World Breastfeeding Week: What Support?

In conjunction with World Breastfeeding Week three bloggers have launched I Support You, an online initiative to destigmatize how any mother chooses to feed her child. The mission statement is one of acceptance and kindness and it cuts through the cruelty and bullshit of the “Mommy Wars”. I fully support a woman’s right to choose how to feed her child. So why does this initiative make me uneasy? Yes, we should support a woman’s right to choose. But why are we not addressing that so many women want to breastfeed yet are unable to do it? Why aren’t we outraged on their behalf? Why isn’t more being done to help women nurse successfully? We should be able to explore these questions without alienating women who formula fed.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about breastfeeding over the last several months. Hell, I wrote a 20 page paper titled “The Human Right to Food Applied to the Problem of United States Breastfeeding Rates”. In addition, the reality that my own breastfeeding days are nearing their end is weighing heavily on me. I plan on weaning C shortly after his second birthday at the end of the month. It is the right choice for our family.

During the first several months I nursed T I struggled through nipple pain, a wicked case of thrush, and the removal of a precancerous lesion that abutted my areola. I was shocked by how hard nursing was. The first few months were brutal, but after we figured it out the year plus that followed was magical. As much as I reveled in nursing T, as much as I grew to love it I also felt incredibly angry. I was able to make nursing work because I am privileged enough to choose to be a SAHM. I was lucky enough to have a Mom who was able to buy me a medical grade pump I couldn’t afford on my own. I saw multiple lactation consultants. My doctor and T’s pediatrician were cheerleaders on the breastfeeding front. Z supported me every step of the way. All that fantastic support, which again I received because of my socio-economic position, all that support was enough to get me through the terrible times-the lactation consultant who told me it wouldn’t hurt if I was doing it right, the feeling like glass was tearing through my nipples when the thrush set in, the constant worry that my guy wasn’t gaining weight fast enough.

But what about women who don’t receive that kind of support? Women who are suffering from low supply, women who need to go back to work immediately, women that don’t receive information about the benefits of breastfeeding. Shortly after giving birth to T I had two friends attend two different childbirth sessions at Women and Infants, an excellent hospital for labor and delivery. In both classes the participants were told breast is best without being given any information on how to successfully nurse.

Guess what? Breastfeeding isn’t intuitive. You don’t just stick a baby onto your boob and have everything work out. Guess what else? Sometimes it does hurt when you are doing it right. Some ladies have super sensitive nipples. Some ladies don’t. Guess what else? Because breastfeeding rates are so low in this country there isn’t a built in support system of Mothers and Grandmothers and friends who have an intimate understanding of how breastfeeding works and who can help new Moms troubleshoot. Guess what else? Sometimes two lactation consultants in the same hospital will give you conflicting information and leave you more confused than before you talked to them. Yes, I’m speaking from experience.

My OB told me that in countries where there is no access to formula the rates of Mothers with low milk supply are very low. In developed countries the rates of low milk supply are much higher (I haven’t researched this myself, am planning to in conjunction with a project this fall and will definitely write about what I find out). His analysis is that women are forced to figure out nursing when there is no other alternative. I am not saying that women who suffer from low supply in this country are crying wolf. Not at all. It has to be a terrifying thing to go through. If my infant was losing weight you better bet I would feel him formula immediately. I feel frustrated on the behalf of women who have supply issues. Why aren’t they getting effective help? Currently there are 70 federally funded studies on erectile dysfunction and 10 on breastfeeding dysfunction. To anyone who says breastfeeding is a naturally occurring bodily function I’d remind them that boners are naturally occurring as well. And yet, viagra and cialis are not only covered by health insurance, they are huge money makers. Nature clearly isn’t working for a lot of guys.

Over the last month or so another idea has been bouncing around my head. The United States Government through the CDC recommends exclusively breastfeeding for 6 months. After delivering that message the government sets up new Mothers to fail. How are you supposed to exclusively breastfeed if you do not have adequate maternity leave? If you are working a minimum wage job how are you supposed to afford a breast pump? How are you supposed to express milk if your boss won’t give you time on the clock and a clean and safe place to do it?

The responsibility to nurse is placed on the shoulders of women. They are told it is natural, they just need to try harder, it is their failure if they can’t figure it out. Well, bullshit. Pardon me for being a hysterical feminist, but if that doesn’t smack of misogyny I don’t know what does. It’s like telling a bunch of sixth graders that they need to pass a math test in order to go to 7th grade, yet not teaching them what is on the exam.

I wholeheartedly agree that we should support choices each Mother makes about how to feed their baby. But forcing the message down women’s throats that breast is best while not being able to follow through with support is an issue that is not talked about. It seems breastfeeding is a vocal issue for two groups, those who only see boobs as a sexual objects, who insist women nursing in public are offensive or by those who expect women to achieve the impossible with no help and who shame those who fail.

During World Breastfeeding Week I propose we advocate for change:

  • If the government advises babies should be exclusively breastfeed for 6 months than women should receive paid maternity leave for that period.
  • The CDC estimates that 2.2 billion dollars a year would be saved on medical costs if higher breastfeeding rates were achieved. The numbers are not going to increase through education alone-extensive research needs to be conducted concerning breastfeeding failure. At least as much research that is devoted to erectile disfunction.
  • The United States committed to following The International Code of Marketing of Breastfeeding Substitutes in the early 90s, yet nothing has been done to enforce The Code. It is time to halt predatory marketing campaigns by formula companies.

And listen, us Moms out there aren’t always helping. I’ve seen comments online by breastfeeding Moms who self righteously proclaim if they were unable to nurse they would secure expressed milk. The Human Milk Bank Association of North America, a nonprofit, charges between $3 to $5. An ounce. Give me a fucking break self righteous breastfeeding Moms. Then there are comments by Mothers who were unable to nurse-they are hell-bent on proving that breastfeeding does not provide any advantage to newborns. It enrages me that Moms who choose to formula feed, or who are unable to nurse are made to feel less because of it. But it also enrages me that they would try to undermine the science behind the benefits of breastfeeding.  Advocating for breastfeeding should not to be synonymous with denigrating choices made by formula feeders. Defending formula feeding should not be synonymous with trying to disprove the upsides of nursing. We are all better than that nonsense.

hugging boys

T was nursed until he was 20 months. I was entering the second trimester of pregnancy and my milk dried up. Neither of us were ready to stop, honestly I still feel terribly guilty about letting him down. C will be 2 on August 31st. He took to nursing immediately and we are still going strong. I might feel like the I Support You campaign misses out on the systemic lack of support in this country, but the truth is, from the bottom of my heart, I do support you and whatever choice you and your family make to feed your child.