Telling Mothers the Truth About Breastfeeding
(This was written in response to the recent New York Times article, which I don’t want to link to here. Google “overselling breastfeeding” if you haven’t read it and want to.)
I have listened to mothers weep over how difficult breastfeeding is, or how much they hate it, dread it, want it to end.
I have helped mothers get through to the other side of breastfeeding, which usually includes varying amounts of pleasure and love.
But I have also helped mothers make the decision to end breastfeeding.
I never gloss over their feelings of loss and regret: these are feelings they need to feel and work through.
I don’t think it’s helpful to tell a mother she shouldn’t feel these feelings, that she needs to move on, or that breastfeeding doesn’t matter anyway.
A mother’s breastfeeding experience lives in her bones. Most (but not all) mothers have a visceral and primal urge to breastfeed. When it doesn’t happen for whatever reason, it can feel earth-shattering.
This is not a feeling EVERY mother has, but when a mother has it, it shouldn’t be disregarded. Women need support to work through these feelings.
I also never downplay the benefits of breastfeeding. I never say breastfeeding isn’t important for babies and mothers. It is. Its short-term and long-term health benefits are confirmed by research (despite recent claims in the media). Every major health organization stands by this.
I will not lie to a mother and tell her breastfeeding doesn’t matter. Because it does, and she usually feels that it does, even though weaning may be the best decision for her and her family.
I believe I can relay this to a mother who stops breastfeeding without hurting her feelings or shaming her. How? By being a good listener, by showering her with love, and by honoring her feelings.
Here’s what else I tell a mother who chooses to wean:
There is more to mothering than the food that you feed your child.
Breastfeeding is just one of the many choices you will make as a mother, and it is the sum total of choices that contribute to the health and well-being of your children.
Breastfeeding is not the only way to bond with your baby.
You are a good mother. You are loved. You are doing your best. You are following your heart, and that is the best thing you can do for yourself and your child.
But I can do all that without diminishing the power of breastmilk, breastfeeding, and her feelings about it all.
Regret is a human emotion that is OK to feel. Disappointment is too.
I am sorry that some women have felt hurt by friends, lactation professionals, doctors, or others when they had to make the difficult decision to end breastfeeding, or when breastfeeding didn’t work out for whatever reason.
But we don’t need to skip over the facts about breastfeeding, or sugar-coat a woman’s feelings in order to be empathetic. Women are most empowered when they are given the whole truth, when they are armed with facts, when they are encouraged to feel the whole range of their feelings, and when they are allowed to speak their truth.