Supporting the Breastfeeding Family as a Whole

by Amber McCann, IBCLC
supporting the breastfeeding family as a whole
Recently, I was collaborating with a colleague as we worked through the nitty-gritty details of a challenging situation one of my clients was having. As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), I work with families to support their breastfeeding and, while my job is incredibly rewarding, it also requires a LOT of “detective” work. This case was challenging my skills and knowledge and I reached out for help. As we sorted through the facts and brainstormed ideas, my colleague said to me, “I’m realizing that you alway lean towards  the side of the mom and I lean towards the side of the baby.”

The comment caught me off guard. I wasn’t offended because I make no apologies for the fact that connecting with mothers is my “sweet spot”. I also don’t believe that I nor my colleagues ever sacrifice one member of the breastfeeding relationship to the exclusion of the other. But it did cause me to think and reflect on how, as a professional, I approach the work I do. Do I miss critical pieces of the puzzle because I’m so focused on the mother’s well being? Do I forget the important role that dads and partners play in the family? Do I miss the most vulnerable person in the whole dynamic…the tiny baby herself? (*Cue dramatic soul searching)


I came to this realization:

Breastfeeding support that doesn’t recognize the family as a whole FAILS.

Breastfeeding is much more than one breast, one baby, one mother, and one belly that needs nutrition. It is also getting to know each other, communicating, finding balance between all parties, and connecting on an intimate and vulnerable level. While I certainly do not claim that these experiences happen only in breastfeeding families, I do believe that breastfeeding imparts benefits that go far beyond calories and weight gain.

For that reason, I think it is critically important that, as those who support breastfeeding, we see the breastfeeding family as a whole. Much of the conversation in breastfeeding support centers around whether someone is doing it the “right way”: no supplements, pacifiers, bottles, cribs, you have to wear your baby, don’t you dare give cereals before 6 months, breastfeed until they are two, breastfeed while you are pregnant, breastfeed, breastfeed, breastfeed, breastfeed…and if you don’t do it this way, you are a failure. It simply breaks my heart because, while each of these recommendations has value and impact in the broader issue of public health, these black and white messages often forget that, when it comes down to it, there are real people making real decisions for real families. We must move away from support that sees only the mother, only the baby, or only the breastfeeding.

Decision Making is Up to the Family

As a clinician, I must take a full health history of both the mother and baby in my care. Inevitably, this becomes what is, for many women, the first telling of their birth story to someone outside of their family. It is an incredibly raw and vulnerable experience. I learn of relationships, of history, of fears and of disappointment. I also hear of how she was proud of herself, of her strength and her tenacity. Every woman’s experience, both before and after birth, is wildly different. Each family is to be respected in their decision making. What is the right decision in birth, in breastfeeding…heck, even in what to do with their Saturday afternoon, is up to them, filtered through the lens of their experience, their history and their knowledge. There are things about the way I live my life that I believe deeply in, but this I believe more: Mothers are smart and incredibly capable of making the decisions that are best for their families. My job is to provide information, help them sort through their options and allow them to space to figure out what is best for them…even if what is best for them is not what I would have chosen.

She is About More than her Breasts

As advocates, sometimes we work so hard on the big picture ideas in regards to improving breastfeeding rates and cultural acceptance that we make the mistake of seeing each woman as one to be “conqured”…wishing only to “win her to our side”. Supporting breastfeeding on a macro level is tough work which takes huge volumes of energy, but what a disservice when we think of women as only check marks in the “initiated breastfeeding” or “exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months” columns.

Often, in an attempt to support breastfeeding, we forget that there is much more going on in this relationship than milk ejections and swallowing. The community supporting those with Insufficient Glandular Tissue and Low Milk Supply do this beautifully. Inspired by Diana West’s groundbreaking book Defining Your Own Success, these women champion the idea that THEY get to be the ones who decide what breastfeeding will look like for them, in light of significant challenges. We must look at breastfeeding women not as simply milk makers, but life makers and relationship makers and confidence makers as well.

Empower Parents for Long Term Impact

I’m absolutely convinced that the early days of of a baby’s life are critical to the formation of parenting confidence. What if, instead of throwing checklists full of things that not even well-rested people could handle, we instill confidence and a “we were made for this” kind of attitude. I’ve long maintained that birth and breastfeeding are the only two biological processes that we, as a culture, assume won’t work the way they were designed to. From the moment we announce our pregnancies, we are bombarded with messages that tell us that we simply aren’t up for the task, that out bodies will fail us, that we won’t be good enough, smart enough, mom enough. Why then are we surprised when those messages continue on into parenthood? For those we encounter as breastfeeding supporters, we can have a significant impact at a critical moment. Reminding a woman that her body was made for breastfeeding, encouraging her to follow her “gut”, and listening closely to her ideas about what could improve her outlook can all be vitally important.  Moments like that set her up for future success. Feeling like “I am the most qualified person to care for my child” on Day 3 can often translate into the same feeling on day 5 and month 5 and year 5. Treating parents with respect and care and with the belief that they are wildly capable is critical.

The great Dr. Seuss was quite the philosopher when he penned, “A person’s a person, no matter how small” and I would echo with “A family is a family no matter how young.”  As we seek to pour our professional and volunteer lives into these brand new families, we must remember that communicating about their value and worth are important building blocks to their long term confidence as parents. I’m privileged to be able to be one of the first professionals to look them in brand new parent (bleary and bloodshot) eyes and say “You’ve Got This!”

Mothers are capable breastfeeding nourish breastfeeding support


 Amber McCann, IBCLC is a board certified lactation consultant in private practice  with Nourish Breastfeeding Support, just outside of Washington, DC and the co-editor  of Lactation Matters, the official blog of the International Lactation Consultant Association  (ILCA). She is particularly interested in connecting with mothers through social media  channels and teaching others in her profession to do the same. In addition, she has written  for a number of breastfeeding support blogs including Hygeia and Best for Babes. She also  serves as the Social Media Coordinator for GOLD Conferences Internationaland is a regular  contributor to The Boob Group, a weekly online radio program for breastfeeding moms. When she’s not furiously composing tweets (follow her at @iamambermccann) or updating her Facebook page, she probably snuggling with one of her three children or watching terrible reality TV.


  1. This post is most fitting, to get us thinking about our style of practice. I’d say *my* focus is relatively balance (I hope!) by my two top priorities: 1) feed the baby and 2) protect the milk supply. Trying to get dad’s involved, however, is really challenging as an in-home practitioner. It is about half of the time that dads are off at work at the time I come to their home to help with breastfeeding.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the statistics I should be tracking with the families I serve and am curious if you know of any conversation going on in this regard?

    At any rate, being there to witness a woman become a mother, when she is empowered through breastfeeding, to see the light come on…is the greatest reward for the work that we do. To be involved and to make an impact at such a crucial time of life…AH-MAZING!!!

    Thank YOU, Amber, for the boobie love you spread. 🙂

  2. Absolutely amazing! I wish more people in the breastfeeding support community saw the whole picture as you do! So many quotable pieces of wisdom in this piece!

  3. I agree with you Melissa, it seems that getting the Dad’s involved is very hard. My husband went on deployment for 7 months 1 week after our son was born. He’s been home for about a month and is having a hard time becoming part of the family unit, I don’t know how to help. My son pretty much only wants me so when my husband tries to soothe him or even play with him my son wants to be with me and it makes my husband very discouraged to the point where he isn’t even trying much anymore. Any advice is welcome!

  4. “Loving Support Makes Breastfeeding Work” is the name of the WIC breastfeeding promotion campaign, which is national in scope and being implemented at the State agency level. The goals of the campaign are to: encourage WIC participants to initiate and continue breastfeeding; increase referrals to WIC for breastfeeding support; increase general public acceptance and support of breastfeeding; and provide technical assistance to WIC State and local agency professionals in the promotion of breastfeeding.