Pressure to Breastfeed

October 4, 2012

Can most women produce enough milk for their baby/babies?

Before I gave birth, a friend told me that she thought all women, with few exceptions, could produce enough milk for their babies.  This seems like it should be true given that breastfeeding is natural and we should have evolved to produce what our babies need (we should also have evolved to make childbirth less painful, but that’s a different post …), but lately, I’ve been wondering if this is true.  Uncharacteristically, I haven’t read the latest medical journal articles about this, so these are just my musings.

I am fortunate enough to produce enough milk for twins and even extra to donate without having to spend all day pumping or taking supplements.  On the other hand, I have been donating milk to a mom whose daughter was born three months early, who pumps ALL the time, and takes tons of supplements.  I also donate to another mom to twin boys who pumps all the time, including through the night, and only gets a couple ounces each time.  (To give you a sense of twin mom output, I get 6-8 ounces if I am pumping every 2-3 hours.)  I also hear about problems twin moms are having pretty often on my twin club listserv.  This is obviously not a statistically significant sample, but it does make me think that there are moms out there who can’t produce enough milk and not for their lack of effort.

What about women who don’t?

I feel really lucky that I haven’t had any problems other than the first couple of weeks when we gave our preemie babies some formula, but I also feel terrible about the pressure women put on themselves and each other to nurse.  Not so long ago, people thought formula was better for babies, but when I was pregnant, I was inundated with the message from my doctors, books, and online forums that breastfeeding was the key to success.  I was starting to believe that if I didn’t breastfeed, my babies would be meth-addicted, high school dropouts.  Then i remembered that I was formula fed and am doing just fine!

I do believe that breastmilk is better for babies than formula, but I wonder about how this impacts women who want to breastfeed, but have problems doing so.  I know that breastfeeding is hard at first and I know lots of women probably give up because it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient, but I know that the two women I donate to have gone, and still go, above and beyond to give their babies as much breastmilk as possible.  I worry about how the stress of not producing enough milk or any milk has on a mother who wants to breastfeed and her baby/babies.

I hope public health advocates can find a way to get the “breast is best” message across without making moms feel like formula is poison and a sign that they don’t care about their babies’ wellbeing.