Breastfeeding is beautiful…sometimes. It's also hard and complicated and messy.
As any mother will tell you, women have to deal with endless pressure when it comes to caring for their children. The realm of breastfeeding is especially fraught because it's promoted as natural, beautiful and—if you can manage it—the best thing you can possibly do for your infant. As a result, many women struggle through guilt, self-doubt and incredible pain in order to "properly" feed their children and meet societal expectations of what a loving mother looks like. But it's time to give yourself and the mothers around you a break, because the idea of the perfect mom breastfeeding her child in a Roberto Cavalli frock during a magazine photo shoot (see Olivia Wilde in the pages of 2016 Glamour) or getting a mani and blowout with a baby on her boob (supermodel Gisele Bündchen in a tweeted photo in 2013) isn't a reality for most women. Below are some of the most common myths about breastfeeding and six Canadian moms that are here to refute them.
Myth 1: Breastfeeding is easy for most mothers
Despite the prevalence of messaging suggesting breastfeeding is natural, healthy and beautiful, it's extremely painful and difficult for many mothers—and women often feel unprepared. "Before giving birth, I just assumed that I was going to breastfeed and that I wouldn't have any problems," says Melissa, mother to an 18-month-old daughter. "I thought, that's just what you do." But due to lactation mastitis—inflammation and sometimes infection of the breast tissue that involves swelling, warmth, redness and even fever—Melissa was forced to take two courses of antibiotics and eventually stopped breastfeeding after four months due to pain.
Other moms agree that there seems to be a lack of education. "I had no idea how painful breastfeeding would be," says Tat, mom to two young children. "It just wasn't on my radar." Some common issues can involve sensitive nipples, engorgement, supply difficulties, tongue ties (where the baby's tongue is tethered to the floor of the mouth), latch problems, back pain and even dysphoric milk ejection reflex (D-MER), where the mom experiences brief dysphoria, sadness or negative feelings just prior to ejecting milk.
Myth 2: Your breasts will start gushing milk right after your baby's birth
It takes several days for breast milk to come in—and some women never produce enough milk to feed their children without supplementing with formula. Two women share their experiences:
Nain: "I supplemented from the beginning with my daughter. My breast milk took a week to come in and she kept crying. Since she was my first child, I didn't know if she was crying because she was hungry. I wondered if I was even able to produce milk. These things pop into your head and you're so flustered so right away I gave her some formula. As soon as you do that, your body knows ‘This baby's not solely relying on me so I'm not going to have to produce as much milk.' Your body's really clever like that, so I never had an abundant milk flow."
Janna: "My son had a tongue tie that we found after 6.5 weeks. He'd been eating improperly for that time, which affected my milk supply. We were in emergency on day three because he was dehydrated and they confirmed that my milk hadn't come in, so I started supplementing from the first week. That means that every time I breastfeed, I have to supplement. I have a tube in a bottle of formula next to me and while he latches onto my breast, I slip the tube in so he's getting milk through the tube and from my breast at the same time."
Myth 3: Breastfeeding is the best way to bond with your child
While breastfeeding may be a great way to bond for some mothers, it doesn't work that way for everyone. Because so many mothers have physical difficulty breastfeeding, it can put a damper on their relationship with their newborn and can even affect existing relationships with older children and spouses—especially if every feed takes over an hour (which can happen with tube feeding, latch issues and more). For Kate, mom to two daughters, it took three months of breastfeeding with each of her children before it became an enjoyable activity for her.
Kate: "You hear that breastfeeding is important for you to bond with the baby, but I found that it was so difficult that it made me not want to interact with my girls. It was like, ‘Oh my god, I don't want to wake them up because I don't want to feed them.' I was afraid. I remember when my first daughter was really little and my mom said, ‘I think you should wake her up. She's been asleep for five hours. She's probably hungry.' But I was dreading it because it was so incredibly painful. Then I'd feel extra guilty because all these people post pictures where they're like, ‘I love cuddling with my baby.' But it felt like my nipple was on fire. It was toe-curling pain."
Myth 4: A mother who cares about her child and family won't choose to skip breastfeeding
Sure, some women don't breastfeed, but commonly it's because they can't for some reason (all the reasons listed in Myth 1!). If you actively choose not to breastfeed, it's usually kept quiet because there is so much stigma. But the fact is that sometimes breastfeeding isn't the best thing for you, your baby and your family combined. Here's one example:
Tat: "I'm the primary breadwinner in our family. Me taking time off is devastating to our finances. It just doesn't happen. With my second child on formula, I didn't have to wake up for any nighttime feedings. My husband, who is a stay-at-home dad, did everything. I was planning on taking six weeks off, but I only took six days. If I had been breastfeeding, six days wouldn't have been possible and I would have sacrificed a lot of good client work. You see all this breastfeeding propaganda, but each woman is different. Each family is different. And that's something that's not explored enough. Caregiving can be done by anyone and it's totally undervalued. There are many ways to stack up your own personal family Tetris."
Myth 5: If you're going to breastfeed in public, it's easy to throw on a cover
Most people understand that babies need to eat frequently, so if a breastfeeding mom is ever going to be able to leave her house, she's going to have to feed in public. But some men and women (even mothers) still think that breastfeeding without a cover, and possibly showing off a nipple to the world, is a choice and women should keep their boobs out of sight—even if that means being hot and uncomfortable underneath a blanket. But what about the moms who have difficulties with breastfeeding as it is? "If you're having trouble getting your baby to latch, putting a blanket over them makes it impossible to see what's going on," says Kate. "It's so much harder to breastfeed covered up." And if your hungry baby won't stop screaming, an extra layer of complication isn't practical for many women.
Myth 6: If you're a feminist, you should feel comfortable breastfeeding in public
Because hashtags such as #NormalizeBreastfeeding have become prominent on social media and because so many women have fought to make breastfeeding in public possible and acceptable, it can seem anti-feminist if mothers aren't out there carrying the torch. But every woman experiences breastfeeding in her own unique way, and just because she believes in the right to breastfeed in public, doesn't mean it will be the best or most comfortable choice for her.
Rachel: "I breastfed in public with both my kids, but despite the 'Rah-rah, free the booby!' messages out there, it was still an uncomfortable experience for me. I did it because the baby needed it in that moment and that was most important. But you are essentially trying to latch a little squirming mouth to your breast "properly" while holding your boob in one hand and your baby in the other. Adding to that, your baby is screaming at the top of his lungs (which naturally turns heads) and you just want to settle him and not flash your giant nipple for a bunch of strangers to see. For me, I was always more comfortable doing it at home—but that feeling did keep me at home more than I would have liked."
Janna: "I'm a modest person. I'm not someone who wears cleavage ever. I don't flaunt my boobs, so whipping them out in public to breastfeed is so counter to my idea of myself as a person. I don't even wear tight clothes in public—I think because I want to be recognized for my intelligence and my kindness, not my body. I would never breastfeed without a cover in public because I'm personally not comfortable with showing skin like that. But part of me feels like I'm supposed to so I can make a point and be a good feminist."
Forget natural, easy and beautiful: If breastfeeding is anything, it's complicated because it's a unique experience for each mother and there are no set rules that work for everyone, every time. And because there are so many variables, blanket statements about the benefits of breastfeeding and how and when women should breastfeed are incredibly harmful. Instead, by taking the opportunity to support each other, share triumphs and struggles and spread knowledge, women and their allies can make the first stressful months of motherhood more bearable for one another and, just maybe, each mom can become the best version of herself—whatever that looks like to her.