I wanted to call this blog “The New Mother’s Guide to Dealing with People Who Are Trying to Help but Who Don’t Know Shit about Breastfeeding.” It’s a little too long for a blog title, though, don’t you think?
One of the most frustrating things for the post partum mama trying to figure out breastfeeding is when the well meaning but mostly ignorant people in your life try to give you their advice or opinions about breastfeeding. When this happens, it often calls into question everything you know about breastfeeding, especially if you are a brand new mama just figuring it all out for the first time.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t rely on the parenting advice of our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, or friends who have gone before us. I am just saying that in this country, there has been a lot of breastfeeding misinformation spread over the past hundred or so years, and that we need to be discerning in who we accept breastfeeding information from. Some of the knowledge being passed down today has the potential to jeopardize a new mom’s breastfeeding relationship, especially in those sensitive first days of new motherhood.
So, new mama, since you prepared to breastfeed during your pregnancy and you have learned all the latest breastfeeding information, here are some common remarks that new moms often hear from people who are trying to help and some suggestions for using that information to respond:
“Breastfeeding hurts. That’s normal. You just need to wait for your nipples to toughen up.”
You want to respond with snark. I know you do. Or maybe that’s just me, because sarcasm is my default mode of communication. Maybe a comment like this makes you want to break down and cry. I can understand that response, too. This person is basically dooming you to at least 12 months (if you can make it that far) of excruciating pain. Comments like this one can sting almost as much as your baby’s wonky, painful latch. But you know better. You know that breastfeeding is not supposed to feel this way. So, skip the snark, and try this reply instead:
I know that it common for new moms to experience pain or discomfort with breastfeeding, and that the discomfort usually lessens and then disappears entirely after a couple weeks. Breastfeeding is certainly a new sensation that I have to adapt to, but pain is not normal. It is a sign that something is going wrong, and I don’t have to just live with this. I am going to call my lactation consultant and see what she thinks is going on here.
Ugh! If you weren’t already terrified of having a low supply, you are now! Does every woman in the world make less than enough milk? The way some people talk, it sure seems that way. But you had a baby, like, all of five minutes ago. You’re not far enough into this process to know what your body will do. Take a deep breath, mama, and remember that you know what to look for as your milk comes in:
I know that this is a fear that almost every mom new to breastfeeding has. It’s too early to know whether or not I will make enough milk. My baby is only a few days old and my milk is still coming in. Right now, I am making colostrum, and although there isn’t very much of it, it is packed full of the perfect nutrients for what my baby needs right now. I am keeping track of the baby’s wet and dirty diapers and I am taking her for regular weight checks with the pediatrician. If the doctor is worried or if I see signs that my baby isn’t getting enough to eat, I will follow the boob rules and schedule an appointment with my lactation consultant.
Just?! You can just give him formula? But that isn’t your plan! Your plan is to breastfeed and this person wants you to throw it all out the window! …Wait, hang on. That’s probably not true. This person probably cares about you, probably knows how hard it is to have a newborn, and probably just wants you to be able to get some rest and have some peace. So, something isn’t going quite according to plan. That’s okay. Remember your goals, remember that you have a back-up plan, and remember that help is out there. And, when you respond to this person, remember that she loves you:
If I give my baby formula, I know that he will be okay. But I want to breastfeed. I worked hard when I was pregnant to prepare for this, and I am working hard now to make breastfeeding work, because I know it is best for me and my baby. He might be struggling to latch well now, but there are ways to address that. This is most likely a temporary and fixable early hiccup that my baby and I will overcome with the right help. I know that a minority of babies don’t ever latch, but electric breast pumps are a lot better today than they were in the past, and exclusive pumping, despite its challenges, is an option.
“Your baby is nursing too much. He shouldn’t be hungry again already!”
Can this person feel what it’s like to be your baby? How does she know that the baby shouldn’t be hungry again? Doesn’t she know how quickly babies digest breastmilk?! Actually, she probably doesn’t. Remember that formula feeding has been the norm in this country for a long time, and formula comes with a different set of rules than breastmilk. Calmly give the facts about breastfeeding and reassure her that your baby is doing exactly what she is supposed to be doing:
Newborn babies nurse a lot. They are growing so fast and they are also seeking the comfort of nursing as they adjust to their new lives outside the womb. Babies eat approximately one ounce for every hour of the day, or two to three ounces each session over eight to 12 breastfeeding sessions each day. Some babies nurse even more often than that, but most won’t nurse fewer than eight times a day until they begin eating a good amount of solid foods. How often a baby nurses depends on a lot of things that vary by individual mother and baby, including how much milk mom can store in her breasts for a given amount of time, whether or not baby is having a growth spurt (which they have frequently in these early weeks), and if baby is experiencing the nightly “witching hour.” As long as my baby seems full and content after each feeding, is gaining weight well, and is making the appropriate amount of wet and dirty diapers, I am not worried about how often she nurses.
Oh, the good milk. Of course. Because only some of your milk is good? And the rest is what, exactly? I’m not sure exactly where this idea about the “good milk” came from or why there is this intense fear of every baby having a foremilk/hindmilk imbalance. Probably some dark recess of the Internet, and you know how something must be true if it’s on the Internet. Here’s another situation where a gentle discussion of the facts about breastfeeding can go a long way:
I know that this was the advice given to many women not that long ago, but how long a baby nurses on each breast is a very individual thing. How much milk each woman makes in each of her breasts varies, and how much one mom makes at different points in the day also varies. Other factors play into this, too, like how fast mom’s milk flows and how efficiently baby nurses. I am figuring out how to judge when my baby has had enough on each side, but I am going to watch my baby instead of the clock. I’ll know when he has gotten the appropriate milk content from the first breast when he pops off or falls asleep and is content. Then I’ll offer him the second side. If he wants it, he can have it, and if he doesn’t, that’s okay. Either way, I will start nursing him on that second side the next time.
Sigh. Another huge fear of new moms spread by breastfeeding keyboard warriors and now stated as absolute, unqualified truth. You know that nipple confusion is real, but you also know that, with your awesome lactation consultant in your corner, you can overcome this obstacle if were to happen to your baby. If. It’s not the definite that so many people seem to think it is. When you respond to this, appeal to this person’s concern for your wellbeing. The pacifier helps you take a much needed break, so emphasize that idea:
Sometimes pacifiers can impact breastfeeding, yes, but most babies don’t have a problem switching back and forth between pacifier and breast. My baby is a couple weeks old now and breastfeeding is going well! I feel confident introducing a pacifier. All babies have a biological need for non-nutritive sucking, or sucking for comfort. There are some really good reasons to use a pacifier for this. For some babies, this need is much stronger than it is for others, and they have to suck almost constantly. If mom has an over supply and baby can’t handle the continual milk flow, a pacifier can allow baby to suck for comfort without drowning in milk. Plus, sometimes I just need a little break to go for a short walk, take a shower, or grab something to eat while my husband holds the baby. It would be unfair to have him take care of the baby without any resources to comfort her! It also really helps in the car. Do you know how much she hates the car? I’m glad that the pacifier helps us get through those stressful trips! I will worry about weaning her from the pacifier later, but for now, it is a useful parenting tool that I am grateful to have.
“Is the baby sleeping through the night yet?”
You heard this one from every random stranger you walked past today, didn’t you? And all your relatives who have come to visit you and the baby. And everyone who commented on the photo you just posted on Facebook. And everybody in basically the entire universe. What is with this obsession of reminding new mothers how sleep deprived they are?! It just adds insult to injury. But this is probably the comment that most comes from other people’s concerns for you. Every parent out there remembers how hard it is to lose so much sleep after having a baby. Can you manage to formulate a calm, rational response to this annoyingly frequent question when you are so, so tired? Yes, of course you can:
This is people’s favorite question to ask me these days! Getting through the days on less sleep definitely has been one of the most difficult adjustments of motherhood. Every baby is different, though, and many don’t sleep all night long—they aren’t wired to do so. Babies, especially brand new ones, get hungry and need comfort throughout the night just like they do during the day time, and feeding him on demand overnight is important to keeping up my milk supply. When he gets a bit older, we may try to encourage him to go longer stretches without nursing at night, but for now, I am accepting that waking up overnight is a normal part of his development.
Um, what? Who told this person such nonsense? Where is she getting her facts?! Like I said, there has been a whole lot of breastfeeding misinformation passed down in recent generations, and this is one of the big ones. The truth is that the immunological properties of breastmilk are strongest and most critical to baby’s health in the first six months of breastfeeding and that breastmilk supplies a baby’s full nutrition for the first six or so months. After that, the breastmilk is still just as nutritious, but baby’s needs are changing, and solid foods are required as a complement to mother’s milk. Also, for a lot of complicated reasons, people are really uncomfortable with older babies nursing. By spreading accurate information, though, you can help change these perceptions:
Doctors used to think that this was true, but there has been so much more research done about breastfeeding in recent years. Breastmilk never loses its nutrition! In fact, the nutritional and immunological content of the breastmilk changes with baby’s age, based on what mom eats, and with the biological feedback that the baby gives while at the breast. We are just getting started on this journey, so I am not sure how long we will go, but my child and I will know when the time is right to stop.
Like you are just going to give it all up after all this work? Why on earth would you do that!? Well, a lot of people once did just this very thing, and a lot of other people still end up doing this today, despite their intentions to pump until baby turns one. Maintaining a milk supply without much direct breastfeeding during the day isn’t as easy as it might sound and breast pumps of the past were not nearly as effective as they are today. Imagine this person’s disappointment at losing her breastfeeding relationship earlier than she thought she would. Imagine the sadness of seeing this as an inevitable outcome. But you know better! You have the right tools and the right information. Reassure this person that times have changed and that you are planning ahead to make this work:
I think a lot of moms in the ‘80s and ‘90s must have had to make this difficult decision. Breastfeeding was starting to come back into popularity, and for the first time, breastfeeding moms were a major part of the workforce. Pumping was a lot harder then, and I think that many women had a hard time keeping up their milk supplies. Although pumping is still a lot of work, the technology that allows moms to express milk at work has gotten a lot better. My insurance company has provided me with a really good double electric breast pump. There are also laws in place that afford me the right to take pumping breaks during my work day. And I have taken the Pumpin’ Mama’s Blueprint online course, so I have all the information I need at my fingertips to maintain my ability to breastfeed even after I return to work!
Gasp! A boob! Doing what a boob was meant to do! The horror of it all! You know where this person is coming from, though. Breasts have become so hyper-sexualized in our culture. Couple this with the near-total absence of breastfeeding since the middle of the last century, and you can see why breastfeeding seems so alarming to many people. When you respond to this comment, you can still remind this person what breasts are really for while also being considerate of her sensibilities:
Yes, people might see me. I might use a cover sometimes and not others, but I don’t feel like I have to use a cover. Breastfeeding is normal! Sometimes, using a cover draws even more attention to what I am doing, but nursing my baby and casually going about my business sends the signal that this is just a normal part of everyday life. I want all mothers to feel comfortable and safe feeding their babies wherever they are: at home or out in public. When I nurse my baby, other mothers as well as people who aren’t yet parents can become comfortable with breastfeeding for what it is—meeting the needs of society’s most vulnerable people whenever and wherever they need it.
You work hard for this milk and this person just wants you to dump in down the drain?! She clearly doesn’t understand that old cliché about crying over spilled milk! People really do seem to think that a great many foods or other substances will harm a baby when she nurses, but the list of harmful substances is really pretty small considering all the possible foods and drinks out there. Still, this comment is coming from a place of concern for your baby’s health, and when you frame it that way, you can have an easier time replying with composure:
If I were drinking enough alcohol to prohibit me from driving, I would definitely pump and dump, and I would need to discard my milk after taking certain medications. For the most part, though, the things I eat or drink won’t negatively affect my baby through my milk. Even if it did, different foods take different amounts of time for the nutrition to be present in my milk, so I would have to be able to time my pump just right to exclude certain things from my baby’s diet, and I would need to pump over the course of a week or more to make sure it was all out of my milk. If the pediatrician and I see evidence that my baby has a food allergy, then I will definitely take the measures needed to make sure that I don’t eat those foods so that my baby is safe and healthy, but pumping and discarding my milk shortly after consuming something my baby can’t have won’t eliminate it from my milk. There are only a few reasons to pump and dump, which is good, because it can be a major headache to have to do it!
Comments like the ones above can really make you question your confidence as a mother. We’ve all been there, all felt judged or knocked down by remarks that weren’t meant to be rude. But for a sensitive new mama whose hormones are going wild, it can be hard to see the compassion and concern behind comments that come across as critical. When you reply to these comments, try to see the love behind them, and give that love right back, responding with charity and peace and using factual, objective information that shows you know what you’re talking about. Also, be sure to surround yourself with people who do understand your breastfeeding journey. Find a positive support group of similar-minded mamas who have your back and will give you the space you need to grow in your new role as a mother. I hear there’s a really good support group each Friday afternoon at The Birth Center in Wilmington. You should check it out.