There’s no doubt that breastfeeding is all kinds of awesome. It’s associated with a lower risk of certain cancers for moms and decreased rates of infection and diseases like diabetes and leukemia for babies. Nursing burns a ton of calories, making it easier to shed postpartum pounds for some women, and it might even result in increased IQ scores.
These statistics are just that – statistics. And numbers can never tell the whole story. Numbers don’t show the pain – like shards of glass through your nipples – that some women feel when they breastfeed. Statistics don’t show the tears shed when a mother struggles with low-supply or latching problems. And data can’t measure the shame a mother is often overcome with if she chooses not to (or can’t) breastfeed.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies be exclusively breast fed for the first six months of life, followed by continued breast feeding “for one year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agrees, and has urged its members “to encourage and enable as many women as possible to breastfeed and to help them continue as long as possible.”
But these recommendations fail to address the individual needs of a mother, baby, and family. They don’t consider the emotional and physical challenges — not to mention the long-term scars that can remain if breastfeeding doesn’t work out for any number of reasons. They make no mention of the vitally important mother-baby bond that requires first and foremost a secure, stable, happy mom.
When my first son was born, I was admittedly less than enthusiastic about breastfeeding, but I gave it a try anyway. I drank the Kool-Aid, and believed that to be a good mother I needed to breastfeed my baby. So I did even though I hated every single minute of it. I mean, hated it. So much so that every time my son needed to be fed, I resented him and his little baby needs more and more.
Postpartum depression may have played a role in my breastfeeding woes, or maybe my breastfeeding problems exacerbated the PPD; it’s hard to know. Whatever the case, breastfeeding was not only not facilitating the mother-child bond, but was actually causing significant harm to it. So after six weeks, I stopped completely and stocked up on cartons of Enfamil.
I instantly felt relief combined with debilitating shame. What’s wrong with me? was the mantra that ran through my head a million times a day for years. Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I manage this thing that comes so naturally and enthusiastically for other women? And when I passed a local maternity store with a sign in the window that read “babies are born to be breastfeed,” I felt a thousand knifes in my heart. I had failed.
When I was pregnant with my second son, I knew I wouldn’t even try breastfeeding him. I needed to be proactive about my PPD risks, and knew that breastfeeding was a trigger. My husband agreed, and his support in that decision was a lifeline in what was otherwise a very shame-filled time.
I was nervous to bring it up to my doctors, but they were (thankfully) supportive from the start. They trusted my judgment, and reassured me.
As it turns out, the shame and embarrassment I felt surrounding my breastfeeding decisions aren’t all that uncommon. In fact, many women experience years of shame, regret, and sadness because of their inability or unwillingness to stick to the breastfeeding guidelines.
“As reproductive psychiatrists who specialize in treating women who suffer from depression and anxiety during pregnancy and the postpartum, we see far too many tearful new mothers for whom breastfeeding is a source of self-recrimination,” wrote Vivien K. Burt, Sonya Rasminsky and Robin Berman in The Washington Post.
The three women admitted that, as doctors, they knew the importance of a mother’s mental health and well-being, but as mothers, they too were susceptible to the righteous (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations. They blame the health care system for “collud[ing] to ignore the individual circumstances of mothers in order to promote a one-size fits all prescription: breast milk-only nutrition for infants.”
Breastfeeding is about more than nutrition, after all; it’s also about cuddling and feeling emotionally connected to the baby so that the child feels safe, comfortable, and connected to the surrounding world. This can be accomplished, the doctors say, in a number of ways. The guidelines are based on legitimate science, of course, but they also carry a threat (if you don’t breastfeed, your baby is at risk) and a stigma (if you don’t breastfeed, you’re not a good mother), both of which can be detrimental for many mothers.
“Just as new babies are vulnerable, so are their mothers,” the doctors wrote. “And a mother’s mental health is crucial — not just to her, but also to her baby. A depressed and anxious mother isn’t able to provide the nurturing that her baby needs to develop and grow.”
Instead of the one-size-fits-all approach to breastfeeding, the doctors recommend a different approach that emphasizes the health and wellbeing of both mother and child. “If breastfeeding works for you, great. If it doesn’t, don’t tie yourself in knots to make it happen.”
The bottom line is this: Motherhood is hard — really hard — and we need all the support we can get for the decisions we make, including where, where and how we choose to feed our babies, whether we’re nursing a toddler in the mall or pumping in the workplace or even giving our newborn baby a bottle filled with Enfamil right from the start.