6 seemingly innocent things not to say to a breastfeeding mom

I’m going to have to filter out Aunt Ida because she’ll just suggest pumping again. (Image credit: Lip Kee via Flickr Creative Commons)

Two posts are cycling through my Facebook feed right now: 8 Things Not To Say To An Extended Breastfeeding Mom and 10 Things Not To Say To A Formula Feeding Mom. There are plenty of “X Things Not to Say to a Breastfeeding Mom” posts out there. Some common suggestions:

  1. Are you sure he’s getting enough?
  2. He’s just using you as a pacifier.
  3. Your baby is going to be too attached to you; how will anyone else bond with him?
  4. Your breasts are going to sag.

You get the idea. While I hear those things occasionally, I think that most people in my age group (i.e., people who are currently parents of young children) would view at least some of these things as rude. However, there’s another category of things you shouldn’t say to a breastfeeding mom, and these seem a lot more innocent on the surface.

Here’s the scenario: Mom expresses some sort of difficulty with breastfeeding, whether it’s physical or emotional or both, and expresses no desire to stop breastfeeding. Well-meaning friends chime in with what they see as support, and would be great support if it kept in mind that this mom wants to keep breastfeeding.

Here are a few of those seemingly innocent things. I do not have the amusing .gifs of those posts I linked to, but I will try to make up for that with practical tips. (Hint: They are mostly along the lines of, “I support you, how can I help” because you can’t go wrong with that.)

1. What is most important is that mom is healthy and happy. 

You’d be hard pressed to find someone to disagree with this statement. But if it’s accompanied by poor information about breastfeeding, it may undermine a breastfeeding relationship that might just need a little tweaking—or even just a little moral support—to bring mom back to that “healthy and happy” state. This sentiment pops up a lot when talking about medication, and there is plenty of misinformation about that even from medical providers. There are resources like the InfantRisk Center that everyone who interacts with parents (including other parents) should know about. The InfantRisk Center looks into the latest research about medication and other drug use during pregnancy and lactation, and anyone can call to receive the most up-to-date information about drug safety possible.

Instead, try saying, “It sounds like you’re struggling. How can I help?” or “What are your goals with breastfeeding? Let’s try to figure out ways to meet them AND keep you healthy and happy.”

2. I tried <list of everything tried to salvage a breastfeeding relationship> and ultimately could not breastfeed. My babies had formula and they turned out fine.

It’s important to share stories; whether about birth, breastfeeding, bottlefeeding, or parenting in general, they can lay a framework for how we feel about and what we expect from normal life events. That said, just as it might not be the most tactful to share your harrowing, difficult birth story when a woman expresses fear of giving birth, it might be prudent to avoid sharing a breastfeeding story full of pitfalls with a woman who is having trouble. Or, maybe share how you dealt with pitfalls and the outcome, but leave out that part about your babies turning out fine. I’m sure your babies are lovely, but try to give a mom hope that breastfeeding issues are surmountable before making them seem irrelevant. Why waste the time if feeding a baby formula will lead to a perfectly good outcome?

Instead, try talking about your breastfeeding story and what resources you used to try to solve your problems. Share names and phone numbers and give recommendations. Offer practical, hands-on support when possible. 

3. Formula isn’t the end of the world.

To some moms, it might feel like it, and her feelings count. For whatever reason she may have, if her desire is to provide breastmilk for her baby, support that desire.

Try saying, “Breastfeeding sounds very important to you. Let me know how I can help you.”

4. The lactation consultant at the hospital said I wasn’t making enough milk/my baby’s doctor said my baby had an allergy/my baby had reflux so she couldn’t breastfeed, etc.

Again, sharing stories is so important. But sometimes stories can give the impression that it only takes one expert to give a declaration for breastfeeding to be over. You can always, always get a second (or third) opinion. It is important to trust your care providers, but you do not need to trust them blindly.

Instead, try saying, “I wonder if a local La Leche League or lactation consultant has more information about that. Maybe they have ideas on how to help you.”

5. My baby had to (emphasis mine) have formula because she was jaundiced./I had to (emphasis mine) stop breastfeeding because of some medication.

“Had to” is such strong language. It says that there was no other option. There are, almost always, other options. There’s a wide variety of “best practice” protocols for dealing with things like jaundice or low blood sugar; each hospital, or even each doctor within a hospital, will treat things in a different way. It’s also the case that many doctors, pharmacists, and other professionals who deal with prescription medication do not have a good understanding of what is okay and what isn’t okay to take while breastfeeding. Many professionals prefer to be overcautious.

Instead, try saying, “I used formula in those circumstances, but [insert name of organization/individual] might know of ways to keep breastfeeding. Here’s the contact information.”

6. Everyone knows breast is best, but…

Diane Wiessinger wrote an essay called “Watch Your Language,” in which she says,

When we (and the artificial milk manufacturers) say that breastfeeding is the best possible way to feed babies because it provides their ideal food, perfectly balanced for optimal infant nutrition, the logical response is, “So what?” Our own experience tells us that optimal is not necessary. Normal is fine, and implied in this language is the absolute normalcy-and thus safety and adequacy-of artificial feeding. The truth is, breastfeeding is nothing more than normal.

I hear “breast is best” more as a weapon against breastfeeding than a weapon that protects it. Saying it is a way of acknowleding that you’ve heard all of the hype and studies and pleas from governmental organizations. You are not new to the rodeo and have heard the arguments, but… who cares? None of us ever really achieves our “best,” and we’ve got this “just fine” stuff over here that is a whole lot easier. Why bother?

Instead, try telling this mom that she’s doing a great job. Learn your way around websites like so when a friend says, “My baby is biting – ow!”, you can hop on over, type “biting” into the search box, and pick the most relevant result. Instead of offering “but”s, offer help. 

You don’t need to be a breastfeeding mom to learn ways to support breastfeeding moms. If we’re all in this together, and if we’re all supporting each other, it means that we might have to learn new things in order to offer the support that is best for each particular mother, rather than offering solutions that worked for our own selves or pushing forth a particular agenda.