Stop Telling Moms How They 'Should' Be Breastfeeding

by Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco
Originally Published: 
Maravic / iStock

When I think back to my nursing days, I am flooded with images: falling asleep with my son in my arms in the middle of the night; wrestling with my pump as it mocked me with its persistent “Wheee-ooo! Whee-ooo!”; walking around the house with that damned nursing pillow strapped to my waist like some sort of cigarette girl at an old-time movie theater; and sitting with my son in my lap, my face contorted in horror, as another woman shared the story of how her breastfeeding baby bit part of her nipple off.

Before I say more, let me share some background about myself. I’m a mom of two and a clinical psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for stress and anxiety. Much of my practice is focused on helping moms who are overwhelmed by the stress that comes with child-rearing. Not surprisingly, breastfeeding is a major source of stress for new moms. Here is a summary of the stories I hear often:

1. Mom tries desperately to nurse, but cannot for some very valid reason (e.g., baby will not latch, mom needs to go back on her antidepressant medications). Mom is consumed with guilt about not breastfeeding and anxiety about the negative impact that formula feeding could have on her baby.

2. Mom chooses not to nurse, again for some very valid reason (e.g., wants to feel like her body is her own again, doesn’t have the time or space to pump at work). She feels ashamed about this choice. Sometimes, the reactions of others (“You’re formula feeding? Oh.”) reinforce this shame.

3. Mom is able to nurse successfully, but is consumed with anxiety about the nursing process. What if her child is not getting enough nourishment? What if she is not doing it right? She scours breastfeeding books, convinced that she can discover just the right technique to improve her nursing. If only she could do it better, her baby would really benefit.

And then, of course, there’s my own situation. Let me get back to that nipple-biting story. When my older son was 10 weeks old, I took him to a breastfeeding support group at a local lactation center. Each mom was encouraged to share a nursing story. I was tired and basically tuned out most of the stories until I heard this one, from a lady sitting directly opposite me. “Nursing has been very hard for me. At one point my son bit part of my nipple off. But now he’s doing better with it.”

Wait — her kid BIT HER NIPPLE OFF? And she kept at it?!

This woman’s story caused me to question my own stance on nursing. Sure, I was nursing, but I honestly didn’t enjoy it. It tethered me to the baby and majorly restricted my freedom.

Sometimes, I secretly wished for a way out (like, for example, if my son bit my nipple off). But here was this woman who was so committed to breastfeeding that she persisted through what must have been extreme pain. What kind of mom was I?

The common thread that weaves my story together with those I mentioned above — maternal feelings of inadequacy and guilt. In CBT, we talk about people “should”-ing all over themselves, bombarding themselves with self-talk about all the things they should be doing and aren’t. “Should”-ing leads directly to guilt and shame.

And many moms are consumed with “shoulds” about breastfeeding, and the shame and guilt that come with them, whether they ultimately decide to nurse or not.

In working through my own “shoulds” about the mom and her nipple-biting baby, I ultimately had to recognize that it was unfair to compare myself to her. I absolutely respected this woman’s decision to keep nursing, but I knew that our values were different. I believed in nursing, but I could not identify with someone who felt so strongly about nursing that she sacrificed her own health and well-being for the cause. I also recognized that I did not know this woman and therefore could not pass judgment on her choice to nurse through the pain. In other words, my experience was totally different than hers. I couldn’t compare myself to her.

And now when I talk to my patients about breastfeeding, I remind them of this same idea: No one’s experience is the same as yours. No one has the same body, same baby, or same family. Yes, breastfeeding is widely recommended by medical authorities, but do these medical authorities know your specific story? Would they recommend nursing to a woman with significant postpartum depression who could not care for her baby unless she started taking antidepressant medications? Would it be fair of them to pass judgment on a woman who was not able to figure out how to fit nursing into her lifestyle, for whatever reason?

Let your breastfeeding experience be your own. Don’t let others tell you how you should be doing it. And most of all, have confidence in your ability to make the right decision for yourself and your baby.

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