It’s World Breastfeeding Week, and moms around the world are speaking up about their experiences breastfeeding, from the challenges to the sweet cuddles to the endless hours spent pumping.
World Breastfeeding Week takes place each year between August 1-7. This year, the theme for the week is “Support breastfeeding for a healthier planet,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which organizes the event.
WHO, along with the children’s health charity UNICEF, emphasized in a press release that this week is about supporting moms.
“While breastfeeding is a natural process, it is not always easy. Mothers need support – both to get started and to sustain breastfeeding,” the organizations said.
Most moms who have tried to nurse know that snuggling a nursing baby or taking a tree-of-life selfie are only one side of the breastfeeding journey. Many moms and babies struggle with breastfeeding, with issues ranging from not having enough milk to tongue ties to a painful latch.
Kellie Barry, an Indiana mom of two, enjoyed nursing her kids, but needed plenty of help to make it happen.
“I would hold their little hand and watch them relax and all the problems in our world melted away. It was such a wonderful chapter in my life,” she says. “But all of this was after weeks of both of us struggling. I did not realize beforehand that just because it was natural it did not mean it was going to be easy. I had to lean on my own mom and other moms with experience for help.”
Barry found that when she reached out to medical professionals for advice, they just didn’t have much to offer. Instead, other women who had breastfed helped her establish a routine.
Sarah Shemkus, of Massachusetts, planned to nurse, but her daughter would not latch. Although she wasn’t able to nurse, Shemkus was committed to breastfeeding and pumped at least 6 times a day for 11 months.
“It was exhausting,” she notes.
Like Barry, Shemkus found that the medical world had little advice for her.
“I was shocked at how little knowledge and empathy I received from the doctors I encountered,” she adds. “A pediatrician friend later told me that breastfeeding is simply not a standard part of medical education, even for pediatricians. I wish the medical world would back up its strong recommendations to breastfeed with more education and knowledge.”
That’s part of the mission for World Breastfeeding Week 2020. WHO and UNICEF are advocating for more support through four pillars:
- Investing in breastfeeding programs to make sure skilled breastfeeding counselors are available to every woman who wants them.
- Training healthcare workers to deliver accurate breastfeeding advice.
- Ensuring that counseling is available.
- Partnering with healthcare organizations
- Protecting “health care workers from the influence of the baby food industry.’
That last point — with its strong emphasis on breastfeeding rather than formula feeding — bothers Erin Heger. Heger, of Kansas, nursed both her children, even as she dealt with severe postpartum depression (PPD) with her first. She worries about the pressure that women feel to breastfeed, especially in developed countries where formula is a safe and widely-available option for feeding babies.
“I successfully breastfed both of my babies and I enjoyed it, but through my experience with PPD I’ve connected with many women who experienced postpartum mood disorders that were exacerbated by pressures to breastfeed, particularly when it was extremely difficult or painful or otherwise didn’t work out,” Heger says.
Heger would like to see the parent centered at the conversation about feeding. Rather than celebrating breastfeeding exclusively, she would like to see more celebration of moms making the feeding choices that work for them.
“I wholeheartedly agree that any person who wants to breastfeed should have access to the resources and support to make that happen,” she adds. “But sometimes the zeal for breastfeeding can manifest as shaming or judgment for people who don’t, especially when ‘support’ looks like encouraging a mom to breastfeed through a hurdle that may actually negatively impact her health, like mental illness. All moms should be supported and encouraged to make the infant feeding choices that work best for them.”