I remember opening the package of my new electric double-breast pump, shortly before the birth of my first child, and holding up the plastic cups and tangled tubing while staring at my own reflection in the mirror.
I was supposed to strap these things on, with the help of the “hands-free pumping bustier” (complete with nipple cut-outs) and crank up the power dial? It looked more like a medieval torture device with a pornographic twist than a tool to feed and nourish my newborn.
A glance at the colorful insert showed a business woman happily typing away at her computer, sporting a stylish suit and conveniently pumping breast milk into two bottles as she multitasked. Although suspicious of the skinny, well-rested woman in the photo, I embraced the hopeful notion that fitting nursing into my busy professional life would be as easy as depicted.
The realities of nursing an infant were quite different. I was constantly sleep-deprived from around-the-clock feedings; suffered chapped and bleeding skin that made pumping excruciating; had to lug a giant bag of breast pumping supplies to work every day, then hide in the break room and hope nobody walked in (they did). Unlike in the pretty picture, my shirts were always spotted with milk and I could never escape that faint smell of sour spit-up that permeated all my clothing.
But oh, the joy of nourishing my baby in the best and healthiest way possible!
Six years later, after breastfeeding all three of my boys while juggling a full time career, let me be the first to say to that woman in the glossy photo: Shame on you for deceiving impressionable new mothers! Breastfeeding is not always easy. True, I know many mothers who found it as natural as breathing and effortlessly blended nursing into the rhythm of their daily routines. At times I felt that same euphoria, but other times I really struggled.
I wish someone had explained to me in those early days of motherhood that recognizing breastfeeding for what it is – an enormous commitment of love from a mother to her infant – would bolster my confidence and carry me through the frustrating and painful moments.
For baby, breast milk is nature’s magic concoction of exactly the right mixture of fat, sugar, water, and protein to nourish the tiny body. Scientists have not been able to duplicate the disease-fighting qualities in breast milk, so although formula is an acceptable alternative, it is not equal. Multiple studies have shown that natural human breast milk decreases an infant’s risk of infections, diabetes, asthma, and obesity. It is rich with Immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody passed from the mother that protects the infant until their own immune system can mature.
It’s great news that breastfeeding is on the rise in California as more mothers become educated about its benefits. The 2012 CDC breastfeeding report card stated that 56% of mothers in California are breastfeeding at their infant’s six-month mark, and 31% at one year.
For mothers who are discouraged, whether from low milk supply or difficulty in getting their infant to latch properly, there is help. La Leche League, established in 1956, is a world-wide group offering mother-to-mother support, encouragement, and education. Theirs was the number I called when I hit rock bottom trying to feed my two-week-old infant, and within the hour they had connected me with a woman who could teach and mentor me through the unfamiliar terrain. They told me that I wasn’t a failure just because I didn’t look like the woman in the glossy photo. Thanks to their support, I continued to breastfeed after all three of my pregnancies.
Another major advocate for breastfeeding in our county is the WIC program (Women, Infants, and Children), a division within the Public Health Department. WIC promotes breastfeeding as part of its larger mission to improve the nutritional status of low-income women and children, and does a phenomenal job supporting and educating mothers who choose to breastfeed. The national rate for exclusive breastfeeding among WIC recipients is 11%, but in the Santa Barbara County WIC program the rate is 34%. They employ International Board Certified lactation consultants who show mothers how breastfeeding saves money, promotes mother-child bonding, and is healthiest for their infant.
As for hiding in the break room at work, there are laws in most states that protect nursing mothers’ rights. In California, the law specifically allows women to breastfeed in any public or private location, exempts breastfeeding from public indecency laws, exempts nursing mothers from jury duty, and accommodates breastfeeding in the workplace. The more mothers nurse their babies in public, the more it becomes the norm and the better we can collectively support other women doing the same.
Breastfeeding improves the health of mothers and their children. If you are a mother who wishes to breastfeed, remember that there are experts in your community you can turn to no matter how your experience actually looks – glossy, milk-stained, or somewhere in between. We are cheering you on.
Charity Thoman, M.D., is a deputy health officer in Santa Barbara County's Public Health Department.