Breast is best, but it’s even better when the expectations are realistic

What would surprise you more: that I had no trouble starting breastfeeding with my first child or that once I went back to work, my diet, top of the line breast pump and numerous breastmilk “boosters” (aka fenugreek and the like) failed to keep my supply up?


Both are true. With Shelby the first time she woke up to feed, Jeff had just stepped out of the room to go down to the cafeteria and buy some breakfast and the nurse had left five minutes before and my stupid call button had fallen down on the floor. Being that I was recovering from a c-section and this wasn’t an emergency worth trying to put the baby down to get the call button, I decided, hey, I read some books, I’d seen it done, I’d give it a whirl. I was fully prepared for her to not open her mouth wide enough and have all these problems like falling asleep on the breast, but, no, she opened up wide, had a perfect latch and we were off to the races! I felt like the most blessed mother around.


When I had to go back to work after Shelby and Joey were born, my supply dropped drastically. I was still nursing at home, I was pumping every couple of hours during the day. I was making sure I was getting enough calories and taking the “boosters” and had a brand new top of the line pump and it just didn’t work for me. Or almost any of the other mothers I saw in the pumping room. One actually shelled out over $2000 for a brand new hospital-grade pump. She, like the rest of us, was sad at the loss of being able to nurse, but angry too. After all, she was promised that she would be able to nurse and pump and keep her supply up.


Breast milk is the miracle food for infants. It really is. But, I’m afraid I’ve heard it oversold one too many times to be completely on board with all the extra-special hype and the guilt trips that are freely doled out to moms who choose or have to use formula. Here are five of the half-truths I’ve heard. They aren’t completely lies, but they aren’t always necessarily true either:


1. If you work outside the home, you can pump and you will never have to use formula! I’ve always sort of addressed this, but this is not true for a lot of moms. There are some women who are totally successful, others who do a decent job but don’t produce quite enough and have to supplement, and those whose supplies completely dry up. I think it is devastating for a woman to believe this whole-heartedly and then fall into that last category. I think it’s more realistic to tell women that there is a chance that they will be able to keep their supply up, but they may need to supplement as well, and there is nothing wrong with that. Some women, like my mom, produced plenty to exclusively breastfeed for a year, but could never pump more than an ounce. Many women’s bodies just don’t react well to a pump and they should be honestly told that. You won’t know until you try, so keep an open mind!


2. If you choose to breastfeed, you won’t have a menstrual cycle until you stop! Not necessarily (also a reason not to substitute breastfeeding for NFP). My fertility was back up within 3 months after Shelby and Joey and eight weeks with Will. Unfortunately, for some women, like me, ovulation and menstrual periods themselves cause supplies to dwindle as well. This was most difficult with Will who I was home with for five months. To know I was truly “on demand” feeding him and my body could not keep up because I was ovulating or starting a cycle was very depressing. A good friend who breastfed her babies exclusively for the first eighteen months found out that around month six or seven she had a cycle again. While there certainly are women who will avoid a cycle while breastfeeding, just don’t count on it happening.


3. Breastfeeding will prevent your child from ever getting sick or having any type of allergies at all AND keep them from being obese! Immunity is a wonderful thing, but it can’t be guaranteed. Similarly, obesity is a life-long fight. Simply breastfeeding alone is not going to prevent that from happening. I actually saw literature in a pediatrician’s office that I was interviewing while pregnant with Shelby that made the claim that breastfeeding would solve childhood obesity. Perhaps the most disturbing part of that brochure: it was targeted toward low-income and under-educated families. Yes, used in conjunction with proper diet and exercise as a child grow, breastfeeding is a good foundation, but let’s not get carried away! Joey was diagnosed while he was being exclusively breast-fed with allergies under a year old. Turns out, there is a genetic link with men in Jeff’s family for childhood allergies. Breastfeeding is not going to solve all the health problems or protect us from all of them, so we shouldn’t try to sell it that way.


4. Breastfeeding is easy because it’s natural. Sure, once you get the hang of it, but not all babies are Shelby and are born knowing how to do it (okay, so Joey and Will were as well, I am undoubtedly blessed). There can be problems for moms and babies, especially early on. Clogged ducts, mastitis, poor latch and other issues could occur. And while most of us veterans can and do discreetly breastfeed, there is an art to it, and many new moms are discouraged because they are trying two unfamiliar things at once: 1) Breastfeeding and 2) Trying to use a blanket or cover-up or some way to not show the world “the goods” so to speak.  And to those moms, having one of those pre-mixed formula bottles you just slap a nipple on and go with or even mixing water and formula on the go seems easier at first. Especially if family and friends disagree with the breastfeeding decision or don’t understand it.


5. Breastfeeding doesn’t hurt, it’s natural! So is childbirth, but I know many a woman who’s needed pain medication to get through it or thought if it went on another hour they would have needed it. The first couple of weeks can be a little or a lot painful (depending on your tolerance). Sometimes, if there are persistent latching issues, it can be longer. I think it is extremely disingenuous to tell a new mother she is “doing it wrong” if there is pain (as I’ve been told many a Mother-Baby floor nurse and/or lactation consultant have told women).


While honesty may scare a few women unnecessarily, I know a lot of women who were turned off by breastfeeding completely after one experience because it was so contrary to what they were led to believe and become disillusioned with themselves and their ability to “mother.” A little bit of reality amongst all the praise is a good thing. And hopefully will help many more mothers persist who give up early on.