Each August, the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) celebrates National Breastfeeding Month, which raises awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and their babies. If you’re expecting or are thinking about becoming pregnant soon, you’ve probably given some thought to how you’re going to feed your baby. Nowadays, parents have many options—exclusive breastfeeding, pumping, formula feeding, or some combination of the three. Here I’ll talk a little bit about the benefits of breast milk and nursing, as well as the challenges some mothers may face. What I want you to remember above anything else is that you’re a wonderful mom, no matter how your little one eats.
What Are the Benefits of Breastfeeding and Breast Milk?
If you’re already pregnant, you’ve probably noticed that people love to ask if you plan to breastfeed (you don’t owe acquaintances and strangers an answer, by the way!). You’ll find that many experienced moms, as well as healthcare professionals, are enthusiastic about breastfeeding, and that’s because it has some wonderful benefits. Aside from great nutrition for your growing baby, the benefits of breast milk include protection against a number of serious diseases, like asthma, type 1 diabetes, and SIDS. It can also help prevent shorter-term illnesses, like earaches and stomach bugs. Breastfeeding is good for you, too; it can reduce your risk of breast and ovarian cancer, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. It can also help you shed unwanted pregnancy pounds, as it toasts an additional 500 calories a day.
Each mother’s experience is different, of course, but you may also find that breastfeeding is easier and more convenient than bottle feeding. There’s no need to prepare formula, wash bottles, or tote supplies with you when you and baby leave the house—and believe me, you have to schlep enough stuff with you when you take your baby out as it is.
Breastfeeding is also an amazing way to bond with your baby. Enjoy all the closeness, eye contact, and snuggles you can get (although it’s okay if you breastfeed while watching late-night TV, too!).
The Challenges of Breastfeeding
For some mothers and babies, breastfeeding seems to happen naturally and without much struggle. For others, breastfeeding can be difficult, frustrating, and exhausting. Here are some of the stumbling blocks you may encounter on your breastfeeding journey and some tips for addressing them.
Difficulty (or Pain) While Latching
Regardless of what you’ve read in mommy groups on social media (take everything in there with a grain of salt, please!), it isn’t always easy to latch your baby to your nipple. If you’re in pain or if you’re not sure if your baby is getting milk from your breast, you should enlist some expert help. Your OB/GYN or your baby’s pediatrician can put you in touch with a professional lactation consultant who can help make breastfeeding easier for you and your little one. The fix could be as simple as using a different breastfeeding position or nursing pillow to make you more comfortable. But it might need a more complicated solution, which is why talking to a lactation consultant is so useful.
If you’re unable to clear all the milk from one of your breasts, it’s possible to develop mastitis, which is the inflammation of the breast tissue. (Yeow!) If you start to notice pain, swelling, or redness around one of your breasts, be sure to get in touch with your doctor right away. Mastitis is very treatable, but it can require antibiotics.
Postpartum Mood Disorders
You’ve no doubt heard of postpartum depression, but you should be aware of a number of other perinatal mood disorders, like postpartum anxiety and OCD. (The use of “perinatal” by medical professionals signifies the possibility that you can develop one or more of these conditions during pregnancy or after.) When you’re not feeling like yourself, it becomes very difficult to take care of anyone else, and that includes breastfeeding your hungry newborn or infant. If you’re not feeling well, it’s very important that you reach out to a professional, whether it’s your OB/GYN, your regular family doctor, or a mental health practitioner. If you feel embarrassed or ashamed, ask your partner or a close friend to help you make contact. Remember: you may be the parent now, but you still deserve to have your basic needs met. If you’re not sure what to do next, you can get support here right away.
Your Work Schedule
If you’re planning to go back to work part-time or full-time and you don’t work from home, you’ll need to make room in your schedule to pump regularly. As a breastfeeding mother, you’re entitled to certain accommodations, like a private area to pump. In the U.S., the laws vary from state to state, so you should check locally to know your complete list of rights. Plan ahead and find a pump you like now—your insurance should cover it. If you qualify for WIC or Medicaid, you may be eligible for a free or low-cost breast pump. If you’re planning to breastfeed and need to return to work, a good pump should definitely be on your must-have list for your newborn baby.
Make the Most of National Breastfeeding Month
Something I’ve learned while on my own motherhood journey is that if you ask a room full of moms about something like breastfeeding, you’ll hear very different answers. One mom will tell you that she and her baby took to it naturally and were able to go eighteen months or more. Another will tell you that she never did master that latching thing but that exclusively pumping was perfect for her. A third may tell you that it simply didn’t work out for her and her baby or that she wasn’t interested in trying. Your infant feeding journey will be as unique as you and your baby are—and you may find that you have a completely different experience with each of your babies.
So, if you’re breastfeeding this National Breastfeeding Month, take a minute to give yourself credit for all you’re doing for your baby. If you’re not breastfeeding, remember that it doesn’t make you any less of a mom. Mom life isn’t easy, so be kind to yourself, always!