Why Don’t Breastfeeding Support Groups Support Quitting, Too?

It seems like the online breastfeeding community supports parents through it all: thrush, nursing strikes, mastitis — I even saw a local community band together to lend a woman a pump part at work. These online groups have tips and tricks, suggestions for latch positions to try, and constant words of encouragement. But what I never seemed to see was much discussion around wanting to quit. 

When I was pregnant and spoke about my plans to nurse, a seasoned mom friend let me in on a supposed secret: “breastfeeding is the hardest part.” Of course that’s not always true — but it certainly became true for me. I was a little intimidated when that friend pointed me to some breastfeeding groups to help me through. Who were all these harried mothers posting about exhaustion, back pain and chapped nipples? It all seemed a lot more labor-intensive than the dreamy mom-and-baby nursing sessions I had imagined. 

The support I found in these groups, however, was a necessity for me. The first two months of breastfeeding were the hardest of my life. I had no idea that the commitment would be painful, lonely, and all-day. I felt like I didn’t have a brain — that I was merely a set of mammary glands on a mission to nurse, hydrate, do laundry, repeat. And during those hourplus nursing sessions, with my free hand, I would inevitably scroll through those support groups constantlyIn my searches through threads of conversation between desperate, exhausted moms, I hoped to find solidarity in my desire to quit and start weaning. Instead, what I found was a pressure to soldier on no matter what.  

By no means am I arguing for the end of breastfeeding positivity. The truth is, we need to find that you-can-do-it support somewhere. But sometimes the echo chamber of all that community positivity would blind me to the less-than-friendly views the rest of society harbors toward nursing women. The online support system helps many moms combat the societal disdain for public breastfeeding, the guilt weighing on working moms who leave their desks for long stretches to pump, and the struggle to explain to parents of a different generation why they don’t want to throw in the towel and give the baby a bottle. 

Elyse O'Dwyer
Image: Courtesy of Elyse O’Dwyer.

It seems possible that the push to breastfeed has perhaps overcorrected in the face of all that negative sentiment. To be fair, it’s been a hard-fought, uphill battle; after all, it was only last year that it became legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states.

Still, what I keep wondering is: Where is the narrative that breastfeeding can be a difficult, personal journey and that quitting is OK? According to a recent study published by the Swedish Association of Midwives, 40% of new moms studied reported having issues with early breastfeeding. Women who choose to quit or who are unsuccessful are frequently overcome with guilt; one study from the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology shows those who quit breastfeeding are more prone to depression and in need of mental health checks. And because of the shame and disappointment these moms feel, I think it’s harder for them to reach out for support. 

The push to breastfeed against all odds is in stark contrast to the reality for a lot of mothers. Low-income mothers in particular often have lack of access to resources to help them breastfeed — and are often inflicted with feelings of guilt as a result. And while the benefits of breastfeeding over formula are well-documented, many women have to or choose to quit — and their babies are just fine. Why don’t we hear about them? 

There’s an endless supply of issues that make mothers feel inadequate, from working “too much” to working “too little” to not paying for the fanciest daycare to not throwing a Pinterest-perfect kid birthday party, etc. I hate to see new moms entering the journey of motherhood with a perceived black mark simply because they weaned early — meanwhile their babies are safe and fed.  

Is all that frantic support — in online breastfeeding groups and elsewhere among breastfeeding moms — and encouragement for dedicated breastfeeding putting a stigma on the moms who can’t, who don’t want to, or who quit before the six-month mark? Yes, support for the choice to breastfeed is absolutely necessary — but it is a choice. And so is quitting.

I would love to see that support swing both ways. Anytime I’ve encountered a woman who admits she planned to breastfeed but was unsuccessful, that admission feels like an apology — usually including a laundry list of explanations she feels compelled to give. 

Early on, I wanted to quit. I wanted a doctor to tell me my breast milk was as healthy as Mountain Dew and formula would be a better choice. I don’t know what made me press on — if it was the sometimes-overwhelming support, I suppose I should be grateful. I’m glad I stuck it out, and I wouldn’t trade those 15 months for anything. But they were my choice.

But sometimes, you just need advice that doesn’t come with emotion or insecurity — in which case I suggest new moms mix it up and look elsewhere, beyond the online support groups. Like all social media, even breastfeeding groups present a skewed version of reality. My advice? Look beyond Facebook and into real life. Talk to your doctor, talk to a trusted friend who’s been through it all, talk to a lactation consultant. That way, you’re getting a combination of advice from experts and veterans — all of whom are people you know, not just posts from strangers.  

And beyond that, the message I really want to put out there is this: If you’re being the best mom you can be, whatever your circumstances, you’re doing great. 

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