Breastfeeding: The Myths vs The Magic
Disclaimer: I’m not a health professional, and I don’t hold any relevant qualifications. But I am a voracious reader and a stickler for verification, ie. reliable studies and research. I’m also an extended breastfeeder. This post is intended to be for informational purposes, and I have linked to sources where relevant.
Have you noticed how there’s a real stigma attached to breastfeeding?
I’m not talking about the minority who are so offended by the mother naturally feeding her child, they tut loudly and avert their disgusted eyes. In fact, I’m not necessarily talking about those who have any kind of problem with it at all.
Sometimes it’s the very women who are pro breastfeeding who cause and/or breed this insidious blight on society.
The stigma has sprung up between (some) breastfeeders and (some) bottle feeders. And it has left us in the ridiculous position of being unable to speak frankly about nourishing our children, for fear of causing offence to someone, somewhere, somehow.
Well, I may be British, but I’m not typically so – impersonating the ostrich is not exactly my forte. If something needs saying, I just can’t help myself. Some people who think they know me would describe me as thriving on confrontation. But they’re wrong; I loathe it as much as the next person. In fact, I can be quite an anxious person. I far prefer harmony to conflict.
But there’s one thing I despise even more than discord: bitterness.
So if I think an issue is destructive enough, I will confront it. (I may be cringing inside, but I’ll still do it.)
The Issues To Be Confronted
I’ve written about breastfeeding before, and at the time I thought that post would encompass everything I had to say on the matter. The specific topic I covered was the surprises I’ve encountered in relation to feeding, and top of the list by no coincidence was the fact that there’s not enough discussion about breastfeeding before the baby arrives.
I later wrote Breastfeeding and Alcohol: THE TRUTH – because the guidelines seem to be biased towards those who cannot or will not regulate their own drinking. I find that patronising. And whilst I in no way condone drinking to excess particularly for breastfeeding mothers, I’m wildly frustrated about the lack of accurate information in the public consciousness (in terms both of alcohol, and in general too). It is available if you go searching, but people tend to repeat what they’ve heard over and over again; and so the lore is reinforced and perpetuated generation to generation. This is not helpful, and I like to be helpful.
During the past six months or so, I’ve realised I have a lot more to say about breastfeeding. I’m passionate about it, and I’ve become quite the advocate. I’d like to see all women have the best possible chance to successfully breastfeed, should they wish to do so. And to this end, there are several misconceptions I’d like to see publicly challenged and rejected.
My Breastfeeding Journey
Personally, I attended a workshop while I was pregnant. I was clueless and it helped me appreciate how much I had to learn. I’ve since also read lots on the subject to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of the physiology.
I had a strong desire to feed my baby myself, though I knew little about what that involved – or even why, specifically, it was the best option. I simply knew it was natural, and I trust nature to manufacture optimal sustenance for our offspring. On a personal level, following a traumatic delivery which was about as far from my ideal scenario as it could have been, I was determined to at least have this.
Following our daughter’s arrival, I was fortunate enough to have fantastic support from Feeding Together; I credit them with teaching me a bit about the mechanics of breastfeeding, as well as correct latch technique. This assistance involved my breast being manhandled into Pixie’s mouth, and it was about as dignified as the process of giving birth. That may sound somewhat rough – and it was*. It was also necessary.
*For me, not Pixie – never push the baby’s head to the nipple. See here for the correct manoeuvre.
Alas, following just a few hours at home, we were back in hospital for several nights for Pixie to be fed via a nasogastric (NG) tube inserted up her nose and into her stomach. I may sound nonchalant, but trust me when I say this was ten times more harrowing than her traumatic birth (and something I intend to elaborate on soon).
It was necessary to supplement with formula at this point; I already felt like a failure.
During this time, I had access to some fantstic equipment and was expressing every two to three hours – or at least attempting to – including throughout the night. I was resolute. And as my precious Pixie grew stronger and the tube was removed, I was able to resume breastfeeding.
However, while on this ward (not the recovery ward since we’d left and returned), the nursing staff were dogmatic in trying to persuade me to try our daughter with a bottle. The main reasons were because she was still too weak to breastfeed and the staff didn’t have the time to cup feed her (and I wasn’t allowed to!). I think this is pretty poor, but probably very common. I stood my ground and stubbornly refused – and we’ve never looked back. (If you follow my blog, you’ll know I was beginning the process of weaning not so long ago. My main objective was to improve night wakings; and while I have successfully night-weaned, I’m still feeding first thing in the morning and before bed. Since this suits us, I’m in no hurry to end our breastfeeding journey, though I suspect it will come to a natural end in the not too distant future.)
After we left hospital for the second time, I had a fantastic lady from Families and Babies out to visit us at home; she was also in regular contact via text message to ensure I was happy with our progress.
It wasn’t all straightforward though – my daughter was quite little at birth, only 5lb 4oz, and what that meant was her mouth was too tiny to properly latch. The correct technique requires a large portion of the areola and breast tissue to be held in the baby’s mouth along with the nipple itself; with a very small mouth, this is very difficult to achieve and inevitably leads to problems. The pain of cracked and bleeding nipples is not to be underestimated, and I fully understand and sympathise with those who grudgingly turn to the bottle at this point (not a euphemism).
Of all the above, there was one key reason I was a stronger candidate to successfully breastfeed than many of my peers. It wasn’t the fact that I visited the workshop; it wasn’t the ladies at Feeding Together or FAB. It was my absolute resolve that I was going to do it.
It wasn’t painless, it wasn’t a perfect transition – but I persisted.
Women have many and varied a reason for choosing to bottle feed – and that’s okay. Though I personally think breast is best, I don’t judge those who make a different choice. That’s not the purpose of this post at all.
If women make an educated decision not to breastfeed, then I applaud them for being empowered to make that informed choice. If, however, they mistakenly believe they can’t; if a health professional dissuades them from continuing for a spurious reason; if they don’t believe they have enough supply to satisfy their infant – these are the inaccuracies I hope to address and the propaganda I hope to disprove.
I’ve heard many friends say that though they’d ideally like to breastfeed, they’re not going to put undue pressure on themselves. Of utmost importance – of course – is the wellbeing of both mother and baby. And so, if breastfeeding is creating a great deal of stress for either participant, I completely agree that the wiser option is to stop.
However, I also think it’s crucial that new mums appreciate this reality: breastfeeding is a skill. And just like with any other skill, to become adept at it (usually) requires coaching from a professional; support from peers; practice; and patience.
In other words, there’s a fine line between being sensible, and setting oneself up to fail through a lack of education or determination. I don’t pretend striking that balance is easy. But knowledge is power, so I’d like to dispel some myths…
Myth One: Poor Supply of Milk is Common
I’m always so saddened when I hear of women encouraged to end breastfeeding because of low reserves. The term ‘hungry baby’ was coined to describe just this, and it’s one I despise. An increase in feedings (cluster feeding) is simply nature’s way of increasing your supply. It’s an indication that all is well and just as it should be, not a symptom of a problem – and certainly not a sign that you’re unable to keep up with your baby’s demands and should therefore quit.
The reality is that breastmilk works on a supply and demand basis. So, as in our case, any baby who is not feeding efficiently will leave their mother with a yield too low to satisfy their needs – because they are not feeding efficiently.
Without the sound guidance I received from both Feeding Together and FAB, I’d have been in that overwhelmingly large category of women who believe they are unable to feed their babies due to an insufficient supply. Initially, my supply was too low to sustain her. I was devastated.
But critically, despite our difficulties, I was able to remedy the problem. And that is my point – I had accurate information at my disposal (and lots of encouragement and support from both breastfeeding experts and hubby) and I persevered; by around two weeks, I was confident in feeding my daughter.
Our bodies are so incredibly intuitive: they know how to adapt if only we don’t interfere.
Myth Two: Nipple Confusion
Since starting to write this piece, a friend has given birth and had some issues breastfeeding. It has made me consider what I’m writing in greater depth, for fear of inadvertently causing her (or others) distress. I’ve been reminded that it’s not only pain or concerns on the mother’s part that can be an obstacle to breastfeeding. It is – of course – a joint enterprise, and the baby needs to be a willing participant too.
My friend’s baby seems reluctant to latch on, preferring a bottle. So, do my assertions fall down when the baby lacks interest in the breast? I don’t believe so. After careful deliberation and refreshing my knowledge, I stand behind my conviction that the majority of women can breastfeed with the right education and support. The evidence stacks up.
In cases such as my friend’s, I understand how women can feel compelled to bottle feed. In fact, as I gave this due consideration, I realised I was in that precise situation myself: Pixie wound up admitted to hospital because she was too lethargic to feed and became severely dehydrated. So, what did I do differently than my friend, and countless other women in this predicament?
I didn’t offer the choice of a bottle.
Feeding from the breast requires more effort on the baby’s part; thus once a bottle has been offered as an option, it can naturally become difficult to entice a baby to breastfeed. This is often referred to as ‘nipple confusion’, and is why I refused to allow my baby a bottle in hospital and beyond. But I was wrong…
If I have another child, I will be encouraging a bottle in the evening. I never did this with Pixie for fear of her rejecting the breast, and it meant I was unable to leave her side for any length of time until she was taking some solids.
While this may sound hypocritical, having better educated myself during the past year, I now understand that tandem feeding can work fine:
So long as you have established breastfeeding with your baby, there’s no reason not to introduce a bottle, should this be something you wish to do. This article explains it well.
Myth Three: Babies Are Born Knowing How to Breastfeed (Or Not)
The commonly held belief that babies are born knowing how to breastfeed is simply not true! And this misconception can be a source of undue concern for the mother, resulting in the premature ending of breastfeeding. I think that’s such a shame.
It’s also worth noting that the ‘breast crawl’ reflex is a real phenomenon, and if we don’t intervene, the baby will instinctually seek the nipple out.
Together with the rooting and sucking reflexes, the baby is primed to breastfeed; but s/he is still likely to require a little assistance to become proficient in the technique.
Health Professionals Breast Knows Best
I’m flummoxed by the lack of breastfeeding education in some health professionals. I absolutely appreciate that doctors, nurses, and the like have trained hard and passed exams that would be far beyond my capability. They do a fantastic job, and I have nothing but respect for them – but, I hear all too often that some of these very same care providers are administering bogus information to would-be breastfeeders.
From my own experience, the agonising pain of cracked nipples resulting from a poor latch can be overcome in 24 hours; the excruciating pain of nipple-eczema (yep, it’s a [horrific] thing) can be resolved in a week. If a woman’s supply is low, it can (almost always) be fixed.
The truth of it is there are very few women who are anatomically unable to breastfeed.
The fallacy to the contrary is so deeply ingrained in society, some may find it difficult to hear or accept this information. Though I’d dearly love for things to be different, that stigma I mentioned earlier does exist, whether you breastfeed or you don’t. So though I support women’s choices, I anticipate ruffling some feathers. I know this post is provocative, despite the fact my intention is to educate and empower.
Alas, the subject of breastfeeding can be a profoundly personal one, and sometimes it’s easier to leave the status quo unchallenged.
But for those who are open to learning, you may be surprised to discover how much control you have over your choice to breastfeed – or not.
What do you think? Have you experienced poor above from health care professionals? Was your breastfeeding journey cut shorter than you’d have liked? I’d love to hear from you.