What breastfeeding support isn’t

Support. We keep hearing how important it is. Research – and logic – would tell us that most women physically can breastfeed. A lot of the women I’ve met want (or wanted) to. Yet for so many, the story just does not play out that way. Support. It seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle. But what does it even mean?

I finished training to be a breastfeeding peer supporter a couple of months ago and have been volunteering at my local breastfeeding group. My own breastfeeding experience over the past year, my short time spent supporting and other women’s stories have hugely impacted my understanding of what breastfeeding support means and why it’s so valuable to protecting breastfeeding relationships. (See why I think support is so important in Six ways to prepare for breastfeeding)

It’s also given me a pretty clear idea of what it isn’t.

Breastfeeding support isn’t aggressive
Get enough parents in a room and you’re likely to hear at least one story about feeling “bullied into breastfeeding”. It will usually involve the Breast is Best tagline. I cringe whenever I hear that phrase. It may have worked once upon a time but we no longer need to hear a message which idealises breastfeeding (if breast is special then maybe it’s only for some – the rest of us have to make do with formula).

What’s worse, ask the questions “Did you feel listened to? Did you feel empowered with information to make your decision?” and the answer is usually “No.” We have to wonder who benefits from this kind of approach – slating parents if they don’t keep going but then not actually helping them find the solutions to do so.

Breastfeeding support isn’t passive
All of the approaches I’m mentioning in this post are usually well-meaning but this one is probably the most obviously so. Passive breastfeeding support sounds like this: “We’ll get you breastfeeding. Don’t worry”, “Just keep going. It will click”, “Let’s just wait and see what happens”. They sound comforting and pro-breastfeeding.

The problems? They’re often not followed up with suggestions for a plan of action. They’re effectively conversation stoppers. They don’t take into consideration that breastfeeding problems are often time sensitive. Milk supply in the early days and weeks needs to be established or production can be compromised. When mothers are feeling vulnerable, a couple of weeks may be too long to live with uncertainty or physical pain. Read a nail-on-head criticism of the “just try harder” approach in Analytical Armadillo’s The consequences of passive breastfeeding support.

Breastfeeding support isn’t defeatist
If the person supporting you doesn’t believe that breastfeeding usually can work, what you’re receiving is not support. If they make assumptions about you and decide that it’s not worth helping you find the tools to work through any problems you’re having then that’s disempowering. It’s not support. I can only assume that people who offer this kind of support don’t believe there’s a real difference between formula and breastmilk.

There is sometimes a place for formula supplements but why jump to it as a first solution. If a baby is slow to gain weight then shouldn’t the first move to offer more of the mother’s milk and try to work out why they’re not getting enough? If a mother has repeated mastitis shouldn’t there be an answer as to why? Maybe there’s a reason her baby’s not draining her breasts sufficiently? And no, her breasts aren’t “telling her something”. That’s not based on science as far as I can see.

If she decides she’s going to move on, it needs to be fully her decision. She deserves to have all the information so she can make it, instead of having someone else decide for her which option will be the most achievable.

Breastfeeding support isn’t about making claims you can’t back up
I think the reason why “support” can fail mothers in the above ways is that often the people offering it are just not informed enough about breastfeeding. But if you don’t know something, say so! Maybe you don’t have the necessary training. That’s OK. Either agree to do the research or refer the mother to someone who’s done it. What’s not OK is to pass off personal opinions, experiences and parenting ideas as medical advice. This goes for health care practitioners as well as people operating in the breastfeeding support community.

Make sure you know who you’re talking to. What work has your HV, midwife or GP done in this area? What are they basing that suggestion on? Is the person you’re speaking to a peer supporter, a breastfeeding counselor or an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant? Are they simply offering information or are they making a diagnosis that they’re not qualified to give?

Breastfeeding support isn’t just for mothers of newborns
It’s great that people get in there early seeking support but just as breastfeeding isn’t just for newborns, neither is breastfeeding support. You might hit a wall when your baby is six months, nine months or even a toddler!

Nursing strikes, too much solid food too soon, distraction, teething – there are lots of things that can happen to make it seem a baby has decided to wean but it may be before they’re ready. It’s just important to know that you have options. If the person you’re speaking to doesn’t think your concerns deserve to be addressed because of your baby’s age, that’s not support.

Despite the best of intentions, poor breastfeeding support can be damaging. Fight until you get what you need. Get your partner, mother or friend on side and get them to fight for you if you’re too tired. You shouldn’t have to settle for less.

So tell me, who is your biggest breastfeeding supporter?

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  • Bother – wrote a long comment which got eaten

    I’d like to talk about your first point – in my breastfeeding support work and talking to mothers who both breastfeed and bottle feed I’ve heard about the ‘breastfeeding police’ and their judging but when I’ve drilled down on it the responses have been about perceived behaviour rather than anyone making specific comments (and I want to know so I can complain about these people if they are doing that) and I do think in some cases the perception of judgement is more about understandable hurt and anger at being let down by inadquately availble support and less about people making judgemental comments or actions

    Emma Pickett has written an interesting post about the issue http://www.emmapickettbreastfeedingsupport.com/1/post/2011/12/i-dont-think-im-a-nazi.html

  • I liked that our NCT breastfeeding counsellor said “if it’s not working, ask for help. We’ll get you help. If the first person can’t help, we’ll find someone else. If they can’t help we’ll find someone else until it’s working for you.” In a few weeks’ time, we’ll see how much help we actually need, gulp!
    Gail recently posted..Buying maternity bras

    • Wow, that’s brilliant of her! A lot of people stop because they don’t know they can ask for help.

  • I totally agree with this. The thing that annoys me the most is that they use the “It’ll help you lose weight quicker” angle to sell breastfeeding. That is not true for everyone – some people find it very hard to lose a reasonable amount of weight until they stop breastfeeding, so that line is counter-productive.

    Health visitors are the worst offenders of all. I got sick of being told to supplement with formula by them cos my child was not following “their line”. So much so, I rarely took my daughter to be weighed and instead weighed her at home for the first year.
    Kate recently posted..Tidying

    • Yes, that’s such a strange line to use! Regardless of what we do our bodies are different after pregnancy and birth and that’s fine! In fact it’s a good thing! I’ve had mixed experiences with HVs but I’ve heard quite a few people describe experiences like yours. One told me that even if I had to supplement I could still breastfeed which I thought was great because people often feel pressured to do one or the other.

  • My mum is my biggest supporter for me I found it helpful to get the support from someone who had been there already and had good advice and encouraging words to offer.

  • Both my best friend and my health visitor have been fantastic. My mother was a huge advocate of breastfeeding and I know she would be proud of me if she was here today

  • My husband has been my biggest supporter, though the support has changed over the months from bringing be drinks and snacks as little one nursed round the clock to fielding the “You’re still breasfeeding? Really?” for me :o)
    I had a lot of unsupportive support in the early days from generally well meaning but misguided relatives wanting to take little one so I could “get some rest and have a break from all that feeding” I was doing. Sigh…….

    • Well done your husband! Mine has been known to tell say: “Well the World Health Organisation says 2 years and beyond.” That’s such a common early days mistake that relatives make!

  • my boyfriend and the wonderful lactation consultant i met when my son was 4 months old are my biggest supporters. When everyone was telling me to ‘just give him a bottle’ my boyfriend helped me remember why breastfeeding is so importat to me. The lactation consultant helped me realise that my sons feeding and sleeping patterns are entierely normal. She has given me the confidence to carry on.

  • What an excellent and inspiring post. I’ve been debating training as a peer supporter and was wondering if it had any real value or worth. Your blog has made my mind up- thank you!!!! Xx

  • I didnt have any local support but my husband is truely amazing! He is always there and knows just what to say and gives me help in what ever way he can. My mum is also just a phone call away with great advice 🙂

  • My husband has been my biggest supporter. He’s encouraging and passively supportive but he also encourages me to find the answers I need. He accepts my decisions and supports them to anyone who argues. Even his own parents! The Internet is my other biggest supporter. I find so much tips, facts, hints, stats, advise, encouragement, experiences all here online! Weeding out the bad advise was tough at first but now I know where to find the info I need

    • It’s a good guy who stands up to his parents for his wife. The internet has been so valuable for me too.

  • I really appreciated you adding “toddler” to list of people who still need breastfeeding support. I’m still nursing at 19 months and it’s interesting and sad how fast ANY kind of support disappears after the child turns one year. In fact, how openly hostile and UNsupportive people get

  • My mother and sisters along with my partner. Everyone nurses in my family so I had lots of help and advice.

  • Yay!!! What a great post, thank you so much for approaching this topic! I totally underestimated just how difficult the road to breastfeeding could be, and I took a prenatal course on bf-ing, had the number of a IBCLC on hand, and a supportive partner! We got there in the end, and are still happily bf-ing at 21mo, but had I not been so determined, it probably wouldn’t have happened. With hindsight, I realize that I missed key information and support from folks who really knew their stuff, when I thought I had all my bases covered. So much work to be done, to help all mamas, but what a worthwhile pursuit!

    • Thanks Mari! It’s hard to know what you need when it’s all new! You got yourself a lot of support though and that’s brilliant.

  • I am so lucky to have a great local LLL, it’s nice knowing that I have a group of women to turn to if I need any advice or help.
    Emma recently posted..Perfect

  • My husband and elder son have been great. They pass drinks and snacks and my elder son “kept guard” when i fed my baby at the reservoir!

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