There are certainly mothers out there who never wanted to breastfeed. Their reasons are private, not mine to judge, and have absolute merit. I applaud their choices and respect their privacy. A woman who doesn’t breastfeed isn’t any less of a mother than a woman who does. Ever. Period.
But most mothers go into the whole motherhood thing with the intent to breastfeed their babies, and far too many of them don’t end up meeting their goals.
A 2012 study published in Pediatrics showed that 85% of moms plan to exclusively breastfeed for at least three months. But if you look at the actual numbers of mothers who end up breastfeeding for any significant amount of time, you’ll see that a huge majority of moms give up pretty early on.
Case in point: The 2014 Breastfeeding Report Card from the CDC shows that 79% percent of moms breastfeed for some length of time. But by three months, only 40% are breastfeeding exclusively, and by six months, only 18% are exclusively breastfeeding. (The Academy of American Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.)
What the heck is going on? Why are so many moms not reaching their goals? Are their bodies failing them? Are their babies lousy nursers? Does biology just basically suck when it comes to breastfeeding?
In addition to being a mom who breastfed both her kids (and who encountered a ton of difficulties the first time), I’m also a lactation consultant who has worked with hundreds of moms over the past seven years. The conclusion I’ve come to is that in the majority of cases, it’s not the mom or the baby who fails at breastfeeding. It’s the system (or lack thereof) that has failed them.
Now before you get your brassieres all tied up in a bunch, I am not saying that there aren’t cases where biological malfunctions weren’t at play. Biology is not perfect by any means, and although breastfeeding is one of the most natural things out there, our biology can certainly be less robust sometimes when it comes to producing a full milk supply or having champion baby-suckers.
But in almost all of the instances where biology doesn’t work out perfectly, there are solutions out there to remedy things, or at least compromises to make breastfeeding work in some shape or form.
For example, for the small percentage of women who can’t produce a full milk supply, there are almost always ways to combine breastfeeding and supplementing in order to get as much breastmilk into a baby as possible. I have helped mothers breastfeed who only have one functional breast, or who can only produce a third of their baby’s milk needs. Women define their own success in these situations, and there are creative ways to keep up a breastfeeding relationship.
Even babies with anatomical differences like tongue ties and cleft palates can breastfeed with some medical interventions and know-how.
Here’s the problem. Most mothers don’t know there are resources out there to help them. Many don’t have the means to afford quality care, or this care isn’t properly covered by insurance. And many, many moms don’t have the lifestyle that affords them time to work out the kinks in their breastfeeding difficulties so that things can run smoother.
When something is going wrong with breastfeeding, it can take a while for things to work out — sometimes days, sometimes weeks. Most moms get a visit from a lactation consultant in the hospital (though not always; lots of moms reports that if they give birth on the weekend, for example, they’re kind of screwed in that regard). Maybe they get a fabulous lactation consultant; maybe not. Maybe their lactation consultant spends 5 minutes with them, or maybe a whole hour.
Either way, so many moms come home to find that breastfeeding at home is different than it was at the hospital. Their milk comes in and they get terribly engorged. Or maybe their milk coming in is delayed and their babies are fussy and hungry. Many moms start to have sore or bleeding nipples a few days after birth.
It is totally normal for breastfeeding to be hard in the first few weeks, and it’s normal for it to take some time for things to get sorted out, and ultimately easier. Fixing any normal breastfeeding issue takes patience, and a lot of time sitting on the couch doing nothing but breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is natural, but it is also a learned experience, for moms and babies alike. You aren’t supposed to be doing it alone. Especially for a brand new mom, succeeding at breastfeeding takes a ton of cheerleading, learning, knowledge of what to expect — and in many cases, expert support.
But how many moms are actually getting this?
It’s no wonder that many moms simply give up in the first week or two. They don’t know where to get help. They can’t afford it. It isn’t covered.
And how can new moms be expected to concentrate on breastfeeding when they come home and are immediately responsible for housework, the care of their other children, and more? How can they invest in the time and effort it takes to make breastfeeding work if they are already thinking about going back to work and planning for how to keep up the breastfeeding relationship via pumping?
In other countries, mothers are given time to heal and learn to breastfeed. They are cared for by their communities, or by government programs that bring aides into their homes to help with housework and provide breastfeeding support. In other countries, where maternity leave is guaranteed, mothers are not thinking about going back to work when their babies are just a few days old.
Our system is broken. It is totally unsupportive of breastfeeding moms. We live in a world where it’s much easier to pick up a bottle of formula than to pick up the phone and easily find an affordable, compassionate breastfeeding helper.
So to any mom who thinks she “failed” at breastfeeding, I tell you this: You didn’t fail. You absolutely didn’t. I know you tried. You tried so hard. I know you wanted it to work. I know you wished you could have done more somehow.
But you did all you could. You have nothing to feel guilty about. You found ways to nourish your baby healthfully. You bonded just as deeply as a breastfeeding mom does. But I’m sorry you weren’t given more help, time, and support.
You didn’t fail at breastfeeding. The system failed you, and it’s a damn shame.