Updated: May 10
Even though breastfeeding seems to be as natural as it sounds, a lot of women are faced with obstacles in trying to breastfeed exclusively and successfully. With more women entering the workforce and limited maternity leave available for mothers in several countries, breastfeeding began to take a back seat and is gradually replaced with formula feeding.
A pediatric cost analysis study found out that if only 90% of families in the US follow exclusive breastfeeding for six months, the country would save approximately $13 billion a year and prevent approximately 911 deaths. Of course – we are all too familiar with the benefits of breastfeeding and among that is decreased risk for infections and diseases. Sad to note, 80% of American women try breastfeeding, but only 20% end up exclusively breastfeeding their babies up to six months. With this in mind, what might be the most common obstacles to breastfeeding?
Lack of knowledge and misinformation.
While most mothers know that breastmilk is best for their babies, a lot of mothers appear to lack knowledge regarding the specific benefits of breastmilk and the risks that come with not breastfeeding. For instance, a recent study found out that 36% of the mothers participating in the study do not know that breastfeeding protects the baby against diarrhea. Another study found out that a number of mothers think that infant formula is equivalent to that of breastmilk. Apparently, misinformation and lack of knowledge pose a huge barrier for mothers to choose breastfeeding.
And this is not just limited to the facts about breastmilk, but also a number of mothers are not confident on how to properly breastfeed and what to expect with breastfeeding. Though breastfeeding is supposedly an instinctive act, there are a lot of things that come with breastfeeding that one has to be prepared for as well. A word of caution though: breastfeeding may not come as easy as a walk in the park!
Breastfeeding is a personalized, customized experience between a mother and her baby, as both are learning and adjusting to one another. Breastfeeding is both a skill and an art. Thus, no breastfeeding journey is going to be exactly the same among all mothers. It is particularly important to surround yourself with mothers who have the same goal as yours for you to become more motivated and confident.
This problem led to the rise of breastfeeding support groups all over the world. With all the unsolicited opinions hovering all around us, we, as mothers, can choose to empower ourselves by researching and knowing more about breastfeeding as early as the 2nd and 3rd trimesters. We can enroll in lactation classes and groups to make us more confident in taking care of our bundle of joy when the time comes. Knowing what to expect and surrounding yourself with the right people will play a huge part in a successful breastfeeding journey.
Social norms and embarrassment.
With the rise of bottle-feeding and improved infant formula, the norm has instead shifted to bottle-feeding instead of breastfeeding. The prevalent introduction to substitutes for breastmilk is responsible for the expansion of this social norm.
Traditional practices also play a large part. In some societies, the art of breastfeeding is passed on from generation to generation. Breastfeeding is frequently observed, and grandmothers often pass on nursing advice to their daughters and daughters-in-law. However, a lot of grandmothers today lack first-hand experience when it comes to breastfeeding since they too have bottle-fed their children in their time.
And to add to the existing social norms on bottle-feeding is the inability to freely breastfeed in public places. A study in 2001 showed that only 43% of participants believed that women should have the right to breastfeed even in public places. Women often feel reluctant because many have been asked to stop breastfeeding or asked to leave. In a culture where breasts are considered primarily as sexual objects, breastfeeding in public places will always be stigmatized and women will generally continue to feel uncomfortable tapping into the nurturing aspect of their breasts.
Lack of support.
There is so much truth to the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”. Women who are surrounded by friends who breastfeed are most likely to breastfeed successfully as well. In the same manner, negative attitudes of the family and friends can discourage a mother from breastfeeding.
Fathers need to express full support to their partners especially on handling household responsibilities while she breastfeeds. We all know that breastfeeding takes up a mother’s entire time, especially when newborns are most likely to demand feeding within an hour or two.
Research has documented that fathers are likely to play a major influence in successful breastfeeding. A randomized controlled trial was conducted involving a two-hour prenatal intervention with fathers regarding how to express support for their partner who is breastfeeding. Results showed that there is a way significantly higher rate of breastfeeding initiation among the participants’ partners (74%), compared to that of partners of controls (14%). In another study, 25% of mothers whose partners participated in a program regarding how to avoid and address common lactation problems were noted to be still breastfeeding at six months, in contrast to 15% of women whose partners were only aware of the benefits of breastfeeding.
So yes, partners need to be proactive and to be informed! The first months postpartum is critical and the tribe needs to fully support the mother, whether it may be as simple as taking over household chores or making sure she is fed at the right time with the right food! Everybody in the household is of the essence to make breastfeeding work.
Problems with latching and other lactation problems.
There are a lot of lactation problems that may be encountered by mothers, and for first-time mothers, this can be very overwhelming. Most often, these problems include sore nipples, engorged breasts, mastitis, leaking milk, pain, and even failure of the infant to latch. It is in times like this that professional help is of the essence.
One frequently overlooked problem is that when an infant has a tongue-tie, which actually affects 15% of newborns. Tongue-tie is a condition where a thick band of tissue limits the movement of the tongue. It makes latching difficult and very painful, and healthcare providers need to support parents of infants with this condition. More often, the right information goes a long way, and mothers will be encouraged to help their babies learn how to latch despite the tongue-tie.
Short maternity leave or early return to work
This is particularly difficult for first-time mothers. Finding the right space and time for pumping, and working around unpredictable schedules, make breastfeeding more difficult. This is why laws around the workplace, and the provision of breastfeeding nooks, are part of a breastfeeding-friendly environment that can contribute to breastfeeding success. It takes a lot of commitment and guts to continue pumping breast milk while one is at work, but it's all going to be worth it! So if you notice your workplace lacking these facilities, you can approach your human resource department to help you find – and equip – the right corner. Who knows, other mothers will be more grateful to you for it!
Again, breastfeeding may not be as easy as it sounds. It requires commitment and a whole tribe to make it work. It is an achievable mission given the right mindset, the right environment, and the right attitude!