Breast milk is the best first and exclusive food for babies for the first six months of life. Yet, despite this message having been widely shared across the United States, we still struggle as a nation to keep breastfeeding beyond the first few weeks and months. Let's take a look at the most recent 2016 statistics, as provided in the Centers for Disease (CDC) Breastfeeding Report Card:
- Mothers who have ever breastfed: 81.1%
- Mothers who have are still breastfeeding at 6 months: 51.8%
- Mothers still breastfeeding at 1 year: 30.7%
- Mothers breastfeeding exclusively through 3 months: 44.4%
- Mothers breastfeeding exclusively through 6 months: 22.3%
We're making progress, but we have a ways to go. The reality is, there are significant challenges that families experience on their breastfeeding journey, and our culture is not one that does a good job of providing the best foundation and support. Let's take a look at some of the most common reasons cited for stopping breastfeeding.
Pain - Experiencing pain during breastfeeding (from mild to excruciating) is one of the biggest reasons why people stop. Whether it's due to a poor latch or mastitis, pain from breastfeeding often can be corrected and healed, but it takes time, persistence, professional support, and, more pain (before the pain goes away). Even with the right support professionally and at home, it's not easy to push through this process. Without the right support, people hear things like, "Just give him a bottle already!" and are not motivated or encouraged to keep going, let alone seek out good support.
Going back to work - Juggling breastfeeding, pumping, and going back to work is more challenging than just breastfeeding alone. It can be -- and is! -- done by many around the world. But, a person's success depends largely on their knowledge of how to successfully pump at work, support from employers, and encouragement and support at home. When the going gets tough, it's key to have those around you say things like, "How can I help?" instead of "Why are you making this so hard on yourself -- just switch to formula!"
Low milk supply - Whether milk supply is perceived as low or truly is low (often due to supplementing and not feeding on demand, which also present barriers to continuing breastfeeding), a parent's fear that they cannot supply enough food for their child can be an all-consuming stress. When the choice is formula or "not enough" breast milk, the answer is obvious. Low supply can be corrected, however. It takes time, perseverance, good professional intervention, and support at home.
Too complicated/difficult/time consuming - As the saying goes, "breastfeeding may be natural, but it doesn't always come 'naturally.'" There is a learning curve to breastfeeding success. And for those who aren't part of a circle -- mothers, sisters, friends -- with breastfeeding experience, the learning and proper support and encouragement will be that much more difficult to come by.
How to Continue Breastfeeding When the Odds Aren't in Your Favor
There are four themes that emerge from the most common reasons why people quit breastfeeding. From these, it's logical to see the most important elements needed to continue breastfeeding. They are:
Knowledge - In order to be successful at and continue breastfeeding, you need to know and truly understand the mechanics of breastfeeding. Take a class in pregnancy. Read a book or two. Review the information when your baby is born and when you're actively engaged in feeding. Visit evidence-based breastfeeding information websites like KellyMom and Stanford Medicine's "Getting Started with Breastfeeding."
Professional help - Meet with the lactation consultant at least once, but preferably twice during your hospital stay. Find out if the hospital offers post-birth breastfeeding support when you go home, like a call in or in-person visit. Before birth, find the name of a good lactation consultant in your area who will do phone consultations and in-person visits. They should have the designation "IBCLC" or "CLC" after their name. For those really struggling to breastfeed, specific, hands-on assistance from a breastfeeding consultant can often help solve the issues and allow you to continue.
Support at home/from loved ones - This cannot be understated. If those around you don't support your desire and ability to breastfeed, you are much more likely to quit. If no one around you understands or supports breastfeeding, seek out those who do, like in an online group or in-person mothers' breastfeeding support group, like those offered by La Leche League.
Commitment - When experiencing breastfeeding challenges like the ones listed above, it takes a high level of determination and commitment to keep moving forward. Commitment certainly isn't the only required element to continue breastfeeding, but it's part of the package. Without a strong commitment or "want" to continue breastfeeding, the foundation for why you're doing what your doing erodes and all other efforts become useless.