One Moms Story of Why Breastfeeding Support Matters
Written by Seattle area mom, birth doula and breastfeeding activist, Julia Lacy
There is a piece of legislation (House Bill 2329) working its way through the policy-making process this week, hopefully on its way to becoming law. This bill would create a designation system for hospitals that take steps to supporting and promoting breastfeeding.
This piqued my interest for two reasons. 1) As a birth doula and breastfeeding cheerleader/activist, I believe deeply in the multitude of reasons why breastfeeding is important to both mothers and babies, and support anything that could help a woman achieve success breastfeeding–however she personally defines it; and 2) As a breastfeeding mother for most of the past 34 months, I’ve experienced my own ups and downs and have had firsthand experience with how said institutions can make or break success. As such, the importance of this type of legislation, which keeps businesses motivated and holds them accountable in their support (or lack thereof) for breastfeeding, is crystal clear to me.
Here in the United States, many women already have an uphill battle when it comes to establishing and succeeding at breastfeeding. With no mandated maternity leave, and many employers providing dismal (at best) accommodations for pumping (i.e., the bathroom stall), it’s no wonder that the rate of mothers exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months (the WHO recommendation) is less than 17%. When the myriad of other obstacles a mother might face are taken into consideration (pain, lack of familial support, dietary concerns, postpartum hormones, exhaustion, etc.), it becomes evident that finding support in her community is a clear method to help a breastfeeding mother succeed.
I feel very fortunate to live in the Seattle area, where breastfeeding resources are at my fingertips and where breastfeeding is widely accepted and normalized; but I also know that my experiences are unique and fortunate.
I’ve been breastfeeding since May 2011 when my daughter was born. After a three month maternity leave, I returned to work for six months until I chose to turn in my badge to stay home with her. I continued to breastfeed her until she was about 20 months old, when she could no longer share my lap with my 7 month-pregnant belly. Since last April, I’ve been nursing my son (some days, nonstop it seems!) and pumping on occasion, mostly for his big sister, who still loves her “mama milk.” My original goal was simply to breastfeed my baby girl for maybe a year or so, but as time went on, I became uncomfortable with the idea of weaning her. My goal shifted to letting her, and any future nurslings, self-wean. Although her weaning was more circumstantial (my milk was mostly gone by then anyway), I feel that my plan was successful. My hope for my son is that he breastfeeds until he decides he is done. Ten and a half months in, we are well on our way.
Over the course of my two journeys, I’ve had two experiences with institutions which I am certain either helped save, or fully saved, my breastfeeding relationships. The first experience was after I went back to work after having my daughter. My employer was incredibly accommodating. Now, I certainly recognize that part of my success in pumping 2 or 3 times a day was also due to an individual manager who fully supported my breastfeeding, as well as a job title in which I had the flexibility of setting my own schedule. If these things hadn’t been true, I’m not sure I would have succeeded at dedicating enough time to pumping, which in turn could certainly have sabotaged my breastfeeding goals. As it was, my employer had set up dozens of pumping rooms in our building – each equipped with everything from individual stalls and comfortable chairs, to miniature kitchenettes with sinks, cabinets and refrigerators, and even a hospital grade pump you could use if you had compatible parts. There were also stacks of magazines to flip through while pumping, and bulletin boards where mamas would proudly display pictures of their babies. Questions weren’t asked of women who went in to these rooms and I never saw any of these women express frustration over an unsupportive work environment. I am positive that thousands of breastfeeding relationships have been saved by this particularly accommodating employer. And it certainly makes sense for employers to provide mothers with these sorts of accommodations—happy employees are more productive employees, and research has shown that breastfeeding mothers are less likely to take time off from work, as their babies are less likely to be sick. I give full credit to my former employer for their support of my breastfeeding relationship, and can say with certainty that if I’d not had that support, my long term goals would not have been met.
My second crucial experience with institutionalized support happened after the premature birth of my son. When he was admitted to the NICU on enough respiratory support that I was unable to even hold him during the first three days of his life, my jumbled thoughts eventually came around to breastfeeding. Being aware of how critical the first days can be in establishing a good breastfeeding relationship, I knew that by not having skin-to-skin contact or establishing nursing within the first hour of his life, we would already have some early obstacles to overcome. I was concerned about everything: my milk coming in, him learning how to suck, maintaining a pumping schedule, etc. It turned out that I needn’t have been so concerned–our hospital went above and beyond in ensuring that they did everything in their power to help me reach my goals.
Whereas some hospitals fall short of providing proper breastfeeding support to new mothers – even sabotaging breastfeeding by unnecessarily providing formula or other such efforts – my experience was the opposite. I had a stream of visits from lactation consultants on staff. They helped me work through severe pain and clogged ducts and brought me everything from vials of olive oil to soothe me and help heal, to the correct-sized pumping flanges. I had nurses work with me to determine his feeding schedule so that I could be present at almost every single one. I had nurses wake me when it was time to nurse and help me with all the necessary adjustments and measurements so that my only focus could be feeding my boy. I will always remember the sound of nurses cheering for us in the hallway after a particularly voluminous feed.
I was lucky to have the experiences that I had breastfeeding my two kids. I knew it then, and I especially know it now. Not everyone has the support that I had, which is why almost unilaterally, breastfeeding bills such as the one currently in discussion should be passed and supported.