Most first-time moms, including me, expect breastfeeding will be natural and easy, yet so often it feels painful, unnatural, and completely overwhelming. Breastfeeding and pumping are hard, and almost every woman I’ve interviewed for The Pivot blog has struggled in some way along her feeding journey. Given the nearly universal struggle with breastfeeding, I think we can and must better serve future moms by being more transparent about the challenges that can come with breastfeeding and pumping. Afterall, a negative early feeding experience can significantly impact a mom’s postpartum journey and impede bonding with her baby. We must move away from our societal focus on “breast is best,” which creates unrealistic expectations and underlying pressure that often makes moms feel they have no other good option other than to exclusively breastfeed and/or pump.
I’ve heard heartbreaking stories from moms about the pressure of these expectations, the daily struggles of feeding, and the shame that can result:
On how unnatural the process can feel: “I never expected it would be so hard. You think it's so natural that you just had a baby, and the feeding part will just happen too, but that’s not always the case.”
On the stress and shame triggered by breastfeeding expectations: “I remember being on the phone with our lactation consultant and crying because I just couldn’t get there. She allowed me to have the grace and the permission to stop since it was causing more stress – a fed baby is best, and I was able to ensure my daughter had breast milk through her entire critical time in the NICU, which was a big win.”
On feelings of failure: “There is such a stigma around formula and so many moms struggle with breastfeeding, yet beat themselves up about formula. They feel like a failure.”
I’ve experienced that same darkness as a first-time mom. The feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy are heavy and something needs to change.
How can we help future moms so they don’t have this same negative postpartum experience?
First, it starts with changing our dialogue around infant feeding as a society. Much as the national dialogue about miscarriage is changing and becoming more transparent, so too must we change the dialogue about breastfeeding, pumping, formula feeding, and everything in between so that future moms who choose to try breastfeeding can enter the experience with realistic expectations and an understanding of how varied the experience can be. This dialogue should encourage moms to seek the support they need rather than struggle alone. We must stress the importance of moms not neglecting their own needs in the process, so that they have feeding journeys that honor both their needs and the needs of the baby.
Second, we experienced mothers need to talk about our feeding journeys with the moms coming after us. We must share the highs and the lows, the tough decisions we made along the way, our triumphs and regrets, and how we got the support we needed. This is essential to equipping new moms with realistic expectations and empowering them to navigate the journey in a way that best serves their families as a whole.
And third, remind the lactating mothers in your life that they are doing great, no matter what. Encourage feeding arrangements that are realistic and achievable. Reassure them that however the baby gets fed, it will thrive. Help them get lactation or mental health support along the journey. Step up to fill other needs of the family and household while mom is focused on feeding.
Everyone has a role to play in changing the dialogue about the feeding journey. We can better serve future moms by being more transparent about the challenges that can come with breastfeeding and pumping, and holding space for them in whatever way we can. Let’s be honest about everything that goes into feeding a newborn so we can better prepare and support moms going forward, and end up with well-fed kids and happy moms.
So what about the moms??! => Stay tuned for Part II where we offer new moms a way of approaching the feeding journey from a place of openness and empowerment.