Breastfeeding pressure, postpartum depression & supports for new families. What is happening with todays mothers?
This week husband of Florence Leung released an emotional statement about postpartum anxiety & depression after losing his wife two months ago. He also commented about the pressure to breastfeed in the same comments. I commend him for speaking up, being brave, being seen, wanting to improve other peoples situations & for encouraging all new moms experiencing low mood or anxiety or depression to seek help. He added that these mothers are not alone and that they are not bad mothers. I agree and know he is correct. I don't believe there are bad mothers. I know mothers feel alone and isolated. Too many mothers feel this way. They are alone but not alone at the same time. When we pull in the breastfeeding component it gets super confusing and conflicting and very, very emotional. There are so many versions of how breastfeeding plays into postpartum anxiety and depression. Part of it is emotional and the feeling part of our brains and body and some of it is biological and chemically controlled in our brains and bodies (hormones are so complex). Some of this is controllable, in the sense that we can just change our outlook and start to feel better, and much of it less controllable and sort it feels like it is happening TO the mother. It really feels like a loss of control.
It is true that all over the place, in so many places new and expecting parents are visiting, there are posters and flyers and brochures and people encouraging breastfeeding and exclusive breast-feeding. This recommendation is world wide and comes from the World Health Organization. While I agree with all the benefits of breastfeeding, as most people would, it is NOT enough to just give benefits. In fact, it is dangerous to encourage and promote breastfeeding & yet not be able to follow through with the support needed. Breastfeeding is significantly more complex than the two-dimensional vision posters make it out to be. Most women are certainly not relating to the mothers on the photos of the breastfeeding books. You know, the mothers who have perfect skin, no bags under their eyes, pristine hair and makeup looking like they have zero cares in the world…beyond oxytocin highs.There needs to be support for the mothers that can breastfeed "easily" so they succeed. We also must meet the needs of and support the mothers in which breastfeeding is not going to work "easily" or perhaps not at all….and all the unique, complex cases in between this. Blanket statements are harmful, on all sides.
Supports for new families are getting less and less available and the resources we do have are not always adequately trained and skilled to handle the cases they have presented to them. For every mother who feels judged because she could breastfeed, but doesn't want to, there is another mother who is feeling judged because she wanted to breastfeed, but did not meet her goal. There are mothers who celebrate being told their babies need to be supplemented and welcome supplementation. There are mothers who are devastated when they are given the same news. We need to learn how to support all kinds of mothers and all kinds of scenarios. We have to be prepared for that to take more than 5 minutes in the doctors office.
Let's look at one way this all gets blurry. There are the mothers with babies who are not sleeping well but the mother has been reassured that this is just how breastfeed babies are. I don't believe that to always be the case…sometimes babies are not sleeping because they are hungry…breastfeeding is not working in that case, not for anyone. Mothers and babies need to sleep. Feeding endlessly for days and weeks is not healthy for anyone. The issue then becomes "exhaustion due to breast-feeding" weeks later, when breast-feeding issues could have been addressed, resulting in more sleep. Beyond that, families need support people to come in and do practical stuff, like care for a baby so mothers can nap, feed themselves, go for a walk. That doesn't mean breast-feeding needs to be discontinued, it just has to be understood and managed. Other examples would be a woman in so much pain from breastfeeding. Who wants to torture themselves 10 times a day. That is a breakdown waiting to happen. Again, lets get to the source as soon as we can. Get to the resolution so the mother can be pain free. There are so many options for that.
We know about postpartum blues and depression and how common it is. We also know that for many women it is so bad they are taking their own lives. It is horribly, horribly sad and devastating. I don't believe it is about mothers breastfeeding or not. I believe it is about support, or lack there of, about misunderstanding babies and mothers, about isolation and healthcare systems that seem to be set up for failure and not success, it is about misunderstanding what the Baby Friendly Initiative is and what it was intended to do and how it is supposed to work.
We can do better. We need to do better. Lives matter and are being lost.