After days of nursing through a painful infection, I took my week-old youngest daughter to her first pediatric appointment. When we learned she hadn’t gained a single ounce, the doctor gave me three more days to breastfeed exclusively before a recheck. “If she isn’t thriving, then we have to add formula,” he said. I went home, held my throbbing chest, and sobbed.
“You tried,” my mom said. “There’s nothing wrong with using formula.”
My mom breastfed my brother for a year. She likely would have breastfed me for as long had she not burned her foot and required painkillers. After touting the benefits of breastmilk my entire life, the fact my own mother had acquiesced to Enfamil made the switch to formula seem inevitable.
Women who choose not to breastfeed, or who are unsuccessful, are often judged by other moms and even their own doctors and nurses. That is not my intention here. Being a new mom, whether you nurse or not, is hard enough without the judgment.
Though I did manage to breastfed both my children for a year each, the process was fraught with challenges. Like so many women, I assumed my breasts were made for feeding a baby. I assumed my baby was biologically designed to feed from human nipples. I assumed it would be easy. It wasn’t.
What’s worse, no one ever told me how hard breastfeeding can be. At some point, I just figured my boobs must be broken and everyone else was doing fine.
Women who try nursing only to switch to formula long before their babies begin solids often think they’ve failed some early test of motherhood. However, these women are the majority. A 2012 study published in Pediatrics found that only a third of women who planned to breastfeed exclusively were able to do so for as long as they intended. Though 85% of the women surveyed planned to nurse exclusively for the first three months, only 32% succeeded.
With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that so many woman who want to breastfed find it impractical, at best, or even downright impossible. Aside from the logistical pitfalls of returning to work while nursing (hello pump), many women switch to formula because they encounter a barrier or barriers to breastfeeding: shallow latches, infections, flat nipples, low production (and those were just MINE). For many new moms, the choice between formula and breast milk feels beyond their control.
Without proper resources, barriers to breastfeeding can seem as insurmountable as a concrete wall topped with barb wire. As their hungry newborns wail in frustration, many women make the tough decision to stop. I get not wanting to scare new moms away from the process, but we must recognize that nursing moms need more support.
I had a fantastic lactation consultant during my first few days as a mother. However, the problems I faced after leaving the hospital were solved through trial and error, phoning a friend, and bleary-eyed Google searches in the middle of the night.
After nursing my first daughter for a year through multiple complications, I figured nursing my second baby would be like riding a bike. Easy right? Not so much. Different baby, different problems. More bleary-eyed Google searches. At least the second time around, I knew which sites were porn. (Trust me, you don’t want to know).
The lack of lactation support for nursing mothers is pervasive, affecting rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike. During awkward small-talk with my OBGYN, she learned I’d breastfed both my children. As soon as my feet were out of the stirrups, she launched into the issues she was having nursing her firstborn. It took me a moment to realize she was seeking breastfeeding advice from me. Let me say that again, a specialist in women’s health was so frustrated and befuddled by her breastfeeding issues that she was asking my opinion on nipple shields. My only credentials: I’d somehow managed to sustain two infants with my imperfect boobs. That’s it.
International Board Certified Lactation Consultant Avery Giordano believes that many of the issues nursing mothers face result from inadequate prenatal and postnatal support.
“The system failed them,” said Giordano, who, along with her business partner Jennifer Duckles founded The Village-South Jersey Breastfeeding & Wellness with the mission to support women “throughout their journey through motherhood”.
“When moms leave the hospital is when they really need help, support and community,” Giordano said. The Village creates a community environment that promotes open dialogue and discussion on topics ranging from lactation to fitness. Moms learn from one another as well as experts in lactation, counseling and wellness.
“I wanted to work with moms who were finding barriers to breastfeeding,” Giordano said. “The ones who have already decided to breastfeed, but who are really struggling.
As a first step, she suggests enrolling in a prenatal class with a lactation focus. In addition, women who intend to nurse should research support centers and professionals in their area to help boost their chances for success. “The key is to know what resources you have before you need them,” she said.
The good news: Insurance companies are beginning to recognize the benefits of providing both prenatal and postnatal lactation support services. Sadly, many women stop breastfeeding when they encounter obstacles because they do not seek support or even know it exists.
Had I not nursed my first daughter “successfully”, I would have switched to formula half way through the first agonizing weeks of nursing my youngest. I succeeded for two reasons and two reasons only. First, I knew it was normal to have problems. Second, I knew that with the right support and tools, I could work through them.
“If you’re having trouble nursing, don’t try to figure it out by yourself,” Giordano said. “If you have any other ailment you would get help. The sooner a woman seeks support, the easier it is to fix the problem.”
Breastfeeding is not for everyone. However, for those women who want to breastfeed, shouldn’t they have the support they need? Providing education and support services for nursing moms will go a long way toward busting through barriers and improving breastfeeding success rates.
Ultimately, whatever choice a woman makes should be just that: Her choice. Regardless of whether it’s breast milk or formula, all new moms deserve to have their decision supported without judgment.