Pressure To Breastfeed – Where Does It Come From?

Pressure To Breastfeed – Where Does It Come From?

Being a new mother is not easy.

You’ve given birth to your pride and joy, someone for whom you feel unconditional love.

You want to do everything ‘right’.

Yet at times it can feel as though you’re on an emotional roller coaster ride where you experience a range of emotions – from exhilarating joy, to sheer frustration, or a deep angst that makes you question everything you’re doing.

The Pressure To Breastfeed

The early months can be exhausting and unrelenting as you learn how to care for your baby.

Breastfeeding, like any new skill, can take time to master. You are unique and so is your individual breastfeeding journey.

Some mothers feel intense pressure to breastfeed. But where does this pressure come from? And how can it be dealt with?

Rules About Breastfeeding Contribute To The Pressure To Breastfeed

Leading health organisations such as Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the American Academy of Pediatrics  and the World Health Organization all recommend exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months (or ‘around’ 6 months) and then for solids to be introduced while breastfeeding continues for at least one year.

No-one questions the importance of breastfeeding, which is why the above recommendations are there.

But there seem to be so many rules about breastfeeding! For example, you must not breastfeed:

  • Too often
  • Too early (i.e. no colostrum)
  • For too long
  • In particular places
  • Too revealingly
  • As a dummy
  • After your baby gets teeth
  • If you smoke
  • At work
  • If you’ve consumed alcohol
  • If your diet is poor
  • If you’re too large, or too thin

With all these rules, it’s not really surprising that women experience pressure in relation to breastfeeding.

Another factor adding to the pressure to breastfeed is the view that breastfeeding is part of being a ‘good’ mother.

Women Want To Be ‘Good’ Mothers

It’s typically during pregnancy that a woman makes the decision to breastfeed.

She is largely influenced by social attitudes towards breastfeeding, and her knowledge about the importance of breastfeeding for her own, and her child’s health.

Some women might regard breastfeeding as an attribute of being a ‘good’ mother.

They might experience pressure to breastfeed, and then feel distress, shame, or anger if breastfeeding doesn’t work out as they planned.

They might feel like a failure as a mother, because they can’t achieve their own ideal of what constitutes being a ‘good’ mother.

Could the promotion of breastfeeding contribute to these feelings of failure, or even contribute to depressive symptoms?

Breastfeeding Promotion And Depressive Symptoms

Breastfeeding promotion is important for public health.

It aims to increase the number of women who initiate breastfeeding and view it as important.

However, when breastfeeding doesn’t work out the way they had planned, some mothers experience significant and lingering grief, and feelings of guilt, shame and failure. And, for these mothers, breastfeeding promotion can feel like an attack.

But could breastfeeding promotion cause distress associated with early weaning?

Given the physiological mechanisms associated with postnatal depression, it’s unlikely that social factors are the sole cause of depressive symptoms associated with early weaning.

So, how can mothers be supported without undermining the importance of breastfeeding?

All Mothers Need To Feel Supported

For mothers to be able to reach their breastfeeding goals, they need supportive friends and family around them. They also need health professionals who are skilled in the field of lactation, and a community that recognises mothering as an important job.

For any mother who is experiencing breastfeeding challenges, or who has weaned earlier than she wanted to, communication that acknowledges and respects her thoughts and feelings can help her self-confidence.

Unconditional acceptance of a mother’s individual values lets her feel that her decision and her grief are valid.

It’s important to acknowledge that the physiological ability to breastfeed is only one part of being able to breastfeed. Sometimes, individual circumstances override population level risks.

Finally, it’s important to remember that being a mother is so much more than about how your baby is fed.

There is absolutely no connection between being a ‘good’ mother and how you feed your baby.

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Renee Kam IBCLC CONTRIBUTOR

Renee Kam is mother to Jessica and Lara, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), a physiotherapist, author of 'The Newborn Baby Manual' and an Australian Breastfeeding Association Counsellor. In her spare time, Renee enjoys spending time with family and friends, horse riding, running and reading.


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