Why is breastfeeding so hard?

March 29, 2012 · 22 comments

breastfeeding mother

breastfeeding mother

This article (or a version of it) about the difficulties mothers face in reaching a goal of 6 months exclusive breastfeeding has been making the rounds. The most common reaction I’ve seen?


Yes, breastfeeding is hard.

It is a rare and fortunate woman in this day and age who quickly and easily picks up breastfeeding with her first child, and is able to continue exclusively for at least six months. There is a long list of reasons why, including:

  • Common birth practices that can make breastfeeding initiation difficult
  • An interruption of breastfeeding knowledge caused by generations of mostly formula-fed children
  • Lack of cultural support for new mothers and expectations that life should immediately return to normal (and for many, a very rapid return to work)
  • Societal pressure that says “breast is best” but a lack of resources and knowledge for how to make that happen

In this recent article, researchers suggested that in light of all the things that make breastfeeding difficult, the recommendations should be scaled back to something more realistic, so women don’t feel like they’ve failed.

This highlights so well the dilemma of modern motherhood.

There is the “best for society” role — that of public health and what makes the most sense for the human race, and there is “best for mother” role — which is supporting a mother in her choices and needs.

One only needs to spend a few minutes on one of my favorite blogs, Fearless Formula Feeder, to see how these collide with painful results.

We can talk about the benefits of breastfeeding until we’re blue in the face, but the fact is that many mothers will choose an alternative. It might be because formula is their preference, but there are many, many, many women out there who desperately wanted to breastfeed and for one reason or another aren’t able to.

As a breastfeeding advocate and La Leche League leader, this is a really, really delicate line to walk.

I work with new mothers who have difficulty breastfeeding, and if they’re talking to me, are doing everything they can to be successful at it — to either reach the government goal of six months exclusive breastfeeding or another goal they’ve set for themselves. Some moms have minor problems and need some reassurance, but others face larger obstacles — chronic mastitis, chronic thrush, underweight babies caused by undersupply of milk, or babies that constantly pull away from the breast and fight every single session.

How far do I push them to continue breastfeeding? Although almost every breastfeeding hurdle can be overcome, when it’s bad, jumping those hurdles is rarely easy. When is it time to give the mom a hug and reassure her that her baby will be just fine if she has to give them formula?

For me, it depends on the mother. The only way to know is to get to know them, and talk to them, and listen to their concerns. There is no blanket verdict when it comes to individuals — no magic formula that provides an easy answer.

And this is why breastfeeding is so hard.

We are all individuals. We all have different needs, different personalities, and different babies. There isn’t an all-encompassing government recommendation that will work for all of us, and there isn’t an all-encompassing solution that will make it all better, either.

If we want to help women breastfeed, we need to understand the two levels of advocacy — the macro level where it absolutely is best for society if the majority of mothers breastfeed exclusively for six months, and the individual level where we have no idea if that’s the case or not.

At the macro level, there is so much work to do — protecting the rights of mothers who want to breastfeed or pump at work, providing longer maternity leaves, and enacting policies in hospitals that support breastfeeding initiation.

On the micro level, there is also so much work to do — recognizing that “best for baby” and “best for mother” are not mutually exclusive, understanding that a multitude of factors impact a mother’s breastfeeding success, and removing stigmas attached to both breastfeeding and formula feeding so new moms don’t feel the added performance pressure attached to one or the other.

The workings of the human body are mysterious and beautiful things. It would be wonderful if the government could say “this shall be so” and we could all turn on a magic switch to make it happen, but we’re not designed to work like that. Until we recognize the different levels of advocacy and how blanket statements affect real women, we’re going to fall short in providing mothers with the support they need to reach their own goals and breastfeeding goals set by health agencies.

Photo credit: dlisbona on Flickr

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