I was a breastfeeding mom for over ten years. I’ve been an IBCLC for nine years and started working with breastfeeding parents as a volunteer all the way back in 2009. So I’ve been immersed in the breastfeeding world for a long time. I’ve seen some stuff, and I’m not just talking about engorged breasts and cracked nipples …
August is National Breastfeeding Month, and the first week of August is World Breastfeeding Week. I always think of August as a time to reflect on breastfeeding—not really the technical stuff, like how to get a good latch—but the bigger picture stuff, like how to support parents to reach their breastfeeding goals.
While I’ve seen enormous progress when it comes to the world being a more accepting place for breastfeeding mothers and parents, I have to be frank with you: so many of the barriers to breastfeeding that I was aware of when I first started helping breastfeeding parents still exist today, in 2021.
Every two years, the CDC releases a “breastfeeding report card” with stats about how many parents are successfully breastfeeding. Yes, it’s true that breastfeeding is not the best choice for every family (and as an IBCLC, I fully support parents in making feeding decisions that work for them). But all major health organizations, including the Academy of American Pediatrics, recommend that babies be breastfed when possible. The AAP recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding, and breastfeeding coupled with solid foods for the first 12 months of life.
Unfortunately, most parents in America aren’t meeting that goal. As the CDC reports, while 84% of parents start off breastfeeding, only 58% are still breastfeeding six months, and only 25% are doing so exclusively. 35% of parents breastfeed till 12 months, and 19% of babies receive formula supplements in their first two days of life.
So many of the barriers that I saw parents face back in 2009 (and that I faced too) are still in full swing in America. I think it’s important that we be aware of this stuff for a few reasons. First, parents aren’t going to fully be able to meet their breastfeeding goals until these things are fixed. And secondly, it’s important that parents who feel betrayed by breastfeeding realize that not meeting a breastfeeding goal isn’t because of something they did wrong: usually it’s because of how we as a society have failed breastfeeding parents (and parents in general).
So, without further ado, here are some things that we as a society, nation, and culture still need to address in 2021 if we are going to fully support breastfeeding parents.
1. Abysmal Paid Leave Policies
The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t offer paid leave for its citizens. Most countries offer several weeks or months of paid leave, and it’s fully expected and encouraged that parents will need time off after they have a baby. All parents deserve this, but breastfeeding parents in particular need this.
Breastfeeding is a 24/7 job, and it literally requires your body. Yes, there are pumps, but we all know that pumping and breastfeeding—especially in those early weeks—is a full-time job, and it’s understandable that not all of us can or want to do it. Paid leave would definitely make a huge difference when it comes to breastfeeding parents meeting their goals.
2. Limited Access To Lactation Resources
I get inquiries from parents all over the country asking for breastfeeding help. Some don’t have a lactation consultant within driving distance. Others have no idea how to find breastfeeding support, either paid or free. Many turn to the internet, which can either be very helpful, or a place of confusing, inaccurate information.
I believe that all parents should have local access to breastfeeding support, ideally an IBCLC. I also believe that support should be fully covered by health insurance. After all, most of us have access to pediatricians, OB-GYNs. If breastfeeding is vital to a baby’s health, then there should be highly trained professionals on hand for every new mom
3. Myths Around Breastfeeding
The best place to get breastfeeding information is from the AAP, the CDC, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, an IBCLC, or an MD who is specifically trained in breastfeeding. Otherwise, you are going to run into a ton of breastfeeding misinformation. I see it all the time, and it still astounds me.
No, that ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s isn’t going to increase your milk supply. No, you don’t need to “toughen up your nipples” to breastfeed. No, you don’t have to eat bland foods all day to keep your baby’s tummy happy. Etc, etc, etc.
4. Medical Professionals Who Are Under-Trained In Breastfeeding
There are so many wonderful medical professions who support breastfeeding and remain highly educated about it. But unfortunately, there are many who are not supportive, and who actually pass on incorrect information about breastfeeding to new parents.
For example, the first pediatrician I saw when my first son was born told me that I needed to drink a quart of milk each day to make enough breast milk for my baby (there is zero evidence to support this). He also said my son was losing too much weight (he was losing a normal amount) and I needed to start supplementing him with formula. I went home crying.
New parents are highly vulnerable and the wrong advice can make or break a breastfeeding experience. We need to prioritize making sure that all medical professionals who help new parents are properly trained.
5. A Culture That Has Unattainable Expectations For Parents And Babies
Our culture doesn’t care about parents, mothers, families, or kids that way it should. We expect parents to “bounce back” within days of having a baby, and then “do it all,” including work, childcare, housework, etc. And we expect babies to sleep through the night, stick to a perfect feeding and eating schedule, and never cry or cause a fuss. How are we supposed to support breastfeeding parents when we don’t normalize the postpartum period or normal baby behaviors? Make it make sense.
6. People Who Are Still Freaked Out By Seeing A Baby Breastfeed
The good news is that it is legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states. The bad news is that, as a society, we are still very much uncomfortable with the idea of seeing a baby breastfeed. That’s because breasts are so sexualized in society that it feels impossible for us all to just calm down and understand that breastfeeding is not a sexual thing, and there’s no reason to cover or hide what is happening. (Unless covering up is something the breastfeeding parent feels more comfortable with!)
Not only is it mind boggling that people haven’t just grown up and realized all this, but it does create major barriers for breastfeeding parents. Babies need to nurse a lot, and it isn’t fair that parents feel that they will be mocked or harassed if they try to feed their babies in public. It’s also not fair for them to feel stuck at home. Some parents wean prematurely because they feel that breastfeeding is constricting. Feeling unsafe or uncomfortable nursing in public is one way that breastfeeding can feel restrictive to parents, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Even though I am sort of painting a grim picture here when it comes to all of this stuff, I definitely do think we are making progress when it comes to supporting breastfeeding parents and removing barriers, albeit at a snail’s pace. For example, when I started out supporting breastfeeding parents, breastfeeding in public was not legal in all 50 states. And lactation support was pretty much never covered by insurance (thanks to the Affordable Care Act, it is covered more frequently, though many parents face barriers when it comes to full coverage).
I also think the next generation of children we are raising—many of whom were breastfed themselves and were exposed to things like watching their parents breastfeed their siblings, and even seeing older babies and toddler nurse—will have a more normalized view of breastfeeding, which will help make more substantial changes around the culture of breastfeeding.
Until then, I will keep supporting breastfeeding parents in any way I can, and encourage everyone around me to do the same.