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Who Cares If Celebrities Do It, Family Members Are The Ones Who Make Or Break Breastfeeding

According to some experts an individual woman’s thoughts about breastfeeding have less to do with the influence of doctors, celebrities and experts and much more to do with the what her immediate family has to say.

“Family members should not underestimate the influence that they have on a mother,” said Deborah Dee, an epidemiologist in the nutrition branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking to The Courier-Journal. “They can really make the difference for a mother … just being supportive of the mother when she says she wants to breastfeed.”

So even though everyone–from the best-selling baby gurus to your pediatrician to your the U.S. Surgeon General to Miranda Kerr–is telling you that breastfeeding is best, a few mean-spirited or alarming comments from a skeptical relative could put you off the idea all together.

I think there’s a ton of truth to this. We’ve all been clobbered over our heads with the health benefit arguments and still, the rates of breastfeeding haven’t taken off here. We have to start looking more closely to why women don’t breastfeed for long in America. I don’t think it’s truly because they think formula is the healthier alternative.

One thing I’ve seen happen over and over, is that family members of previous generations are not always up-to-date on how breastfeeding works or why it might be a good idea. Mothers who gave birth in the 70s may have been given injections to stop the milk from coming in. Or were told they couldn’t feed for dubious reasons we now know to have no real foundation. Others connect formula feeding with women’s lib, or at least women’s work, and see breastfeeding as a step back for their daughters.

These are complicated intergenerational politics. It’s all endlessly nuanced and fascinating to think about. ( I highly recommend At The Breast if you’d like to know more about how race and class affect breastfeeding rates in America.)

But the bottom line is that you might find you”re trying to get breastfeeding off to a good start and a relative chimes in, “You’re feeding again?” Or tell you that the only way a baby will learn to sleep is with a big bottle of formula at night. Or that the baby is too small and needs real calories from formula. All of these things can get to a new mom. I wonder if women don’t become such rabid “lactivists” as the result of having to fight so hard against their own families? It’s hard to fight against other mothers. Or at least it’s very fraught. And can easily lead to polarizing attitudes.

The fact is we want to listen to our own mothers. Mother-to-mother support is a part of who we are– it’s been around a lot longer than the expert-to-mother culture we live in now, that’s for sure. Dissing on your mom, when you’re just stepping into the role yourself, surely has some undermining effect. So it can be hard to ignore her well-meaning skepticism about your breastfeeding efforts. (Of course some moms of the 70s and 80s push breastfeeding hard, and that’s another story).

Another factor in all of this is that  the collective American childhood memory doesn’t include lots of human suckling. It’s still very strange in many communities. It takes a little work to get over that hurdle. And it’s not just work for mom. It’s work for her partner. Her best friend. Her parents. Her in-laws.

“Many barriers exist for mothers who want to breastfeed,” Benjamin, the U.S. Surgeon General said in a statement. “They shouldn’t have to go it alone. Whether you’re a clinician, a family member, a friend or an employer, you can play an important part in helping mothers who want to breastfeed.” But at the same time, “no mother should be made to feel guilty if she cannot or chooses not to breastfeed.”

How does your family talk to you about breastfeeding? Have you already been given conflicting information from friends, family and experts? How do you handle this?

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