Why saying “Just Breastfeed!” is harmful to mothers

Pregnancy

“Why don’t you just breastfeed?” It’s a sentiment that mothers have heard for decades. And it’s only gotten louder in recent months as the formula crisis churns on. In addition to re-igniting unnecessary breastfeeding vs. formula debates, this conversation does nothing to help moms navigate the postpartum experience, a time when so many are already anxious about their ability to feed their babies

Breastfeeding is not always easy. In fact, according to the NIH, 92% of families struggle with breastfeeding within the first two weeks of coming home from the hospital. Many families do not have the time, the resources, the support, or the physical ability to breastfeed their babies. And for many of these mothers who are unable to breastfeed, the mental anguish and guilt that follows becomes an additional weight to bear. 

Related: AAP now recommends breastfeeding beyond age 2 due to benefits for both baby and mother

Saying “just breastfeed” furthers the misalignment between our expectations for breastfeeding and the realities of so many families’ experiences. While 85% of American families want to breastfeed their babies and initiate breastfeeding at birth, according to CDC, so many are not reaching their goals. In fact, Motherly’s 5th annual State of Motherhood survey found that of mothers who didn’t breastfeed or didn’t reach their breastfeeding goals with their most recent child, 38% cite that they were not physically able to breastfeed their child and 35% reported that they had to return to work and it was hard to pump, keep their supply up, etc. And according to the Surgeon General, misaligned expectations are the key reason families stop breastfeeding in the first two weeks of baby’s life. Breastfeeding success is often dependent on external factors, like social support and flexible work schedules, which is why statements such as “just breastfeed” can be a harmful and unfair oversimplification of a complex process.

Here’s are 5 reasons why saying “just breastfeed” isn’t helpful: 

1. For many parents, breastfeeding doesn’t come easy 

The parent who hears “just breastfeed” may have already struggled to breastfeed and is now combo feeding or providing formula exclusively. “Just breastfeed” dismisses the struggles a family might have already endured and perpetuates the myth that breastfeeding is easy for everyone.

2. Breastmilk is not the right choice for every family

When it comes to feeding babies, breast milk is considered the gold standard in terms of nutrition. Not only is breastfeeding an incredible bonding opportunity, it also delivers significant preventative health benefits for two people: mom and baby.  

That said, breastfeeding is not the right choice for every family. There may be medical reasons (a parent who is undergoing chemotherapy or needs to take medication for another condition, a child who requires a specialized formula or has a metabolic condition), emotional reasons (history of sexual abuse, lack of family or partner support) or logistical reasons (family doesn’t have access to education and evidence-based information, a job that makes breastfeeding or pumping difficult). And for some families, breastfeeding simply isn’t for them.

Related: Mothers don’t breastfeed for so many reasons—and it’s time to stop judging them

Feeding decisions are intensely personal, and reasons to use formula are both varied and valid. Whether a family is breastfeeding, formula feeding, or some combination of the two, they don’t owe anyone an explanation. 

3. Our work culture does not encourage breastfeeding success

The fact that the United States does not have universal paid parental leave makes it extra challenging to establish breastfeeding before returning to work. Once back at work, even though pump breaks are mandated and protected by federal law, at many jobs breastfeeding quickly becomes impossible to sustain. 

On average, working mothers pump two to three times per day, aiming to spend 15 to 30 minutes in workplace lactation rooms, if available. That’s nearly a full workday each week! Without policies like paid parental leave and support for pumping at work, it’s not possible for many working parents to dedicate the time to protect and sustain the breastfeeding relationship.

4. Breastfeeding isn’t free

Breastfeeding is only free if a mother’s time is worth nothing. Moms often spend close to 1,800 hours feeding or pumping in baby’s first year, nearly the same amount of hours in a full-time job. Not to mention, there are also physical and mental health costs from inadequate sleep, clogged ducts, cracked nipples and mastitis to the judgment received from strangers, worries over adequate nutrition for baby, and the loss of time and body autonomy.

Related: No, breastfeeding isn’t really free

Even when breastfeeding is going well, it requires supplies, from breast pumps to bottles, milk storage bags, nursing bras, nipple creams, and more. When it isn’t going well, it often requires working with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), a hospital grade pump rental, supplements, doctor’s visits, prescriptions and so much more. Even as the Affordable Care Act mandates that nearly all insurance plans provide breastfeeding support, counseling and equipment for the duration of breastfeeding, it falls dramatically short of its stated goal and many families are still paying out of pocket for this critical lactation care. Families with HMOs do not have access to IBCLCs under their insurance, and families with PPOs also struggle to access insurance-covered consults. 

5. So what should we do to help families? 

One of the most important things we can do is what we’re doing right now: talking about breastfeeding. By demystifying lactation, and the postpartum period as a whole, we can help parents make informed choices about how they care for themselves and their new babies. 

Lactation can entail a steep learning curve. Confidently and comfortably latching, understanding your baby’s hunger cues, taking care of yourself and a tiny human in the midst of major life and body changes, isa skill set that many of us simply can’t be taught in a 10-minute post-delivery visit in the hospital. That’s why, if you’re expecting your baby’s arrival in the coming months and planning to breastfeed, it’s a good idea to contact an IBCLC now. The postpartum period can be a vulnerable, challenging time, and you may be more comfortable inviting an IBCLC into your space once you have already established a meaningful connection and a prenatal lactation consultation can set families up for success.

Related: This is breastfeeding: Living your life in 3-hour increments

Every breastfeeding journey is different, but it shouldn’t feel solitary.  Every parent deserves a support system to weather the inevitable ups and downs of lactation. One of the most important factors in breastfeeding success is support, whether it be a partner, a co-parent, a devoted friend or family member, or a lactation consultant. This support can be as simple as fetching water or handling chores to diaper changes, providing bottles, and even practicing skin-to-skin while mom rests.

When it comes to parenthood, you deserve all the help you can get. And with an expert lactation consultant (IBCLC) on your care team, you’ll have the confidence to face any lactation challenge that comes your way.  

METHODOLOGY STATEMENT

Motherly designed and administered The State of Motherhood survey through Motherly’s subscribers list, social media and partner channels, resulting in more than 17,000 responses creating a clean, unweighted base of 10,001 responses. This report focuses on the Gen X cohort of 1197 respondents, Millennial cohort of 8,558 respondents, and a Gen Z cohort of 246 respondents. Edge Research weighted the data to reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the US female millennial cohort based on US Census data.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother’s journey is unique. By amplifying each mother’s experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you’re interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please email Collective@mother.ly.

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