The ability to produce milk and breastfeed, along with body hair and live birth, is what makes mammals mammals and frequently what makes women uncomfortable. Unlike, say hamsters, humans have a number of cultural hang-ups about breastfeeding, which is treated as a beautiful process and horror in equal terms in part because of the sexualization of breasts themselves. When mothers aren’t being photographed lounging in sun-dappled meadows with a child latched placidly to a boob, they’re being shunned for breastfeeding publicly. It’s no wonder a strong body of misinformation would be built around lactation. a different part of what makes humans human in the ability to develop and perpetuate myths.
Here are the 5 most ubiquitous untruths about breastfeeding.
It’s Beautiful and Easy
This myth is perpetuated by popular culture averse to seeing moms cry and swear with a baby in their arms. The fact is that breastfeeding is fraught with all kinds of issues that range from sore nipples, to nursing strikes. It is rarely, if ever, as glowingly fantastic as the professional photographs of half-naked, fairy mothers in the forest might suggest.
More than that, a minority of women find breastfeeding prohibitively difficult or even physically impossible. “There are a very small percentage of women who may have anatomical or hormonal problems that are severe enough to not allow them to breastfeed,” says pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon who sits on Professional Advisory Board of La Leche League. He notes the number is somewhere around 2 percent.
The myth masks the fact that some women might find nursing so difficult, they abandon it altogether. “It’s insufficient doctor syndrome,” Gordon says. “The benefits of breastmilk are so important that it should be a very high priority for a doctor and a family.”
It’s Just for the Baby
The existence of formula, and studies that suggest it is nutritionally (not immunologically) comparable to breastmilk, would seem to suggest that a baby will be okay without breastfeeding. The problem is that breastfeeding isn’t just about the health of the baby, it’s also about the health of the mother. And not just emotionally.
“You’ve got specific hormones which are increased by breastfeeding,” explains Gordon. Chief among these is oxytocin. This is the “cuddling hormone” that promotes mother and infant bonding. But it does much more than that. “It helps the uterus return to its normal size and diminishes blood loss. It probably decreases the incidence of postpartum depression.”
Additionally Gordon says breastfeeding helps a mom regain fitness from the 500 calories per day output to the baby. That’s the equivalent of a two-mile run.
Fathers Can’t Help
It’s easy for a dad to feel useless when a wife breastfeeds. And it’s not like anyone is really trying to correct that misperception. Those feelings of helplessness can become particularly acute when a partner is experiencing difficulties. But fathers have a powerful role to play in not just the care, but also the feeding of their kid.
Dads can help with research. They can keep nursing areas stocked with snacks. They can take a few extra diaper hits, or become the primary chef for a breastfeeding diet. They can even become directly involved in the feeding by becoming an ad hoc nursing coach.
“Three-handed breastfeeding is not rare,” says Gordon. ”The moms holding the baby’s bottom half and supporting her breast and might need dad to move the baby’s head a bit. Having a dad who’s supportive makes a huge difference.”
“In my office we don’t call it ‘prolonged’ or ‘extended’ breastfeeding,” says Gordon. “We just say breastfeeding. The average duration in the world is three years.”
For some reason, Americans get intensely squeamish when a 3 or 4 year old can walk up to a mom and ask for some “noonie.” But Gordon explains that the nutritional benefits go far beyond the first six months or even the one year minimum suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Not only that, the immunological benefits remain for the duration of breastfeeding.
“So it’s not about when a baby can reach in and unbutton your blouse,” says Gordon. “Those are comedic devices. Once a baby can ask for breastfeeding, that’s the time to continue breastfeeding.”
Breastfed Babies Shouldn’t Lose Weight
Dr. Gordon is deeply troubled by an idea often pushed by doctors and hospitals that a breastfed baby shouldn’t lose weight. He’s specifically concerned about charts in hospitals that have a line drawn at an arbitrary weight number that triggers the supplementation of formula.
“Babies lose weight. During the first 10 days, babies lose weight, stabilize and gain,” Gordon explains. “They’re supposed to.”
He notes that there is nothing to support the idea that babies can only lose 10 percent of their weight before sounding the alarm bells and causing the mother undue stress. He explains that a newborn’s chart is never a perfect curve. It has natural fluctuations.
“And if something is going wrong, you want to fix the breastfeeding, not the weight,” says Gordon. “Because otherwise, you’ve just changed a number. You haven’t helped the baby.”