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The first question you should ask a struggling breastfeeding mother

by KimL (follow)
Facebook: kimlockauthor Twitter: @KimRLock

Breastfeeding infant

We’ve all come across that thread online: the thread where a new mother asks for breastfeeding advice.

Invariably, responses to these queries by new mothers contain personal anecdotes, complicated suggestions and acronyms, and links to random articles that we don’t know if anyone actually clicks. But surprisingly, the question a struggling breastfeeding mother is rarely asked can be the most helpful:

Do you want to breastfeed?

That’s it. Not, ‘Have you tried pumping?’ or, ‘Have you tried a SNS?’ or, ‘Have you contacted an IBCLC?’ or, ‘Have you tried the Breast-o-matic-4000?’ or some other acronym or complicated lactation-device-based query.

Discussions with other parents can be an invaluable source of advice and support. Interacting with others who have been through, or who are going through, exactly what you are can make getting through another day with a new baby just that bit easier. But as is the way of discussion—particularly online—it can also be a source of immense frustration.

Culturally, it is often remarked that breastfeeding comes with a sense of obligation or ‘pressure’. A fear of giving advice lest being accused of ‘judgement’ or ‘pushing the breast is best agenda’ can often leave new mothers without any decent, practical advice. But a lot of this perceived pressure to breastfeed also comes from unhelpful ‘shoulds’. I should be breastfeeding. Breastfeeding should be easy. Breastfeeding should not hurt. My baby should not breastfeed more often than XYZ. But the only ‘should’ a new mother need take on board is that she should receive the support and care she desires and needs.

So when a woman reaches out for help, simply asking her if she wants to breastfeed puts her back in control—in control of her own body, and in control of the type of support and advice she can seek out and receive. In Australia, almost all new mothers initiate breastfeeding after birth. Yet by just four weeks old, over one quarter of babies are no longer exclusively breastfed. Most women cite stopping through the belief that they did not have enough milk for their child.

Asking, ‘Do you want to breastfeed?’ not only provides an instant filter for better advice, it allows the woman an opportunity to examine and clarify her own feelings. Do I want to breastfeed? Or not? Or do I not care either way? Why?

Having our breasts go from passive fashion accessories to dripping, aching globes with a purpose of their own can be an intensely emotional and confronting time. Moreover, learning to breastfeed in a culture where breastfeeding is mostly hidden away, and shrouded with myth and misconception, can be tricky. Allowing the woman a space to decide for herself whether or not she wants to breastfeed, and providing women with this opportunity for self-insight and exploration, can be just as valuable—if not more—than a string of ‘have-you-tried?’s.

Because if a woman says ‘yes’ to this question, then almost nothing can stop her baby having breastmilk. Almost all hurdles in the early days and weeks of breastfeeding can be overcome with the right information and support. Even a woman without breasts can source and provide human milk for her baby, if that is what she wants.

If she says ‘no’, then the support that follows can be tailored to her needs—how to avoid mastitis, what brands of formula worked for other parents. And if she says ‘I don’t know’, she can then be provided with a supportive space to unpack and work through her feelings.

Discussions of infant feeding can often be volatile, fraught with emotion and personal grief. But they needn’t be if people are asking the right questions—and listening with empathy to the answers.

Does she want to breastfeed? Well, that is up to her. But it’s the first question we need to be asking.
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