“You should just give him formula when you go out,” my friend told me when I asked to use a spare room to nurse my son while dining at her house. In her opinion, I was putting myself through unnecessary trouble. Like many, she thought that instead of breastfeeding, I should take advantage of the convenience that formula has to offer today’s parents.
In the early 1900s, breastfeeding was considered an old-fashion practice or a custom of lower classes. But breastfeeding levels have significantly risen since the 1960s as various governments and health researchers have recognized the importance of encouraging mothers to breastfeed.
The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. For the remainder of the first year — and longer if possible — they should continue to be breastfed while receiving appropriate complementary foods. But even though the U.S. has one of the highest breastfeeding rates in the developed world, only 16 percent of American babies are exclusively breastfed to six months, and only a third of babies are still being breastfed when they turn one.
A whopping 77 percent of women now initiate breastfeeding in America, so many babies are now getting the benefits of colostrum, the special breast milk in the first few days after birth. But between two weeks and two months after birth, there is a sharp drop in the number of mothers who continue to breastfeed. While some moms go back to work, some can’t take the sore nipples, while others think that they aren’t making enough milk and turn to formula.
For moms with multiples, with serious health concerns, or babies with allergy-related issues, breastfeeding may not be feasible. Working moms may face too many challenges at work. But women who are able to breastfeed and want to breastfeed should be encouraged and supported in choosing to do so, because breastfeeding by no means is an easy task.
After the birth of my first child, I learned that breastfeeding, especially in the first few weeks, was far from glamorous. Sitting down and getting my newborn to latch while suffering from hemorrhoids and stitches was extremely uncomfortable. Having to get up several times at night to treat engorged breasts, in addition to nighttime feedings and diaper changes, was frustrating. When you add leaking breasts, chapped nipples, and continuously changing bra sizes to the equation, breastfeeding was far from the lovely bonding experience I had imagined it to be.
But for the most part, I was fortunate to have a very supportive circle when it came to breastfeeding my children. Many of my relatives and friends had breastfed and thus continually gave me sound advice and words of encouragement. My husband was understanding and helpful. Our outings were planned around our baby’s feeding times and to places where there were either nursing rooms, quiet corners or nearby parking spots, in case there was nowhere else to nurse. I was given good education on why I should breastfeed and how to breastfeed from our birth educator, my son’s pediatrician and the lactation consultants and nurses at our childbirth center.
In the early stages of breastfeeding, like many women, I worried I didn’t have enough milk. My son would nurse for just five minutes and then he’d be hungry again in an hour. I paid several visits to the lactation consultant’s office to address my concerns. They would weigh him before and after a feeding to show me that he had drank sufficiently. “He’s just a speedy drinker,” they explained. “And most breastfed babies tend to cluster feed in the evenings.”
The La Leche League website was my reading companion while I nursed, helping me overcome the issues I faced during the various stages of breastfeeding. Once I understood how breastfeeding is all about supply and demand, and that babies grow in spurts, I stopped worrying about my milk supply. Just as the experts had told me, the first six to eight weeks of breastfeeding were really tough. But after that, things got a lot better and breastfeeding became more like the pretty picture I had had in mind.
Making sure moms get the right information for breastfeeding is key to getting more moms to breastfeed. But if breastfeeding wasn’t difficult enough on its own, many women are often given inaccurate advice and inadequate support to successfully breastfeed. I remember how upset one of my friends was because her mother-in-law kept saying to her she didn’t have enough milk. So in the end she put her baby on formula. But while some women really don’t make enough milk, low milk supply is one of the biggest misconceptions about breastfeeding.
According to the WHO, “Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large.”
Similarly, one of my cousin’s told me that her aunt kept telling her to supplement her daughter’s feedings with formula because formula makes for healthier, or bigger, babies. But once formula is introduced into the mix, our bodies produce less and less breast milk. This is also the case with introducing other liquids and foods into the baby’s diet before six months. What is important to remember is that breastfed babies grow faster than formula-fed babies in the first two months of life, and then they slow down around four months.
Thus, the growth curve, which is usually based on formula-fed babies, makes breastfed babies look as if they are falling behind.
I remember a relative telling me, around nine months into breastfeeding my second child, that I should stop breastfeeding now to take care of my health.
But studies have shown that breastfeeding doesn’t negatively impact the mother’s health. In fact, breastfeeding offers many benefits to moms too, such as higher iron levels, reduced risk of type two diabetes, and lower chances of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers.
Education and conviction about breastfeeding is still lacking in our society. But if you are a breastfeeding mom, keep at it, no matter what others tell you. And if you have concerns, contact your child’s pediatrician, your lactation consultant or find a La Leche League group near you.
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