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Hey, Doc: here’s why moms don’t breastfeed as long as you want us to

If there’s one piece of parenting scientists really seem to like studying, it’s breastfeeding. The latest study from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention shows that while more than 80 percent of new moms breastfeed their infants, less than one third of mothers keep it up for the recommended one year.

Of course, doctors and breastfeeding advocates alike would like to see those numbers improve. Studies show that breastfeeding has a myriad of health benefits, so it makes sense that doctors would push for it.

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This was true in my own experience: Every medical professional I saw in the hospital when my kid was born was thrilled to see me determined to put Baby to boob. But while new moms get plenty of “breast is best” talk, there are a lot of reasons that a new mom may stop nursing her baby sooner than is recommended. Until we as a society address those issues, we’ll continue to have doctors blustering about our lackluster breastfeeding rates.

Here then, is a totally incomplete list of reasons why nursing parents oftentimes stop nursing before the most ideal time.

1. Lack of much-needed breastfeeding support and information, especially in the beginning

I was one of the lucky ones. I was fortunate enough to give birth in a hospital that employed lactation consultants more or less around the clock. That meant that when I was first learning how to breastfeed (and oh boy, there is a learning curve!) I had help and support. Unfortunately, many others are not as lucky, and failure to get into a good routine or to identify problems early on can result in problems down the line — problems that can effectively end the breastfeeding relationship.

2. Lack of adequate time off work or lack of time off work period

The United States sucks for maternal leave policies, pure and simple. Building up a breastfeeding relationship (not to mention a milk supply) takes time, and that’s not time that you have if you have to go back to work right away. Many new moms are going back to work way before they’ve even healed from the ordeal of birth, let alone before they have time to get their nursing routine in full swing.

3. Difficulty with pumping, often caused by inadequate space and time for pumping

Breastfeeding parents who work outside the home need to pump in order to supply their children with enough milk and maintain their supply. But pumping is often an ordeal, and that ordeal can be worsened by the work environment. In a sense, we’ve come a long way in this area, and a federal law now requires that most employees be provided with private space and enough time to pump. But it can be difficult to enforce, and many nursing moms don’t know their rights. Even when it works, it’s difficult to get the job done when you know you’re going to get the stink-eye from all your co-workers afterward for taking a “break” they don’t think you “deserve.”

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4. Cultural pressure to conform to formula-feeding norms, even while breastfeeding

This is one of those things that’s difficult to measure, but I’ve found that many people seem to be much more familiar with formula-fed babies than breastfed babies. Even when they support breastfeeding in theory, they expect it to look a lot like formula feeding. I’ve been criticized for everything from not keeping my baby on a feeding schedule (necessary for formula feeding, often counterproductive for breastfeeding!) to not knowing how many ounces he consumes per feed (uh, he eats from my breasts). Even the most well-meaning friends and relatives can lay on the pressure, and if your goal is to make your baby act like a formula-fed infant, formula is the obvious choice.

5. Outright backlash against breastfeeding, especially in public and especially past the newborn stage

We’ve all heard those horror stories about mothers treated terribly for breastfeeding. While most doctors might be pro-breastfeeding, there is a definite anti-breastfeeding sentiment in our society. And that makes it difficult for us to feed our kids. Even people who are supposedly for breastfeeding can be guilty of this by promoting ridiculous ideas like “if he’s old enough to ask for it, he’s too old to nurse” and “women should always use nursing covers in public.”

6. Lack of partner and family support

My wife was amazingly supportive (and continues to be) and receptive to learning about breastfeeding. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most straight dudes probably don’t know a ton about nursing. I’ve heard stories of dads pressuring moms to switch to formula because it just seems simpler… to them. Other family members can also be guilty of this, and often by trying to help out, they can end up compromising the nursing relationship.

7. Physical, mental, and emotional health issues can make it more difficult to breastfeed

I shouldn’t have to say this, but some people have conditions that make it so nursing just isn’t an option. And some people have to be on medication that isn’t safe for nursing moms. In addition, a lack of understanding and knowledge can exacerbate these issues. For example, when my son was 4 weeks old, I had my gallbladder removed. When they were prescribing my medications, I had to repeatedly remind my doctors that I was a nursing mother, and they seem perturbed and confused by this information. If I hadn’t been so bossy, I probably would have ended up on something that wasn’t safe for my kid.

More: Yes, I needed to listen to my babies’ heartbeat every day of my pregnancy

8. Look, some people just don’t want to, OK?

I also shouldn’t have to say this, but breastfeeding needs to always be a consensual relationship, and no one should be required to breastfeed. Some people don’t want to breastfeed. Some people try it, and then hate it, so they stop. That’s really none of anyone else’s business.

As long as efforts to increase breastfeeding focus on convincing moms to breastfeed, rather than leaning on policy makers and changing the culture in order to make breastfeeding possible and realistic for mothers, we’re going to continue to see this pattern. Because sure, you can convince a mom to start, but if it’s impossible for her to keep going, no amount of “breast is best” talk can help.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

breastfeeding in public
Image: Photos by Lei

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