My infant son is nearly 3 months old and we are in a fairly comfortable groove of breastfeeding – mainly that he wants to eat most of the time and nothing calms him like nursing does. He is the second child I have nursed and the experiences could not be more different. The first time I worried about milk supply constantly and had trouble getting a good latch. This time he’s got more than enough to eat and I would mostly like him to give me a break once in a while (and please, please, please take a bottle without screaming bloody murder so I can go out alone, even for just a little bit). The nursing stuggles were really hard with my first child, but I was fortunate to have a background in nutrition and access to good supports; I credit my lack of challenges this time to the wealth of knowledge and skills learned from the public health nurses and breastfeeding group I attended.
In university, and in internship, the phrase “breast is best” was repeated endlessly during every pediatrics module, a mantra of sorts. I said it many times myself, to patients, peers, the public, and friends alike. I knew what it meant, but I didn’t really get it. I had never attempted nursing, I never worked in pediatrics, never mind infant nutrition, I’d never really even spent time around nursing mothers. But I had some strong opinions about how important it is to breastfeed a baby no matter what, and if you can’t nurse, then just pump so at least they get that magic milk…. And then I was trying it for myself.
The trouble with perspective is that you never truly have it when you need it, and once you finally do, you end up eating crow. Or at least I do. “Just keep nursing” sounds great until you are sleep deprived, your breasts are raw (maybe even infected), your baby isn’t gaining enough weight, and you feel helpless. “You should at least pump” seems logical until you try to juggle holding/rocking/bouncing a baby for hours on end, pumping sessions lasting far longer than feedings (and producing less milk), and trying to do ANYTHING for yourself in a day. With my first child, despite my strong opinions on the matter, I allowed myself to give up if nursing didn’t get any better after 6 weeks.
I made it through and am now happily nursing my son. But I do understand why so many parents, happily or not, choose to stop breastfeeding. My nutrition education completely neglected to discuss the physical learning aspects of feeding, something that could have helped me prepare for the experience. My educators and preceptors never talked about the pain (so much pain) that could happen, the amount of time needed (about 20 hours a day during the first little bit), the necessity of helping nursing mothers find a support network, and that it is NORMAL for it to take up to 8 weeks for nursing to go smoothly. I spent many weeks learning about dysphagia and managing feeding difficulties in older people, but for newborn infants, for the provision of this food that was supposed so precious to deny it was akin to neglect, I was effectively taught “put boob in baby’s mouth and voila! breastfeeding!”. If I felt so lost, I can only imagine how parents without a health education background must feel; I can see how so many parents, happily or not, choose not to continue breastfeeding.
I don’t mean to deride any of my instructors or my education program. If we truly want to promote breastfeeding, we have to educate both professionals and parents on what breastfeeding fully entails, and create a supportive culture to allow parents the time and space to feed babies in this way. The truth is that for many, while breastfeeding is natural, it does not come naturally.