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This one’s going to be a now-rare, good-old-fashioned rant. Because I mean it: I’m tired of lactivists.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in breastfeeding as much as the next girl. Maybe, in some cases, more. After all, I’m currently tri-andem nursing my 4-year-old, 2.5-year-old, and 7-month-old. Yes. My 4-year-old is still breastfeeding. So obviously I believe in breastfeeding, extended breastfeeding, child-led weaning, and all that stuff.
And I absolutely intend to support women who want to breastfeed, and I wish far more women had support. I strongly dislike the way society treats breastfeeding mothers, as if it’s sexual and deviant. I think it’s important to stand up for mother’s rights and stop all this nonsense that is the breastfeeding debate (should you/shouldn’t you, is public okay, at what age “should” you stop, and so on). So you could say in general I fall on the side of the lactivists.
A lot of lactivists are so stuck in their way of thinking that they just don’t see reality anymore. They don’t see the “other side” at all. That means the women struggling…who really can’t breastfeed. The women who emotionally don’t want to do it. The women who are approaching all this confusing territory of motherhood and breastfeeding for the first time and are desperately seeking help…only to basically be told that they just don’t get it and have a tirade of “facts” thrown at them. How is this helpful?
The Leaky Boob has done a whole series on this. I won’t reiterate everything she’s said. I will share my own anecdote.
As I said, I’ve been a breastfeeding mom for more than four consecutive years. I’ve read many books, published journal articles, I have nursed three babies, and have those 4 years of practical, real-world experience — which includes tandem and triandem nursing, three newborns and infants, two toddlers, and breastfeeding through two pregnancies. Suffice to say that I’ve heard it all and seen most of it first-hand too.
One night we were struggling, though. I’d been sick for a few days and had hardly eaten anything. My milk supply was way down. My baby was frustrated, and when he’s frustrated, he refuses to even try, despite that he is starving. I was faced with a conundrum: screaming, refusing-to-sleep baby who was hungry…and I couldn’t magically make my milk supply go back up within the next 10 minutes to satisfy him. What to do?
So, perhaps stupidly, I put the question to my Facebook page. ”What would you do?”
What followed was…amazing.
“Don’t you understand supply and demand? You can’t supplement him or you’ll lose your supply. It’s a slippery slope, once you start you can’t stop. Just keep putting him back to the breast, it’s never really empty. Supplements are inferior. If you have to, get donor milk, nothing else will do. It just doesn’t work that way, he just needs to nurse more often in order to tell your body to make more milk.” It went on like this for awhile, with some tirades in the middle on how awful commercial formula was.
Meanwhile, in real life, I still had a hungry, overtired, fussy baby who needed to be fed and would not nurse. I knew it was because I’d been sick. I knew once I got to feeling better and eating more that my supply would go back up. I knew that supplementing him once wouldn’t lead to the end of our breastfeeding relationship. I had no access to donor milk at 9 PM at night when I needed something right now. But the “advice” I got was anything but practical: it was the same sort of lactivist nonsense that is thrown at any woman who asks a question like mine.
If you’re wondering, I offered him a bottle of diluted raw milk. He took about an ounce. That was the only time I gave him anything and we resumed exclusive nursing with no problems the next day.
Sure, there are women who ask questions that need to be answered that way. For example, women whose babies are going through growth spurts may behave that way, and supplementing isn’t the answer there (usually). What works for us is to get into a bath together and nurse; the water relaxes both of us so that baby is willing to try harder and the milk lets down faster. Now, that’s a practical piece of advice! May not work for every woman, but it at least takes into consideration that a mother is frustrated and so is her baby.
More recently, someone asked about the fat content of breastmilk, and did it vary based on what you food you ate. Several pumping moms offered their observations that, yes, their milk did have more fat when they ate more fat. This was a helpful conversation for a mom who was curious.
But then one mom said — and several moms “liked” — that we ought not to talk about this, because the idea that breastmilk can change based on what you eat could discourage moms with a poor diet from breastfeeding at all! And we wouldn’t want to discourage them…would we?
Deliberately leaving out information about breastfeeding is no solution to the problem of low breastfeeding rates. If we don’t tell women there’s an adjustment period and that you can feel decidedly sore, and maybe even in pain sometimes, they’ll be shocked and upset when and if they experience it.
Yes, there’s some pain involved when you first start. And no, that doesn’t mean “you’re not doing it right.” Some babies need to be taught to latch properly and may be *almost* right, but not quite. Your breasts may not be accustomed to use and may become chapped and feel tender at latch-on and between feedings. This pain will not last, and if it does, then yes, something’s wrong. (If you still feel any pain after a month, get some help.) I was very sore and aching for a month after my first baby was born, mostly between feedings. I remember that as soon as the pain finally faded, it was time to feed her again. I hated wearing a bra or clothing at all because it compressed my breasts and made the ache worse. But after a month it was gone and never came back.
This is called honesty. And we need to use it, and then help moms deal with it. How will they know what is normal pain and what isn’t? And can you imagine a mother being told “No, of course it doesn’t hurt!” then starting to breastfeed and finding out it does? What will she say? Will she quit because she wasn’t prepared for that? Will she seek help, only to be told, “Then you’re doing it wrong?” How does that help her?
Instead, it would be a better idea to say, “Yes, expect some pain at first. Try using lanolin or coconut oil on your nipples. Don’t wear a bra if you can avoid it. Try cool washcloths or breast gel pads to soothe it. This won’t last.” She’s prepared for the reality…and has tools in her arsenal to deal with it.
With the quality of milk comment, here’s what I have to say about that:
Regardless of the fat or vitamin content of your milk, it contains stem cells, human growth factors, immunities, and other important components that can’t be replicated. The immunoglobin A coats your baby’s intestines in order to help them develop properly. Breastmilk functions as an immune system for a baby who doesn’t have one yet. None of these things can be replaced, so breastmilk is always superior for baby’s health.
But yes. It’s absolutely true that the nutritional quality of your milk is affected by what you eat. If you eat a low fat diet, your milk will be low in fat. If you’re very deficient in vitamin D or magnesium (both common), your milk will be too.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t breastfeed, because breastmilk is about a lot more than just nutrition, as stated above. But how can women know how to fix a problem if they are simply told “Your breastmilk is amazing no matter what?” It’s really a “yes – but” situation.
Thankfully changes are simple. Breastfeeding mothers should eat whole eggs, cooked in butter or bacon grease. They should drink whole milk. These are not difficult changes, and no, they won’t make you fat.
Help Honestly and Openly
The bottom line is that we need to have a practical understanding of where women are. We need to honestly and openly encourage them and support them. We shouldn’t state facts from a textbook; we should look at a woman’s individual situation and help her to achieve her best possible outcome, whatever that is.
On the opposite side, we shouldn’t lie to women or neglect to mention certain facts because we don’t want to discourage them. We need to be honest and open there too.
Breastfeeding support requires patience, kindness, and an individualistic spirit. Not all women or all situations are the same. Some women really can’t breastfeed (more on this in my book, Breast to Bib, which is coming March 19th). Some women need temporary solutions to make it through — I pumped and used formula to supplement my first baby for six weeks! (Surprised?) — and we went on to stop supplementing and move to exclusive breastfeeding for a few months, and continue to breastfeed for four years (and counting)! What might I have done if someone had told me that pumping in the early weeks instead of nursing directly (she didn’t at all until the 6 week mark) wouldn’t build my supply properly and I had to get her to latch immediately? What if someone had told me that any supplementing would destroy my supply and lead to an early end to our breastfeeding relationship? What if someone had told me she’d get nipple confusion from the bottles and refuse to even try anymore?
Women are told these things all the time.
It’s true that my situation was unusual and a lot of women struggle and end up quitting if they face obstacles like that. But maybe they wouldn’t if they were told, “Do what you need to do to feed your baby and save your sanity; there’s always tomorrow. Keep at it. Nothing is going to ruin you forever.” There will be women who still can’t overcome the obstacles, but probably not as many.
So, let’s talk about it. Let’s support. Let’s be honest and open and stop spouting textbook drivel (unless really needed) and stop hiding issues and refusing to talk. These approaches do nothing. We can make breastfeeding normal and successful by being real!