Support for Non-breastfeeding Moms
The first week in August is known to many as World Breastfeeding Week. Historically, this week has centered on relieving the stigma breastfeeding women sometimes face by encouraging public breastfeeding events, like the Global Big Latch On. Lactation consultants, women’s and children’s nurses, pediatricians, and enthusiastic breastfeeding moms focus on Breastfeeding Week, especially, to provide the information and resources mothers need make the decision to breastfeed. I applaud them for their efforts.
This Breastfeeding Week, I would also like to salute the mothers who have tried breastfeeding and found it impossible for them. As good as it is for moms and babies, breastfeeding is exceptionally difficult for many. For some, it is simply impossible.
Many non-breastfeeding moms feel a sense of failure when they are unable to breastfeed. Breastfeeding was among their cherished expectations about being a mom. On top of that, they sometimes feel shamed by the breastfeeding community, if they bottle feed in public, for instance. These feelings can even contribute to postpartum depression for many moms.
In an effort to relieve feelings of inadequacy that sometimes emerge when a woman chooses not to continue to try breastfeeding, I would like to provide information that contributes to a mothers’ decision not to breastfeed. Many of the reasons moms choose to stop breastfeeding are completely outside of their control.
While some mothers have plenty of milk right from the start, others find that their milk supply takes a while to come in. Delayed milk supply can relate to hypothyroidism or diabetes. The more milk you feed, the more you get. So, supplementing or switching to formula feeding temporarily to meet their baby’s nutritional needs can make it even harder to produce.
Sometimes, the milk simply doesn’t come in at all, which may be due to insufficient glandular tissue (IGT). This is a somewhat rare and newly identified condition. As OB/GYNs we are working to understand IGT and help women who may be affected to set realistic expectations earlier in their pregnancy.
Other moms encounter mastitis, a painful condition sometimes brought on by a clogged milk duct or a bacterial infection. It causes swelling, warmth, a fever, and chills, often within the first few months of breastfeeding. When left untreated mastitis can progress to abscess and long-term complications. Mastitis can interfere with nursing and can disrupt the milk supply, which can lead moms to discontinue breastfeeding.
Infant tongue tie is a condition present at birth that restricts the range of motion of the baby’s tongue. It can interfere with breastfeeding, as the baby cannot stick out its tongue to the length necessary to make a latch. While the family decides whether to correct the problem surgically, mom and baby can lose the precious breastfeeding time needed to encourage milk production.
As an OB/GYN, I encourage moms to try breastfeeding. It does hold some clear benefits for moms and babies. When moms encounter difficulty, it makes sense to get help. Many challenges are short-term problems that can be corrected with the help of a lactation consultant. For those who face insurmountable difficulty, it is okay to stop. Not being able to breastfeed is not a personal or moral failing.
Mothering is a difficult task. When we are most honest with ourselves, we moms sometimes fall short of our expectations. This does not mean that we are unfit mothers. It means that we are human beings. Luckily, mothering is not about being perfect. It’s about doing our best. Sometimes that means turning to perfectly adequate alternatives for feeding our child. When we provide food, bathing, clothing, shelter, and, most importantly, plenty of love, in the best ways we can, our kids have absolutely everything they need.
Kimberley Sampson, MD, is an OB/GYN physician at SVMC OB/GYN. She is board certified in both OB/GYN and obesity medicine.