Today is the final day of World Breastfeeding Week, a week dedicated to protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding. As a pediatrician, I believe it is important to draw awareness to breastfeeding, support its role in society, and ensure no mother feels ostracized in one the most natural mother-child connections that we have.
I also believe during a week like this it’s important to remember the mothers who can’t breastfeed, have chosen not to due to various life circumstances, or who are trying to breastfeed but feel like they are failing at it and therefore, at motherhood.
For these moms, and moms everywhere, I want to debunk some popular myths about breastfeeding.
- You have to breastfeed to be a good mom.
Many new mothers who walk into my practice feel that unless they breastfeed on demand for months on end, they are not being good mothers. This isn’t true and I want to be sensitive to this. Moms have also told me that they feel pressure to breastfeed and that if they use a bottle, even with breast milk in it, or add a bit of formula, then they aren’t being good mothers. Again, this isn’t true.
A mother may need to supplement her breastmilk because she has three children who demand much of her time or because she must return to work early. I have seen mothers who feel guilty because they stopped breastfeeding because they had to take medications for a life-threatening illness. How ridiculous is it to think that getting breast milk trumps having a mother live longer?
So, while I advocate for new mothers to breastfeed and help them if they have difficulty, it is equally important to make sure mothers who choose not to exclusively breastfeed not be made to feel ashamed. A lot more than just breast milk goes into being a great mom.
- You have no choice when it comes to how you feed your child.
When mothers bring their newborns to me for checkups, we always talk about feeding, but before we talk about feeding, I ask mothers how they are doing. Are they getting any sleep? Are their husbands, family members or friends helping them? When do they have to go back to work?
I feel it is important to hear from mothers because often they are exhausted and feel they have no control over their lives. And—they are given far more “helpful instruction” from parents and friends than they are heard by those folks. So, we need to take time and really listen to how moms are doing.
When I listen to moms in my practice, I remind them they are still here. Their lives have not been completely overtaken by this baby. They still have agency over their lives and get to choose what is best for them because they are still humans with rights. Moms, you do have a choice and your gut knows what is best for you and for your child. Listen to it.
- Only breastfeeding moms truly connect with their children.
This myth reinforces to mothers something their instincts reject: that we, the Moms, are to be the sole source of everything to our children. Since we alone provide breast milk, then we should be the ones who are solely privy to bond with them, forget Dad and siblings. When you tell exhausted mothers that they are to be their child’s lifeline to the exclusion of other very important family members, like Dad or grandparents, they want to buckle. And I don’t think that’s fair to good mothers anywhere.
I think that breastfeeding is important, but since I also believe that it is important for a child to bond with her father and siblings, giving a bottle along with breastfeeding can be wonderful for the child. The truth is, every child needs more than just her mother. Breast milk is great, but it isn’t liquid gold. Feeding practices must fall into the larger scheme of parenting and to rob other family members of the opportunity to bond to children through feeding, isn’t fair to anyone in the family.
Mothers who breastfeed and those who don’t—you are doing an incredible job. Motherhood is hard and often thankless work. You are figuring it out one day at a time. Rather than focus on the type of mom, you think you should be, celebrate the type of mother you’ve already become.