know they're not alone.
Article well done.
My first week was the hardest. It hurt to the point of tears every time my daughter latched. Then it stopped one day and I began to deal with over supply. After which I found myself correcting this by feeding twice on each breasts (thank you forums).
Now, the feelings I get when I feed my baby just about anywhere: the sense of animal motherness I get, the calm feelings and intense bursts of love during night feedings. Nothing has ever made me feel more purposeful.
What really benefits me is knowing how my body takes its nutrients and forms it into food, milk, for my Baby to thrive on. It blows my mind once a day. It is such a powerful position to be in.
Every curious female who has talked to me about breast feeding gets the story of learning through the difficulties to appreciate the rewards.
Agreed. I always tell friends who are expecting that breastfeeding is hands-down the most rewarding and most challenging thing I have ever done. I don't shy away from all the troubles I had, but I also don't shy away from giving tips and my contact info to every person I talk with about it.
I remember sitting in the prenatal breastfeeding class and being told that if it hurt, then something was wrong! Oh my, was that ever fun as an uncertain (and exhausted and in pain from a hard labor) first time mom to feel like your child wasn't even a day old and already you were doing something wrong....
My milk came in very late, so I had to supplement my son in the beginning, and then went through 4 weeks of absolute misery (pumping every 2 hours, taking various supplements, etc) to be able to get my supply up to a sufficient level that we could exclusively breast feed. I credit the success to an excellent lactation consultant at the hospital who was very no-nonsense about how rough this would be. I already knew about the benefits of breastfeeding - I'd read at least five books about breastfeeding during pregnancy, and you can't go to a baby website these days without being reminded that breast is best - but what I needed was support that while it would be very hard, I could get through it. If I hadn't had such easy access to an experienced LC, I don't think I would still be breastfeeding.
"What good is it going to do her for me to describe my 27 hours of active back labor? And why mention mastitis if there is a strong possibility that they will never deal with it? Fear-mongering is not my thing."
As an expectant mother myself I will say that there is a big difference between fear-mongering and honesty. There is nothing that annoys me more than someone else deciding for me what is useful information for me to have and what is not. My advice would be to please stop trying to protect expectant mothers from "scary" stories - I'm sure you are a smart woman and can find productive, solution-oriented words to tell your stories. We expectant first-time moms are not naive and fragile. We want access to good information so that we can make the best decisions for our families. I have felt a few times as if there was information about the challenges of breastfeeding, cloth diapering, etc., that some women were only sharing the positive because they were afraid that if they were honest then I would choose another path. While they had good intentions I find that really somewhat offensive - it's my choice, and if we mean what we say about empowering women then we need to trust each other and share our experiences.
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