The early days of breastfeeding can be beautiful. They can be blissful. But they can also be stressful and anxiety-ridden and full of pain. They can be all these things at once.
Breastfeeding is very much a learned process. It’s like you’ve been entered into a dance competition with a brand new partner and neither of you knows the right steps. Sometimes, you learn the moves as you go along and find your groove. Sometimes, you trip and stumble your way through for a while. Sometimes, you make it through the first few songs and then decide it’s not working and sit out the rest. Every one of these options is valid.
But when you’re in the throes of those early days of nursing—still deciding whether you want to stay on the dance floor—and your nipples are cracked and bleeding and your breasts are sore and you’re worried about your milk supply and if you have a clogged duct and whether your infant is losing too much weight and you haven’t had time for a shower much less change out of last night’s pajamas, the last thing you need to hear is your neighbor or your mother-in-law or any other well-meaning soul tell you that “breastfeeding is natural” and “you’ve got this.”
It seems nice, but it doesn’t help.
Instead, supporting breastfeeding mamas should be about meeting mothers where they’re at, making them feel seen and heard, staying open to their answers and never, ever dismissing their feelings. Here are a few other phrases breastfeeding mothers don’t want to hear—and what to say, ask or do instead.
6 things not to say to a mama struggling with breastfeeding
1. “Just keep trying. You’ve got this!”
Instead, say: “I know you’re going through it right now. I’m here to listen.”
Offering up a cheery “you’ve got this!” to a mother who’s struggling can make her feel even guiltier than she’s probably already feeling. Rather than just glossing over her challenges or sugarcoating her experience (same goes for “this is just a blip!”), acknowledge the fact that she’s having a hard time. Then, make yourself available to actually listen. Lending an ear can go a long way for a mama who needs to get something off her chest.
2. “Breastfeeding is hard—but you can do hard things.”
Instead, say: “I see you’re having a hard time. How can I help?”
That’s a hard no to any preschool-friendly platitudes. Show her you really care by asking open-ended questions, like “how can I help?” or “what do you need right now?” and waiting for her to respond. Even if she deflects the question, set a mental note to bake her a batch of muffins or send flowers to show her you’re thinking of her.
3. “I know it feels difficult now, but it gets easier.”
Instead, say: “That sounds really tough. Can I share some resources with you that I found helpful?”
This sentiment about breastfeeding getting easier down the line may be true, but it diminishes the feelings she’s having right now—and it also may not get easier for her if she’s dealing with supply issues or a super painful latch. Don’t share your own breastfeeding story unless she asks to hear it–and don’t offer to set up an appointment with the lactation consultant you used unless you ask her if she’s open to it first. Same goes for any books you read!
4. “How is breastfeeding going?”
Instead, say: “How is feeding going?”
Asking about breastfeeding assumes that she’s exclusively breastfeeding, which she may not be. Instead, asking about feeding in general leaves room for an answer that she may have switched to exclusively pumping, is supplementing with formula, or is only using formula altogether. A side note: Resist the urge to offer your feelings on how tedious you found pumping or how expensive you think formula is. None of those opinions are actually helpful to her at this moment. Stay kind, and pivot to talking about baby sleep or—this is always a safe bet—how cute her little one is.
5. “You were meant to do this.”
Instead, say: “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Telling her she “was meant to do this” trivializes the inherent challenges involved in breastfeeding—and may overlook the fact that something she has no control over, like trouble with supply, or the existence of a medical condition or mental health issue, may preclude her from keeping up with it. Breastfeeding should be workable for both mom and baby—and if it’s not working for one party, it’s not working for anyone.
6. “Breast milk is the best food for your baby.”
Instead, say: Nothing. Hold the baby. Do the dishes. Fold the laundry.
There’s no need to inform her of the latest scientific research about how beneficial breast milk is for her little one. The unintended pressure that comes with those types of statements is easy for new moms to internalize—and can leave them second-guessing themselves and their abilities if they’re having trouble with nursing. You always, always have the option to not comment at all. In fact, what she may need most right now is an extra set of hands. Hold her little one. Wash the dishes piled up in the sink. Fold the tiny onesies and burp cloths overflowing in the basket. Sit with her and watch something mindless on TV. Just be there for her.
A version of this story was originally published on Aug. 24, 2021. It has been updated.