A few weeks ago my 15-month-old son weaned from breastfeed- ing. It was an event that passed almost unnoticed because it happened so gradually, and it was a day or two before I realized he hadn’t nursed. When I stopped to think about it, I knew it was the right time for both of us. He was happily going through his day—naps, bedtime and all— without skipping a beat, and I hardly felt a twinge when I realized that part of our relationship was over.
Although it’s a bit early to reminisce, when I think about our breastfeeding time, I do so with complete happiness. It is an aspect of our relationship that kept us close, gave him comfort, and was enjoyable for us both. When I think of the early days, though, I’m a little amazed that we persevered. The first weeks weren’t easy, and I don’t think we settled into a comfortable rhythm until my son was two or three months old. It’s not uncommon to hear of breastfeeding challenges, and sadly, the stories often end with a switch to formula and a declaration that breastfeeding “just didn’t work for us” or “I’m just one of those people that’s not able to breastfeed.”
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that, for all its promotional support of breastfeeding, isn’t very conducive to it. Many women quit after a few difficult weeks due to frustration and lack of sup- port. It’s a shame women don’t always find the support they need through that initial hump, allowing them to develop the fulfilling breastfeeding relationship so many expectant mothers want. There is support out there, and knowing up front what to expect can go a long way toward success. Knowing what pitfalls to avoid is also important, and something that can be difficult to do when cultural norms are so ingrained. Below, I’ve put together a list of five cultural misconceptions that can sab- otage the best-intentioned new mother in her attempt to establish a healthy breast- feeding relationship with her baby:
If a baby cries often, especially after eating, they must have reflux. The truth is, doctors don’t really know why babies cry. Some babies cry more than others, and a pediatrician has to discern from a mother’s description if the crying and accompanying symptoms are actually problematic. It isn’t an exact science, and a diagnosis often has more to do with a particular doctor’s style and experience than anything else. Many doctors only feel comfortable when they diagnose and prescribe, and very few have any formal training in breastfeeding.
Many women don’t know that in spite of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to breastfeed for at least one year, most medical schools don’t teach anything about breastfeeding. So if a woman comes in with a baby who cries shortly after eating, a doctor will often think “illness.” In fact, it could just be that the baby is hungry again. Breast milk digests very quickly, and breastfed babies generally need to eat at least every two hours, if not more. In the early days it’s not uncommon for an infant to nurse for an hour, sleep for an hour, and then wake to nurse again. This doesn’t last forever, but if a new mother isn’t ready, it could easily give her the impression something could be wrong.
The easiest way to travel with baby is to carry him in a removable car seat. This cultural phenomenon is reflective of brilliant marketing. Car seat and stroller manufacturers created the “travel system” a few years ago and touted it as the latest convenience. Move baby from car to home to store to another car without disturb- ing them! He can stay safely strapped in while you do everything you need to do! It sounds nice, but the result is that the baby spends an awful lot of time in a car seat and not very much time being held. While it might not seem as though this would necessarily affect breastfeeding, one of the keys to successful nursing is building a tactile relationship where the baby gives cues and the mother responds. When the baby isn’t in his mother’s arms, it’s more difficult to sense what he needs. The subtle cries that distinguish a soiled diaper from hunger can take longer for a mother to decipher, and the resulting frustration can have a negative impact on a budding breastfeeding relationship. For the best chances of success at breastfeeding, keep the car seat in the car, and wear the baby in a sling or carrier to keep him close.
A baby should sleep in a separate bed- room, and absolutely never in the same bed as her mother. Open any parenting magazine and you will see page after page of beautifully appointed nurseries: bassinets trimmed in frilly materials, cribs decorated with flow- ers or airplanes, and matching mobiles that play soothing tunes while the baby nods off. It seems ideal—happy colors, soft fabrics, quiet sounds. In fact, though, babies like being close to Mom, and they don’t notice if the crib bumper matches the wallpaper. For breastfeeding mothers, it’s easier if the baby is close at night, too. Breastfed babies wake up often (even well beyond the six weeks that many people say a baby “should” sleep through the night), and having the baby close at hand can make the frequent wake-ups easier. Sleeping with the baby in the same bed can be done safely when proper precau- tions are taken. Dr. Sears’ “Safe Co- sleeping” article details how co-sleeping may make nighttime breastfeeding much easier and even prevent SIDS.
If you don’t get your baby on a feeding and sleeping schedule early, you will encounter discipline problems. Relying on this cultural norm can sink a breastfeeding relationship faster than receiving free formula in the mail. When newborns emerge from the womb, they are leaving an environment where they were always warm, fed, and, in essence, held. Coming into a world where they can get cold, hungry and put down is a big shock. There’s no need to enhance the shock by withholding food so they can get on a schedule that works for your lifestyle. Far from creating discipline problems, responding to your baby’s needs creates a relationship of trust and shows her that she has people she can count on. Breastfeeding on baby’s cue also helps mother’s body adjust appropriately to the amount of food the baby needs. Women’s milk supplies are based on demand, so the more often a woman nurses, the more milk she produces. Nursing often and for as long as the baby wants ensures that there is plenty of milk to sustain a breast- feeding relationship.
Breastfeeding is natural, and therefore should be easy. If it’s not, then you’re probably not able to breastfeed. I almost hate to write about this one, because I don’t want discourage new or expectant mothers from breastfeeding because of the possibility that it might be difficult. But in more than a year of attending La Leche League meetings, a common theme with new mothers is that breastfeeding was a lot harder than they expected. It could be that many mothers go to La Leche League meetings because they are having difficulty, but I suspect many mothers who don’t seek help experi- ence the same thing. Breastfeeding is somewhat like creating a well-balanced meal of fresh ingredients. Natural, yes, but not necessarily easy.
Like cooking, it’s often easier to open a can of formula or mix up a bottle in the same way it’s easier to open a package of frozen pizza and pop it in the oven. Breast- feeding is really about learning a new skill and building a relationship—two things that aren’t always easy or intuitive. Of all the women I’ve talked to who had initial difficulties breastfeeding but went on to nurse long-term, each one said she would go through it all again, challenging first weeks and all. If you are struggling with breastfeeding but want to continue, find support. La Leche League is a wonderful resource, and every area has lactation consultants or experienced mothers who are willing to help. Breastfeeding is so much more than feeding your child; it’s the intention of a precious relationship that requires our focused dedication for achievement.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #30.
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