The question was asked of me again this week, “Amy, if we do all this to promote breastfeeding, won’t we make mothers feel guilty?” I’ve had a lot of conversations about breastfeeding and guilt, and I’ve come to the conclusion there are three facets to breastfeeding guilt:
- The mother who wants to breastfeed but it doesn’t work out the way she expects
- The mother who does not want to breastfeed but feels pressure to do so anyway
- The health care provider who is afraid of imposing guilt on women by promoting breastfeeding
Let’s take just one each week, beginning with the mother for whom breastfeeding doesn’t work out. This is the gung-ho mom who reads the books, absorbs her doctors’ and nurses’ advice, plans to see a lactation consultant, takes the class and otherwise does everything possible to prepare for a successful breastfeeding experience. Good for her! And yet some people want to temper her enthusiasm with ominous messages about breastfeeding not being easy.
I appreciate their intentions—they want the mother to be prepared and realistic. However, sometimes these well-intentioned messages can undermine a woman’s resolve, making her question her abilities and determination. I’ve heard people say, “Just wait. Once your—fill in the blank—milk comes in, nipples get sore, baby cries, first night home—you’ll give a bottle too.” These same people say not to get a new mother’s hopes up. When these conversations come up, I always think of a friend telling another friend that she wants to run a marathon and is training for one in several months. A good friend always cheers a friend on! All the more, health care providers have a duty to promote what is healthiest, providing an environment where breastfeeding is most likely to be successful and that features high-quality, consistent information.
Now I can hear people saying, “But what if your friend is sedentary, overweight and wants to run this marathon in 4 weeks? Isn’t the compassionate reaction to offer realism and support?” The truth is most women can breastfeed. Failure is more likely when women do not have the support they need.
I hear the same guilt argument for women who want a natural childbirth—“What if she can’t do it and feels guilty?” Well, if she can’t do it or changes her mind and doesn’t want to do it, we’ll all support her. If she feels guilty, we’ll help her through that too. This idea that we’re going to withhold enthusiastic support and promotion of a good thing “just in case” it doesn’t work, may set mothers up for the very thing we are afraid of—failure and guilt.