Family Health

Weighing the Benefits of Breastfeeding (and What to Do If There's a Problem)

The benefits of breastfeeding have been thoroughly studied and documented: A baby's immune system is supported by antibodies in breast milk, which contains ideally balanced nutrients and is easy for the baby's developing digestive system to process. These facts pose a strong argument for the support of breastfeeding newborns -- but what about when breastfeeding isn't possible? There are obvious situations in which breastfeeding is not an option, such as when the birth mother is not the person raising the child. It might also be a matter of the mother not being able to produce milk or the child not being strong enough to retrieve it.

Case by Case

I was well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding when my baby was born, and I had every intention of breastfeeding her for a full year. It wasn't easy for me, though; it was much too painful. As it turns out, I had breast cancer, so I had to wean her quickly to prepare for my mastectomy, and then the chemotherapy. While this may seem like an obvious reason to stop breastfeeding, it didn't stop me from feeling guilty, and it didn't protect me from the barrage of social media messages that suggested I was failing because I didn't continue breastfeeding at all costs.

Every mother is unique, and while our bodies operate under similar principals, our capabilities still vary from person to person. Some mothers have early difficulties and still go on to successfully breastfeed their child, but some mothers may never be able to breastfeed. Either way, all new moms need and deserve support for nourishing their children, whether they are fed with breast milk or formula.

5 Tips for Women Experiencing Difficulty with Breastfeeding

  1. Ask for help as early as possible. The concept of breastfeeding may sound simple, but in practice it can be frustrating. Mothers may benefit from expert coaches such as maternity nurses and lactation consultants. These professionals can help solve many specific problems. Many women are able to successfully breastfeed their babies after a troublesome start, so getting help early may help prevent an issue from developing into a bigger problem.
  2. Be sure your baby is correctly latched. A good latch is one of the most important elements for successful breastfeeding. For a good latch, the baby should have at least a half-inch of breast in her mouth along with the nipple. If the baby just has the nipple, breastfeeding will be both ineffective and painful for you.
  3. A change of position may improve the experience. There are a number of different positions for breastfeeding, and each mother and child will have their own favorite. Different positions provide variation in how the milk flows and how the baby is receiving it. A simple adjustment may make this process much easier.
  4. Consider changing your timing. Some babies may need more frequent, shorter feedings, while others may benefit from becoming a little hungry. A change in the feeding schedule may help you both find a better rhythm.
  5. Keep your pediatrician in the loop. Tell your pediatrician if you're having issues with breastfeeding. It's especially important to monitor the baby's weight and watch for signs of dehydration. Additionally, the baby may have other needs that are exacerbating the breastfeeding issue, some of which can be easily corrected.

Other Options

When breastfeeding is not possible, infant formula provides the necessary nutrients for babies to grow healthy and strong. Despite the myth that formula-fed babies don't bond with their mothers, babies can form strong bonds with a loving parent regardless of their food source.

In a recent NPR article, obstetrician Maliha Sayla discussed her difficulty breastfeeding her two children. Despite her training, she was not able to sustain breastfeeding. Sayla eventually chose to stop when her son was displaying signs of dehydration and the feeding schedule allowed her no time to sleep. This was not a decision she took lightly, but her son's health (and her own) was being challenged by the attempt to feed him only breast milk.

More important than anything else is the well-being of the baby and the mother, and if attempts at breastfeeding jeopardize that, some changes are in order. A lactation consultant will suggest ways to ease the difficulty of breastfeeding or offer a strategy of pumping and supplementing with formula that may work. It may also be necessary to exclusively formula-feed. Ultimately, it's up to the parents to determine the best way to nurture and nourish the baby while maintaining the mother's health, too.

Posted in Family Health

Judy Schwartz Haley is a freelance writer and blogger. She grew up in Alaska and now makes her home in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. Judy battled breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, and now she devotes much of her free time to volunteering as a state leader with the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.