Disclaimer: I’m not a health professional. But I am a voracious reader, and a stickler for verification, ie. reliable studies and research which either confirm or disprove the breastfeeding myths I’m talking about today. I’m also a natural-term breastfeeder (check out my video on the subject below!). This post is intended to be for informational purposes, and where relevant I’ve linked to sources which support my claims about nursing facts and how to breastfeed. I also aim to provide trusted breastfeeding advice and tips, and answer the complex question – how does breastfeeding work?
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 that 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 suffer with social anxiety. 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.)
I’ve previously written about breastfeeding and alcohol – because the guidelines seem to be biased towards those who cannot or will not regulate their own drinking, which I find 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. 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.
I’ve also talked about breastfeeding rates; the lack of support from doctors when it comes to breastfeeding in general and particularly with reference to allergies; how some people think women who choose to breastfeed are martyrs (and why I think they’re right, in a way!); and my feelings about natural-term breastfeeding:
But one of my greatest concerns about breastfeeding is that there’s not enough discussion about breastfeeding before the baby arrives.
I have a lot to say about breastfeeding (so much so I’ve actually written an ebook on the subject). 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.
How Does Breastfeeding Work?
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.
My Breastfeeding Journey
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.
Our First Breastfeeding Problems
Alas, following just a few hours at home, we were admitted back to hospital for several nights for Pixie to be tube fed. Pixie was so little and lethargic I couldn’t wake her to feed and she’d become dehydrated. I may sound nonchalant, but trust me when I say this was ten times more harrowing than her traumatic birth.
It was necessary to supplement with formula at this point; I already felt like a failure.
During this time, I had access to some fantastic equipment and was expressing every two to three hours day and night – or at least attempting to. I was resolute. And as my precious Pixie grew stronger and her tube was removed, I was able to resume breastfeeding.
However, while on this ward (not the labour 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.
Breastfeeding Support – It Does Exist!
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 – Pixie was quite little at birth, only 5lb 4oz, and that meant her mouth was too tiny to properly latch.
The correct breastfeeding 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 who planned to breastfeed, yet had made an early decision to go with the flow. 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.
That’s not to undermine the efforts of those those who do not continue to nurse after encountering breastfeeding difficulties. My point is merely that I was a very good candidate for giving up, yet I refused. Nobody would have blamed me, yet I refused.
All Women Deserve Access to Breastfeeding Support
Women have many and varied a reason for choosing to bottle feed – and that’s okay. Though I believe breast is best, I don’t judge those who make a different choice.
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 breastfeeding myths…
1. Low Milk Supply 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 scenario, 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.
2. Nipple Confusion
Around the time of writing this piece, a friend gave birth and had some issues breastfeeding. It 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 seemed 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, and it’s only around 4% of women who have insufficient milk with an underlying issue that’s difficult to treat.
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.
3. 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 result in unnecessary worry for the mother, resulting in the premature termination of breastfeeding. I think that’s such a shame.
How Does Breastfeeding Work Then?
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 out the nipple.
Together with the rooting and sucking reflexes, babies are primed to nurse – but they’re still likely to require a little assistance to become proficient in the correct breastfeeding technique.
How to Breastfeed:
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; blocked milk ducts can be resolved within hours or days; the excruciating pain of nipple-eczema (yep, it’s a thing – 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.
Sadly, the perception of it being a relatively common issue is so deeply ingrained in society, many find it difficult to hear or accept this information. While I’d love for things to be different, that stigma I mentioned earlier does exist – whether you breastfeed or you don’t.
The subject of breastfeeding is a profoundly personal one, and sometimes it’s easier to leave the status quo unchallenged. But for those keen to learn, 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 support from health care professionals? Was your breastfeeding journey cut shorter than you’d have liked? I’d love to hear from you.
For more breastfeeding posts, head over to Breastfeeding – Help, Advice, Support.