“Breast is best.”
“Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world.”
“Babies are born with an instinct to seek the breast, find it, and latch.”
Statements like these can feel like a slap to the face in the wake of breastfeeding struggles. For new mothers trying to breastfeed and having a hard time, these statements are dismissive and guilt inducing. You may as well be saying-
“Breast is best, so if you can’t succeed, you’re not best.”
“Breastfeeding is natural, so if you can’t do it, you fail.”
“Babies are born with an instinct to breastfeed. What’s wrong with yours/you?”
*disclaimer, this is not how I feel at all– I just know how hurtful some of these comments can be when you’re already feeling fragile and how your insecurity can make even well meaning comments sound.
The fact is that breastfeeding is very natural. It’s something most mothers and babies are able to do with the right support. But the secret? It’s not natural like breathing. It’s not natural like your heart beating.
It’s natural the way walking is. It takes practice, support, and time to get it right. You’re born with all the right instincts. From early infancy, we have all the instincts set up to help us learn how to walk. Even small things like when babies first learn to lift their heads lay the groundwork for walking later on. Almost everybody can walk with the right support. Some people need crutches, some people need prosthetic limbs, and some people walk earlier than others.
To walk, several of our different body systems have to work together in harmony. Our muscles, our joints, our ligaments, our brains, and our circulatory systems all have to work together to propel us forward, step by step. Some people even run. That sort of physicality comes very easily to some people and that doesn’t make your walking any less extraordinary.
The same goes for breastfeeding, except for cutting out a lot of the early practice moves that we should be doing. It’s like learning how to use muscles. Babies start by lifting their heads, and we need to do the same thing when it comes to breastfeeding. No, not literally lift your head. But look around. Notice breastfeeding.
We are mammals. But we also rely on society instead of instincts. In the past children grew up watching breastfeeding occur. Girls grew up seeing babies be born. Breastfeeding was not taboo because that’s just how it worked. On the rare occasions when a mom wasn’t able to produce enough milk for her baby, or on the slightly more common occasions when she died before the baby had weaned, the community stepped in to feed that baby. Other women fed that baby.
Way back when, breastfeeding was the norm. You knew roughly how to do it before you ever gave birth. You knew how to do it before you even got pregnant. And in those early moments of doubt, you would have had your mother, your sister, your aunt, or your grandma all there to cheer you on. To tell you that you were doing a good job.
What do we have now?
We have formula companies that send you samples and coupons before the baby is even born. We have horror stories from women who attempted to breastfeed that were unable to continue for one reason or another. We have the Fed is Best Foundation telling us that all IBCLCs would rather your baby starve than give you permission to supplement. (Which is absolutely FALSE! Rule number 1 of lactation support is feed the baby.)
We have two ounce bottles being marketed as the norm for brand new babies even though we have tons of science saying that 2 oz is too much in one feeding. We have viral stories of breastfeeding moms being kicked out of places for daring to feed their children. We give birth among strangers in the hospital, sometimes with our moms thousands of miles away. And our moms didn’t always breastfeed. So even if they’re closed, they don’t always know how to help us.
We have the old mentality of scheduled feeds. We don’t understand what biological feeding looks like and so we doubt ourselves. We doubt ourselves because everything around us is telling us that we can’t do it.
Using my previous analogy, this is essentially the equivalent of pushing someone over every time they attempt to stand up and then getting mad at them for not walking. By mindlessly repeating “Breast is Best”, we’re guilting and shaming mothers that were unable to reach their breastfeeding goals, even while we pat ourselves on the back for promoting breastfeeding.
We do have crutches available. IBCLCs work to get us to be able to “walk” with these crutches and eventually on our own.
Is breastfeeding best? That misses the point entirely.
Breastfeeding is normal. It’s what our bodies are ready to do after giving birth and what are babies bodies are ready to do after being born. Comparing breastfeeding to formula feeding is an unfair comparison because formula will always come up short. Formula can save lives, and it is a very necessary part of today’s society, but no matter how close they attempt to make formula to breast milk there is no adequate comparison. Breast milk is a living fluid that changes as the baby ages. It changes when the baby comes in contact with illnesses. It changes during the breastfeeding parent’s menstrual cycle.
All in all, breastfeeding isn’t hard. All in all, walking isn’t hard. But learning how to breastfeed or learning how to walk are time-intensive and require a lot of new skills. I’m not saying that breastfeeding isn’t hard and so if it is you’re doing it wrong. Absolutely not. It’s challenging the early days. It’s hard to know if you’re doing it right, if your baby’s being fed enough.
Support is so important. Having your partner or spouse behind you is 90% of the battle. Being able to be seen by lactation counselor or an IBCLC can be hugely beneficial. Going to a group like La Leche League or Breastfeeding USA is our version finding a breastfeeding mommy tribe.
Find your tribe. Start looking before this baby is born if you can. But it’s never too late to find a tribe.
My two-year-old finally doesn’t stumble every time she walks. It took her a long time to figure out the mechanics standing and being able to balance. It took her a while to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. But now? She can run. She can jump and dodge obstacles.
Expecting parents, please give yourself time to learn how to breastfeed. Give yourself space and tools to help you. Go to a La Leche League meeting. Go to breastfeeding USA. Go to a breastfeeding class. Know where your local IBCLCs are and how to make an appointment with one.
And please, please, be patient with yourselves and with your baby as you learn this new skill.
*I am not a La Leche League leader but I strongly support their mission and wanted to share local resources!*