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Breastfeeding Support: The Importance of Good Breastfeeding Advice

From Libbie Freichter’s speech at the 2016 Big Latch On

Katie asked me to speak today about nursing through pain, and as interesting as it would be to hear about nursing my three boys through bleeding, pus-filled nipples, tongue and lip tie, a ruptured third-degree tear, postpartum depression, and mastitis, that’s not what this Big Latch On is really all about.

Today is about celebrating the value of community, mentors, and support.

So, along with parts of my story, I am going to share some of the advice (both good and bad) that I have received along the way:

The bad

Breast is Best.

I planned to breastfeed my first son because “Breast is Best.” I understood that I should breastfeed. Breastfeeding would reduce my risk of cancer and would protect my children from obesity, diabetes, leukemia, ear infections, and allergies. (As it happens, my kids all have severe food allergies).

Not only was breast best, formula was bad, bottles were bad, pacifiers were bad.

My first son was born. He nursed and nursed. For 72 hours, he cried when he wasn’t at the breast.

Then he stopped crying. He stopped peeing. By the time we made it to the doctor, he had lost almost 15% of his birth weight.

I had no milk yet. In addition my poor little guy had already destroyed my nipples, trying to get blood from a stone (or, in this case, milk from a stone).

That leads to the second piece of bad advice:

Just feed every two hours and pump after every feeding.

The person offering that advice either isn’t very good at math or isn’t very good at biology—or both.

Let’s just run through this: my baby is just coming off of the “starving to death” diet. He wants to eat constantly and will nurse for an hour or more (on nipples that are already abused).

Then I give him a bottle because he got half an ounce while nursing—now we are at an hour and 20 minutes out of two hours. And then I pump for 20 minutes, which really takes a half hour.

Ten minutes, then we start again.

I thought I had read something about lack of sleep and stress decreasing milk supply… but I was too tired and stressed out to remember.

The third piece of bad advice I received:

Just grit your teeth.

In what other situation would you tell someone with an open, infected wound to just suck it up? My second son was vomiting blood (from my nipples) no one asked me how I was doing.

Breastfeeding involves two people, but the advice I was getting pretended that I was akin to a bottle of formula or that my boobs were the only part of my body that existed.

Here’s the fourth piece of bad advice:

Enjoy. Every. Minute.

Let’s see: putting my nipple into my baby’s mouth feels like I am putting it into a meat grinder.

I’m not enjoying every minute, I’m dreading it. But I should be enjoying this?

I should be breastfeeding,

I should be pumping,

I should be sucking it up, and

I should be enjoying it?

All of this advice has something in common: disregard for the mother. Disregard for my physical, mental, and emotional health. There was no real postpartum care or support for me.

We dismiss mothers’ pain and we dismiss their intuition and we replace it with cell phone apps and public health crusades.

There is more care and time for people recovering from knee surgery than cesarean sections.

The advice took me away from acknowledging how I was feeling and what my body needed to heal. It took me away from my instinct to feed my baby and care for myself and substituted a set of rules.

But now we get to good stuff, advice and the support from the Balanced Breastfeeding community:

The first awesome piece of advice I heard was

Come to group.

In my first meeting with Katie she suggested that I attend her breastfeeding support group. I thought, “What? Come to group? Support group. I don’t need support. I’m not a ‘group’ type of person. I don’t do ‘sharing and caring.’ My nipples are green and pus-filled. How is group going to help me?”

The first time I went to group, a mom pulled out a bottle. I thought, “She shouldn’t have a bottle. This is breastfeeding group. Suddenly the arsenal of formula in my bag no longer felt like something to hide. There were six other people using nipple shields. I had found my people!

Second, Katie reminded me to follow my intuition to

Feed the baby.

When we figured out that I had delayed onset of lactation, my second and third sons had their first bottles of formula within hours after birth. That stuff is magic. Do you know what newborn babies do when they are fed? They sleep. Do you know what a new mom does? She sleeps. I threw out the schedules, the books, the tracking, and I just fed my baby.

A third piece of advice became part of my breastfeeding strategy:

Protect your nipples.

This is novel. So, instead of the “grit your teeth” advice I had originally been given, I have permission from a professional to bottle feed formula? Instead of nursing through pain, I can use a nipple shield, a pacifier, or a bottle?

A professional had given me permission to take care of myself. This advice—don’t subject yourself to pain, honor yourself, be kind to yourself—was revolutionary.

After the advice, came the questions:

Do you want to breastfeed? 

I thought, “What? What does that mean? You mean there is a choice here?” Part of my right breast has no feeling in it from nursing my first baby, but I didn’t know there was a choice.

Why do you want to breastfeed? 

That’s another tough one. The answer: because I am lazy and I don’t want to deal with making bottles in the middle of the night. I also hate and avoid doing dishes, so minimizing bottles is important for my sanity and my marriage.

But, the other thing was that a case of the shoulds had taken the joy out of nursing my first son, but with my second, I had felt how easy it could be to nurse. How peaceful. How amazing it could be to let my body be in sync with this tiny person.

What does missing out on breastfeeding mean to you? 

This is what Katie repeated back to me when I was debating oral surgery for my third son. He had a tongue tie and lip tie and I had promised myself that if there were problems, if there was pain, that we would just stop nursing. It wouldn’t be my fault; it wasn’t that I wasn’t trying hard enough. There was a medical reason.

And that changed everything about breastfeeding. Suddenly, the best thing for my son could be formula. But I was not ready to let go of nursing. Instead, I had to let go of what I should do and go with my mommy gut.

I thought of our dreamy mornings when my husband has taken the big boys to camp. We nurse, we doze. We’re squishy and hazy and warm together. I didn’t want to insert a bottle into that.

The oral surgery was not the magic bullet that I had hoped for. We continue to nurse through some pain, alternating pumping, pacifiers, nipple shields, etc., but I am grateful for the extra weeks of nursing that the surgery has afforded us.

I am grateful for our warm, soft mornings, for our long snuggles, the relative ease in the middle of the night.

Breastfeeding has been difficult for me, but it forced me to reach out for support.

Physical support providing rest, mental support in hearing the stories from others, and emotional support to find my own voice and intuition as a mom.

I am so grateful for all the women who have supported me, to the community of Balanced Breastfeeding, my friends, my family.

To all the wise women who have helped me to find answers to the hard questions, who looked into my eyes and held my hands while I was suffering and in pain, thank you.

The best advice I received was not really advice. It was support. Encouraging, nurturing support from women who believed that I had the innate power to walk the path and the inner wisdom to choose the way.

For more support during your vulnerable postpartum period, please visit 4thTrimesterSupport.com.