This post is the first in a series written to anyone that ever has the chance to support a breastfeeding mother. Or not support them if that’s the case. Over the years between my personal experience with my own babies, that of friends and women I’ve attended in birth, and of course those that share on The Leaky Boob Facebook page, I’ve heard and seen just about every kind of support that is out there. Even the support that’s unsupportive. Which, as it turns out, according to my very unscientific but prolific research, is the most common kind of support and comes in a lot of varieties. Husbands, mothers, mothers-in-law, fathers, fathers-in-law, sisters, sisters-in-law, brothers, brothers-in-law, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, acquaintances, and random strangers, anyone that has the potential opportunity to interact with a breastfeeding mother can easily stumble into offering unsupportive breastfeeding support. Or even just being unsupportive about breastfeeding while trying to be supportive of the mom. Society throws a lot at moms that sabotages their desire to breastfeed, we owe it to them to actually try to change that, starting with ourselves.
Since I believe that those that say these things genuinely believe they are trying to help, I’m here to help them. There are many articles on how to support a breastfeeding mom but maybe what some need to see is how what you say and do can actually end up being unsupportive. If you’re intentionally being unsupportive, you should read this too but with the understanding that you’re a real jerk because you actually mean for it to undermine and hurt people, unlike those that do so unintentionally.
How not to support and how to avoid being unintentionally unsupportive- part 1.
Unsupportive support is…
When she tells you she wants to/is breastfeeding and you reply with “I tried that but it was terrible, I had no milk, it hurt so much, and my poor baby was starving…”
While it’s very sad that breastfeeding was a bad experience for this person, what exactly is someone trying to accomplish by saying this to someone that wants to breastfeed? To brace herself for coming failure? It really sounds like they don’t want her to succeed and they somehow feel the need to defend the fact that they didn’t continue breastfeeding. By stating that she’s going to breastfeed she isn’t trying to enter a “who’s the better mother” competition by sharing this information. But by replying in this way someone can quickly undermine a mother’s confidence. If breastfeeding was so terrible for this person, if she had no milk, if it was so painful for her and her baby was starving, breastfeeding sure sounds scary and why would she think she could do it? It also can undermine her feeling supported. Instead she just brought up bad memories and feelings for someone else and won’t feel like she can talk about breastfeeding around this person again. If you’re tempted to say something like this, keep in mind that you get to support her in her own journey, a journey that may look nothing like yours. And that’s ok. Give yourself a question to say to yourself when you want to say something like this, maybe something like “is this thought really about her or is it more about me?”
Close cousin to the statement above, saying “Not everybody can breastfeed you know, you may not be able to.”
Huh? This one really baffles me when it comes from people claiming to support the breastfeeding mom. It’s like telling someone that wants to lose weight that some people just can’t. Why would you do that? It’s true, not everyone can breastfeed, but for the record it is estimated that 2% of women physically cannot breastfeed. So chances are strong that you’re saying this to someone that actually can. Leave it to a doctor or lactation consultant to help her figure out if she can or can not breastfeed should she encounter some problems. I’m not sure why someone would say this to anyone but if you’re looking for something that is actually supportive, try “Breastfeeding, that’s great! How can I support you?”
For some reason people love to share the horror stories. I think we should talk about them and be open about them so we can be prepared. We need to be honest with moms that breastfeeding isn’t always rainbow farting unicorns and it’s not always as simple as have boob, feed baby, but there has to be balance. Timing and delivery are an important part of finding that balance. Telling a pregnant woman all the scary birth stories we can think of instills fear and doubt and unless she actively seeks out stories that build up birth she may believe that those horror stories everyone is too willing to share are the only reality. Telling a breastfeeding woman story after story of negative breastfeeding experiences sets her up to believe that the positive experience is the exception. The reality is that the positive breastfeeding experience isn’t the exception, it’s the norm that is ignored in favor of sensationalized warnings of what has become expected breastfeeding disappointment. However, breastfeeding disappointment starts with lack of breastfeeding support. Be the difference and offer real support instead.
Raising a child is hard. Every parent, mother or father, whether they are breastfeeding or formula feeding, and whatever other choices they make from the myriad of options available, all of us need support. What we don’t need is our parenting journey complicated by having well meaning (or not so well meaning) individuals around us saying or doing things that are anything but supportive. If your experience with breastfeeding wasn’t positive, I’m sorry, but be careful not to project your problems onto someone else and be ready to cheer if they have a completely different experience than you did. From that place, you’ll earn the honored status of being someone that mom knows she can trust to really be there for her and not just another force she has to fight against and prove wrong.
Have you experienced support like this? How did you respond? Have you given support like this?
How do we balance sharing the possible negatives to breastfeeding vs. the likely positives?