Unsupportive Support- other breastfeeders

It’s easy to assume that all other breastfeeding mothers (past and present) and advocates will offer the same, understanding support but sometimes the way they support is actually loading on guilt.  They don’t mean to, perhaps, but in the midst of offering encouragement it can be easy to develop some air of superiority and a “there’s one right way” attitude.  I have seen and heard incredibly educated women that advocate breastfeeding be astonishingly insensitive and judgmental.  That kind of “support” only serves to drive a wedge between those that need help and those that actually have the information and experience to give it.

 

How not to support and how to avoid being unintentionally unsupportive- part 5.

Unsupportive support is…

If she’s having difficulty, saying “It was easy for me, you must be doing something wrong.”

I had someone that was super supportive of me breastfeeding say this to me.  It stuck with me for 6 years, 3 babies.  Any time breastfeeding got challenging I would think I was a failure, what was wrong with me that I couldn’t breastfeed easily?  After all, SHE could and breastfeeding is supposed to be natural.  Eventually I learned that everyone is working with slightly different equipment: different breasts, different nipples, different education and information, different circumstances, different babies with different mouths, different tongues, and different personalities.  Which all ads up to equally valid different experiences.  It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the mom.  If anything, if you see a mom having a difficult time and breastfeeding was so easy for you, encourage her to seek out real help with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and be her support to keep seeking help until the difficulty is resolved.  You didn’t have a hard time, that’s great, but she is and hearing about how easy it was for you and how you can’t understand why it’s so difficult for her only implies that somehow she’s failing.  It can very well lead to her feeling that maybe she should just accept that failure and give up when really all she may have needed was some real help.  To help keep you from comparing her to you get comfortable with this thought: “Is my story helpful?  If not, shut up.”

Telling her “If you just decide that it’s going to work, it will- make up your mind.”

There is something to approaching a goal with resolve, I’ll give you that.  I hope moms go into breastfeeding feeling confident in their bodies and ready to fight for it if need be.  Statements like this don’t actually help build someone’s confidence though, instead they open the door to self doubt if they encounter problems that they just didn’t try hard enough.  Or they’re a bad mom if they feel like giving up.  And pointing out that someone must not have tried hard enough and couldn’t possibly be a part of the 2% that’s physically not able to breastfeed (someone is though!) is like telling them their challenges were all in their head or they were making up excuses.  If you truly want to build up her confidence, tell her you believe she can do it and you’re there if she ever needs anything, even if it’s just to talk at 2am.  Just please avoid loading a catapult with guilt for her, she can probably do that just fine on her own.  Tell yourself “If you decide to support someone, be nice about it- make up your mind.”

When a breastfeeding mom asks for help and receives responses like “why would you do that?  You shouldn’t do that you should do…”

Whether she’s wanting to wean her 6 week old baby off the breast or introduce solids at 4 months, answer her question, even if you don’t agree with what she’s wanting to do.  THEN provide the information that you find helpful in understanding why maybe making a different decision would be wise.  Words like poison, disgusting, gross when discussing supplementing with formula; or phrases that could dismiss the trouble she’s having like “if you’re doing it right it shouldn’t hurt,” can sound like voices screaming “FAILURE!”  Launching immediately into a lecture as to how she’s making the wrong choice and implying that she’s uneducated isn’t going to make her want to listen.  It will probably make her defensive and look for help elsewhere.  Like from a formula hotline.  It doesn’t matter if you agree with what she wants to do, answer the best that you can and respect her right to make the decisions for her family.  Never say “I would never do that” or “why would you do that?”  Chances are strong that once you do answer her question and then politely share why you made a different choice you’ll find a conversation unfolding that is open to new ideas.  Instead of coming off as a know-it-all going out for the mom of the year award, you’ll be a friend sharing your experience.  Repeat after me: “Just answer the question then share information.”

 

A popular sentiment in “lactivist” circles is “nobody can make you feel guilt, if you feel guilt it’s on your own and you must have a reason to.”  I hate that attitude because as much as I’d like to believe people’s judgment of me can just roll of my back, the truth is it does hurt.  I don’t let it get to me any more but that has taken time and experience and I know that when I’m my most vulnerable it’s easier said than done.  Often I feel activists use the “nobody can make you feel guilt” argument as an excuse to say whatever they want to say and permission to be jerks.  And I think they must not have ever met my mother.

How we share information matters.  Yes, sometimes people will feel guilt over what is really just information.  That guilt comes from their own filters and baggage.  But those sharing the information have a responsibility to watch their tone.  If they communicate judgment and superiority in the process then they are a part of the unsupportive support problem and contribute to the societal sabotage of breastfeeding women.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this post!

    With my first child I had so much trouble bf and the only support I got from my LLL was: “It should be working, worked for us” and “you could not possibly have a supply issue, only 5% of women have a supply issue.”

    In the end as you mentioned help from a IBCLC was key to finding a solution.

    SInce then I am very conscious of the help, comments and advice I share with other new moms.

    You hit the nail on the head. 🙂

  2. I made the mistake of not knowing what to say to a friend of mine whom I looked up to regarding breastfeeding as she had breastfed her first daughter exclusively for 1 year. When she told me that she started giving her newest daughter 1 bottle of formula per day because she felt like the baby wasn’t satisfied at the breast ever, I spit out, “You’ll loose your supply, why are you doing that?” I regretted saying that immediately. Later at a breastfeeding support group meeting I suggested we attended together, the IBCLC told her that “supplementing 1 bottle per day is absolutely fine if it works for her and her baby”, exactly what I should have said! Thanks for this post.

  3. I’m one of the moms who had no issues and I’m so incredibly conscious of what I say in front of fellow mommies who is having or has had issues. To a certain extent, it may just be because I do not want to feel like a show off. Most of my friends know about my positive, problem-free experiences so if they ask me directly, I will tell them about certain aspects of my experiences and how I felt about them. For my friends who do have challenges, I simply try to keep the conversations around nursing centred around them and leave “I” and “me” statements out. I help in any other way I can too-I honestly get excited about taking them to breastfeeding drop-in clinics, visits to lactation consultants, or just showing them techniques/solutions and letting them be the judge. I’m kinda like an unofficial breastfeeding support person and I would love to someday make a career out of it 🙂

  4. Sometimes asking why someone why they are doing something can help you know how to approach them with more information. If it is coming from the doctor, a friend, a book, etc, it helps to know their current information source. Tone is the key. Minimizing a mother’s challenges is never helpful, as it rarely solves the problem at hand. If there is pain, there is something wrong and it needs to be addressed in a helpful, neutral way. Very rarely have I met a mom with troubles that has not had a couple of road blocks thrown at her.

  5. It’s hard for me, as someone who did have trouble breastfeeding, to not tell other women to shut up and stop whining. One of my SIL’s friends complained non-stop about how hard it was to feed the baby, when she clearly was doing things that would make it more difficult, e.g. feeding him a bottle before offering the breast, waiting 4 hours to feed the roaring, mad little creature, etc. She had such great supply-it kills me to know that there are women out there who are so dedicated to breastfeeding but can’t when there are others who, if they actually put some effort into it, could do it so easily.

  6. Thank you so much for this.

    I’m a huge advocate of breastfeeding, and struggled through thrush and vasospasms with my first nursling because I was determined to make it work at all costs. I endured severe pain and severe sleep deprivation to continue nursing for two years with each child.

    But despite my belief that there was no other option for my children, I felt it was really important, each time a friend was having breastfeeding trouble, to help her feel that whatever choice she made would result in a healthy and happy family. I offered information when asked, but often just offered moral support for whatever decision I knew she wanted to make. Whether I agreed or not.

    There’s no benefit in shaming other moms. We all have some things that come easily and some things that come at a high price, but no two families are the same. It hurt a lot less to bite my tongue and empathize with a friend who said it was too much work to pump every two hours to increase her supply and with another who gave up nursing twins because it was too hard for her than it would have to cause those already stressed moms any more pain.

    Seems to me that our role as mothers is to nurture, and other moms need nurturing, too. We should keep in mind that all moms have a tough time and we need to stick together, even when we disagree. The collective They are too busy proclaiming their opinions about what baby needs to notice that mom often has needs, too: to be heard, to be supported, and to be applauded.

  7. How full of wisdom is this post… Thank you.
    I have always believed that when you have something precious to you, (knowledge or an experience), you want to eagerly share it. You want others to share in the joy or benefit that said knowledge or experience has brought to you, and that is a worthy sentiment.
    I have learned that it is not WHAT you say is HOW you say it that ultimately will make a difference. I sometimes do inquire as to reasons why a mom is making a certain choice by saying something like “is there a particular reason you want/feel you need to _________________?” after I offer my experience, “This is what I did/what worked for me and how I did it.” only because I’ve found that many times this may be their first time reaching out and do not realize they may have other options. It also provides insight to their particular situation, hopefully making the responses better tailored to her needs.
    I confess I cringe when I hear about formula supplentation or not nursing at all, but I also remind myself that I was once that inexperienced mom who was simply trying her best and had followed the advice her doctors and pediatricians gave her and that I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for the LOVING and COMPASSIONATE support and advice I got.

  8. This is exactly what I meant when I mentioned unsupportive lactivists on my blog. The superiority is a big issue in the breastfeeding community. I am not saying women should not be proud of what they have accomplished, but they should never ever rub anyone else’s face in their success or try to tear a struggling mother down.

    The first thing I think any “lactivist” (or anyone else) should do, is praise a mother for trying. Even if she is not what your version of a success is, I think we can all agree that some breast milk is absolutely better than none. I think a lot of times, people who have enjoyed success forget that breastfeeding does not come easily to all. As you said, there are many different quirks that make each experience unique; even for the same mother.

    I thank you for this post (and all of the unsupportive support posts). My eyes actually started to well up before I was even halfway through the first example. I have different experiences with each of my four babies. It has taken me thirteen years to finally have what I would call a successful experience and I still was not able to exclusively nurse. Here is my history:

    Child 1: nursed for 3 months, exclusively for 1 month. I had what I thought were supply issues. Being that I was young and undereducated about the supply and demand of nursing, I may not have actually had a real problem with supply at all. My baby seemed to nurse every 30 minutes to 1 hour. Exhausted and defeated, I supplemented formula. Obviously, my supply didn’t improve and my baby weaned herself at 3 months.

    Child 2: was premature. I pumped during my hospital stay. He never got any of my milk because he died at 23 hours old.

    Child 3: was jaundiced and sleepy from an ABO interaction with my blood (+ Coomb’s). He never latched well from the beginning. He became dehydrated. My IBCLC suggested that I supplement. My plan was to attempt to nurse, then pump and cup feed anything I pumped. I was to supplement if baby still acted hungry. I tried it in earnest, but he screamed at the breast and then would fall asleep after about an ounce of formula. I started using the pre-packaged (narrow) nipples that came with the hospital formula. I was desperate for my baby to re-hydrate and for his jaundice to improve. When he did finally recover from the jaundice, he had developed nipple confusion. My insistence (even in the middle of the night) led to a nursing strike. At that point, I chose to pump as exclusively as I could and supplement the rest. My supply gradually decreased over time and at six weeks, I pumped for the last time. At the time, I was involved in communities and had many online mama “friends.” The biggest advocates – the ones who should have been the most knowledgeable and supportive – were the least so. They didn’t always post mean things directly to me, but would make posts on their own blogs as a way to rub my nose in my “failure.” Even to this day (nearly 5 years later), I carry that pain with me.

    Child 4: Is 10 months old and still nursing… despite my full-time work schedule, despite her frequent biting (which I try to redirect) and despite her acrobatics. I am loathe to give up now that I finally have achieved the best success I have ever had. Still, our nursing relationship was not picture perfect in the beginning either. My milk didn’t come in for 4 days. I was emotional and worried I would “fail” again. I supplemented her formula by syringe in the hospital and at home until my milk came in fully. I didn’t want her to dehydrated and I didn’t want her to be so hungry and frustrated that she would refuse to nurse, like my son did. It worked. And being that I was much better educated, even when she seemed like she wanted to switch from one breast to the other for hours on end, I allowed it. I also had better support. My husband and mother took care of everything and allowed me to nest on the couch with my newborn nursling. They brought me food and fluids and sometimes even fed me. It made all the difference in the world. I was still never able to exclusively nurse. It does turn out that my supply is not impressive, even when I nursed on demand. I had days when my baby didn’t need a bottle, but a lot of days she needed 2-4oz of formula. I had to put those jeering superior mothers from my past out of my guilty head to be ok with it, but eventually I was able to be.

    In the end, I may never be able to pump 6-10oz in a sitting or have an enviable freezer stash. I may even need to supplement. But I have and always will give my children everything I am able to give. Some is definitley better than none.

    • Santina says:

      Wow, so powerful. Thank you for sharing your history. Your point of view is so clear and level-headed considering all you have been through. I feel so bad about a recent interaction with a friend who had an eye infection/cornea scratch and finally felt that treating with the antibiotics and completely weaning her 4 month old was the best option. I questioned her decision and told her “in a nice way” that I had to ask about her decision because her baby is so young still… I feel bad for putting her sort of on the spot and hope and pray that deep down I didn’t make her feel judged but my approach was probably not the best.

      It was good to hear your story from the perspective that it is what it is and each mom knows in her heart what she must do for her baby (and for herself!). Kudos to you for making it so far and for trying your very best for your kids very best!

  9. I totally can relate to some of the things said. My 8 week old daughter just started daycare and let the judgement start rolling in. Somehow me breastfeeding makes the child care workers lives miserable. I’ve heard it all only within the last couple of days. From “formula isnt’ that bad” to “you let her stay on you to long”, to “How can you put up with it”.. Needless to say my first week back at work has been exhausting, trying, and frustrating. I’m glad/grateful for this site and for the facebook page. It helps to know that others go through similar challenges and we can be there for each other. Thanks for sharing!

  10. I totally can relate to some of the things said. My 8 week old daughter just started daycare and let the judgement start rolling in. Somehow me breastfeeding makes the child care workers lives miserable. I’ve heard it all only within the last couple of days. From “formula isnt’ that bad” to “you let her stay on you to long”, to “How can you put up with it”.. Needless to say my first week back at work has been exhausting, trying, and frustrating. I’m glad/grateful for this site and for the facebook page. It helps to know that others go through similar challenges and we can be there for each other. Thanks for sharing

  11. this article really speaks to me … as in, i could see me self saying some of these things, with the best of intentions at heart. thanks for the opportunity to step back and think critically about how i can better support women with issues nursing, sending kids to day care, introducing solids, nursing in public or ANY of the wide ways we women need support, rather than judgement! phew! tone is certainly important, but some words (“why would you do that?”) can ruin all the good intentions in the world.
    thank you!

  12. Michelle K says:

    I was one of those who had an easy time with a baby who caught on quickly to bf. However, I know that everyone has different circumstances and have always been very mindful of what I say to others when they are experiencing difficulty. It’s a shame when others feel like they are failing because of comments that were not meant to be unsupportive, but were. Even on my first day in the hospital after having given birth, I had a very insensitive nurse come into my room, tell me I wasn’t holding the baby right and that everything was pretty much wrong. She grabbed my breast and started shifting the baby around. I turned to her and said that I was just learning how to do this as it was my first child, that she should kindly release my breast and let the baby and I figure it out together. I was so upset with her! I was thrilled that she never came back in and that the next nurse that was sent in was much nicer about showing the different holds that work (one of which I HAD been trying). All this to say, you never know what your impact may be on someone and keep in mind that what works for one person and their baby is not always the perfect fit for the next. We are all trying to do what is best for our children and being criticized for doing something different contradicts what we are trying to do. I say good luck to anyone wanting to try bf…and if for some reason you can’t or the baby fights it, supplementing with formula will not harm anyone (in fact, my mother fed me formula exclusively and I am a healthy woman who was in no way sickly growing up). Best of luck to all the leakies out there! Here’s to hoping that things go well with my next one (due in the next 3-4 weeks).

  13. i have seen this topic first hand from both ends. ive been the one *trying* to be helpful and ive been the one who people *try* to help.

    ive been told to cover up and ive been told congrats.

    people have no idea how their tone, and their attitude can hurt people. i managed to elusively breastfeed for 12 months but it was so hard at first and i had to pump. the family that i had close by, in laws, were not supportive and it felt like a miracle that i made it thru the first 3 months.

    thanks for informing people. however, the post is kind of long and wordy. maybe you can make a cliff notes version for those that care but get distracted easily..?

  14. A popular sentiment in “lactivist” circles is “nobody can make you feel guilt, if you feel guilt it’s on your own and you must have a reason to.” I hate that attitude because as much as I’d like to believe people’s judgment of me can just roll of my back, the truth is it does hurt.

    So much this. I hate the attitude, “Well, if you feel _____ then that’s your problem, not mine.” People use it so drop blanket judgments on mothers and then wonder why we’re such a fragmented group of people.