This past Saturday I watched a documentary called The Milky Way. My husband put it on while I was starting to get the kids ready for bed, and he had to put Lily to bed because I was glued to the television. I had read a few books about breastfeeding when Lily was a baby, but this was the first documentary I have watched about it. Honestly, it made me sad and angry. There seems to be a bias in this country against all things “natural”. It really concerns me. Instead of just getting angry about it, I decided to write about it.
I would like to start by saying that how you feed your baby is a personal choice. I don’t mean for this to be a “pro-breastfeeding” post, and I am not trying to start a “mommy war.” My intention is not to tell you how to feed your baby. My intention in writing this post is to encourage you to be supportive of a mom who is breastfeeding, or at the very least not to be critical of her choice.
Did you know in this country only 15% of babies are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life? So what is going on? It is not because women don’t want to breastfeed, many women attempt to breastfeed, but sadly they do not get the support they need. Many women are given inaccurate information, even from medical personnel. Also, too many women are separated from their baby for a long time after birth, which can interfere with the hormones that initiate the production of milk.
What can be done to change this? Obviously changes are needed in the hospital environment, women and babies need to stay together as much as possible. But there are some ways you can support a nursing mother. Even moms who are fortunate to have a “good start” to breastfeeding can run into trouble.
In those first few days after the baby is born …
- Don’t suggest a mother is starving her baby. It is difficult enough for a mother, who is new to breastfeeding, to feel confident the baby is getting enough milk. A breast is not transparent, like a bottle. The mother cannot see how much milk the baby is getting and suggesting a baby is not receiving enough milk, when a mother is emotional and hormonal, is simply not supportive. In breastfeeding class I learned that you need to count the number of wet and soiled diapers. (What goes in must come out). After my daughter was born, my doctor gave me a chart and I was instructed to count wet/soiled diapers every day. In breastfeeding class I also learned the size of a newborn’s stomach; (it is the size of a marble). It takes 3-4 days for a mother’s milk to come in, but the baby is still receiving colostrum during this time. It is possible the mother is having difficulty, so if you have a concern …
- Do suggest a mother consult with a lactation consultant, especially if she has not taken a class in breastfeeding. Breastfeeding does not always come “naturally” to moms, especially since we live in a society where breastfeeding is not promoted and supported. Many babies have lip-ties and tongue ties that are not diagnosed and can make breastfeeding uncomfortable or painful. In some cases the mother can have a hormonal condition that affects her milk supply. (This is not a common occurrence, most mothers do produce enough milk). I have seen a story circulating on social media about this. which encouraged mothers to give their baby a bottle with formula to make sure the baby is not dehydrated. There are consequences to giving a breastfed baby a bottle, (such as nipple confusion). There are gentle ways to get a mom who is struggling the support she needs. Scaring her is not being supportive.
If a mom has a baby who is hungry and she is looking for a place to breastfeed her child …
- Don’t suggest she takes her baby into the bathroom, where it is more private. That is sort of gross. Would you eat your meal in the bathroom?
- Do help a breastfeeding mother find a comfortable place to nurse. In the Milky Way documentary, a lactation consultant explained how she was in the bathroom once and encountered a mother who was about to feed her baby in a bathroom stall. She escorted this mother out of the bathroom and found her a comfortable place to relax and feed her baby. If the mother has other children DO offer to watch her kids so she can sit down and nurse.
If a breastfeeding mother is feeding her baby 20 minutes after the last feeding …
- Don’t say – You’re feeding him again? Again, breastfeeding is different than formula feeding. The mother does not see how much the baby is consuming. Sometimes the baby is comfort feeding. Sometimes the baby gets distracted and does not finish a feeding. Breastfed babies often “cluster feed”, which is frequent feeding in a short period of time. Making comments like that will only frustrate the mother and could even inhibit her supply. (Stress will reduce milk production).
- Do offer her support, not criticism. I was recently in this situation, my friend appeared flustered because her baby was fussy, even though she recently nursed. I told her, go ahead, feed your baby again. Don’t worry about it.
If a breastfed baby is fussy …
- Don’t tell the mom to give the baby a pacifier. Some moms, like myself, don’t use them. Do not criticize her for using her breast as a pacifier.
- Do offer support.
If a mother returns from a “well-baby” visit and the child has not gained a lot of weight …
- Don’t make the assumption the mother’s milk supply is the cause. Many people do not realize that breastfed babies gain weight differently than formula fed babies. It is recommended to use the WHO growth chart, which is different than the chart many Pediatricians use in this country. Don’t discourage the mom from breastfeeding and tell her to use formula.
- Do make sure the mother is aware of the difference in growth charts. Perhaps encourage her to get her latch evaluated by a lactation consultant, and have the baby evaluated for a lip tie. If she is truly concerned about her supply, she can weigh the baby before and after a feeding to determine how much milk the baby is getting. Pumping is not always an accurate indicator of supply because pumping is completely different than nursing.
If a mother is nursing without a cover…
- Don’t tell her to cover up. Maybe she forgot it, maybe she does not use a cover because her child pulls it off. Maybe, (gasp), she does not use one. A nursing mom is not “exposing” herself, she is feeding her child. In this country we seem to have forgotten what breasts are for.
- Do offer support, ask if she needs anything.
It is best to avoid comparing formula to breast milk, but if you do ….
- Don’t tell a nursing mother that formula is better. Back in the day the formula companies did an amazing job with marketing and convinced many people that formula is superior to breast milk. I was very surprised when a mom recently told me someone said that to her, she was told formula is better. It is not a competition, formula and breast milk are completely different.
- Do remember we all make different choices for our babies and we make the best choice we can with the information we have at the time.
If you had a bad experience breastfeeding ….
- Don’t tell a nursing mom how your “milk dried up”, or that your baby was “allergic to your milk”. Please refrain from telling negative stories.
- Do offer solutions that helped you if you had difficulty.
If you see a mom nursing a toddler …
- Don’t make negative comments like “once they can talk they should not be breastfeeding”. This might come as a surprise to many but breastfeeding until a child is 2 is what the WHO recommends (source). In America it is uncommon for a mom to nurse her child for 6 months, so many people don’t know what the official recommendation are. I nursed my daughter just over 3 years.
- Do try to be supportive. Think of it this way, how many parents give their child a bottle or a cup of milk before bed? I personally know of quite a few. Is it really that strange for a child to receive human milk instead?
Do not tell a nursing mom she can’t get pregnant because she is breastfeeding. I know quite a few moms who fell into that trap …
But that is a post for another day.
What suggestions do you have for supporting a breastfeeding mother?