Breastfeeding is not broken

Photo credit: Irina Patrascu via Flickr Creative Commons.

It feels, sometimes, like breastfeeding is an exercise in doom. Friends and family have their stories. The media is full of ’em, too. The stories go: Breastfeeding didn’t work out. Breastfeeding needed so many things in order to work out. You will meet problems at every turn, and if you don’t, you’re an anomaly.*

It’s even hard to teach about breastfeeding in a way that prepares parents without sending them running for the hills. On the one hand, I want to make sure that everyone knows that it’s often not so easy as to pop out a baby and have that bundle of joy latch onto the breast and everything is rosy and there are never problems. There will probably be something, because that is the nature of life. I don’t want to paint a picture that is aglow with sparkles of oxytocin and perfection, because there will be at least some shadow that comes with the light. Breastfeeding—no, having and raising children—is physically and mentally taxing. Sorry, but it’s going to be hard, at some point.

One thing I do believe very strongly is that breastfeeding is not broken. Human beings are not broken. There is not something that has happened or is happening to us to make our ability to breastfeed our babies disappear.

Breastfeeding does need a few basic things to work: milk synthesis and milk removal are two of them. That’s made easier with positive support inside and outside the hospital, in our communities and around our dinner tables, on social media and at the playground. It gets off to a much better start when the immediate postpartum period holds certain things that help protect and establish breastfeeding and that mitigate possible challenges or complications. Skin-to-skin contact is the most primal and low-tech activity possible, and does amazing things for babies, mothers, fathers, breastfeeding, and bonding, and I’m a believer that more of this right after birth can prevent a myriad of difficulties down the line.

Breastfeeding doesn’t need you to eat a well-balanced diet of a certain number of calories or fat grams, with more of X and less of Y. Breastfeeding doesn’t need you to guzzle water or teas or Gatorade or cow’s milk. It doesn’t need you to take supplements, whether it’s Omega-3s or fenugreek.** You don’t have to eat oatmeal daily and eat cookies (unless you want to). You don’t need to wipe probiotics on your breast so your baby ingests them; your breastmilk is already full of beneficial bacteria. Babies don’t need bodywork (chiropractic care or craniosacral therapy) as a regular intervention after birth before they’ll feed well. You don’t need to pump unless your baby isn’t removing milk sufficiently or you’re apart from your baby. You don’t need special pillows and you don’t need to avoid using your phone while your baby is at breast. Drink caffeine. Have a beer or glass of wine. You can keep living your life.

[Tweet “What is challenging about #breastfeeding in our modern lives is not that our bodies are ruined.”]To illustrate how small of a role food, drink, and herbs play in the role of breastfeeding (both “normal” breastfeeding and “complicated” breastfeeding), you need only to pick up a book like Breastfeeding and Human Lactation and see that there are a few pages out of almost 1,000 devoted to these topics. From the stories we hear and advice that is shared by those who are laypeople and professionals, you may think otherwise. Your takeaway may be that breastfeeding requires a bunch of stuff and a whole lot of deprivation to work.

What is challenging about breastfeeding in our modern lives is not that our bodies are ruined. Anyone can tell you that breastfeeding problems have always existed; it has not ever been perfect. Our challenges may be slightly different now in developed nations (recovering from C-sections versus puerperal fever), but our bodies are amazing, resilient, and adaptable, and our huge human brains are capable of figuring out how to fix problems, too.

Of course, there are caveats: Lactating parents and their babies can have food allergies or sensitivities. It’s possible to have a low milk supply that is helped with supplements, medicine, or extra pumping. It’s possible to simply not make enough milk (but this does not mean that any breastfeeding is impossible, either). Sometimes breastfeeding is a little more complicated. There are always exceptions to the rule, but, most often, breastfeeding works just fine if we give it a chance to, providing additional support when needed and protecting the space it needs to thrive.

*This is why I encourage the sharing of boring stories, because the drama can be overwhelming.

**The one supplement you or your baby might need is vitamin D, depending upon certain factors. Read more here. Vitamin K, usually administered as a shot after birth, is another supplement to consider; here’s a detailed post on the topic. These are examples of how our big human brains can improve upon things where nature has not yet caught up to us.