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Just like riding a bike

If breastfeeding is supposed to be natural, why are so many moms having trouble?

Lately in the popular press, Iíve been seeing more and more descriptions of the difficulties and frustrations moms are encountering in their early weeks breastfeeding their babies. Sadly, this kind of difficulty seems to be more and more common as more women are choosing to feed their children the ďnatural wayĒ. How can this be? Breastfeeding is supposed to be natural, itís not supposed to hurt, and itís not supposed to require an army of helpers and equipment to make it work Ė whatís the matter with us?

Letís take a little walk in the land of analogy Ė humor me on this. Imagine that youíve heard of this great thing called a bicycle. Itís great exercise, saves fuel Ė what a neat thing, maybe Iíll try it! The only problem is youíve never actually seen a bicycle or seen one being ridden, and nobody you know has managed to ride one either. You have one friend who tried to ride one once, but she fell off a lot and you can still remember the awful scabs on her legs. But, you know that there are a lot of places you could get to on a bicycle, and you like the idea of a healthier transportation choice, so you go out and buy a bicycle, funny shorts, a helmet and a bunch of books on how to ride a bicycle, determined to learn on your own. Maybe this is an awkward metaphor for breastfeeding Ė but have you noticed whatís missing? The person who runs alongside you, holding up the bicycle as you take your first tentative pedal strokes.

All through history, women have had these teachers running alongside them as they learned to breastfeed. When you nursed your first baby, you were supported by your mother, your grandmother, your aunts, cousins and sisters, all of whom had breastfed their babies. They were there to show you how, to provide encouragement, to run alongside holding you up.  There was a wealth of information that had been passed down through the generations about how breastfeeding worked. The collective breastfeeding knowledge was vast, and we knew how to hold each other up!

To milk the bicycle analogy for all itís worth (sorry, pun intended), think about your exposure to bicycles before you ever rode one. You probably saw them just about every day, your parents rode bikes at least once in a while, and you wanted to learn so you could get out with the other kids in the neighborhood (who you saw every day). You had a certain knowledge of what riding a bike would look like before you even tried. Letís wander back to life 100 years ago Ė breastfeeding was like that. Families were larger, and most babies were born at home. That meant that from your earliest consciousness, you were exposed to breastfeeding. You saw your siblings or nieces and nephews breastfed. You watched breastfeeding with the boldness of a child Ė you put your head right by the motherís breast, you watched the babyís mouth, you absorbed breastfeeding into your knowledge of how the world worked.

Skip ahead to the 21st century Ė did you ever see a baby breastfed when you were a child? Do you remember it? Were you told not to look? Many of us stop being around babies by the time weíre teenagers, and most donít see babies through high school, college, our first jobs, and well through our 20s. Even if we babysit, weíre with the baby when the mother is gone, so itís not like we see a lot of breastfeeding. Had you ever watched a mother breastfeed before you tried it on your own? I know I had only seen it from a distance.

And now here you are, a new mother. Women have been breastfeeding since there have been women and babies, but never have we been so distanced from the other women in our families and community. These days, most of us donít live in the same town as our mothers (thank goodness, right?) and many of our mothers didnít breastfeed us. Doctors are often not adequately trained in breastfeeding, we hear lots of contradictory advice, and many of us are surrounded by forces that will try to undermine breastfeeding. Just think about those formula ads promising happy quiet babies, free samples delivered to your door, grandmothers questioning if your baby is getting enoughÖ oh, the list goes on and on. There are those around you telling you why it will be hard and why you will fail, and the bottle is the panacea for all things baby. This never happened when breastfeeding was necessary for survival! And, to get the last drop from my analogy, have you ever heard a parent tell a child learning to ride a bike, ďdonít worry, if you donít figure it out Iíll just drive you everywhere?Ē

So where does that leave us? Usually alone, but we donít have to be. Lactation consultants can help us through the technicalities of the early days, but we can also help ourselves. Pregnant women find that spending time with babies helps them realize that every baby is different, and any book that promises your baby will behave in any certain way has obviously not consulted with your particular child. Accepting babies as individuals allows us to accept an afternoon fussy time as a personality quirk, albeit an unpleasant one, rather than an imperative to fight your baby to the breast (with the only alternative being a bottle). Allow yourself more help Ė the pioneer myth of baking bread for breakfast, having a baby at noon, and planting new crops in the afternoon is a lie that we donít need to live up to. If we invite those caring souls in our lives into our homes to cook and clean for us for just a few days, those panicked postpartum days can begin to feel like a nurtured retreat from the world, which is how it should be. And finally, the medical practitioners we see in the hospital need to recognize that we are going home with breastfeeding largely unsupported. Earlier follow-up, formalized ties to community breastfeeding support, prescriptions for lactation consultant follow up when a mom leaves the hospital with breastfeeding only marginally established will all help moms get through the early days without feeling so alone.

Yes, I will freely admit that the breastfeeding advocates can be a little hard-core about not giving bottles, but itís only because most of us have seen the progression of one bottle to two to five to no breastfeeding at all as mothers lose confidence in their ability to nurture their own children. If a mom makes an informed decision to give her baby formula, thatís her choice. But Iíll be right there alongside her fighting for breastfeeding to be as easy as riding a bike.


Copyright© 2005 Kirsten Berggren. All Rights Reserved.