Image description: A newborn baby clothed only in a diaper latches onto his mother's breast for a first feed.
Lactation, Postpartum

Breastfeeding is “natural”: what makes people flounder?

Breastfeeding according to society:

“Breast is best.”
“Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world.”
“Babies are born with an instinct to seek the breast, find it, and latch.”

Statements like these can feel like a slap to the face in the wake of breastfeeding struggles. For new parents trying to breast/chestfeed and having a hard time, these statements are dismissive and guilt inducing. You may as well be saying:

“Breast is best, so if you can’t succeed, you’re not best.”
“Breastfeeding is natural, so if you can’t do it, you fail.”
“Babies are born with an instinct to breastfeed. What’s wrong with yours/you?”

*Obviously this is not how I feel, but I know how hurtful some of these comments can be when you’re already feeling fragile and how insecurity can make even well meaning comments sound.

The fact is that breastfeeding is very natural. It’s something most babies are able to do with the right support. The secret? It’s not natural like breathing. It’s not natural like your heart beating.

Wait, I thought you said it was natural?

It’s natural the way walking is. It takes practice, support, and time to get it right. You’re born with all the right instincts. From early infancy, we have all the instincts set up to help us learn how to walk. Even small things like when babies first learn to lift their heads lay the groundwork for walking later on. Almost everybody can walk with the right support. Some people need crutches, some people need prosthetic limbs, and some people walk earlier than others. We don’t (or rather, we shouldn’t) judge anyone on their ability to walk. We don’t ask adults how old they were when they started walking.

To walk, several of our different body systems have to work together in harmony. Our muscles, our joints, our ligaments, our brains, and our circulatory systems all have to work together to propel us forward, step by step. Some people enjoy running. That sort of physicality comes very easily to some people and that doesn’t make your walking any less extraordinary.

The biggest trouble for breastfeeding is that we cut out a lot of the early practice moves that we should be doing. It’s like learning how to use muscles. Babies start by lifting their heads, and we need to do the same thing when it comes to breastfeeding. No, not literally lift your head. But look around. Notice breastfeeding.

Why notice breastfeeding?

We are mammals. But we most often rely on society instead of instincts. In the past, children grew up seeing breastfeeding occur. People socialized as girls and women grew up seeing babies be born. Bodyfeeding was not taboo because that’s just how it worked. On the occasions when someone wasn’t able to produce enough milk for her baby, the community stepped in to feed that baby. Most often, other women fed that baby.

Way back when, breastfeeding was the norm. You knew roughly how to do it before you ever gave birth. You knew how to do it before you even got pregnant. And in those early moments of doubt, you would have likely had your female relatives there to cheer you on. To tell you that you were doing a good job.

What do we have now?

We have formula companies that send you samples and coupons before the baby is even born (even though they can’t seem to keep it on store shelves). There are countless stories from the people who attempted to breastfeed that were unable to continue for one reason or another. The *Fed is Best Foundation tells us that all IBCLCs would rather your baby starve than give you permission to supplement. (Which is absolutely FALSE! Rule number 1 of lactation support is feed the baby.)

We have two ounce bottles being marketed as the norm for brand new babies even though we have tons of science saying that 2 ounces is too much for a newborn feeding and viral stories of breastfeeding parents being kicked out of places for daring to feed their children. We give birth among strangers in the hospital, sometimes with our own family thousands of miles away. And most of us weren’t breastfed. So even with family close by, they don’t always know how to help us.

Some of us are sold the old mentality of scheduled feeds. We don’t understand what biological feeding looks like and so we doubt ourselves. We doubt ourselves because everything around us is telling us that we can’t do it.

What if we did that with walking?

Using my previous analogy, this is essentially the equivalent of pushing someone over every time they attempt to stand up and then getting mad at them for not walking. By mindlessly repeating “Breast is Best”, we’re guilting and shaming the parents that are unable to reach their feeding goals while we pat ourselves on the back for promoting breastfeeding.

“Crutches” are available. IBCLCs work to get us to be able to “walk” with these crutches and eventually on our own. “Prosthetic limbs” for breast/chestfeeding exist too, in the forms of supplemental nursing systems. Supplementing with formula or donor milk could be seen as using a wheelchair or walker: it can help you get around!

Is breastfeeding best?

That misses the point entirely.

Breast/chestfeeding is physiologically normal. It’s what our bodies are ready to do after giving birth and what are babies’ bodies are ready to do after being born. Trying to say that breast milk is more natural or “better” than formula isn’t the point. Formula can save lives and is a very necessary part of today’s society for many families. Nobody is arguing that it’s not. So can we please lay this platitude to rest?

Is breastfeeding hard?

Once you get the hang of it, breastfeeding isn’t (usually) hard. Once you get the hang of it, walking isn’t (usually) hard. But learning how to breastfeed or learning how to walk are time-intensive and require a lot of new skills. I’m not saying that breastfeeding isn’t hard and so if it is for you you’re doing it wrong. Absolutely not. It’s challenging the early days. It can be hard to know if you’re doing it right, if your baby’s being fed enough. And just like with walking, certain things can slow you down.

Support is so important. Having your partner or spouse behind you is 90% of the battle. Being able to be seen by lactation counselor or an IBCLC can be hugely beneficial. Going to a group like La Leche League can change your bodyfeeding journey.

It took nearly two years for my kiddo to finally not stumble every time she walks. It took her a long time to figure out the mechanics standing and being able to balance. It took her a while to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. But now? She can run. She can jump and dodge obstacles.

Expecting parents, please give yourself time to learn how to breastfeed. Give yourself space and tools to help you. Go to a La Leche League meeting. Go to a breastfeeding class. Know where your local IBCLCs are and how to make an appointment with one. (Check out my resources page for most of this!)

And please, please, be patient with yourselves and with your baby as you learn this new skill.

*I will not improve their search ratings by linking to them in this post: the intent may have started as good, but the effect has been anything but!

Dez Weyburn

Doula, bookworm, and Licensed Massage Therapist!

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