After working with hundreds of parents, I’ve heard them all.
Breastfeeding is a holistic way to care for your child — and feeding is not always about hunger! Babies also breastfeed for comfort, closeness, teething pain, and to put themselves to sleep. If you’re unsure about what your baby is unhappy about, breastfeeding is often the solution.
That said, there is a lot of misguided information out there about breastfeeding. I’ve been an international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) for 18 years now, and I’ve seen these myths get the best of too many.
Let me dispel some of the most common misconceptions I’ve heard.
It is never the fault of the parent if breastfeeding doesn’t work out! The fault lies in our medical system, which doesn’t provide new parents with the breastfeeding support they need from the get-go.
When a parent encounters difficulties with breastfeeding (which is very common), they might seek the help of a pediatrician. Often, a pediatrician won’t ask to observe the way the parent breastfeeds their child. Even if they did, they may not have the training needed to address breastfeeding-specific concerns.
Often, the parent’s first scheduled doctor’s visit isn’t until 6 weeks postpartum. But when they visit their OB-GYN, it’s often too late. By 6 weeks, the struggles with breastfeeding have usually been won or lost.
But this is never because of a failure on the parent’s part! If our medical system were trained for effective lactation consulting, perhaps some of these common challenges would be addressed before they became too overwhelming.
If you’re experiencing difficulties with breastfeeding, reach out to an international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC). An IBCLC is familiar with most everyday obstacles and will be able to offer suggestions and work with you to create a plan to meet your feeding goals. Search for one near you here.
There are countless benefits of breast milk:
That said, breast milk is only one part of a healthy lifestyle for your child. Breastfeeding has many long-term health advantages, but diet, exercise, and genetics all play a role in your baby’s health. Additionally, as any college student who survives on pizza and Top Ramen can attest, humans are shockingly good at living on all types of food.
Formula will not ruin your baby. However, two things can both be true: 1) babies can thrive on formula, and 2) there will never be a formula that can come close to the complexity and elegance of human milk.
Breast milk is a living substance. It changes to meet the baby’s needs throughout the day. For example, in the evening, a lactating body will produce
Still, formula isn’t evil. In circumstances where formula is necessary or a choice, the bottom line is this: Formula is food. Formula will feed your baby. But breast milk not only nourishes, it creates a foundation for lifelong health.
Pain is common, but it’s never normal.
It is true that breastfeeding is often uncomfortable in the first week or two. Beyond that, extremely painful lactation, bloody nipples, or damaged nipples are never normal and should be treated.
Many of these painful problems can be due to a common issue with a baby’s oral tissues called ankyloglossia, or tongue-tie. If you suspect that your baby has tongue-tie, visit with a lactation consultant to assess feeding function. If the IBCLC sees something of concern, they’ll refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) or a pediatric dentist. These specialists are qualified to assess, diagnose and treat tongue-tie.
Some other causes of pain while breastfeeding are poor positioning of the baby while feeding, a vascular condition called vasospasm, or inverted nipples.
If you think you may have one of these problems, again — contact an IBCLC, who can assess your specific situation and help make breastfeeding much less painful.
This notion creates a culture of shame around parents who are unable to produce enough milk. Some healthcare providers even contribute; it’s often suggested that if you don’t make 100 percent of your baby’s milk, you should stop trying altogether.
There are a number of factors that can make milk production challenging. Blood loss during birth, retained placenta, hormonal imbalances, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or being over the age of 35 are all potential causes.
Yet there are solutions to some of these problems! Feeding more frequently or being prescribed the right medications and supplements can improve milk supply. As always, contact an IBCLC — they’ll be able to help you maximize your milk supply.
However, supplementing your own milk with formula or donor milk is not a bad thing! It’s thought that as little as 3 ounces of a parent’s own breast milk is enough to make a positive health difference.
Never feel ashamed about needing to supplement your milk supply with formula! Occasionally, it’s necessary.
The amount you are able to pump depends on the kind of pump, the proper fit of pump parts according to your nipple size, and the quality of the pump. With a good pump, we can get some information about how much milk you’re making, but even that isn’t the whole story.
Some people just don’t respond as well to pumping as others. Often, your baby is just better at eliciting milk from the breast than any pump.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents who are ill with COVID-19 should continue to breastfeed their babies. There is already one study confirming that breast milk does not transmit the COVID-19 virus.
Not only is breastfeeding with COVID-19 safe, it could potentially benefit your baby. As with all illnesses, long before your COVID-19 symptoms appear, the body of the lactating parent begins fighting the illness by producing antibodies that can be passed to the baby via breast milk.
On the flip side, babies give signals to the parent’s body via their saliva. When a baby encounters a pathogen orally and then breastfeeds, their saliva is transmitted into the breast and the parent’s body begins to make antibodies to protect the baby— whether or not they themselves have the pathogen!
Breastfeeding can keep your baby safe, whether you or the baby are already sick.
Most medications are perfectly compatible with breastfeeding. Some common medications prescribed post-birth are antibiotics, pain medications, and anesthesia.
Antibiotics can upset or change a baby’s stool temporarily, but this isn’t harmful. Most pain medications cross into breast milk in such extremely small quantities that it usually isn’t an issue. Anesthesia is very fast acting and clears a parent’s system quickly, so this is also not a problem.
Dr. Thomas Hale, one of the nation’s leading researchers on medications and breast milk, has verified that all of these medications are safe to consume during lactation.
Even alcohol is safe while breastfeeding if it used responsibly. The AAP recommends that the safest way to drink alcohol while breastfeeding is to feed or pump prior to drinking. Alcohol does cross into breast milk, but it immediately crosses back into the parent’s bloodstream and is metabolized, so it doesn’t stay present in breast milk long.
If you are unsure about a medication you are taking, an IBCLC can give you the most current safety information. You can also check
Some breastfed babies are able to sleep long stretches, but many are not. Typically, for a breastfed baby, “sleeping through the night” actually looks like sleeping for one 4- to 5-hour stretch between feeds.
If your baby is waking frequently, they might be hungry, teething, needing time with you or your partner, or going through a developmental milestone (like rolling over or crawling).
The reality is that for most breastfeeding families (or really any family with a baby), sleepiness is inevitable. The important thing is that you have a plan. If you’re feeling tired and worry you might fall asleep while feeding your baby, go to bed! It’s much safer than a falling asleep on a couch where baby could fall off. The AAP’s guidelines for safe sleep will help you make the best decision for your child.
Babies can’t be allergic to breast milk, but they can be intolerant to things the parent is eating. Some babies are intolerant to proteins in their parent’s diet — such as dairy, eggs, or tree nuts — which can cause an upset stomach or more spit-up.
Rarely, a baby can have an allergy to something in the parent’s diet and it causes eczema. If this is the case, the offending food will need to be eliminated.
Before you start eliminating all possible foods from your diet, examine if there’s a food you’re eating every day. One mother I worked with used to drink a protein shake with pea powder every morning and it made her baby very gassy and uncomfortable. The problem was solved as soon as she limited it to one to two shakes a week.
Ideally, a parent would eat a wide variety of proteins to keep the baby healthy. The food you eat also influences your baby because it can flavor breast milk and teach them about the foods your family eats.
Some other myths say that lactating parents should avoid spicy foods, citrus, chocolate, or cruciferous vegetables, all of which are completely false! A balanced diet is always the safest route and if you’re worried your baby is “allergic” to breast milk, take a look at your own diet first! That’s where the problem and solution lie.
Don’t believe everything you hear about breastfeeding, especially from unreliable or untrained sources. There are a lot of myths out there that are not only untrue, but potentially harmful for the newly breastfeeding parent.
Breastfeeding is a process, but when you work out the challenges of the early weeks, it becomes intuitive and can make parenting both easier and more nourishing.
Amanda Ogden has been practicing for over 20 years as nurse and lactation consultant — both in the hospital setting and in private practice. She opened the mama ‘hood Denver in 2012 along with her partners Allison and Linda to serve as a hub for new families to receive comprehensive, nonjudgmental support dosed with humor and practicality. Amanda spends her time deconstructing current paradigms and looking at them through an anthropological lens while using cutting-edge, evidence-based clinical care to help solve breastfeeding challenges. The mama ‘hood has an internship program to train other breastfeeding professionals in her philosophy. Core classes are available online and can be found at www.themamahood.com. You can reach Amanda directly at email@example.com