Breastfeeding is the optimal nutrition for infants. That is an undisputed scientific fact. But, unfortunately, it is not always easy. Part of the reason is that the pressure of modern motherhood can make the reality of breastfeeding challenging. Twenty five percent of mothers in the U.S. return to work 10 days after childbirth — that barely leaves time for the body to recover from childbirth let alone establish a meaningful breastfeeding routine and bond. Second, although infants have an instinct to suckle they have to learn how to do it on your breasts and with your nipples — that may take some time, practice and often, professional support.
If it’s not going as you planned for any number of reasons here are some thoughts.
The realities of breastfeeding
Where did you get your ideas of how breastfeeding would go? If it was from glossy magazines, then those have disproportionately failed to give a realistic perception of motherhood and breastfeeding. If you look at more balanced sources, you may find that having ups and downs in breastfeeding is actually quite normal. So give yourself lots of credit and compassion. Social media has been a great place for real moms to share the realities of breastfeeding. Follow hashtags such as #breastfeeding, #breastfeedingmom, #breastfeedingmama or #breastfeedingjourney for a reality check.
Breastfeeding is a relationship. And for some infants and mamas, it takes time to develop.
Skin to skin time can do wonders for latching issues, lactation consultants say. Get naked from the waist up and do the same for your baby. Sit in a semi-reclined position and place your baby on your chest. Relax and watch your baby find her way to your nipple and latch on when she’s ready.
There is no shame in the support game. Lactation consultants, breastfeeding support groups, midwives, doulas, and resources like Ovia’s Breastfeeding Bootcamp video series can be a lifeline for navigating the tactical aspects of breastfeeding, while virtual and in real life peer groups help you hear from other parents. Breastfeeding has always been communal and every mama needs her tribe. That tribe is not just about lactation specialists but others who can help around the house, assist with meals or hold the baby in-between feeds for a few minutes so you can get some rest.
Put your hands into it
Learn hand expression. It’s a great way to increase milk supply and can be more effective than a pump. Many mamas who are discouraged by measly ounces of milk from a pump and starting to doubt their milk supply may get much more milk out with hand expression.
Mind your mental health
If you feel like your breastfeeding challenges are severely impacting your mental health, seek professional help immediately. Call the Postpartum Support International (PSI) helpline at 800-944-4773 then #2 for English or #1 for Spanish. Or text “Help” to 800-944-4773. Learn more about PSI.
Infant formula can be a bridge
There’s a dangerous narrative that using formula means the end of breastfeeding. That’s not necessarily true. Combo feeding is still part of the breastfeeding experience and formula can be used as a temporary bridge to return to exclusive breastfeeding. Ask a lactation consultant how. You can also feed your baby breastmilk from a cup or with a feeding syringe.
If breastfeeding ends before you planned, it’s ok to grieve
Breastfeeding is a relationship and a bonding experience with your baby, not just a feeding experience. And while you can certainly replace the food with infant formula, you may still feel a loss. Just like the end of any relationship, you may need time to process your grief and transition. Feelings of anger, shame, and frustration can linger even while people are telling you that the baby will be just fine with formula. This is absolutely true, but has nothing to do with your emotions. If you are experiencing breastfeeding grief or trauma, please check out the book: Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter by Amy Brown.
Read more by Kimberly Allers: Understanding racial disparities in breastfeeding rates.
Kimberly Seals is an award-winning journalist, five-time author and internationally recognized strategist for maternal and infant health. She is the founder of Irth, the first of its kind, Yelp-like app for Black and brown women and birthing people to find and leave reviews of maternity doctors and birthing hospitals. She is also host of Birthright, a podcast about joy and healing in Black birth. Kimberly’s fifth book, The Big LetDown—How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding was released by St. Martin’s Press in 2017. Learn more at www.KimberlySealsAllers.com and www.IrthApp.com.