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The Real Reason Women Stop Breastfeeding

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In the baby prep class I took before I had my son, I watched videos of one happy, glowing breastfeeding mom after another – cradling, football-holding, latching, smiling lovingly. In real life it went a little different for me: holding a floppy, wriggling newborn, wincing, panicking that said newborn wasn’t actually eating anything. Nursing may be a natural process, but to me it felt grueling and, even months in, I was never really sure I was doing it right.

When my son was five days old, losing ounces and turning slightly yellow, I raced to a support group at the local breastfeeding center. I was vulnerable and tearful, feeling like I was failing my first mommy test. The lactation consultant touched me on the shoulder and told me she understood. She did something to adjust my son’s latch. In my emotional state, she was pretty much a nursing Jedi.

The coaching was nice, but the real game-changer was that when I left, I no longer felt crazy. What my son and I were going through was normal; it was part of the process. I started going to the group once a week and hearing moms with the same concerns I had. We got together outside class. I dropped in to the center any time I was puzzled.

I’ve gotten a lot of eye rolls from people about this; it sounds fussy and overindulgent to need a whole support team around you and your boobs. But I think quite the opposite – as humans we evolved in groups with lots of fellow moms and nursing veterans around showing us how it’s done. The modern mommy is way too isolated, and we need a way to create community where it might not otherwise exist.

We know from the CDC’s latest Breastfeeding Report Card, released this September, that three out of four moms in this country start to breastfeed, but by six months, more than half have stopped – 80 percent in some states.

To me, that says there’s a big interest in breastfeeding but not enough support for moms to continue. Unfriendly hospital practices, low milk supplies, short maternity leaves, misinformation about breastfed baby growth patterns – there are lots of potential reasons. But another one is that nursing has become too much of an individual practice, and there isn’t enough community and social support around new moms.

Michelle Obama has made reference to this recently in her statements about obesity, saying we need more breastfeeding support to help address the national epidemic. It’s true that lactation help in the hospital is available to most, but after you’re home, it can be pricey.

It sounds like only a small piece of the puzzle, but I think the effects ripple out. If the people around you don’t breastfeed and you can’t access community support, all the other nursing roadblocks out there just get higher.

To be clear, this isn’t an article about why moms should breastfeed. The argument over whether formula is a healthy choice for babies or breast-is-best is like an endless circle, and in my opinion it’s actually because both are right – they’re just talking about two different things.

For any given mom, can supplementing or switching to formula produce a happy, bouncing baby? Lots of moms out there know the answer is yes.

But does breastfeeding boost health across the population? The answer to that is also yes. Over huge samples of babies, immunity goes up and obesity goes down, for example. These numbers are less about your baby’s health and more about small differences that add up to significant ones over large numbers of people.

And again, the numbers suggest most moms want to breastfeed – supporting them and making it easier should be a priority.

On the positive side, there are movements to make life friendlier to the nursing mom. Many state laws require employers to provide private places for new moms to pump (although, as I reported recently for Strollerderby, it doesn’t always happen). The World Health Organization and UNICEF are promoting the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, which recognizes hospitals that take 10 steps to support breastfeeding practices. So far only four percent of U.S. hospitals have the Baby-Friendly designation, but it’s a growing trend. And according to the CDC, health departments now have 97 employees to support state-run breastfeeding programs.

Hospital support is critical, because we know the first few days a mom spends with her baby are key to establishing breastfeeding, but so is the time when the mom goes home. At that point, having or not having support can make the difference between continuing to breastfeed and stopping.

To get the CDC’s 6- and 12-month numbers to increase, I think it’s going to take more than just telling women the benefits of breast milk – most of us got that message a long time ago. It’s the access to support (and it being the customary, natural thing to look for) throughout the year that will really make the difference.

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