“Breast is Best”. “Breastfeeding is Natural.” As accurate as these slogans may be, breastfeeding doesn’t always come easily for many women. From latch challenges to supply problems, any mom – first time or not – can run into hurdles when it comes to breastfeeding. Our culture and the lack of support around breastfeeding can exacerbate the situation and make staying the course even harder. Without the pillars of support and community, moms face both obstacles and social pressures that often deter them from nursing their children. As the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) rightly notes, moms need support every step of the way.
What is support? By definition, support means “to hold up” and “to give assistance to.” As a mom, I think my favorite definition of support is “a thing that bears the weight of something or keeps it upright.” There have been many times in my motherhood journey where just being upright seemed like an accomplishment, especially in the face of an ongoing litany of parenting advice, requested or not. Breastfeeding was no exception.
As a first time mom, I was defiantly committed to breastfeeding my son. However, the uncertainty and doubt set it in early about whether or not he was latching correctly or getting enough milk. The pain early on was excruciating for me, even after having had an unmedicated home birth. I dreaded those first few nursing sessions and convinced myself that something must be wrong if breastfeeding was supposed to be so natural. The letdown sensations were intense, as were the soreness and engorgement issues. But, thankfully, nothing was “wrong” except for my own ignorance that breastfeeding challenges were actually very common.
My first son was a voracious nurser. He could easily nurse for 45 minutes each time on each side, literally draining me of all of my energy. It took time to adapt and find our groove. Shortly therafter, we discovered he had a series of food allergies and I needed to give up many of the foods I loved so that he was no longer exposed. I struggled with the challenge of making huge dietary changes while adjusting to having a newborn but persistence paid off. Still, nursing was exhausting. My older son refused any bottle. I tried every nipple and bottle on the market, but he wanted none of it. Time away wasn’t an option. Self-care went out the window, at the cost of my own well-being and mental health. Commiserating with other moms and finding novel ways to revitalize myself was the support I needed on this leg of the journey and for which I will always be grateful. Knowing that other new moms were struggling literally kept me upright and moving forward.
When time passed and teeth came, family members (and random strangers) started to voice their very firm opinions about why breastfeeding was no longer needed. It was the encouragement of other holistic moms that gave me the strength to practice extended and on-demand breastfeeding – and it became something that we continued for years to come. It’s fascinating how at every turn someone has an unsolicited opinion to offer about breastfeeding. Whether it’s teething, how much or how often to feed, what to eat while nursing, whether or not you should be nursing in public, or when and how to wean, breastfeeding moms frequently encounter more advice than they ever expected. I am firm believer that the breastfeeding relationship for every mom and child pair is unique. We need to listen to our own inner voice to make decisions about nursing and find the support that we need to sustain those choices.
Breastfeeding my younger son was an entire world of difference than my first. He was in the NICU for many weeks in a hospital that was “breastfeeding friendly” and yet on more than one occasion, we received late night calls about how breastmilk was running low and they were “just going to give him some formula, okay?” We refused and off I went to the hospital with stored milk in the dark of the night. The stress of the situation created considerable supply challenges for me. From diet and supplements to stress reduction and holistic healthcare, I was able to glean a few fabulous suggestions from other moms to keep things on track. Moving my younger son from a bottle onto the breast had some new twists for me, but with the guidance of a midwife and breastfeeding expert, we were successful. Nevertheless, doubt crept in again because my second son nursed nothing like my first. He was an “in and out” nurser. He never lingered – he breastfed and was done quickly and efficiently. No long and exhausting nursing sessions. Thankfully, no food allergies. He weaned himself just after his second birthday and was done in a blink. I wondered and worried, but once again talking with other mamas helped me to recognize the huge spectrum of “normal” that breastfeeding can represent.
I doubt that I could have successfully breastfed either of my kids without the support and guidance I received from fellow moms, as well as from professionals. Indeed, every step of the way there many new issues and challenges, new discoveries, and new tips. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it doesn’t go as planned. Whatever the course, it is the ability to lean into others that makes the journey possible. When breastfeeding is so under wraps (literally and figuratively) it’s difficult for a new mom to see and experience what is “normal” on the breastfeeding spectrum. Being able to connect with others and to have firsthand support to hold you up makes all the difference. Embrace the journey and find others with whom to share your path. We all need to be held up from time to time!