The first week in August was World Breastfeeding Week, but that’s not the only reason breastfeeding has been on my mind. I’ve been reminded of how challenging and rewarding breastfeeding can be thanks to the birth of my second daughter last month. Despite the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding for both children and moms, many American moms choose not to breastfeed at all, or don’t breastfeed for very long, considering that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months . . . with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant,” and the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding “up to 2 years of age or beyond.”
Why don’t more moms breastfeed? While some moms can’t breastfeed and some mothers choose not to breastfeed (for many legitimate reasons), even women who can and want to breastfeed often don’t, or are unable to keep it up for as long as they’d like. Considering my own experience and what I’ve heard from my mom friends and family members, I think there are five requirements to breastfeeding success (six for moms who work outside the home)—and meeting all of them can be a challenge:
1. Realistic expectations. If you’ve never breastfed a baby, you may think it’s as simple as plugging your iPhone into your iPhone charger, charging up, and repeating every 2-4 hours. After all, women and babies have been breastfeeding for thousands of years! But it’s not that easy. If mom and baby start off wrong, breastfeeding will be painful and frustrating for mom, and baby may not gain weight. Many women are surprised and discouraged by how difficult (and painful) breastfeeding can be at the beginning, and if they don’t have continuous support and encouragement, they may not want to keep trying. Why are moms surprised and discouraged by how difficult it is? Because most of us don’t see other women breastfeeding, and most of us don’t talk about breastfeeding before we start. When it seems hard, we think it’s our own fault.
2. Family support. To succeed at breastfeeding, moms need support and encouragement at home, especially during those crucial first few weeks. A mom is more likely to succeed at breastfeeding if she’s encouraged to find help and support from friends and family members with breastfeeding experience, and to get professional help if appropriate. On the other hand, if the people who are helping to care for the new baby don’t see the importance of breastfeeding or don’t have experience with breastfeeding, they won’t understand how hard it is at the beginning, and they may not be sympathetic to the challenges of breastfeeding.
3. Support from health care providers. Luckily, most health care providers recognize the health benefits of breastfeeding and do encourage and support moms who want to breastfeed. This includes encouraging skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby immediately after baby is born, offering the services of a lactation consultant, and following up with mom in the days and weeks after birth to make sure she’s getting the help she needs.
4. Community support. Because breastfeeding is rarely seen or discussed in our society, even among women friends, breastfeeding moms usually have to take the initiative in finding support for and advice about breastfeeding once they start. That means asking mom friends about something that seems excruciatingly personal and private, and that’s not easy to do. Moms who are too shy to ask for help from their friends can easily find virtual community support and a lot of great information online. (One of my favorites sites is KellyMom.) Moms can also find in-person support through their local La Leche League.
5. Societal acceptance. Our society’s attitudes towards breastfeeding—based on news stories about the treatment of moms breastfeeding in public and reactions to depictions of breastfeeding moms in the media (for example, Facebook routinely takes down photos of breastfeeding moms because those images supposedly violate their “terms of service”) — seem to vary from “it’s great as long as we don’t have to see it” to “that’s gross.” It would be wonderful if images of women breastfeeding were more commonplace and more widely accepted, but moms looking for societal acceptance can still find it in the medical community, in our legal system (this link provides information on state and federal laws applicable to breastfeeding), and—despite news reports to the contrary—from kind strangers in public places.
6. Support at Work. Moms who work outside the home need additional support to provide breast milk to their babies. They need to have access to their own breast pump, they need time and a private place to pump, they need a place to store their milk, and they (ideally) need to feel comfortable asking for these accommodations at work. Thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare), most employers are now required to provide breastfeeding moms with break time and a private place to pump for one year after each child’s birth. As breastfeeding at work becomes more accepted and routine, asking for those accommodations will hopefully become easier as well.
While it’s hard to meet all of these requirements in today’s America, it doesn’t have to be. Many of us have the opportunity to support breastfeeding moms in one way or another. If you’re a mom who’s had a successful breastfeeding experience, reach out to your pregnant friends to let them know you’re happy to talk with them about breastfeeding. If you see a mom breastfeeding in public, give her an encouraging smile. If you’re in a position to help a pregnant mom at work who may be considering breastfeeding, make sure she knows her rights and do what you can to provide her with the time and space to pump if she’s interested. By supporting a breastfeeding mom, you won’t only have her gratitude; you’ll also have a positive impact on her health and the health of her child.
Eileen Youens teaches and advises local governments and government contractors about public contracting, public construction, and conflicts of interest. She also puts her litigation training to good use in negotiating with her three-year-old daughter. Eileen tweets at @eyouens and blogs at youensconsulting.com.