Ah, breastfeeding. What can we say? Just the word, the thought, and the image can engender emotions as variable as night and day, north and south, love and hate. People are very passionate (on both sides of the aisle) about this topic. Remember how much flak that lady took who was breastfeeding her 3-year-old son on the cover of Time magazine? She almost got as much press as Caitlyn Jenner!
For those who have danced the dance before, some recall the experience with fondness and affection, while others remember it with frustration and fury. For those who have not yet even tried, the thought can create both anxiety and excitement, nervousness, and anticipation. Wherever you fall on the breastfeeding spectrum, it is worth a discussion. Why is there so much buzz around this subject, including if you do it, where you do it (who knew a woman breastfeeding her baby would make its way to the floor of Congress!), and how long you do it?
The tides on breastfeeding have changed more than the Atlantic Ocean in hurricane season. In the 1950s, women were given medications that put them in a twilight state for delivery (no memory of the pain, the pushing, and the other glories of childbirth) and given formula to feed their babies when they woke up.
Today, hospitals are jockeying to receive the prestigious “Baby Friendly” recognition where Baby and Mom are never separated (the newborn nursery no longer exists). Lactation consultants occupy the hallway. Breastfeeding classes happen twice daily, and formula is hardly even mentioned. In 1971 only, about 25% of mothers left the hospital breastfeeding. In 2005, this number had risen to 72%. The change has come on the heels of extensive research, which has demonstrated the numerous benefits of breastfeeding for both Mom and Baby.
So what is so magical about that milk? Why is it liquid gold? Breast milk offers numerous benefits for both babies and mothers. The list is long, and at the top is the protection it offers against infection. Buried within the milk are antibodies that strengthen your baby’s immune system. While women are breastfeeding, their babies have a lower chance of infections, including stomach bugs, respiratory illnesses (colds and coughs), ear infections, and urinary tract infections. Additionally, breast milk has been shown to help stimulate the growth and motility of a baby’s GI tract.
And as if the carats of this gold were not high enough, breastfeeding does not just offer short-term gains but also major long-term benefits for your child. The pluses seem to persist for years after the last drop is released; a mother’s milk provides protection against illnesses for the first several years of a child’s life. Fast-forward into your child’s adolescent and adult years, and there is evidence that suggests breastfed babies have a lower incidence of chronic diseases, including obesity, cancers, allergies, diabetes, and even adult cardiovascular disease.
And if you think that’s it, think again. Select studies have shown that breastfed babies may have better vision, hearing, cognitive development, childhood behavior, and stress reduction. But while the list is long, some points deserve more press than others. While the early benefits are clear, the later ones are controversial. Don’t let the fear of what might happen to your child ten years into their life if you put the pump away after six months keep you going. Whatever you have done or will do is better than nothing! And remember, many of us have gotten to the top of the professional ladder and never consumed even one ounce of breast milk. Your child’s success is not solely based on their first diet.
Breastmilk doesn’t just do a baby’s body good; it also does your body good! Breastfeeding hastens your recovery post-delivery (the hormone that produces milk also helps the uterus to shrink back down to its normal size). It helps the weight come off faster (a magic diet pill—we’ll take that!), and it can serve as a form of birth control (at least in the first few months after your delivery).
Some data suggest that women who breastfed have a lower incidence of breast and ovarian cancer as well as a lower risk of heart disease. Lastly, it’s basically free! Formula is not cheap, and babies drink a lot of it! Take the money you saved, and buy yourself something special. You deserve it. Breastfeeding is hard work!
But while breastfeeding may not be right for every woman, it is medically not advised for some women. These include women who are HIV+, HTLV type I or type II, have active untreated tuberculosis or varicella (chicken pox), or have active herpes with breast lesions. Women who are advised to take certain chronic medications that they briefly stop during the pregnancy may also be advised to resume postpartum and not breastfeed. Additionally, women who use illicit drugs or consume excessive alcohol should not breastfeed. Lastly, babies with a condition called galactosemia (inability to break down a milk byproduct) should not be breastfed.
Let’s face it, even the best milk producers amongst us need a break every now and again. An afternoon to pamper yourself or an evening out with friends is important for your mental state and can actually help with your milk production. Making milk is hard work. You need to eat well, drink lots of fluid, take your vitamins, and try your best to get some rest (we understand how hard this is!) Continue to watch your fish intake (like you did during pregnancy), as some are loaded with mercury (Link: A Fishy Situation). Bottom line: in order to keep the milk flowing, you need to maintain your health.
You’re not a machine, but even machines don’t work without maintenance! In fact, it is estimated that you need an extra 500kcal per day when breastfeeding. And although infant demand (how much your baby wants and needs) is the major factor determining how much milk you produce (some women breastfeed twins, triplets, plus!), maternal stress, anxiety, fatigue, illness, and smoking can all lead to a tapping out of your supply. A little pumping and dumping now and again never hurt anyone or left any baby hungry.
While we are not here to tell you not to try or to stop prematurely, we are here to say, cut yourself some slack. You are not a failure if you didn’t make milk, if you couldn’t get your baby to latch, or if you simply could not do it. Breastfeeding does offer many benefits, but it’s not right, easy, or appropriate for every mother. And that’s ok. No baby was rejected from Harvard because his or her mother did not breastfeed, quit after a few months, or didn’t make the recommended six-month mark.
In an ideal world, we would have an extended paid maternity leave—this time together would be more conducive to continued breastfeeding. But most women don’t get this; shortly after delivery, they must return to work. So we recommend you use all the resources available to you: lactation consultants, breast feeding organizations/stores, websites, and your friends. Many of them will have walked in your footsteps only months before and can be your cheering squad pushing you forward. Their knowledge can benefit you and offer you solutions to a problem that, despite the loneliness you feel, millions of women before you have faced.
It’s likely not a day will go by that you don’t blame yourself for something, feel guilty about something, or think that someone else would have done it better. It’s par for the course. Parenting is a big responsibility. We get it; the thought is overwhelming. But on this journey of motherhood, you will bogey, you will eagle, and sometimes you will even par. We all do. Breastfeeding is only the first putt on the course. Do your best, and the rest will likely take care of itself.