Thursday, 2 February 2012

My Breastfeeding Rant

 For a long time now I've wanted to write something about breastfeeding, as it's something very close to my heart (no pun intended).  Currently I am successfully nursing my seventh child.  I say "successfully" because with almost every one I have been in a position that many women find themselves in where the nursing did not start off easily and it involved work to get things going smoothly.

Let me start out by saying that breastfeeding is a natural process.  Yes it is natural.  Does that mean that it is instinctive?  ABSOLUTELY NOT!!  IT IS A LEARNED SKILL!!  For millennia women have been successfully breastfeeding not because they instinctively knew how to do it, but because they grew up in societies and cultures where women taught each other the skills of mothering much more readily.  Most people grew up in larger families where they saw younger siblings or nephews and nieces being raised, and the generations were much more likely to live close by.  Women had not yet been conned into thinking that the best way to feed their baby came from a manufacturer.  And now that is the overriding cultural assumption that we are struggling against.

With our first child I knew nothing and I didn't know how much I didn't know.  I didn't know what questions to ask, I just knew I wanted to do this because it was, hands down, the best thing for my child.  I  started out with a bad latch leading to a lot of pain, and began pumping milk and finger feeding the baby while I healed because I didn't want to get into the problem of nipple confusion with a bottle.  We finally got him successfully to the breast at around 6 weeks of age.  My second child had a better latch but we developed thrush and needed a course of gentian violet to clear that up.  That was painful as well! (The thrush, not the gentian violet.)  Our third was premature and would fall asleep at the breast as preemies are prone to do, so once again I pumped and finger fed for about the first week.  Number 4 simply refused the breast, for some unknown reason so another round of pumping ensued while I continued to offer the breast and after 3 weeks she finally latched on on one side and got better from there.  Our fifth latched fairly well, but we needed to improve the latch so that milk production was well stimulated.  Our sixth was our earliest one, coming 5 weeks before his due date, and so he spent some time in the NICU as a matter of protocol even though he was fine.  Unfortunately this led to him being given some bottles and formula at the beginning, but we got him on the breast after a few days at home.  Number seven was also a non-latcher due to being tongue tied.  This happens when the skin that connects the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too tight and prevents the baby from getting a good latch at the breast, and also has implications later in life for oral hygiene and speech development as well as breastfeeding.  This was rectified by a very quick procedure to snip the skin.  Apparently this is effective in some cases and not in others but for us it did the trick and from there on she learned to latch and is still going strong.

I tell you all this not to pat myself on the back for keeping going in the face of difficulty.  But hopefully you'll see that I have some credibility when I say that you can overcome many difficulties on the road to breastfeeding.  I want to let you know that you can do the same if you have the determination, good support and no medical impediments. Let me clarify that by "medical impediments" I don't mean some medical professional telling you that "you must not be producing enough milk".  Unfortunately there are many medical professionals out there who give out a lot of codswallop when it comes to breastfeeding, especially in hospital settings where nurses are trained to measure everything in immediately quantifiable results.

I won't go into the nonsense I have heard, but for millennia women have been nursing babies as their sole means of feeding them and not running out of milk.  I don't think we suddenly have a problem of producing too little milk.  We have a problem of sabotaging the breastfeeding process and not knowing how to pass on the learned skill of breastfeeding in a society where we are so disconnected from each other and children are increasingly seen as commodities to be acquired on a schedule rather than gifts to be welcomed as they come.

My main issue is the way we don't give good support to mothers while giving lip-service to the idea of breastfeeding.  Whenever we want somebody to succeed at something we encourage them, we cheer them on, we give them resources.  We don't tell them it's okay to give up.  We wouldn't say to a woman in university, "It's okay if you don't want to continue with your degree because it's too hard.  You can always quit and get a job at Walmart.  You really shouldn't stress about it.". We don't tell her this because we believe in the long term future benefits of the present struggle, that there is inherent value in her overcoming the obstacle and succeeding at the endeavor.  Breastfeeding falls into this same category of "things that are worth the effort".

Breast milk is the only thing you can feed your child that contains living antibodies and living white blood cells to build the immune system.  Not to mention the real need to take note of the lot numbers on formula in case of recalls for bad batches!  When I was at the lactation clinic with Number Seven I saw a list on the wall of the consulting room that compared the ingredients of formula with the ingredients in breast milk.  The list of formula ingredients was just over half a page long.  The list of ingredients in breast milk was almost a full six pages long, and they are still discovering more as they study and research it. How you can honestly say to a new mother that bottle feeding is just fine if she is feeling somewhat stressed is beyond me.  I think mostly people just don't know anything better to say so let me give you some suggestions of supportive, practical things to say and offer:

"I know it's hard right now, but you're doing a great job."

"What can I do to help?  Can I bring you a meal?"

"Do you need a drive to the Breastfeeding clinic?  I can take you there or watch your other kids if you need me to."

"Can I pay for a good lactation consultant to come to your home?"

"I see your stress but I want you to know I'm here to let you vent if you need to while you go through the tough part."

"What you're doing is so worth while.  No one else can do this for your baby."

"You CAN do this.  You're a strong woman who got through labour (or a Cesarean section).  You can handle this too."

"You're doing the right thing to persevere.  It's worth it in the end!"

Because in the end it really is worth it.  There is nothing better for the child than breastfeeding.  There is nothing better for THE MOTHER than breastfeeding.  We seem to have come to this idea that to say so might make someone feel guilty for taking the easy way out.  And in our society we never want to make people feel guilty about anything, even when they are.  Frankly our children are worth our best effort.  We don't hesitate to criticize some things, like smoking in the baby's room or not using a safe carseat.  But for some reason the health benefits of breastfeeding don't strike the same chord with us.  We all too easily say that the easy way out is fine.  This is partially due to the strength of the media advertising that we are bombarded with.  There's no real money to be made from breastfeeding - but formula - that pays big when you can convince mothers that they need to shell out to the tune of $2000 in the first year!  And the almost universally recognized symbol of babyhood is a baby bottle!

It's especially important for fathers to be supportive.  Sometimes this means feeling helpless.  Sometimes this means booking the appointment with the lactation consultant when the new mom is feeling too overwhelmed to wrap her head around logistics.  Sometimes it means keeping visitors at bay for a bit while mom and baby get into a good rhythm.  Sometimes it just means telling her that you believe in her and that you are committed to doing whatever you can to help her get this working.  Likely it will mean some of all of the above.

In the end we all want to do what's best for our children.  Breast IS best.  I only wish we had the courage and resources as a society to stand up for that in deeds as well as in words.


  1. Way to go Liz!! I want to share this with my kids and clients...well done!

  2. Breast isn't always best, though. Breast is best when an untainted ample supply is available.

    I have friends who NEED to be on medication for mental health issues or seizures... medication that's transmitted through breast milk. Breast is not best in the face of toxicity.

    I have friends whose milk never came in. Yes, for millennia women fed their children exclusively by breast... and for millennia children starved to death when there was no alternative... or were fed cow's or goat's milk because of a mother's supply issues or death if no wet nurse was available. Breast is not best in the face of starvation.

    I have a dear friend who was judged for bottle-feeding her 3 boys. She didn't have an option. A medically necessary breast reduction had severed milk ducts... and cancer had necessitated a mastectomy. Breast is not best.

    I'm sure the lactivists reading this will say "Of course, there are always exceptions... but they're rare!"... they're not as rare as you'd like to think... and often times women who DON'T have the option of pursuing lactation consultation and taking supplements to increase supply and other such 'cures' are judged by women like you... without knowing the background, the assumption is made that they're taking "the easy way out" or that they "didn't have enough support"... that they're guilty.