The New York Times published an article this week citing research that doctors and midwives are not doing enough to encourage breastfeeding for the health of a mother, not just her baby. Even though breastfeeding reduces the risk of a woman developing breast and ovarian cancer, Type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, only 16% of mothers were told by their health care providers that breastfeeding was good for them.
Why might providers be hesitant? Are they unaware of the research? Do they not have time? Or, might they be afraid that they are guilt tripping moms and will make them feel bad if breastfeeding “does not work”?
Eighteen years ago when MilkWorks opened our doors, the research was loud and clear. Human milk is a better food product for babies than a formula made from cow or soy milk. Every mammal makes milk designed specifically for her baby, and human milk is designed for human babies. Despite great developments in science and technology, an exact duplicate for human milk has not been invented. Over the past 18 years research has continued to explore the process of breastfeeding (not just the milk) and what it does for the creation of trust and socialization, and brain development, in a newborn.
Almost a generation after the US Surgeon General issued a Blueprint for Action on Breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding rates in our country have climbed from 10% to just over 20%.
In an ideal world, all moms would feed their babies their own milk from their breasts. Here in lies the problem. We all know, we do not live in an ideal world. And sometimes, in our quest to do so much good, we might end up doing bad instead.
Robyn Lee, a sociologist and academic scholar at the University of Alberta, and the author of The Ethics and Politics of Breastfeeding, proposes that while breastfeeding is seen as a good for the public, the reality is that we continue to put the burden of breastfeeding on the shoulders of an individual mom. There is a huge perception of pressure to breastfeed in our country. Each time we flood the media with another research article that tells a mother how wonderful breastfeeding is for her and her baby, might we actually run the risk of lowering breastfeeding rates?
How so? The theory is that we create so much individual pressure for a mother to breastfeed that she feels judged if she cannot make it work perfectly. And if it is not perfect, then she is a failure. This failure then forces a mom to come up with excuses, to talk about how horrible breastfeeding is, and to defend herself. If a mom comes to her health care provider for help, she may feel she cannot be honest. She may want support for breastfeeding, but she may also want permission to quit. And it is often very hard to tell the difference.
Remember, moms in our culture in the year 2018 do not grow up surrounded by breastfeeding. Their mothers may not have breastfed. They don’t see moms breastfeeding in public. And if they played with dolls from Target, they most likely came with a baby bottle.
MilkWorks gets many unsolicited thank you notes from mothers. The ones I hold dearest are from mothers who stopped breastfeeding before they thought they would. Their notes are passionate and heartfelt and convey the following message: Thank you so much for supporting me on a very difficult journey. I have stopped breastfeeding, but I know I would not have made it as long as I did without your loving support. Thank you for being there for me and accepting who I am as a mother.”
So how do we share information and help a mom make an informed consent decision about feeding her baby, and at the same time convey trust that we know she is doing her best? Information is important, but has the ship sailed when it comes to bombarding moms with one more research article?
One solution lies in putting more responsibility on our culture to create an environment that supports a mother. One solution is to make banked human milk available to all babies. The research is solid that donor human milk is the next best food product for a newborn human. But this requires dismantling a strong formula industry, and routing tax money to non-profit milk banks. Unfortunately, for profit corporations do not like their bottom lines to be messed with.
It also requires a universal paid maternity leave policy for our country. Which means support from our legislators and decision makers and leaders in Washington.
All of this change will not come overnight. But when I hear that providers don’t talk to moms enough about breastfeeding, I realize there is not one easy answer. Moms deserve to know the difference between food products and food delivery methods for their babies. They also deserve respect from all of us. No judgement. Every mother is doing her best. None of us are here to tell a mother what to do. Our job is to listen and help her problem solve in a manner that works for her. When moms can be sincere about their thoughts and feelings, we will have made a bit of progress on this long journey to keep our babies and moms as healthy as possible.
Please read this wonderful story about a Nebraska mom who spoke up to create a more supportive environment for mothers.