Breastfeeding 101: Why This Discussion Still Matters
In many ways, breastfeeding is a template for parenthood: by turns embarrassing, painful, blissful, and, inevitably, a unique ever-changing process. You will swing between having too much to give, and not enough, between taking pleasure in the giving, and feeling impatient, between yearning for this stage never to end and wishing it were over. –Carrie Snyder
I had the opportunity to visit Los Angeles over the weekend and facilitate a panel discussion about breastfeeding. The audience consisted of mothers of infants and toddlers as well as expectant mothers, who came for a “Mom’s Night Out” to hear from a panel of experts that included Elaine Stuart (childbirth educator and doula), Dr. Tanya Altmann (LA pediatrician), Corky Harvey (long-time lactation consultant and co-founder of The Pump Station & Nurtury), and Jamie Lynne Grumet (the mom at the center of last year’s controversial TIME magazine story about extended breastfeeding). After hearing some of the audience questions I was reminded once again why these discussions are so important, why lactation consultation is on the rise, and why there is a constant demand for breastfeeding classes and breastfeeding support groups: because breastfeeding is not always the easy relationship that most of us expect it to be, and mothers need this information.
So, instead of an historical post this time, I’m offering three thoughts about breastfeeding, in the hope that each of us will keep them in mind as we walk with the new mothers in our lives:
1. Support is key – from partners and family in particular, but also from friends, and, if we’re being idealistic – or realistic, – from society at large. This point is echoed again and again by doctors, lactation consultants, and everyday mothers. Partners and families are the new mother’s emotional support system and their encouragement (or lack thereof) can make or break the nursing relationship. Communities large and small now offer lactation support services at hospitals and clinics, through non-profit groups like La Leche League, and through parent groups at churches, libraries, and local stores. Don’t be afraid to reach out and offer the support that someone might need.
2. Every mother has a unique breastfeeding experience, which can change with each child. As part of the “Mom’s Night Out,” a number of Los Angeles-area mothers shared openly and honestly about their struggles with nursing. One mother used a nipple shield for two years to nurse her child. Others recounted tales of low milk production, or at the other extreme, of significant over-production. Still others shared about painful but necessary decisions to stop breastfeeding. Remember that our bodies do not always work as we expect them to and that breastfeeding does not always go as planned. Blame and guilt help nothing.
3. Breastfeeding is a legal right. Many states have now passed laws to protect a mother’s right to nurse in public, yet we still hear stories about nursing mothers being asked to leave restaurants, health clubs, airplanes, and other public spaces. Occasionally, the mothers in question are able to rouse community support and create a backlash – see the media and Facebook outcry after California mother Katie Hamilton was shamed for breastfeeding last year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but many times mothers slink away silently, embarrassed and ashamed at being told that feeding their baby is an obscene act. Breastfeedinglaw.com lists the limitations of the laws, state by state, many of which seem to get particularly bogged down in enforcement: “If a law has no enforcement provision, there is nothing you can do if the law is broken. The vast majority of public breastfeeding laws in the United States have no enforcement provision.” In other words, a law is on the books, but it may well be in name only. New mothers should not have to continually reinvent the wheel: we must continue to make sure that nursing mothers know their legal rights and that we as communities and organizations uphold these as well.
Come on, people. Help a mother out. We owe it to each other, to our children, and to our communities, to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
 Carrie Snyder, “When A Body Feeds A Body,” in Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding, ed. Rachel Epp Buller (Toronto: Demeter Press, 2013): 129.
** The featured image, Head of a Woman: Study for “The Happy Mother” (L’Heureuse mère) was provided free by Getty Images’ Open Content site – See more here.