The Breastfeeding Bargain

bargain2

A good friend of mine recently asked me, “How is my wife supposed to feel when she sees you’ve been breastfeeding for 21 months and she couldn’t even do it for 2 weeks?”

This conversation stopped me in my tracks.  I realized that part of the problem is that while breastfeeding advocates like to talk about how a breastfeeding-failure is not an individual one, but a systemic one… they often talk about breastfeeding-success as a personal victory, not a societal one.

I’ll admit that even I am guilty of this.  Because society unequivocally failed me during my first nursing experience, I most definitely made the mistake of talking about exclusive pumping as a personal victory.  Pumping is inherently a more private experience, so at the time, I claimed the success largely as my own.  And that’s what happens when you feel anger about being let down… the reaction is pride for accomplishing something despite the odds.

But I’ve got a lot more experience under my belt now.  And it’s clear to me that in an ideal world, breastfeeding is anything but something that individual women achieve based on their own aptitude and perseverance.

We often talk about the village.  But breastfeeding requires so much more than a village – it requires our entire society.  And every player must hold up their end of the bargain of this social contract – this contract that presumes we all care about our mothers, our babies, & our future.

If breastfeeding didn’t work for you… who didn’t keep up their end of the bargain?

And if it did work… who do you owe?

I owe breastfeeding success to my husband.  I can’t even begin to list the myriad of ways that my husband has supported me. But since he’s a private person, I’ll spare him the laundry list, but from birth to bedsharing and everything in between, it wouldn’t have been possible without his support.  My husband kept up his end of the bargain.

 

Breastfeeding Starts With Birth

Only 18% of U.S. Hospitals have been designated as Baby-Friendly, and support recommended breastfeeding practices.

I owe breastfeeding success to my midwife.  She encouraged and supported a birth plan free from interventions that might have caused my baby to be less alert at birth, to have a depressed rooting reflex, or to have a diminished ability to suck, swallow, & breathe in a coordinated manner.  She avoided the use of synthetic hormones that could have interfered with my body’s own ability to produce the hormones necessary for abundant lactation.  She allowed cheered me on to push in the right position for me, avoiding an instrument-assisted delivery that could have harmed my baby’s head & neck, which would have made nursing painful for him.  Ultimately, she protected me from a traumatic birth that would have delayed my milk.  My midwife kept up her end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to my hospital’s policies and labor & delivery nurses.  They didn’t require the routine use of IV fluids during labor, which can cause excessive swelling of the breasts and make latching difficult.  They didn’t perform intrusive suctioning, which could have created an oral aversion for my baby.  After birth, they gave us more than a full hour of skin-to-skin and nursing time before weighing him.  He was given the time to regulate his temperature & respiration so his body could produce glucose from his energy stores until we established breastfeeding.  Basically, they avoided interfering with my body & my baby laying the groundwork for this intensely biological process.  My labor & delivery nurses kept up their ends of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to my postpartum nurses. They respected my wishes to delay my baby’s first bath for several days, so that his sense of smell wouldn’t be confused.  They respected my wishes to not keep mittens on him, so he could actively use his hands to find my breast.  They were supportive of me keeping him skin-to-skin on my chest in a kangaroo care top, so that I could respond quickly to his cues, get decent sleep, and encourage my milk to come in quickly.  They only took him away to the nursery for 45 minutes for his hearing test, but used my pumped colostrum as a back-up instead of offering a pacifier or sugar water.  My postpartum nurses kept up their ends of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to my in-hospital lactation consultant.  She was there in under 8 hours from birth.  She encouraged me to have her paged as soon as baby was ready to nurse again so she could observe.  She provided me with reassurance and concrete tips to improve my baby’s latch and my comfort… which is just as important as a “perfect” looking latch.  She followed-up multiple times during our hospital stay.  She didn’t give up on us.  My lactation consultant kept up her end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to my in-hospital pediatrician.  Upon hearing my concerns about a possible tongue or lip tie, he examined my son’s mouth and helped us rule it out.  He had evidence-based answers to my questions, and made his own knowledge about breastfeeding a priority.  The pediatrician kept up his end of the bargain.

*I was failed by every single one of these people during my first birth.  However, don’t freak out if you’re in this position right now.  Even if the odds were stacked against you at birth, with the right support, many issues can be fixed.   

 

Coming Home

I owe breastfeeding success to every visitor we had.  My visitors respected the fact that I was breastfeeding, and didn’t ask to feed my baby a bottle.  They made me feel comfortable nursing in front of them, not making me feel like I needed to excuse myself to a private room while in my own home.  They weren’t there to hold my newborn the whole time, which would have interfered with my ability to learn and read his early nursing cues.  They entertained my older child, helped with what was needed, dropped off a meal, and left quickly.  My visitors kept up their end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to every visitor we didn’t have.  I wasn’t on the clock of a social calendar.  I could nurse on-demand, without regard to a schedule that would have limited my supply.  My friends realized that I was recovering from birth, and it wasn’t imperative that they meet my son immediately.  I was able to soak up the fourth trimester, just being with my baby.  My friends kept up their end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to my local breastfeeding support group.  Having a lactation consultant as a free resource on a twice-weekly basis gave me a sounding board for little nagging questions.  Weekly weigh-ins gave me reassurance and confidence.  Sharing challenges with other breastfeeding mothers gave me a community.  My community kept up their end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to every person I ever breastfed in front of in public.  For never giving me the side eye, for never confronting me, for never suggesting I go feed my baby in the bathroom, and for never making me feel ashamed.  Every waiter I encountered was friendly, made eye contact with me, and didn’t flinch if I was nursing my baby at the table.  They made me feel like a real person, one who could go out and participate fully in my life, not having to retreat to my car or house.  The public kept up their end of the bargain…(I was one of the lucky ones).

I owe breastfeeding success to my healthcare providers.  Positioning in the womb can affect neck muscles, and my son’s head was tilted for a few weeks after birth, making it more difficult from him to nurse on one side.  Our pediatrician identified the issue and recommended stretching exercises.  My chiropractor performed 2 gentle adjustments, and his neck was freed to nurse comfortably on both breasts.  Months later, we faced another (significantly more painful) challenge with twice-recurring thrush.  The urgent care physician saw me and my baby during the same visit, listened compassionately to our symptoms, and prescribed us the right (nursing-friendly) treatment.  My eye doctor, my dentist, my NP… whoever it was, they knew what prescriptions were and weren’t safe for nursing, and always took that status into account.  Whether it’s clogged ducts or mastitis or “what cough medicine won’t affect my supply”… you need the right answers for sustained nursing.  I had the right healthcare providers at the right time, and they all kept up their ends of the bargain.

 

Back To Work

Only 12% of U.S. employers offer paid maternity leave.

I owe breastfeeding success to the Affordable Care Act. For providing me with a breast pump to effectively pump milk & sustain my supply while away from my baby. My insurance company kept up their end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to my employer. Despite no laws requiring them to, they paid for 6 weeks of my maternity leave, and allowed me to take as much unpaid time off as I needed to.  19 weeks at home with my baby allowed me to establish a robust milk supply, which could weather illness and long-term challenges.  My employer kept up their end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to my co-workers.  Because even though I pump behind a closed door, my experience pumping at work was anything but closed.  I’m thankful for co-workers who were willing to acknowledge it, talk about it, and normalize it.  They more than accommodated my pumping breaks, were always considerate about our meeting times, and never diminished the work I did simply because I had a new priority in my life.  Because pumping at work wasn’t made unnecessarily stressful, my body responded well to the pump and I had enough to send to daycare each day.  My colleagues kept up their end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to Mamava pods in the airport.  For making the stressful experience of pumping while traveling a little more tolerable.  For providing a clean, private space to pump in, so that I didn’t need to choose between pumping in a bathroom or clogged ducts, mastitis, and a decrease in supply.  My home airport kept up their end of the bargain.

I owe breastfeeding success to my son’s caregivers.  For welcoming me into the room every day to nurse my son at lunchtime.  For practicing paced bottle-feeding so he wouldn’t get used to a fast flow and start to prefer the bottle over breast.  For handling my milk with care, and making every effort to avoid waste.  For leaving the choice up to me about how long I would send breastmilk to school, instead of trying to force my hand because of his age.  My son’s caregivers kept up their end of the bargain. 

*Even with a perfect scenario of paid maternity leave and pumping breaks, every woman does not respond to a pump.  There’s a ton of work to be done here… from onsite daycares to job-sharing and flexible work schedules, we need to create more time and space for women to just be with their babies.    

I Did Not Do This On My Own

Why are we placing this pressure on individual women?  Why is it this crowning personal achievement to breastfeed your child?  True, the odds are often against us.  But our ability to breastfeed is steeped in privilege & access to support.  When it happens in an ideal environment, it’s a communal achievement.

81% of women in the U.S. start to breastfeed at birth, which means most initially believe enough in breastfeeding to want to try it.  But only 22% are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months.  Whenever I see a ‘fed is best’ article, I worry that we’ve given society a pass.  That by spreading this message that is meant to assuage individual women of their own guilt, which comes from placing the blame on themselves, we’re simultaneously forgiving doctors, hospitals, governments, employers, and our society at large for not keeping up their end of the bargain.  We’re telling society – it’s okay that you didn’t invest in me and my baby. 

But I’m not going to give them that pass.  My friend’s wife was forced to cut her journey short at 2 weeks not by choice, but because she came up against a wall.  I’m not here to convince anyone of the benefits of breastfeeding or shame any woman for any choice she makes of her own free will… I’m here to break down the wallBecause I need to hold up my end of the bargain.

 

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Breastfeeding Success: Shaming or Inspiring? Formula-Feeding: Guilt or Anger?

Breastfeeding Shame

World Breastfeeding Week is technically over, but it’s still National Breastfeeding Month, so I’m writing one last post on the subject.  There was one particular article going around this past week that really rubbed me the wrong way – it was in TIME, and it was written by a doctor.  I refuse to actually link to it because it’s filled with gross inaccuracies and twisted data.  But the main message was that World Breastfeeding Week shouldn’t be celebrated because it makes mothers feel guilty if they weren’t able to breastfeed.

Hold up.

Since when is celebrating one person’s success shaming someone else?  That’s like saying “I refuse to support The Biggest Loser because it makes others feel guilty that they’re sitting on the couch, not losing weight.”

Who decides if something is shaming or inspiring?

Because I know I’ve been inspired by other women’s breastfeeding stories.  At 6 weeks postpartum I met another woman who had exclusively pumped for a year, and thought wow, maybe I can do this.  I’m inspired by mother-and-baby duos who were able to move on to a successful nursing relationship after having a tongue-tie revised.  I’m inspired by friends who struggled with their first baby but had a smooth journey with their second baby.  None of their success shames me or makes me feel guilty.

And if it did make me feel guilty, is the answer to walk around with my hands over my ears in an effort to avoid hearing anything that might hurt my feelings?  How do we ever hope to learn new things if we allow our guilt to get in the way?  And why should 1 person’s guilt prevent others from hearing the message?  I don’t feel guilty when I learn about the benefits of directly nursing over exclusively pumping; I know that the way I did it wasn’t the ideal, and I’m glad to know that information.  Do you really want to live your life in the dark?

Like I said in my first post on this topic, 85% of new mothers want to breastfeed exclusively for 3 months or more, yet only 32% meet their goal.  If you’re in that 53% who didn’t meet your goal, it’s not my place to tell you how to feel about it; you’re entitled to your feelings.  But I do want to tell you how I’d feel about it.

Maybe you feel guilty because you thought you couldn’t make enough milk to satisfy your baby during those early weeks, because they wanted to eat all the time.  I’d feel angry that we live in a culture that teaches women that our babies need to be on schedules right away.  That we don’t educate women about cluster feeding and about growth spurts and about how milk production actually works.  That we don’t encourage on-demand breastfeeding.  That we don’t set the expectation that every mother-baby duo is different, and will feed at different intervals.  I’m angry that an un-educated relative casually suggested a formula top-off because your baby seemed hungry.  That person didn’t know that the formula would cause your baby to suckle less, thus demanding less milk from your breast, thus reducing your milk supply, and fulfilling the issue that you didn’t have to begin with.  I’m angry that someone didn’t tell you that how much you pump isn’t an indication of how much milk you are making or how much your baby is getting.  Breastfeeding is an age-old biologic process, not one that listens to our 21st century clock or technology.  These are all cultural problems; we’ve gotten so far away from breastfeeding that we’ve lost our knowledge about it, and our expectations are all out of whack.  So I wouldn’t feel guilty, I’d feel angry.

Maybe you feel guilty because you were pressured to start giving formula in public, because someone stared at you or sneered at you or had the gall to actually say something ugly to you when you tried nursing your hungry baby while (gasp) living your life.  I’d feel angry that we live in a culture that has over-sexualized breasts to the point that everyone has forgotten about their function.  That mothers have to fear being wrongfully kicked out of an establishment because some employee doesn’t know the laws protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public.  That we even need laws protecting our right to feed a hungry child.  That most of the laws don’t have enforcement provisions, so you have no legal recourse if you are kicked out of somewhere.  I wouldn’t feel guilt, I’d feel angry.

Maybe you feel guilty because you couldn’t keep up with your baby’s demands when you went back to work.  I’d feel angry that we force women back to work before they’ve even had a chance to establish their milk supply.  That we’re the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave.  That despite new laws requiring employers to provide reasonable break times and a place to pump at work, not everyone is on board yet.  That many mothers still have to pump in a bathroom, are forced to pump at times that don’t match their body’s needs, and are discriminated against and have hours cut because of their requests.  That as a nation, we have so little respect for women and children that we don’t do everything we can to support this critical time (we can’t all work at Netflix).  I wouldn’t feel guilty, I’d feel angry.

Maybe you feel guilty because you listened to bad advice from a professional you trusted.  I’d feel angry that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1 year of breastfeeding but then does very little to actually support it.  That I constantly hear about pediatricians making recommendations about infant feeding that aren’t evidence-based.  That we still have to worry about postpartum nurses “sneaking” formula bottles to our babies in the nursery, when their stomachs are still the size of a cherry. That the billion-dollar formula industry is the one actually pulling the strings; they’re in our doctors’ ears, in our hospital discharge bags, filling our shelves with samples before our babies are even born, preying on a mother’s worst insecurities at her most vulnerable moment.  That they cast a cloud of doubt on our abilities, that they make us lose trust in our bodies.  I wouldn’t feel guilty, I’d feel angry.

Or maybe you did everything you could, and despite your best efforts and doing everything right, you truly couldn’t produce enough milk.  Or your baby was born prematurely and wasn’t coordinated or strong enough to make breastfeeding successful.  Or you had to take a medication that prevented you from breastfeeding, or your child had some other medical complication.  Nature dealt you an unlucky hand.  You got a raw deal.  Guilt isn’t the right emotion here; it might make you feel sad, but I hope it never makes you feel guilty.

Maybe you feel guilty because you’re done having kids and won’t have the opportunity for another “do-over.”  Maybe you don’t have an opportunity to find inspiration from others’ success.  But don’t you care about what the experience is going to be like for your daughters?  For your granddaughters?  I know you do care, because you’re a good mother, regardless of how you fed your children.  Please let go of your guilt for their sake, for progress sake.

Or maybe none of these roadblocks were in your way.  Maybe the decision was entirely yours from the get-go not to breastfeed.  Or life circumstances meant you made a decision to stop when you were ready.  These things are all your prerogative.  Breastfeeding is a relationship, which means it has to work for both partiesNo one is impeding on your freedom to make your own decisions – I just hope that it was truly your decision, and not one made for you by our society’s cultural expectations.  And a decision you make of your own free will should never make you feel guilty.  If you were confident in your decision, then there’s no reason that World Breastfeeding Week should offend you.  I’ll support you if you support me. And I’m sorry about all of those ugly people who do actually directly shame you for formula-feeding.  They undermine the entire cause.

There’s a million and one other scenarios that I didn’t cover.  But as you can see, I’m of the mindset that guilt has no place here.  How will we ever improve our breastfeeding rates if we’re too afraid to share information for fear of making someone feel guilty?  In just a decade, Cambodia was able to increase their exclusive breastfeeding rates in the first 6 months from 11% to 74% through the use of a national media campaign, extensive health-worker training, and establishment of mother support groups.  It takes educating an entire society, not just the mothers.  They certainly wouldn’t have accomplished this if they were too afraid of offending a few people.

So it’s your choice.  You can either feel shamed by stories of breastfeeding success, or you can feel inspired.  You can either feel guilty about what happened to you, or you can feel angry toward the system and culture that is failing so many of us.  Although it’s not enough to stop at anger, it’s not a good emotion to dwell in; it has to be turned into positive action.  Become a more active participant in your healthcare, and have more meaningful conversations with your doctors. Demand more from our lawmakers and our employers.  Normalize breastfeeding so that some day, our daughters won’t have to fight for where they can feed their children.  I can’t wait to see that day.