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The Secrets of Breastfeeding Success
by Gaye E. Johnson
In Australia, over 80% of mothers choose to breastfeed. In fact, in some hospitals, figures are closer to 95%. Yet in the first few weeks after birth, many of these women quit breastfeeding. Only about half of those who start out are still breastfeeding at all by three to four months. (The starting percentage in the United States is lower, but the "drop off trend" is much the same.) Whilst some of these mothers are genuinely happy with their choice, many more carry feelings of regret, loss and guilt with them for years to come. I have had many women approach me when I have been nursing my child, and they have related how much they really desired to nurse but that it didn't work out and they switched to bottle feeding early on. Even years after the event, I can see how upset they still feel about this.
The actual length of time spent breastfeeding is not necessarily related to a woman's feelings of success - some women can set a goal of six weeks and quit quite happily and with great personal satisfaction at the end of that period, whilst others might have great regrets at quitting when their child is three years old, if they had intended to nurse until the child self-weaned. The aim of this article is not to try to convince women to breastfeed for long periods of time, or even at all, but rather to help those who do choose to nurse to do so for as long as THEY desire.
So how can you ensure that you are a "breastfeeding success"? What can you do to ensure that you do not quit before you are truly happy to?
Motivation and Goals
I believe that motivation plays a key role in breastfeeding success. The more your intrinsic motivation, the more you will fight your way through any tough times. To have motivation, you need knowledge.
Almost everyone can recite the slogan "Breast is best": however, unless you really BELIEVE that, it is not much use. You need to know WHY breastfeeding is better for you and your baby and BY HOW MUCH. A vague notion that breast is best is hardly going to keep you from opening those formula samples in the cupboard at 2am, when you are exhausted and your nipples feel like someone has stuck needles down them! Yet a vague notion is all that many of us have.
Often the benefits of breastfeeding are either denied or played down so that those women who formula feed are not made to feel guilty (and I agree totally that no one should be trying to make anyone feel bad about their choice!). And yet women have a RIGHT to up-to-date and accurate information so that whatever choice they do make is an informed one. Learn as much as you can about the benefits of breastfeeding, and especially how they relate to your own circumstances. For example, if your family has a history of allergy problems, the fact that breastfeeding is the best way in most instances of preventing or minimizing allergies in the child might be just the impetus you need to persevere. If you have always battled with your weight, the fact that breastfed children have a much smaller risk than others of becoming obese might hit home for you. If your aunt or mother has suffered with breast cancer, the knowledge that breastfeeding for an extended period of time can lower not only your own risk but that of any daughters you are nursing might have a profound impact on you. Perhaps the financial aspect is of great importance to you, and knowing that for every week until your child reaches 12 months you will be out of pocket $20-$30 if you are not breastfeeding could hit where it hurts!
Whatever the case, learn enough so that you REALLY know that breast is best, and by how much it is best. If you believe that formula is just as good, or almost as good, then you will find it hard to resist that temptation. Let me stress that this should not be blown out of proportion! Keep to the facts rather than painting formula as some sort of evil poison! It could be that at some point you might need to use formula in the short or even longer term and allowing yourself to develop an unreasonable fear of it is unhelpful, as well as being unfair to those who do use formula on a regular basis.
Based on your research, you can arrive at a goal. It has to be YOUR breastfeeding goal, not someone else's. YOU are the one who will be breastfeeding, YOU are the one who could well be facing some challenges along the way, so YOU need to be the one to know within yourself what you are happy aiming for. Of course, once you get there, you might find that you decide to keep on going, as many women do, but I believe you do need an initial goal. Ask yourself, "What is the MINIMUM amount of time I want to nurse my baby?" and when you get to whatever that goal is (whether it be six weeks, six months, 12 months or until the child self-weans) you can feel the SUCCESS!
A quick word about formula samples: if you have them in the house you are in effect saying to yourself that you think the breastfeeding might not work out. You are sabotaging yourself before you have even started simply by your attitude and lack of confidence. Be confident! You have every right to expect that if you want it badly enough, you will be able to breastfeed. There are VERY few exceptions to this, and in some of these cases, even if actual nursing is not possible, baby can still receive mother's milk via pumping. Rather than telling yourself, "I am going to TRY to breastfeed," tell yourself "I am GOING to breastfeed!" The practical aspect of the sabotage is that the easier it is for you to get your hands on formula when you are feeling low, the more likely you are to actually use it. Whilst one bottle of formula is hardly likely to ruin breastfeeding, it can make things tougher than they need to be. If it ever is the case that formula is necessary, you can go to the store and buy it - and I personally suggest seeking the advice of an expert before doing this.
Wouldn't it be great if we all lived in a society where we grew up surrounded by relatives and friends breastfeeding, and where every doctor and nurse was supportive of it and had great knowledge? If this were true, then we would probably already have some basic breastfeeding knowledge by the time we are pregnant with our first child and even if we didn't, there would be no shortage of good information and advice to help us. Sadly, this is not the case. Even in the maternity ward of many hospitals, bad advice and misinformation and practices that sabotage the establishment of breastfeeding are rife. Unfortunately, if a new mother does not have at least some basic breastfeeding knowledge, she will not recognize this for what it is, and even with the best of intentions, her breastfeeding ambitions can go up in smoke.
You hardly need to have passed the International Board Certified Lactation Examinations - just some basic knowledge will do! Being aware of some of the most common pieces of misinformation can be worthwhile. Knowing something about latching on, basic information about how supply and demand works, how to know whether baby is getting enough milk, what can happen if artificial nipples are introduced very early on, how to tell if something is wrong - think of this knowledge as your insurance policy on reaching your goal! This information can be found throughout our Breastfeeding Cubby here at StorkNet. We also have a Breastfeeding Bookstore, where the best breastfeeding resource books are available.
Support and Assistance
Whilst many women can breastfeed for years without any troubles whatsoever, it is quite common for mothers to experience challenges throughout a breastfeeding relationship. Some women choose to quit breastfeeding when they hit a tough spot, and that is fine if they are genuinely happy about their decision. If things are REALLY rough, you might choose to re-evaluate your initial goal. Sometimes even if it would be humanly possible to continue breastfeeding, you might decide that the price is too high. To quit then would not be "wimping out"! BUT if you quit without even examining the options then you could feel deep regret later on. Remember that ALMOST EVERY PROBLEM IS SOLVABLE! In addition, almost always the really "nasty" problems (the ones where you are in severe pain for example) are over quite quickly with appropriate treatment. Think of your goals and work towards them as best you can.
Having the support and friendship of other nursing mothers can make a big difference. It can feel lonely at times if you are surrounded by family members who cannot understand why you have chosen something "different," and friends who perhaps are even a bit critical of you. Groups such as La Leche League provide great support, both in terms of encouragement and with excellent information.
Many women do reach a point in their nursing experience when they really do not know what to do to solve a problem. That is what lactation consultants are for! Quitting breastfeeding without seeing a lactation consultant and examining all options would be like throwing your car out without taking it to the mechanic! LCs are experts who have seen it all before - they can help with latch problems, mastitis, premature babies, babies with tongue-tie, supply issues, giving information about medications you might need to take, basically anything. If you have a really tricky problem it might even be necessary to get a second opinion from another lactation consultant. Some women worry about the cost of seeing a LC: bear in mind that some medical insurance funds do subsidize the cost, and that even if yours doesn't, it can be considered money well spent, compared to the potential cost of bottle feeding.
In very rare cases, there might truly be nothing you can do to keep breastfeeding and you might not reach your goal. That is, of course, very sad, but if you have done everything in your power to make it work then you can feel a sense of satisfaction with your efforts and can cope with the loss better. In situations such as this, it can help to talk through your feelings with someone who is sensitive to how important breastfeeding was to you.
Sometimes even though it might be physically possible to continue breastfeeding, you might be feeling that the price to do so it too high. Such a decision should, of course, not be made on the spur of the moment, especially if in pain or exhausted. Weigh up all your options, perhaps considering partial breastfeeding if that will alleviate some of your stress or unhappiness. Remember that it is OKAY to re-evaluate your goal if you are truly unhappy - breastfeeding is not meant to make you miserable! Goals are meant to be helpful and not crosses to bear! Only YOU can know whether you feel up to continuing or whether you would feel more comfortable with deciding to quit earlier than originally planned. As long as you have taken time and care with your decision, it will be right for you, and you should not feel undue regret later on.
Success at breastfeeding can mean different things to different people. I believe that the most important thing is for a mother to feel genuinely happy with the choices she makes, so that she will not look back with undue regret or sadness. You CAN breastfeed for as long as you desire! You do not have to be Wonder Woman: all you need is the motivation, a personal goal, a bit of "homework", and some support. Whether you breastfeed for four weeks or four years, you can feel the satisfaction of reaching your goal - you CAN be a breastfeeding success!
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