Science

Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be a struggle

RUG Psychologist Sjoukje van Dellen discovered that women who get guidance from an expert are less likely to give up breastfeeding. ‘Women tend feel really guilty about giving up’.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo « м Ħ ж »

Sjoukje van Dellen remembers how special breastfeeding can be. She loved that intimate moment with her children when they could withdraw together and finish out the day.

She enjoyed it so much that she continued breastfeeding for much longer than the average Dutch woman. She breastfed her first son for four years, her second one for five. She didn’t stop until her sons went to school. ‘For us it was just natural’, she says. ‘The intimacy of it, enjoying how that little guy, who was just busy running around, calms down completely.’

Protection from infections

She wants more women to feel this way, not just because breastfeeding is so nice. It’s also undeniably the healthiest option for babies. ‘Breastfeeding protects children from infections and there are studies that show that it can influence their intelligence. Their brains develop more.’

Breastfed children are also less likely to be overweight or develope diabetes, and mothers are less vulnerable to breast or ovarian cancer. The Dutch government encourages women to breastfeed for at least six months. ‘The WHO even advises a period of two years’, says Van Dellen. ‘And that’s not just for developing countries.’

Some women feel guilty for giving up on breastfeeding

While 80 percent of women begin motherhood breastfeeding, that number drops to just 50 percent in six months. It is especially common for women to give up in the first few weeks. Women who do stop tend to feel really bad about it. ‘It can be a real struggle’, says Van Dellen. ‘Some women feel really guilty about it. They want to be a good mother, and not breastfeeding makes them think they’re bad mothers.’

Huge effect

Van Dellen has been doing research on the effects of breastfeeding consultations – and has seen that with a little help, things can go differently for new moms who struggle. Young mothers were given six appointments with a lactation expert for up to ten weeks after they’d given birth. ‘They were introduced to each other before the birth and given information. The expert also came by in the first weeks and provided advice over the phone.’

The effect was huge. Mothers that received breastfeeding support were much less likely to give up in the first six months than those in the control group that didn’t – 66 percent less.

Van Dellen wasn’t surprised. She relied on help from a lactation consultant after her own baby was born. Van Dellen was suffering from pains and breast inflammation, and her son had thrush. He also refused to nurse. ‘The fact that there was someone there to help me out when I panicked was just wonderful.’

Tips and tricks

She now knows that there are solutions for so many of the problems facing new mothers. Nipple fissures are often caused by a baby being in the wrong position; a better latch angle allows the fissures to heal. And breast inflammations? Cold compresses can be used to soothe the pain, and warm compresses to improve the flow of milk.

We used to have mothers or aunts around to help

If you’re afraid your child isn’t growing fast enough, please remember that a child’s growth curve changes depending on whether it’s breast or formula fed. If you don’t have enough milk, it might be because you’re feeding your baby too often.

‘We used to have mothers or aunts around to help us out with tips and tricks, getting us through those difficult times. We’d watch our siblings nurse; we saw women breastfeed in the street’, says Van Dellen.

Trust

But these days we don’t have that kind of support anymore, and many women feel like they are on their own. Breastfeeding consultation could solve this problem. ‘A lactation consultant’s expertise is very important’, says Van Dellen. ‘These women have a degree in the field. But more than that, they exude confidence because they’ve helped so many women already.’

Once Van Dellen got over the worst of her own breastfeeding struggles, the rest was easy. ‘I’d planned on breastfeeding for six months, but when that moment arrived I was enjoying it so much that I decided to keep doing it for another year. But when that year was over I still didn’t feel like stopping.’

She did start getting push back from her immediate surroundings. ‘People were like, “surely you’re stopping soon?”’ she says. Other people’s attitudes towards her breastfeeding habits motivated her research. She has since learned how long women breastfeed is mostly a cultural thing. ‘Globally, the medium is four years.’

Offensive

Van Dellen breastfed her children until they went to school. She faced some obstacles, though. Other parents at her kids’ daycare had some issues with her habit. ‘I would feed my son before I left him in the morning’, she says. ‘I was kindly asked to do so in a separate room.’ It made her sad ‘that this bonding moment that was so nice for me and my son was so offensive to other people.’

My nice bonding moment was offensive to others

She suspects people took offense due to the sexualisation of breasts. ‘This means people feel weird about breastfeeding in public. But that means breastfeeding disappears from public view, making it less natural.’

Van Dellen says the Dutch government is partly responsible for this. Sure, they give out information, but they don’t really support women. ‘Breastfeeding shouldn’t just be a burden on women. It involves the whole society.’

Guilt

But, says Van Dellen, we shouldn’t judge women for their breastfeeding decisions. She doesn’t want to guilt-trip the women who decide to stop. ‘It’s a very complex issue’, she says. ‘It involves a lot of practical and psychological factors.’

What if you don’t have access to a lactation expert? What if you can’t combine breastfeeding and having a job? What if you don’t have a private place to pump? What if your colleagues make snide remarks when you take time to pump? ‘What if you work at the university?’ she says. ‘Sure, you’ve got time to pump, but that doesn’t change the amount of work you have.’

All these factors are important, she says. ‘We’re already fighting so many mommy wars. We’re all mothers. We should be supporting each other.

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