“Are you breastfeeding?”

It has become a shameless question that health care providers, friends, family members, and strangers have come to think is perfectly acceptable to ask. I like to think that this question always come from a kind and compassionate place first and foremost, but I am a hopeless optimist. Often times, this question is a loaded gun, ready to fire off judgement, opinions, and advice.

Even the question itself is posed with an unspoken correct answer. Otherwise, the question would be, “How are you feeding your baby?”

As a kind fellow mother in this world, I hope you will:

  1. Mind your business and only ask another mother about her feeding choices if you plan to be kind, caring, and compassionate no matter her answer.
  2. Change your language from “Are you breastfeeding?” to “How are you feeding your baby?”

If you are a mother who is asked the question, “Are you breastfeeding?”and you are, in fact, working to make breastfeeding work (i.e., you aren’t one of the lucky women for whmo breastfeeding just clicked) you know this answer is complicated.

In the first 12 weeks of motherhood, sometimes longer, the answer to this question is too complicated to answer with a simple yes. You may find yourself word vomiting something like this:

“Well, I am pumping and bottle feeding the baby my milk but we have to use some formula because I am not producing enough for her. And we did latch at first but she damaged my nipples so badly that we had to stop and heal them and now we are trying to latch again and it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t but I have to supplement afterwards and pump, too, anyway. So, you know. We are trying.”

In an effort to try to help you, the mama in the midst of triple feeding hell, I want to make a distinction that may help you respond.

When you nurse your baby, you are feeding her right from your breast. She snuggles in close. The skin of her mouth and her face is right up against your skin. As she gets older, she may pat or stroke your breast, bury her head deep into your breast, or wrap her arms around your breast in a big boob hug. Regardless of how much milk is coming out of your breast, if your baby is suckling, you are nursing. I often explain this analogy to mothers who have a low milk supply and need to supplement with a bottle after breastfeeding. In no way does supplementing lessen your nursing relationship. Those mothers have a nursing relationship and a partial breastfeeding relationship.

Breastfeeding is providing breastmilk for your baby either directly from your breast or via bottle. Some mothers do this when they are separated from their babies for work. Some mothers choose to pump and bottle feed for personal reasons. Some mothers are forced to exclusively pump because their babies are very hardheaded and stubborn. Some mothers pump and bottle feed because their babies have anatomical features that make direct nursing challenging or impossible.

What a gift it is to be able to breastfeed and nurse your baby.  If you are reading this and you are able to latch your baby directly on to your breast and provide her with 100% of her daily nutritional needs, stop, take a deep breath, and have gratitude for this gift. Some women get to nurse, some get to breastfeed, but you get to have it all.

If you nurse and partially breastfeed or breastfeed only and don’t nurse, take a deep breath and know the most important truth:  you are fulfilling all of your baby’s most critical needs: food, love, safety. That is what matters most.

The next time someone asks you, “Are you breastfeeding?”

Think of the question this way instead: “Are you lactating?”

If your boobs currently make any amount of milk, your answer can be a simple, resounding, and conversation ending,

“YES, I am breastfeeding.”