Jewels M. always intended to breastfeed her children, but after getting home with her twin boys, she found that it just wasn't right for her.
"I thought it was going to be a wonderful bonding experience with my boys," Jewels, who asked not to have her full name used, told HuffPost Canada. "But from the get-go I never felt that it was a bonding moment. I hated it. It didn't feel natural to me. In truth, it made me feel ... icky."
At first, Jewels felt guilty about not breastfeeding her sons, as though she wasn't living up to some "woman's code," she said. But she quickly realized it was her decision what to do with her body. "They are my children, and they were provided for," she said. "Formula worked for us. It meant my husband could take the late shift, and I could sleep for eight hours!"
Not everyone wants to, or is able to, breastfeed
In Ontario, 90 per cent of parents initiate breastfeeding, but only about 60 per cent are exclusively breastfeeding by the time they're discharged from the hospital, according to research completed in 2014 by the Best Start Resource Centre. And by six months, the rate of families who are exclusively breastfeeding drops off to about 30 per cent — well below the World Health Organization's recommendation that a child should be exclusively breastfed until six months of age.
There's a lot of pressure for women to breastfeed, and when a woman opts out — whether it's because it's too hard, not working, or that's just her choice — there can be a lot of guilt. But families who decide that breastfeeding is not right for them should be commended for their bravery and honesty with themselves, Liana Salvador-Watts, Registered Nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) at Rumina Lactation, told HuffPost Canada.
"Ultimately, choosing not to breastfeed is a choice made at the individual level. As a result, our society often blames families for those choices without understanding the complex circumstances that bring them to this decision. Even worse, families often blame themselves," said Salvador-Watts, who is based in Toronto.
"Instead, we need to respect and support each other's decisions, but believe that it is possible to create a health care system that better supports families to meet their feeding goals (whatever they may be) and demand better."
Breastfeeding isn't always easy
Most feeding difficulties fall into a few different categories, Salvador-Watts said, and many of these can be solved with professional support.
- A baby that is too sick or premature to breastfeed effectively;
- Difficulty with latch and positioning;
- Issues with the baby's oral anatomy;
- Issues with supply, and;
- Issues with effective milk removal leading to engorgement, plugged ducts or mastitis.
"When breastfeeding is working well, just normal life with a newborn is exhausting," said Salvador-Watts. "Throw in a breastfeeding challenge and you add in multiple trips to doctors, specialists, lactation consultants, breastfeeding clinics and alternative therapies. This is all incredibly time consuming, emotionally taxing and stressful for families."
She says this stress can have a direct impact on the baby.
"Our babies feel what we feel. If a breastfeeding challenge is taking its toll on parents, it can also lead to stress and tension in the baby, making breastfeeding even more challenging."
For moms who want to breastfeed but can't, it can be heartbreaking
Jordana Nativ was lucky to have the support of her hospital's breastfeeding clinic when she experienced feeding difficulties after the birth of her daughter, due to a breast reduction surgery at the age of 16.
"My doctor mentioned that breastfeeding might be difficult, impossible, or completely normal, and that I wouldn't know until I tried. At the time I didn't think it would be a challenge," Nativ told HuffPost Canada. "Unfortunately, while I had milk production, the connection to my nipple just wasn't secure enough to allow milk to flow through to feed my daughter. I got some colostrum, but after a week of trying, my daughter was still losing weight."
Nativ experienced mastitis as a result of attempting to breastfeed, and had to stop in order to let her body heal. She switched her daughter to formula as a result.
"My daughter thrived, and we never looked back," she said.
The Toronto-based marketing exec and eating psychology coach said she was heartbroken at not being able to breastfeed, having looked forward to the experience her whole life.
"Moms make this look so easy. Doctors, nurses, and the media make this look so natural," she said. "I felt like a failure. I was frustrated and sad about my body not being able to feed my own baby. It took time, but I tried to see the positive in formula feeding."
Health and systemic inequities play a role
Salvador-Watts notes there are many health and systemic inequities which might impact a family's ability to meet their feeding goals, and that breastfeeding rates could be greatly improved with more dedicated funding for feeding support in-hospital and postpartum.
"For example, we have high rates of birth interventions that interfere with a baby's ability to breastfeed," Salvador-Watts said. "Many hospitals do not have enough lactation consultants to adequately support all breastfeeding families in their birthing population. It is then left to individual families to pay out of pocket for private lactation support as a result of these shortfalls."
She adds that families that have access to the best supports are more likely to meet their breastfeeding goals.
"Research says that population is more likely to be older, better educated and have higher incomes. Whereas younger parents, low-income parents, racialized and immigrant parents, are less likely to breastfeed."
Families should be respected in their decisions
When it comes to addressing feeding difficulties, Salvador-Watts — who is also a La Leche League Canada leader — follows the group's rules to support families. One of these includes keeping baby fed, whether it be by breastfeeding, using expressed milk, or formula. And if breastfeeding just doesn't work out, she says that's OK too. What matters most is that families know their options, are supported in their choice, and respected in their decisions.
Jewels says she wished her health care providers had told her that whatever she chose to do was OK back when she had her sons nearly 10 years ago.
"If formula is your choice, then do so. If you don't like breastfeeding, it doesn't make you a bad mom or a bad woman," she said. "Do what works for you and your family."
Nativ agrees, saying that looking back she wishes she knew that most moms struggle with breastfeeding, and that it doesn't always come naturally.
"Most moms need practice and time. In the end, the only thing that matters is that our baby is healthy, fed and happy."
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