Can we stop telling mothers that breastfeeding is “Natural”?

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It’s a phrase we hear often as we move through pregnancy and parenthood.
It’s a phrase I hate. When I hear it I just want to rage. It’s not fair to tell moms this. To promise them this glowy ideal picture of breastfeeding, and then when they’re handed a different scenario, make them feel as though somewhere, somehow, they went wrong.

Mothers of the world. It’s not. It’s not natural. It’s work. I want you to expect the work, I want you to expect the effort that’s undertaken. I want you to expect the sweat, the tears, and the struggle that comes along with those glowing beautiful moments of success and joy. I want you to have a realistic idea of breastfeeding, a complete picture of the highs and lows, and I want you to know that you are equal to the work. And most of all, I want you to know that even though it’s hard, it’s worth it.

This idea of a baby that just gently slips into the world and onto the breast is beautiful. This beautiful baby latches perfectly, every time, feeds until full, and then drifts off to sleep with fluttering lashes, like an angel and sleeps cozily for hours. This idea is like this glowing trophy of motherhood, that we promise to mothers only to snatch back when reality sets in after birth. The baby that gently latches to a mother dressed all in white, glowing and well-rested, with a gentle hallelujah playing in the background. Does that really happen? Sometimes.

Does it happen often? No. Is it the norm? No. It’s the shiny unicorn of the postpartum experience. And at this point in postpartum, no one is a virgin, and my friends, that unicorn won’t be lured.

Do those unicorn babies exist? Well sure. I’ve seen them, but rarely. In my line of work as a Breastfeeding Educator, doing postpartum breastfeeding support with mothers that are struggling to feed, I don’t see it very often. But then again, I’m usually called in where there is difficulty, or uncertainty, where moms are trying to figure things out and need some emotional support and hands on help.

Then we have the opposite of the unicorn breastfeeding experience. For some mothers (and I fit into this crowd) our every day is in the trenches. We move into this war zone of breastfeeding, moving forward on pure survival instinct. We slowly gain ground, army-crawling inch by inch, fighting hard for every bit of forward momentum, all while the sound of distant explosions plays in the background. Hey, is that a drone? No, it’s your pump slowly buzzing out the same two syllables over and over. I used to think it was saying my name as I slumped over the flanges at 2 AM, trying desperately to make enough milk for my baby who just refused to breastfeed.

How do we survive these war-like scenarios? We gather our team, so when we think we can’t move forward another inch, we can look back and there they are, encouraging and supporting us to keep going, keep moving. Sometimes they’re there to cradle us and hold us when we just can’t do it any more. We need a team. We need partners. We need support people. We deserve people behind us. No one can go through war alone.

Most mothers are somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios. Somewhere between the trenches and the hallelujah chorus, there is the majority of women learning to breastfeed. They’re the mothers sitting zombie-eyed at 3 AM, topless and mildly sticky, hair piled in a heap on top of their heads, nursing a tiny human and wondering what’s in the fridge while simultaneously longing for sleep. In the background plays the Paw Patrol theme song, the same two lines, over and over again, because that’s how you entertained your toddler through today’s marathon feeding sessions and now the song has become an annoying earworm that won’t vacate your head. Or maybe it’s the theme song from Friends. You watched it all day. Netflix kept asking “Are you still watching?” and you looked down at your beautiful little baby and thought “That depends, are you still feeding?”

When we have our first babies, nothing prepares us for the sheer amount of time that it takes to figure out how to get things working; the feeding sessions, the days where baby cluster feeds, the worries over weight gain and diapers. And always, the bursts of love and frustration that wash over us as we move two steps forward, one step back, always gaining ground, but having trouble seeing this future where baby will just go to the breast and latch, the worry will be gone, and everything will feel easier.
But it does happen. For most women, it will happen. With the right support and the right information, that day comes.

So let’s have some real talk. For 95% of mothers out there today, breastfeeding isn’t natural. It doesn’t look the way we imagined it would. We have somewhat sore nipples. We have a baby that latches well sometimes and other times it’s like fighting a tiny angry octopus. We question our milk supply. We wonder if we are making mistakes. We move through an endless line of doctors, nurses and helpers, all telling us different things. We work hard to feed our babies.

For the majority of us, that labour of love and tears comes nowhere near that vision of “natural”. So can we lose that phrase altogether? Let’s drop it. No more “breastfeeding is natural.” It isn’t, in most ways. You have breasts, most of the time. Your baby has a mouth and a set of reflexes to help it figure out breastfeeding, most of the time. Your body makes milk, most of the time. Those are the “natural” parts.
The rest is hard work.

So instead of “breastfeeding is natural”, let’s tell each other “Breastfeeding is hard work, and you can do it. Be prepared, be educated, gather your supports, make a team, and hang in there.”
That’s the truth.

So is there hope? Yes!
It’s okay for it to be hard work. It’s okay to feel frustrated. It’s okay to not be okay.
It’s just not okay to do this alone. You deserve support. Call in some help. You’re worth it.

Call me, call a Lactation Consultant, call your local La Leche League. You’re not the only one. This is tough work. And that’s okay. Build your supports.

And remember, whoever told you “It’s natural!” didn’t tell you the whole truth. At this very moment, there are women all over the world feeling just like you. Bleary-eyed, tired, stuck in this particular time and having trouble seeing the future where things will be easier. And just like you, every one of those women needs to not feel alone in this.

So if you’re feeling like you can’t do this any more, start by recognizing the simple truths that you are not alone, and that you don’t have to do this all alone. Call in some help. Let’s find some perspective. Let’s get you set up with the right resources. Let us give you the right information. We will pull you out of the Google wormhole. Let us listen to your worries and reassure you. We will put you on the right path, give you the right help, ensure you have the best support. And we will be there right behind you the whole way. It makes all the difference in the world. It’s hard work, but we can help you through it.

Dear tired breastfeeding mother, I have been you. I have walked in those house slippers, pacing room to room trying to console an inconsolable baby. I have dealt with colic and blisters, weight gain challenges and pumping, NICU and nurses, tongue ties and information overload, no sleep and too sleepy babies.

Above all, I want you to know:
I hear you.
It’s hard.
It’s worth it.
Hang in there.
You’ve got this.

If you need support, please reach out.