In time for Breastfeeding month, I’m going to talk about the things we don’t talk about breastfeeding, and why we should talk some more.
I come from both sides of the fence, so to speak. I am an exclusively breastfeeding mom but I also gave my baby formula several times while I was building my supply during the first two weeks post-partum. Before giving birth, I naively thought breastfeeding was going to be an easy, natural thing to do and I went as far as post articles I read online about breastfed kids being smarter, happier and healthier than formula fed kids… not a very sensitive thing to do, I realized later on, which brings me to my first point.
Breastfeeding is framed as a public health issue, a food security matter, and so much more. However, talking about breastfeeding or formula as a matter of choice by a parent is such a sensitive and highly contentious topic even though it has public health dimensions. How you feed your child touches a raw nerve 99% of the time. It divides mothers, grandmothers, friends, workmates, one judging the other, when it should not be the case.
First of all, nobody talks about the private pain a mother goes through when people around her – family included, judge her choice to breastfeed. Breastfeeding moms endure a lot of well-intentioned but hurtful comments and suggestions, ranging from their milk not being good enough to their babies not being fat enough – or that their babies look sickly compared to fatter formula fed babies. Moms who want to breastfeed but are not able to also endure hurtful comments about their ability to provide for their babies, sadly even from other moms, too.
Nobody really talks about how friggin’ hard it is, especially in the first few weeks, hence setting up a clueless mom for heartache and disappointment. The first thing I tell my friends who want to breastfeed is this – be prepared for a difficult and arduous rollercoaster ride. It’s better to be brutally honest about how hard it is at first rather than paint a rosy picture that is far from reality.
Your back will hurt, your body will be in pain, your nipples will be incredibly sore and tender, you will feel unbearably cold, your body will feel like it’s failing you because nourishing another life means you need to be twice as strong to take care of your own. During the first few weeks your body will change in so many ways and your hungry and helpless baby in need of warmth and nourishment will be clinging to you so often that you will experience a deep kind of exhaustion that will break you if you’re not prepared.
Nobody tells you how you will feel guilty at times for wanting to sleep a little longer during the early days, how terribly insecure you will be about the adequacy of your milk supply, and that not having confidence in yourself will doom your determination and ability to breastfeed. You really need to trust yourself and your baby as well.
It’s a steep learning curve and it won’t get better til after the first few months. Not weeks, but months. Later on you will realize that it did get easier and it did better after all. The day will come when it will feel natural, when you can sleep a little bit longer, when you can anticipate hunger cues and when you can contort your body in more ways than one to provide milk to a hungry baby.
People expect the whole experience to be easy peasy because it’s supposed to be instinctive and natural. Maybe it was natural, a long time ago, but that was before formula milk came and bottles and milk pumps … In my case, I felt I needed a lactation specialist to confirm I was doing it right. Some part of it it instinct though, especially if you listen closely to how your baby sounds while breastfeeding and if you start to feel a little bit sleepy yourself.
In my case, I only know NOW (11 months in) for sure that my baby is latching correctly because she already has two teeth out and breastfeeding her is NOT PAINFUL at all. Sure she bites when she’s feeling playful but as a rule, I know now that baby is smarter than me. She knows how to breastfeed.
Nobody talks about the challenges of breastfeeding when you’re a working mom. I was lucky that before I went back to an office based job recently, my law practice with my husband afforded me a flexible working schedule that enabled my baby to latch directly anytime. Having started a regular office job a few weeks ago and feeling my supply dip dangerously low due to stress and a lot of changes, I felt acutely the struggles of most working moms and I can imagine how they ended up giving formula, too.
Nobody talks about how expensive breastfeeding is such that you can only truly make it work it if you are not employed (but well supported financially), or are gainfully self-employed. I honestly do not know if I could have made it this far just relying on a breast pump and being away from my baby most of the day. We need to make breast pumps affordable – asking a mom to shell out a big amount in cash versus the weekly build up to buying formula milk. Sure, in the long term, breastfeeding results in more savings – but if you don’t have the kind of cash upfront to afford breast pumps then you will end up buying formula. Our laws should be amended further to fully support breastfeeding mothers up to 6 months, the recommended period for exclusive breastfeeding by the World Health Organization. Otherwise, it will all be for naught.
Nobody really talks about how breastfeeding and formula feeding have become such ugly, divisive topics even in breastfeeding support groups. I’ve seen it too many times, where, in the desire to support each other becomes so intense that passionate moms end up making those who are not quite there yet, feel guilty and worthless for not being able to breastfeed exclusively. In the end, both sides feel cornered and defensive.
It is crucial to have a solid and stable support system around you because if you’re the only one determined to do it, you will feel terribly alone. If you don’t get the support that you need though, you need to have iron will to see it through and to assert your right and prerogative to breastfeed.
As much as possible, we all want our babies to be well fed and we make our decisions according to what information and resources are available to us. That breastfeeding does not continue among most moms for a variety of reasons is another matter entirely, and rather than shame a mom for supplementing with formula or giving just formula milk, we should just understand such decisions, from one mom to another, and keep our communication lines open. Support shouldn’t come at the expense of other moms who have different experiences and different choices.
The conversation surrounding breastfeeding is complex. Education is key. Openness and support (without judgment) should dominate any prevailing discourse.
Let’s keep the conversation going.