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Q: I want to breastfeed my baby. But I’m not friends with anyone who breastfeeds, and my mom didn’t breastfeed me, so I don’t have any experience with it. I’ve heard that it’s a skill you learn as you go, but is there something I can do now, while I’m still pregnant, so that my learning curve isn’t so high?

A: The tide has really turned, hasn’t it?  When I was babysitting in the 1980’s, I didn’t know a single mom who breastfed. It was considered a relic of a less-advanced era and, like natural birth, something for unshaven hippie women, not the educated, middle class women that I worked for. 

But between emerging scientific understanding of the astounding health benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding and the difficulty of creating a comparable synthetic version, that mid-twentieth-century narrative has been turned on its head. Now breastfeeding is aspirational. Both the Centers for Disease Control in America and UNICEF UK report that breastfeeding is more common among women with higher levels of education, income, and career achievement.

But all is not smooth sailing, even for well-off mothers. In the U.S., 77% of all mothers initiate breastfeeding, but only 36% are still breastfeeding exclusively when their infant is three months old LINK. The decline is even sharper in the UK, where 83% of mothers initiate breastfeeding, but only 17% are still breastfeeding at three months LINK. Those numbers tell us that most mothers are getting the message that breastfeeding is ideal, so they try it, but most are unsuccessful. Why?

Breastfeeding may be natural, but – like childbirth – it’s pretty much a mystery to modern women like you. It just is not a part of daily life. It happens off stage, or under a cute curtain, not something you ever see until it’s your breast the baby is looking for. 

I have experienced both failure and success in breastfeeding my two children, and I want you to know that, while the learning curve is higher in breastfeeding, it is soworth it. Out of my experience, and in the course of my professional development as a birth and motherhood coach, I have developed a comprehensive strategy that will set you up for breastfeeding success – I struggled so you don’t have to!

Read. There are quite a few good books on breastfeeding, but my personal favorite is Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers, by Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, FILCA, and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC. This book delivers on the simplicity promised in the title and, as a result, helps mothers to feel more confident and calm about breastfeeding. 

Read specifically about biological, or “laid back,” breastfeeding.  

It is an approach to breastfeeding that takes advantage of all the newborn’s natural abilities and reflexes, while supporting her in all the ways she needs support, so that learning to breastfeed is easier. It’s no coincidence that it also helps the mother relax and facilitates mother-infant bonding. 

Watch. In your third trimester, check out breastfeeding support groups, like La Leche League, in your area and begin regularly attending the one you like best. Doing so will socializeyou into breastfeeding – make it less weird and foreign, more just a thing women like you do, and your subconscious mind will pick up on subtleties that book reading cannot teach you. (How much did you “get” driving before you ever sat behind the wheel, or intuit about cooking before you ever picked up a pot, because you’d watched it out of the corner of your eye for so long?). 

While you’re in these meetings, practice being relaxed– breathe deeply and release the tension in your muscles – and you will create an unconscious association of breastfeeding with relaxing. Get phone numbers from the moms you especially like. Not only will you make a friend, you’ll have a breastfeeding mentor– also called a “peer counselor.”

Online videos are another resource for watching, allowing you to study successful breastfeeding without anyone feeling weird about it. Look for videos posted by lactation professionals, and be sure to search for “Biological Breastfeeding.” Nancy Mohrbacher, whose book I mentioned above, has many such helpful videos.

Get Coaching from Pros and Peers. While you’re still pregnant, get to know the lactation professionalsin your area. Her credentials are important – an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) has the most advanced training – but so is rapport. Breastfeeding is intimate business and hard to do in the presence of someone who stresses you out. Put in your phone the number of one whose certification is current andwith whom you feel confident.

Not every breastfeeding difficulty needs professional intervention, however. Sometimes you just need encouragement, a calm, experienced, and trusted breastfeeding friend to sit there with you or talk you through it. This is called peer counseling, and your breastfeeding support group is a wonderful resource for it. According to World Breastfeeding Week, peer counseling increases confidence and breastfeeding success rates. They write, “Even when mothers are able to get off to a good start, all too often in the weeks or months after delivery there is a sharp decline in breastfeeding rates and practices, particularly exclusive breastfeeding. The period when mothers do not visit a healthcare facility is the time when a community support system for mothers is essential.”  

This was certainly true for me. I credit my best friend for my success in breastfeeding my second child. I called her every single time I put my son to the breast, and she talked me through the latch and kept me calm.

Enlist Family Support. All the successfully breastfeeding mothers I know give their partners lots of credit for making breastfeeding work. Simply put, in order to establish a successful breastfeeding relationship, baby has to be at the breast most of the time – not forever, but at first. That means that you won’t be able to do the stuff that you normally do. 

You’ll need help– the more, the better. If your support team (partner, family, friends) does not believe in what you are doing, you will feel it.  They may support you resentfully; encourage you to give baby formula under the guise of “giving yourself a break” or of giving them the opportunity to feed baby, too; they may even be slightly uncomfortable about breastfeeding. This may weaken your resolve. But if they believe in you and in what you’re doing, they’ll not only take care of you, they’ll encourage you when you’re down, giving you the strength to carry on with one more feeding.

In summary, the poor rates of breastfeeding success in the US and Britain do not mean that breastfeeding is impossible. Instead they point to a need for greater education, preparation, and wide-ranging support to modern mothers as they become reacquainted with this ancient art. 

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