Before I had my first child, I diligently signed up for every class that the hospital offered new parents. I was particularly excited for the breastfeeding support class. As a very Type A individual with a PhD in child psychology, I was convinced that I would be the “perfect” parent—and I never had any doubt in my mind that I would breastfeed for at least a year.
However, I had very little firsthand experience with breastfeeding and never actually observed anyone breastfeeding up close and personal. All of my friends who already had babies were always covered up or breastfed in private. Although my mother had breastfed, my grandmother hadn’t, so it seemed like there was a “lost knowledge” about breastfeeding that I was missing. I realized did not have much breastfeeding support.
I was hoping that the class would show me exactly how to breastfeed successfully so I could hit the ground running and “ace” this first test of parenting. To my great disappointment, the class offered very few practical tips and instead, we spent the whole evening going over the benefits of breastfeeding. I was frustrated. I already knew the benefits, or I wouldn’t have attended the class in the first place.
After having my baby and struggling with breastfeeding for months, I felt even more frustrated thinking back on this class. Why hadn’t they warned us that breastfeeding is hard for nearly all first-time parents? Why hadn’t they explained what to do if you want more than anything to breastfeed, but it doesn’t seem to be working?
My baby unexpectedly arrived a month early and, because she was what doctors refer to as a “late preterm” baby (born between 34 and 36 weeks), she lacked a sufficient latch and couldn’t stay awake long enough to make it through a feeding session.
The pediatrician advised “triple feeding,” in which I breastfed, pumped and then fed my baby a bottle of pumped milk. The entire process took two hours, and I was required to do it every two hours—which meant as soon as I was finished, I had to start all over again. Doing so left zero time for sleep or anything that did not involve feeding my baby.
Despite these massive efforts, my child continued to lose weight at every appointment. I was devastated when she dropped from her birthweight of 6 lbs down to 5 lbs, despite my spending 24 hours a day trying to feed her. I was even more devastated when the pediatrician told me that I had to supplement with formula.
When I expressed concerns about the long-term success of my breastfeeding, the pediatrician blew me off and failed to give me any tips on breastfeeding a late preterm baby or maintaining my supply while supplementing. Although I knew on some level that blaming myself was totally illogical, I felt like a failure and an inadequate mother.
After many tears (from both of us) and many sleepless nights, I eventually found an amazing lactation consultant who helped me to achieve exclusive breastfeeding and a baby who was gaining weight. Over the course of visiting her office nearly every day for a month, she helped me to improve my baby’s latch, keep her awake during feedings, and taught me how to use a complicated system that delivered pumped milk to my baby while I breastfed.
I had finally achieved my breastfeeding goals, my anxiety about my baby’s weight gain was gone, and I was able to sleep again (well, for two-hour increments, but better than nothing). I went on to successfully breastfeed my daughter for 18 months.
I tell this story not to complain about how hard the first few months of my parenting journey were (although yes, they were so unbelievably hard), but to make the point that I had the best-case scenario—a supportive husband and extended family, a four-month maternity leave, access to an amazing lactation consultant, and the ability to buy any breastfeeding systems or pump parts that I needed.
Yet, even with all of these advantages, I was not able to exclusively breastfeed for the first few months and thought about giving up on breastfeeding entirely many, many times. Honestly, if I was not Type A to a fault, I would have given up. Some may even argue that the best choice in terms of my own sanity and health would have been to give up breastfeeding.
When I think back to the breastfeeding class, it seemed that they acted as if the reason most women do not exclusively breastfeed for the recommended time is because they don’t fully understand the benefits. Yet, research shows otherwise.
More than half of mothers (about 60%) stop breastfeeding earlier than they would like, and research finds that most mothers don’t reach this goal due to lactation problems (difficulty with the latch or painful breastfeeding), concerns that their baby is not getting enough milk, medical problems, or the challenges of pumping (particularly when required to return to work).
Research also finds that a lack of support from the co-parenting partners may also make a mother more likely to stop breastfeeding, while the support of a lactation consultant may make a mother more likely to be successful in breastfeeding.
Yet, even though research tells us that most women are not able to reach their breastfeeding goals due to factors outside of their control, many women who stop breastfeeding feel like a failure and feel guilt and shame about weaning.
Compounding these feelings, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a statement that they now support breastfeeding for two or more years (previously they only recommended breastfeeding for one year). The intention of this change was to support mothers who choose to breastfeed beyond one year. Yet, in reality, this new recommendation may place additional pressure on mothers and set an even more unrealistic standard that most moms feel that they can never attain.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between the experiences of breastfeeding mothers and the messages that women are getting from society about breastfeeding.
Although I eventually overcame my breastfeeding difficulties, I will never forget about my early struggle with breastfeeding and the feelings of failure that came with it. As a psychologist, I knew it was irrational to blame myself for my baby’s feeding difficulties, but I did so anyway.
Looking back, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been so hard if I had known that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way and that so many mothers struggle with this “natural” act. I also wonder if I’d had more preparation about potential difficulties rather than someone only preaching the benefits of breastfeeding to me, I wouldn’t have felt so lost and hopeless in this struggle.
Above all, I wish that someone had told me that struggling with breastfeeding does not make you a failure, and that the enormous pressure of breastfeeding does not rest solely on the mother, but rather depends on the support that she has around her.