by Jennifer Hafele, M.Ed., IBCLC, Mama Bear Family Care
“You did not fail. No woman ‘fails’ to breastfeed. They are failed by a system that fails to support them, both during breastfeeding and when they cannot. And that is what we are going to change.” ~ Dr. Amy Brown, Why Breastfeeding Grief & Trauma Matter
I am an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in private practice. Supporting families in their infant-feeding journeys is what I do. I LOVE it and consider it an honor and privilege.
But you know what I don’t love? I don’t love apologizing for things that were not my fault. These mothers deserve an acknowledgement, explanation, apology for how the system let them down. I hear their disappointment, pain, and anger; I am grateful to be trusted with their vulnerability.
See, moms are set up to fail.
We say: “Breast is best!” … “Everyone can breastfeed.” … “Breastfeed for a year – wait, make that TWO YEARS – since it is ideal for baby!” (new AAP guidance as of 2022).
And oh my, do they try. They WANT TO. I see lactating parents regularly who damage their bodies, mental health, relationships … all in pursuit of supplying breast milk to their babies.
I’m a big fan of human milk. It’s literally amazing stuff. AND, I say on repeat, “BRAINS OVER BOOBS. Period.”
Nothing, no matter how magical, is worth sacrificing the wellbeing of our mothers. Because when mothers are not okay, families are not okay. Just because breast milk is ideal for infants doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ideal for every mother.
A whopping 87.5% of infants in Wisconsin in 2019 were “ever breastfed.” Our Minnesota neighbors in the same year had 91.9% of infants in the same category (CDC Breastfeeding Report Card).
These high initiation numbers show that feeding their baby from their body is important to many. (Not all, and that’s okay, too. No judgment. There are ALL kinds of reasons people do what they do, and I believe the only correct response is empathy and an offer of tangible help.)
But for those who find breastfeeding an important goal, it’s time we acknowledge that society sets them up to fail …
They try, and …
the family leave they have before returning to work is abysmal.
their insurance coverage for lactation care is minimal or inaccessible.
they can’t get a lactation appointment for weeks sometimes, if they can get one at all.
they receive side-eye for nursing in public.
they are given a breast pump with no instructions on how to use it or get properly sized flanges, so they don’t traumatize their tissues and end up with permanent damage.
baby’s caregiver over-feeds baby by bottle so it appears they can’t keep up with baby’s needs.
their employer is supportive in word only.
formula companies undermine their efforts with predatory marketing toward families AND their healthcare providers.
their provider brushes off lactation concerns with, “Just keep trying – it will get better next week,” or “No big deal, you can just top off with formula.”
So, what to do? We start where we can: acknowledge the systems failures and teach families to advocate for their needs; push for greater protections for lactating parents in the workplace; and prioritize mental health therapy for everyone.
We MUST get better at helping parents process their postpartum experiences and grief. The reality is, even the most straightforward birth or infant-feeding journey can include traumatizing elements; only the individual doing it gets to decide.
For my part, I’m leading my Mama Bear team members through a study on Dr. Amy Brown’s book, Why Breastfeeding Grief & Trauma Matter, and we are processing through our own infant-feeding stories together and with a licensed counselor. We’re committed to helping families before, during, and after their infant-feeding experiences, so we’re working on our own healing first. Not easy, but essential.
I’m also honored to meet with parents who are expecting again after a rough experience with infant-feeding the first time around. Gently leading them through a Prenatal Breastfeeding Consult can be eye-opening and healing.
More offerings coming soon from Mama Bear Family Care for parents who are ready to dive into their own restoration on this subject. Additional resources I recommend include Postpartum Support International (www.postpartum.net), where you can find a therapist certified in Perinatal Mental Health, as well as the book Healing Breastfeeding Grief by Hilary Jacobson.
Breastfeeding grief is real, painful, and healable. My heart is with you if this is for you.
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Jennifer Hafele, aka “Mama Bear”, is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in private practice who is active in the Chippewa Valley birth and postpartum care community. She provides professional lactation support, plus Jennifer loves leading support groups and co-teaching “Confident Birth & Beyond,” Mama Bear’s independent childbirth and postpartum education series. Connect with Jennifer on Facebook or at MamaBearFamilyCare.com.