Truth Be Told: Ten Common Breastfeeding Myths Debunked!
As a Breastfeeding Counselor I am sometimes baffled by the misinformation about breastfeeding. When I lead support groups and work with moms I hear about the advice and suggestions given to them. Some of it is completely laughable, other times the advice seems helpful, but the reality is it’s not. There are so many differing opinions and suggestions, moms often feel confused by it all. It can be hard to differentiate between myth and reality. I have compiled this list to bring truth to some of the myths I hear most commonly from the moms in my community.
Myth # 1: Breastfeeding is Easy.
While technically yes, the only thing you really need to do is feed your baby, it is not always easy, at least at first. The first two weeks of breastfeeding are typically the hardest. Usually once you are past this point it all starts to become easier and easier. Eventually you aren’t thinking about it anymore, you’re just doing. Babies are born ready to nurse, and nurse, and nurse, and nurse. Nature designed it this way to allow your baby to stimulate your breasts enough to help you create plenty of milk for your baby. The more you nurse the more milk your body will make! However, it may feel cumbersome to suddenly need to meet the demand of your tiny nursling who seems to want to nurse around the clock! It’s OK to feel this way, and I promise this feeling is temporary. Eventually your newborn’s tiny belly will grow, they will be able to hold more milk and therefore able to take longer breaks between nursing sessions and give you much needed reprieve!
As much as we prepare for breastfeeding sometimes things don’t go quite like you plan. Sometimes baby isn’t gaining weight well, latching and nursing may be painful, maybe baby isn’t latching at all, or you feel you aren’t making enough milk! These circumstances make breastfeeding a little extra difficult in the beginning, though absolutely not impossible! Thankfully our culture is becoming much more breastfeeding friendly and there are Lactation Professionals, like myself who are available to support you so you can get through these rough patches and meet your breastfeeding goals.
Myth #2: You probably won’t produce enough milk for your baby.
Research shows that the #1 reason women quit breastfeeding is because they believe they do not make enough milk for their babies. Sadly, this is mostly perception and almost never truth. Less than 1% of women truly cannot make enough milk for their babies. The only thing you need to do to make enough milk for your baby is to nurse your baby as often as your baby would like! Avoiding bottles and pacifiers in the early weeks will also help to ensure you are letting your baby nurse enough, too. Many women feel the need to take supplements like Fenugreek, eat lactation cookies, and drink extra water or eat things like oatmeal to increase milk supply. These methods of increasing supply are nothing more than old wives tales and not backed by research. It’s discouraging to think that your body won’t be enough and you need to do extra work to make milk for your baby. Literally the only thing you should do to make plenty of milk is nurse your baby.
I wish there was a meter built into your breast to show you exactly how much milk you have, and how much milk your baby is drinking. Unfortunately there is not, so how do you know? Many women will resort to pumping to see how much milk they’re making. This may seem like a logical way to tell you are producing milk, but it’s actually not a good indicator of how much milk you’re making. Your baby is drinking the milk you are producing and so there won’t be much milk to pump. Furthermore, in the first week or so when your baby’s belly is really tiny you are naturally producing a small quantity of milk. It’s very discouraging to try to pump and only see drops, if that, come out.The best way to monitor your milk supply is to look in your baby’s diaper. What goes in must come out! If your baby is pooping, then your baby is eating. You should be seeing 3-5 yellow poops a day by day 5. If you’re getting that, then you’re good! If you’re doubting yourself, please reach out to your lactation professional.
Myth #3: Breastfeeding is going to hurt and you need to just deal with it for a couple weeks.
I’m just going to say it. Breastfeeding is not supposed to hurt. Pain is a signal that something isn’t right. If breastfeeding was supposed to be painful for a few weeks, I don’t believe we would have survived as a species- nobody would have wanted to do it. I will say this, it is normal to have a bit of tenderness in the first few days, or discomfort in the first seconds of latching. This is due to the change in your hormones after pregnancy. However if you’re experiencing toe curling pain while nursing your baby this is NOT normal. Almost always a small change in the position you are holding your baby, is all you need to do. Often baby’s body is being held in a position not optimal for drinking, or baby is starting off in a position that is too high or low on the nipple for them to get a deep latch. If you are having nipple pain, please contact your lactation professional ASAP! Waiting it out is never advised. A painful and ineffective latch may bring on complications, like slow weight gain and lowered milk supply.
Myth #4: You need to prepare your nipples for breastfeeding.
I have heard lots of whacky recommendations for prepping your nipples to “toughen them up” for breastfeeding. Rubbing your nipples daily with a washcloth, scrubbing them with a sponge or loofah, twisting and pinching your nipples really hard every day, sounds fun, right? I didn’t think so. The good news is there is NOTHING you should or need to do to prepare your nipples for breastfeeding. Phew! Your baby is not going to latch onto your nipple anyways. A good latch is deep enough that baby takes in a nice mouthful of your areola, and the nipple rests towards the back of the throat. If baby latched, and sucked on your actual nipple it would really hurt. (Remember myth #3?)
You also don’t need any special creams or ointments for your nipples. Your breastmilk itself has all the necessary proteins to help soothe your nipples. If your nipple is cracked or bleeding, you should not use the creams either as it could breed infection. Your breastmilk alone is perfect! Your areolas will also secrete an oil from your montgomery glands (the little bumps on your areola) that is perfect, natural lubrication for your nipples. That oil will also help baby navigate their way to the breast by smell. Using creams will interfere with that and be confusing to baby.
Myth #5: You should not breastfeed if you have to take medicine.
I hear this one all the time. At least once a week I get a call from a client who is frazzled after they were prescribed a medication and then told they have to pump and dump their milk while they are taking it. Sadly, this is almost never the case. Something to keep in mind is that most doctors don’t know very much about breastfeeding and so they err on the side of caution and tell their patients that they cannot nurse. Fortunately for us there is a database that categorizes medications according to safety for lactation! The Texas Tech University’s Health Science Center created the Infant Risk Center and is advancing our knowledge about medications and the effects on lactation. They created an app called MommyMeds which is available for purchase for your smart phone. This app will give you all of the up-to-date research about any medication you may be prescribed as well as any risk, or lack thereof, while taking it during breastfeeding. You can also call the Infant Risk hotline to speak to them directly or visit their website to learn more. Your lactation professional can help you navigate all of this too.
Myth #6: You have to eat a very healthy diet to make healthy milk.
I always recommend that my clients eat a nutrient dense diet, but not because I am concerned about the quality of their milk. Honestly, you could live on bread and water and still make perfect milk for your baby (I do NOT recommend this, but you could.). The foods you eat and the water you drink will not affect your milk supply or the nutrient content. There has been research compiled of information from breastfeeding women around the world. What we have found is that there is minuscule difference between nutrient content in breastmilk between cultures. Think about that for a second. Every culture from around the world has vastly different diets, and eating habits. In some cultures women are literally starving from lack of available food, but they are still able to produce plenty of perfect milk for their babies. How is this possible? Our bodies will ALWAYS provide for baby first, and ourselves last. This means that while our babies are thriving, our own bodies may be lacking in the nutrient department. Eating a healthy diet and taking a multivitamin is all you need to do to continue keeping yourself healthy and adequately energized. If you’re not able to do so, you can be confident that your baby is getting all they need! Something to note, many nursing mothers notice a greatly increased thirst and appetite while breastfeeding. This is absolutely normal as you are burning more calories while you are breastfeeding. So go ahead and eat!
Myth #7: You should ask your pediatrician/OBGYN breastfeeding questions.
There are experts in every medical field for a reason. Pediatricians are experts in childhood development, health and diseases. OBGYNs are experts in surgical birth. Lactation Professionals are breastfeeding experts. Did you know that doctors receive very little nutrition education, and even less education about breastfeeding during medical school? Unless they choose to research and learn about it on their own, pediatricians and OBGYNs only get about 30 minutes of breastfeeding specific education during their entire schooling careers. Furthermore, once in practice, the “education” they do receive comes from formula company representatives, and the pamphlets they give them. There is actually something called the WHO Code for Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes (formula) that was adopted in 1981. It was put in action to ban formula companies from being able to market, distribute free products, or even put images of babies on their products. This code was taken on by most other countries in the world, but ours has refused to accept it. Pediatricians and OBGYN’s are prime targets for aggressive formula marketing. They are given samples, and products advertising their formula and “breastfeeding friendly” information with their branding throughout. This is not really helpful to breastfeeding and isn’t real breastfeeding information.
More often than not, if you go to your pediatrician with a breastfeeding concern, they will be unable to really help you. Usually they recommend supplementation, or will take a look at baby’s latch and tell you everything looks great, when it may not be. This then perpetuates myth #2, and moms believe that they aren’t enough for their baby. There are exceptions of course, and there are doctors who have a passion for breastfeeding and really do know what they are doing. I do believe doctors have the best intentions, but they lack the skill and insight to truly be supportive of breastfeeding. They instead lean on their knowledge imparted to them by the formula company representatives. Always check in with your lactation professional when you need breastfeeding support.
Myth #8: Your milk will no longer be nutritious after 6 months (or 1 year), so you should stop breastfeeding.
Even now, with all of the research and information available, people honestly still believe that at some specific point your milk will stop being beneficial. Some believe it’s six months, some nine, some 1 year, etc. What we know is that as long as you produce milk, your milk will be nutritious and contain immunological benefits for your baby, even through the early childhood years. During toddler hood, when your supply has lessened from less nursing, your milk will concentrate and be packed full of antibodies and nutrients. Your milk will go through a process called involution, maintaining its benefits while decreasing in volume. Pretty cool, eh? Even if your milk was not nutritious, comfort suckling is beneficial for your baby too.
Myth #9: Babies should start having rice cereal, and other solid foods starting at 4 months.
There are signs of developmental readiness you should look for to know when your baby is ready. When baby is born their lower intestines have open junctures that will slowly close and heal over time. It takes about six months for this process to be completed. Anything other than breastmilk introduced into their gut before the junctures close can delay the process and permanently alter the function of the gut; not to mention allow foreign proteins to slip right into the bloodstream. This is a very important reason to wait until baby is about six months old to start on solid foods. Another sign of developmental readiness is baby being able to sit up completely unassisted. It is crucial baby has the muscle control in their core to be able to sustain a sitting position on their own to prevent slumping and choking. They should also master their pincer grasp and be able to pick up food between their fore finger and thumb, and put it to their own mouths. Lastly, baby should no longer have the tongue thrust reflex. That means that when food goes into the mouth it stays in the mouth. Have you ever seen a baby fed a spoonful of pureed food, then the food is scooped off their face, fed to them again only for baby to spit it back out? That is the tongue thrust reflex. If you try to feed your baby, and this is happening they are not ready. This reflex is ingrained to help prevent choking.
There are two perfect, yet very different methods of introducing solid foods to your baby. Both require that baby have reached the developmental milestones listed above. The first is spoon feeding, beginning with puree’s and gradually introducing thicker, and more textured foods until baby is able to handle regular table food. The other method is called Baby Led Weaning. With this method you give your baby whatever you are eating, and let them feed themselves. Baby’s have a gag reflex high on their tongues, different than the tongue thrust reflex. The reflex will help them naturally spit out any foods that are too big for them to swallow. Baby Led Weaning also allows baby to continue to control how much and how fast they are eating, very much like they do at the breast. Either method is absolutely fine to utilize, but it is important to know that you need to pick one or the other and stick with it. You should not combine them. Spoon feeding babies trains them to ignore that front gag reflex, whereas babies who have complete control of their intake learn to work with it. When you switch back and forth it is confusing and they are more likely to choke.
Myth #10: You should start pumping right away to create a freezer stash of breastmilk for your return to work.
Please do me a favor. If you take anything away from any of the points in the article, please let it be this. LEAVE YOUR PUMP ALONE! I repeat. Please leave your pump alone for at least the first six weeks, or until about a week or two before you go back to work. Pumping in the early weeks can kick start your body into making too much milk, and cause an oversupply. This can lead to problems in your breasts like clogs and mastitis, and problems for baby like reflux and gas. Oversupply can also be a pain to correct. The only time you should ever use your pump before six weeks is if your baby is not latching, or if you are separated and unable to nurse. If you are returning to work, please check out my Returning to Work Guide and consider doing a Returning to Work Planning session with me or another lactation professional.
There are probably a thousand more myths that need debunking, and I am sure I could easily write another post debunking 10 more. This is a start, and I feel much better getting some truth out there! Phew! Which of these myths had you heard, and what did you think when you heard it? What myths not mentioned on the list do you think I should debunk? I would love to hear from you about your experiences! Until next time, happy breastfeeding!