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You Need a Breastfeeding Community–More Than You Realize

People like to say that “breastfeeding is natural.” If by natural they mean that it is a human bodily function for your breasts to lactate after delivering a baby (most of the time), then yes, it is natural.

People like to say that “babies were born to breastfeed.” If by “born to breastfeed” they mean that babies root around like crazy woodpeckers looking for something to suck on, then yes, they were born to breastfeed. 

People like to say that “women have been breastfeeding for thousands of years.” If by “women have been breastfeeding” they mean that women have had no choice but to keep their babies alive with just the milk they make or find another woman to breastfeed their babies lest their babies die of malnourishment, then, okay; women have been breastfeeding. Or if they mean that women of a higher class in certain eras opted to delegate the “lowly” act of breastfeeding to servants and slaves, then yes, women have been breastfeeding for thousands of years.

But here is what I say to those people:

Breastfeeding is a learned cultural behavior.

It is natural only when you have seen your mother and sister and cousins breastfeed their babies and they are right there every moment of every day to teach you how to do it. It is not “natural” if “natural” means that it comes easily to women. It is weird, foreign, and really, really effing hard.

Lactating is an uncontrollable bodily function just like conceiving a child, going into labor, or delivering a baby vaginally. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work right. Most women lactate shortly after birth, but some don’t. Many don’t make a full supply of milk to adequately nourish their babies. Even if your breasts are lactating, it doesn’t mean it is natural to know how to get that milk out of your boobs and into the head-bobbing woodpecker. 

To declare that “breastfeeding is natural” assumes that it follows a natural process. What if conception wasn’t “normal” or birth wasn’t “normal”? Why, then, would breastfeeding always be normal?

Babies were born to be fed and they don’t care where the food comes from; they will suck on whatever you put next to their face (hopefully). Some babies can’t suck because they are born early or have poor oral tone or a cleft lip and palate. If those babies were born to breastfeed, well, then, they are in big trouble.

If you want to breastfeed or you are trying to breastfeed or you are breastfeeding, don’t believe all that nonsense people tell you. In the current American culture in which we live, pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding are rarely “natural.” If everyone is healthy and you are lucky, your baby breastfeeds well shortly after birth. Few of the women I see in my practice are this lucky.

In the beginning, your breastfeeding community is small and probably not very helpful. You are surrounded by your loving but clueless partner, a stranger nurse who may or may not have the patience to help you, and your woodpecker. If your baby doesn’t naturally latch on to the breast, the nurse will be sure to put your baby onto the boob. This may or may not work and it may or may not make you feel really uncomfortable. 

Your mom may come in to help later, but she may not have breastfed you because it wasn’t vogue in the late ’70s to early ’90s. If she did breastfeed, she certainly doesn’t remember what is was like to nurse a newborn because that was 30 years ago. 

Your baby is poked and prodded and tested and deemed to be not doing that natural thing he is supposed to be doing and therefore you need to pump out your milk for him. Now, you take this oh-so-not-natural industrial strength milking machine and let it suck on your nipples so you can express tiny drops of your colostrum because your body, which was supposed to do that natural thing of lactating, isn’t and your milk isn’t in yet.

Perhaps one of those helpful Lactation Consultants comes in to visit you and tell you to “just keep trying,” or that “things will get easier when your milk comes in.” <—- lie.  

You are sent home with your body that isn’t “naturally making milk,” your baby that doesn’t know that he was “born to breastfeed,” your industrial strength milking machine, your clueless, scared partner, and the advice to “keep trying.” 

See? Breastfeeding is natural!! 

I wish I were exaggerating, but I am not. Sure, there are some moms and babies for whom breastfeeding just works out, but that outcome is in the minority in my professional experience (which I happen to have a whole lot of). 

But even the moms who score a lucky, non-complicated breastfeeding relationship still don’t know what they are doing. Because they have to learn the skill, which takes time and practice–just like most worthwhile things in life.

So, you need a breastfeeding community more than you realize. And we have to craft this community because it doesn’t naturally exist anymore.

Back when we lived close to our extended families, birthed at home, had our mothers live with us, and often died in childbirth, we did have a naturally occurring breastfeeding community. Personally, I would rather live in current times where I don’t need to live with my mother and I am not scared of dying with each and every child I give birth to.  

Breastfeeding women are the only ones who really know and understand other breastfeeding women. When you are sore, exhausted, scared, and overwhelmed while simultaneously feeling ecstatic and hopelessly in love, you need empathy, not sympathy.

Breastfeeding mamas know which bras are the best, where the best places are to nurse your baby. Breastfeeding mamas have the insider knowledge that makes this “natural” process seem much less challenging.

Who is in your breastfeeding community?