For something that’s supposed to be “natural,” breastfeeding doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Even women with good supply will tell you that it can be hard, and it can hurt. And for moms who experienced trauma during birth, or physical or mental illness, or whose babies were born with complications, nursing can be more than difficult: It can be impossible.
So in the spirit of being supportive to new moms—who are already plagued with guilt and self-doubt—here are 10 things not to say to a woman struggling to breastfeed. (And if any of these things have been said to you, we’re so sorry.)
1. “Women have been breastfeeding since the dawn of time.”
This is the perfect place to start, because it’s something I heard when I struggled to keep my perpetually hungry baby fed. Just because modern formula didn’t exist in the Middle Ages, doesn’t mean mothers didn’t struggle to feed their babies. Women also lived in communities where childrearing was very much a communal responsibility, and this extended to breastfeeding. And families who were able to afford the service hired wet nurses to nurse their children. So, let’s stop talking like this is a modern issue. It’s always been hard.
2. “Breastmilk is best for your baby.”
We know. We KNOW. Breastmilk is the optimal food for our babies, nutritionally speaking. This isn’t a secret. But for some women, giving formula is the only way she can keep her baby healthy and full. And in these cases, a fed baby is ultimately what’s best for the whole family. So, stop reminding her that she’s offering “less ideal” food. In fact, stop saying “breast is best” altogether. It doesn’t help. Fed is best.
3. “You just have to suck it up and keep trying.”
Here’s a piece of advice that really overlooks the myriad of reasons why a woman may need formula to feed her baby. The implication of this statement is that breastfeeding is a matter of perseverance through pain and inconvenience. But it can be much more complicated than that. As someone who did herbal supplements, pharmaceutical supplements, visited clinics, attended seminars, pumped, syringed, tube-fed and prayed, I can assure you that willpower and determination is not always the answer. And there’s nothing to suck up.
4. “Did you know that babies should be breastfed exclusively until (insert age here)?”
This is a great way to take an already stressed-out mom, and send her over the edge. A woman who is struggling to feed her two-week-old doesn’t need to be reminded that she needs to power through the next six months-to-two years. They need someone to tell them they’re doing a great job, and it’s okay to stop when they need to.
5. “I had no trouble breastfeeding.”
Good for you.
6. “Do you know what’s actually in formula?”
Then the conversation moves to how this person’s cousin ordered organic grass-fed goat’s milk from a farm in the Swiss Alps, with no real discussion about how much this would have cost, or what’s so swoon-worthy about this goat’s milk. For most of us, regular grocery store formula is the only affordable option if we can’t—or choose not to—breastfeed. So, until you’re willing to pay fund a family’s Swiss Alps formula alternative, don’t comment on the ingredients of infant formula.
7. “Bottle-feeding must be so expensive.”
Not a reminder anyone needs to hear. See #6.
8. “Breastfeeding burns calories—it’s how I lost my baby weight.”
There are so many problems inherent in this comment, but I’ll delve into two. First of all, the last thing a woman who’s struggling with breastfeeding cares about is burning calories. She cares about the crying baby who never seems to be full, or the job that’s preventing her from nursing, or the sick child who can’t seem to keep breastmilk down. Second, the implication that calories need to be burned is hugely problematic. Women don’t need to be told they should be focused on shedding pounds.
9. “I’d be worried about not bonding with my baby.”
Easy there. There are a trillion ways to bond with your baby, and breastfeeding is just one of them. Do dads who bottle-feed bond with their children? What about families who adopt, or whose baby was born by surrogate? Snuggling, bathing, bottle feeding and loving a baby are all wonderful ways to bond. End of story.
10. “You just need to hire a lactation consultant, or read this book/blog/article.”
I’m all for offering genuinely useful advice that people may not have considered. But most women who have turned to formula for personal reasons, have done so after much consideration, careful discussion with their partner and health care providers. Which means they likely know all the options available to them. In fact, they’ve probably already tried them. What’s more helpful is to support her in her decision, and wait until she asks for advice before you offer it.