For some moms and babies, breastfeeding is relatively easy. Yes, it may be physically demanding. And sure, moms may feel some pain, especially early on. Eventually, however, it all falls into place.
But for other mothers, breastfeeding is hard. Like, this-pain-is-unreal and I-feel-like-I’m-failing-my-child hard. The kind of hard that feels lonely, relentless and, at times, all-consuming.
It’s challenging to know how to support moms who, for one reason or another, are struggling to reach their breastfeeding goals. What can anyone else do that is actually useful? Of course, there is never one right answer for everyone, but here are a few things that can help:
#1. Remind her she’s doing a really good job.
“The most important thing is saying, ‘Wow, you’re doing a great job ... it might be hard now, but you can do this,’” said Linda Smith, an Ohio-based International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). “Those are the kind of statements and attitudes that we want to convey to every mother.”
#2. Acknowledge that, sometimes, it’s complicated.
Just because breastfeeding is natural, doesn’t mean it’s always simple. There are so many reasons why nursing can be a challenge including (but by no means limited to): a mother’s physiology, any underlying medical conditions she may have, her mental state, the baby’s ability to feed and the baby’s anatomy. Breastfeeding advice tends to be packaged into neat maxims ― breast is best; babies under 12 months don’t self-wean ― but sayings don’t take into account that every mother and every baby is different. As Smith put it: “I wouldn’t have a job if it worked perfectly for everybody.” Just acknowledging that fact can take make women feel less alone.
#3. Don’t discount her pain.
Breastfeeding pain is tricky. On the one hand, women are told it’s never supposed to hurt. If it does, it must be a bad latch. Fix it! Now!! Oh, but also, breastfeeding hurts like hell for everyone, haven’t you heard? Just push through.
The reality, of course, is more nuanced. A lot of women do indeed feel pain as they just get the hang of breastfeeding, explained Christine Jaslar, a nurse and IBCLC with the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. And some women feel a bit of discomfort every time they nurse, while their baby latches and stretches or pulls out the nipple. However, that pain should be minimal and dissipate almost immediately, Jaslar said. If it doesn’t, it is a sign of a potential latch problem or anatomical issue, like a tongue tie or high palate ― or something else that needs to be looked at. The key is listening to moms and not trying to offer them simple, one-size-fits-all answers.
#4. Help her with everything else.
Often the kindest thing friends and family can do, especially in those wearying early weeks, is help with everything that’s not baby-related, so moms can focus completely on feeding and bonding (and maybe even sleep). “All new babies disrupt the household of everyone, even seasoned mothers who have nursed eight kids before,” said Smith. “When a new one comes, everything goes up in the air ... and what you need is someone who will bring you some food, change the sheets and help you get some shoes on.”
It’s understandable that visitors want to get their hands on that yummy new baby, but that mom/baby cuddling time can be crucial. “When a mom is struggling to breastfeed, we’ll sometimes tell them to do more skin-to-skin; to spend more time together with fewer interruptions,” Jaslar said.
#5. Offer to be a bridge to professional help.
Sometimes moms, mother-in-laws, sisters and friends who have breastfed their own children do have great tips. But other times, there’s no replacement for a breastfeeding professional or a support group where moms can get expert advice and access what both Smith and Jaslar described as creative, personalized solutions to help them reach their own goals ― whatever those goals may be. The best thing friends and family can do is help a mom look for a lactation consultant or support group, then get out of the way.
#6. Remember: it’s her child, not yours.
It’s too bad it needs to be said, but if a mom comes up short of her breastfeeding goals, no one should ever shame her or imply she should have somehow tried harder. On the other hand, it’s never OK to try and pressure a woman into quitting before she’s ready, Smith said, or to undermine her efforts by implying that it’d be better for the baby if she just gave up. There are so many ways to breastfeed. Moms can supplement with formula. They can use supplemental nursing systems, and nipple shields. They can exclusively pump. Women who are working through those options need encouragement and grace, not someone trying to talk them out of it.
Because ultimately? “It’s her baby,” said Smith. “She gets to say.”