10 Breastfeeding Myths Debunked
I have been helping women breastfeed their babies for six years, and have been nursing my own children for over eight years, but I am still floored when I hear some of the things women are told about breastfeeding—from their doctors, midwives, friends, grandmothers, Dr. Google, and even other lactation consultants. Still, we’ve come a long way since the 70s, when my mom was told I was too small to breastfeed, or that she should give me a bottle of rice cereal when I was four months to “help me sleep” (oh, wait, I think I heard that one last week!).
So here are some of the top pieces of “advice” mothers are given, debunked.
1. “Breastfeeding Is Supposed to Hurt at the Beginning.” You may have been told that your nipples just need to “toughen up.” Or your girlfriend may have told you her horror stories of how her nipples bled for three weeks, and then it miraculously got better. Most cases of nipple pain in the first few weeks will resolve eventually, but most mothers can’t get through weeks of pain to see it to the end. In the first few days, a gentle “tugging” feeling is normal as you and your baby sort things out, but pain that makes you wince, or that causes cracked or bleeding nipples is NOT normal, and you shouldn’t have to go through it. There are solutions out there. Get help! Call your local La Leche League or find a lactation consultant to troubleshoot.
2. “My Mom Didn’t Breastfed Me So I Can’t Breastfeed.” Yep, people actually believe this! Well, it kind of makes sense that they would. After all, the way babies (and breasts) are formed is passed on through DNA. But most cases of breastfeeding failure are because of lack of knowledge and support. So the most likely reason your mother couldn’t nurse you was because of the roadblocks that were in place from the moment your perfectly bundled self was placed in her arms. So have some empathy for her, shut out the naysayers, and believe in your body’s ability to make milk and nurse your own little bundle.
3. “All Women Can Breastfeed.” OK, now I’m going to completely contradict myself. The fact is that almost all women can produce enough milk for their babies. But there is a small percentage of women who cannot. Causes of this include hormonal imbalances, a history of breast surgery, or a newly discovered condition called Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT). Women with IGT never grew enough “milk-making tissue” to produce a full supply. But the good news is that many women who can’t produce a full supply do produce something, and it’s possible to supplement with donated breast milk or formula and still keep up a breastfeeding relationship. Really, anyone with nipples can breastfeed, whether or not her breasts produce a full supply of milk. You can even supplement with an at-breast supplementer (it’s a little tube taped to your breast where milk is delivered to your baby).
4. “All Babies Can Breastfeed.” Yep, almost all babies can breastfeed, but a minority of them do have problems latching on. Common causes include anatomy issues (the most prevalent being tongue tie), or medical issues that make it difficult for them. Others develop breast aversions for other reasons, including aggressive suctioning in the hospital, and nipple confusion (it doesn’t affect all babies, but it’s real). Many of these can be remedied with medical interventions (like a tongue tie release), alternative health treatments (like chiropractic work), TLC, and patience. But there are some moms I’ve helped whose babies never did latch, despite everyone’s best efforts. This is one of the more heartbreaking things I’ve encountered in my years helping moms breastfeed. Many of these moms become exclusive pumpers, and find other ways to bond and connect with their babies (tons of cuddles and holding!).
5. “You Can’t Drink Coffee or Alcohol.” There are almost no dietary restrictions on a breastfeeding mom. Say it out loud. Now say it again. Yeah, you probably don’t want to drink four coffees and five beers, and then nurse your baby (I’d like to see you hold your baby, let alone breastfeed, after that). But very little of the coffee and alcohol you consume gets into your milk. The rule is having the occasional alcoholic drink (or two) is completely fine. There is no need to pump and dump! Generally, if you are sober enough to care for your baby, then it is safe to nurse. Most breastfeeding mothers can drink a cup or more of coffee a day without noticing any effects in their baby. Some younger babies seem to be more wakeful when their mothers drink coffee, but that is unusual, and is usually outgrown. So drink a cup or two. New moms need coffee!
6. “You’ll Need to Pump and Dump If You Take Anything Stronger Than Tylenol.” Nope! Not at all. MOST medications (with some exceptions, of course) are safe for breastfeeding mothers. Generally, very little of the maternal dose passes into the milk. Even medications that are contraindicated usually have alternative safer choices. But let me let you in on a little secret: most doctors (the ones prescribing the medications) aren’t up to date on this fact, and don’t know where to look to get the information. So don’t accept the notion that you need to wean or “pump and dump” to take a medication. Get armed with information, and seek help from lactation-friendly professionals. You can look up most medications on a government research-based website called LactMed, or you can download an app for your phone from the Infant Risk Center called Mommy Meds. Both are excellent and reliable sources for medicine safety while breastfeeding.
7. “If I Nurse, My Husband Will Have Nothing to Do.” This one makes me laugh, and I do hear it all the time. I’d like to give your husband a handy list of things he can do besides feeding your baby. OK, here’s the list (it’s really short): EVERYTHING ELSE. Yep, that’s right. There are a billion things your husband can do to take care of the baby, and many of them involve bonding with the baby. Besides changing diapers, preparing meals, cleaning up, and doing laundry, babies like to be held (almost constantly!), and rocked and bounced. Your husband can be a regular baby whisperer if he chooses (mine was!).
8. “This Lactation Cookie Will Increase Your Milk Supply.” The internet abounds with different cookies, smoothies, herbal tinctures, and food lists for nursing mothers to increase their milk supply. Most of them are harmless, some of them do help, but many of them don’t do a thing (someone just wanted to make a buck). The single most important thing you can do to increase your supply is nurse or pump more frequently. It’s all about supply and demand with nursing, and if that is ignored, you can stuff your face with Oatmeal-Flax-Brewer’s Yeast-Fenugreek cookies for days and nothing will change.
9. “You Have to Love Breastfeeding.” At the beginning, breastfeeding is all about “I had this baby, and now I have to make sure I can take care of it.” Many mothers get so entrenched in the mechanics of breastfeeding that they don’t really like in the beginning—they’re just doing it and trying to survive the insanity of the first few weeks. Other mothers actually don’t like it, but stick to it because their minds or their hearts tell them to. Most mothers eventually learn to love it, especially when their milk-drunk baby begins to smile up at them. But you should know that it’s normal to love it, hate it, feel elated, feel conflicted—sometimes all in the same hour. If you truly hate breastfeeding even after the first few weeks, you may want to see a lactation consultant to make sure things are going smoothly with breastfeeding, or a counselor to see if perhaps you are dealing with some postpartum depression. And if you end up needing to stop breastfeeding for whatever reason, it’s OK. Every mom has to do what works for her.
10. “Breastfeeding Is All Or Nothing.” Any amount of milk you give your baby is awesome, whether it’s just a few days of colostrum, a few weeks of nursing, a few months, or a few years. And while supplementing with formula shouldn’t be taken lightly, and will definitely drive down a full milk supply, there are some women—whether because of biology, poor advice given at the beginning, a medical issue, or other outside circumstances—who do need to supplement. It is certainly possible to breastfeed AND supplement with pumped milk, donated milk, or formula. I’d definitely recommend you do so under the advice of a lactation consultant, but if you end up needing to supplement on a long-terms basis, give yourself a giant pat on a back, and a whole lot of grace. Just like motherhood in general, breastfeeding comes in all shapes and sizes. You are amazing however much or little you do it.
So there you have it. There are certainly other myths out there—too many to include, actually. Your mother instincts are very powerful here, especially when it comes to misinformation about breastfeeding. If something sounds fishy, it probably is. My favorite sources for reliable breastfeeding information on the internet are the La Leche League website and Kellymom.
The mommy-world is rife with judgments about breastfeeding vs. bottlefeeding mothers. Try to ignore that as much as you can. We’re all in this together, trying our best to nourish and nurture our kids. We all want what is best for our kids, and we are all trying to navigate the sea of information out there to find what works for our families.
A version of this post first appeared in Natural Child Magazine