There’s been a lot of talk about breastfeeding out there on the internet, thanks to a recent study touting its benefits. It’s left me thinking about what this information means. How we should read it, and how it should impact our choices. The truth is that we’re all doing the best we can, and it’s not my place to question other moms or pass judgment. Really. But I do feel comfortable questioning the support system, or lack thereof, that new parents encounter.
Because of studies like this one, health authorities talk a lot about the benefits of breastfeeding and set targets for breastfeeding rates. But that doesn’t mean anything, if it’s not backed up with concrete action. As it is, our society often leaves new parents floundering. Sometimes, it even actively undermines their efforts.
When my daughter Hannah was 12 months old I took her to the doctor for a well-child visit, and before they checked anything else they weighed her. At first, the scale showed that she was 18 lbs 5oz. This was a little alarming, because at 9 months she’d weighed 19lbs 2oz. The doctor decided to re-weigh, and she clocked in at 18lbs 15oz. The only difference between the two weighs is that in the second she was wearing a (clean, disposable) diaper, which definitely did not weigh more than half a pound.
It seems pretty clear that the scale was not trustworthy. No other assessments were made – not head circumference, not height, no discussion of her developmental milestones. Yet, the doctor told me that I had to wean Hannah, because breastfeeding was causing her low weight gain. He said that cow’s milk is better for children over 1 year of age than breast milk. When I told him that I didn’t want to wean and Hannah refused cow’s milk, he said she would have to learn, because he wanted to see her gaining more.
I ended up finding a new doctor and following up with her. At 13 months Hannah had gained weight over her 9 and 12 month numbers. She was assessed to be a perfectly healthy, active little girl who was following her own growth pattern. The new doctor also kept track of her height, her physical and emotional development and other milestones. I didn’t wean Hannah, because breastfeeding was working for both of us and I was aware of recommendations from the Canadian Pediatric Society that breastfeeding continue to age 2.
I know that many people choose to wean before their baby’s first birthday, or shortly afterward. That’s fine. But it is also fine if you choose not to. A single weight check, especially one that seems so dubious, should not be enough to recommend weaning if the nursing pair isn’t ready. We need to evaluate more than one number to assess a child’s overall health and well-being. And we can’t have people like my first doctor actively undermining breastfeeding if we expect mothers to succeed at it.
I have heard similar stories from other mothers about their encounters with medical professionals. I have also heard stories about doctors and nurses who’ve gone above and beyond to help. I don’t want to trash the medical community – they work hard for their patients. But they are human, like everyone else, and they may or may not value breastfeeding. It may not be important to them. The issue is that if breastfeeding isn’t important to the professionals helping new mothers out, where can these mothers find support?
When I write about breastfeeding here, what I hope is that other people who are struggling may find help in my words. I hope that other moms who are breastfeeding their toddlers will know that they are not alone. I seek to join with others to support new parents instead of just paying lip service to how much we value families. New parents don’t need lip service – they need people to talk to when things aren’t going well, they need someone to help them understand what’s normal and what isn’t, and they need professionals who value their personal goals. Actually, they need those things no matter how they feed their babies.
Breastfeeding is important to me. But what is even more important is the health and happiness of mothers and babies. I just happen to believe that steps we take to promote breastfeeding, such as quality maternity leave and access to comprehensive support systems, are the same actions that promote the overall health and well-being of new families. That’s what we need more of. That’s what I hope will come out of studies like this one.