Unfortunately in Western society now we only really start learning about our breasts and lactation in the antenatal period, if at all. This lack of exposure to evidence based information leaves us vulnerable to the many myths and misconceptions that surround breastfeeding. Some myths are relatively easy to laugh off, but others can seem more plausible and can be damaging to breastfeeding. https://www.unicef.org/parenting/food-nutrition/14-myths-about-breastfeeding
Myth: You can’t breastfeed and ……….
Reality: Some of the myths about breastfeeding have an irritating habit of complicating breastfeeding unnecessarily and perpetuate the idea that a breastfeeding mother cannot enjoy things she used to.
Drink Alcohol: A glass of wine of an evening won’t cause your milk to become alcoholic. Alcohol enters your breastmilk at the level it is in your bloodstream so if you have a large glass of wine your blood alcohol level and your breastmilk alcohol level will be about 0.08%. You would most likely be dead from alcohol poisoning before you managed to drink enough to mean your breastmilk alcohol level could reach 0.4% so it’s impossible that you would be able to produce milk as alcoholic as a low alcohol drink (0.5-1.2%).
There’s no need to ‘pump and dump’ to get rid of the alcohol in your milk. It is metabolised and leaves your blood/milk at a rate of around one unit each hour. So, as Professor Amy Brown helpfully points out it takes roughly 30-90 minutes for alcohol to peak in your bloodstream so, to give yourself the longest time to metabolise the alcohol before your next feed, simultaneously drinking while breastfeeding is evidently the way to go!
However, there are always risks where alcohol is involved. Evidence shows that frequently drinking too much alcohol so that your breastmilk/blood alcohol level reaches 0.3% can cause your baby to be weak and sleepy as well as slow to gain weight. It’s also unsafe for parents to bed-share with their babies when they’ve been drinking. It’s crucial you can safely care for your baby and that you aren’t drinking to the point of intoxication and putting your baby’s and your own health at risk. https://www.laleche.org.uk/alcohol-and-breastfeeding/
Have Caffeine: Roughly 1% of the caffeine you drink will go into your milk so a couple of small coffees (around 80mg of caffeine per cup) are not likely to affect your baby. However, large cups from coffee shop chains will contain considerably more than that, plus caffeine is found in other drinks and foods including tea, chocolate and even some bottled waters!
The more caffeine you consume daily and the younger your baby the more likely they will be affected. Some babies might become fussy or not sleep well whereas others won’t appear to notice your caffeine intake. Again there’s no need to ‘pump and dump’ but if you suspect your caffeine consumption may be affecting your baby you may choose to reduce your intake or time your caffeine boost around feeds (the level in your milk peaks around an hour after consumption).
Eat junk food: Your body puts your nursling’s nutritional needs first so a poor diet is going to affect you rather than your baby. A perfect diet is not necessary for maintaining good supply or for producing super quality milk. Your milk won’t suddenly become nutritionally useless if you eat a donut the size of your face but it’s ultimately better for you if you enjoy a balanced diet.
Eat spicy/flavourful food: You don’t need to eat plain meals to avoid upsetting your baby. They are exposed to the flavours of what we eat in utero and breastfeeding continues to educate their taste buds. If however you think your baby is reacting to something you’ve consumed you may need to consult a professional. https://kellymom.com/category/nutrition/mothers-diet/
Enjoy beauty treatments etc: Only extremely small amounts of the products which are applied to the skin will be present in your bloodstream. So moisturisers, fake tan, hair dye etc can be used while breastfeeding (although you may want to avoid fake tanning your nipple area so nothing gets in your baby’s mouth and careful that they don’t end up with a half-bronzed face too!) Tattoos are also safe to get while breastfeeding although many artists won’t because their licence says they can’t tattoo breastfeeding women knowingly.
Myth: Breastfeeding is natural so it’s easy.
Reality: For some breastfeeding just goes swimmingly from the get go but many of us find it a learning curve (for babies too!) It’s a skill that we learn and just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s a breeze. It takes time, practice and support because it can be challenging, like most worthwhile and rewarding things we do in life. There are lots of people you can turn to if things get difficult and your support network is invaluable. Partners, family, friends, volunteers and professionals can all help to keep you fed, sane, positive, informed, healthy and ultimately able to reach your breastfeeding goals. https://www.breastfedbabies.org/attachment-and-positioning
Myth: You shouldn’t breastfeed if you’re ill or taking medication
Reality: Usually you can continue to breastfeed through illness and this passes on antibodies to help protect your baby from coming down with it too. There are some medications and treatments that aren’t compatible with breastfeeding but there are often alternatives your healthcare professionals can offer. The Breastfeeding Network’s fact sheets are a great resource https://www.breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk/drugs-factsheets/ and the BfN Drugs in Breastmilk Information Service can be contacted for help with anything not covered by the fact sheets.
Myth: The “good” baby.
Reality: The mythical “good” baby feeds at regular, widely spaced intervals, sleeps for long periods and when awake is happy and calm away from their parents and doesn’t need to be held. If anyone has actually given birth to this baby then wonderful (though I wouldn’t brag about it too loudly) however, this does not match up with normal infant behaviour. The ‘good’ baby is an anxiety inducing, dated construct which threatens the health and wellbeing of babies and their families.
Scheduled feeds: The idea that babies ought to be feeding at regularly spaced, wide intervals and/or for a certain length of time is a particularly damaging myth which cements doubts and disregards normal infant behaviour and the way milk production works. We are so used to controlling, timing and measuring everything nowadays but if we attempt to schedule feeds or stretch the gaps between feeds this signals to our body that less milk is needed so production slows. Not only does this jeopardise breastfeeding, it also puts babies at risk through insufficient milk intake.
Humans are carry mammals, genetically designed to hold our babies close and feed them very frequently. Our milk is very low in fat and protein (in comparison with most other mammals) and perfectly suited to a frequent, irregular feeding pattern. Babies need to feed for so many different reasons as well as for nutrition. For example, they feed to aid sleep and digestion, regulate their body temperature and for pain relief and comfort. You aren’t creating a “rod for your own back” or allowing yourself to be manipulated by feeding responsively and meeting their basic needs. If we noted every time we had a snack, a sip of water, shared affection with a loved one or sought reassurance it would not result in an infrequent, regular pattern so it makes little sense to expect a neat schedule from your baby.
Sleeping for long periods: Studies show that just 1 in 5 6-12 month olds sleep through, most wake up at least once or twice, often more. Sleep is a developmental process and all children begin to sleep for longer periods in their own time and at different ages. Babies are designed to wake frequently and night waking is an important protective response which lowers the risk of health issues and is thought to help prevent SIDS. Waking to feed is normal and useful as it helps to boost your milk supply (due to the high levels of prolactin released at night) and helps prevent blocked ducts and mastitis. Night times can be made less difficult by sleeping near each other and it’s advised babies sleep in the same room as parents until at least 6 months old. This allows you to respond quickly to your little one’s needs, therefore helping them feel secure and to reach a stage where they are able to sleep with fewer interruptions. https://www.basisonline.org.uk/
Needing to be held: Young babies don’t have the ability to understand that we’ll be back in literally a minute and just need a wee! It’s no accident that a baby’s cry is so heart-wrenching to hear and that we instinctively want to go and pick them up. Our babies are born very vulnerable and if we imagine that we couldn’t feed ourselves or manoeuvre our bodies and had suddenly found ourselves in a very different world we’d been used to for 9 months we would also want to stay close to a familiar loving presence.
Myth: Many women are just naturally unable to produce enough milk for their baby.
Reality: Most women can produce enough milk for their babies. There are some health conditions which can have implications for breastfeeding but most women who think they have low milk supply actually do not. Usually this anxiety stems from misconceptions about normal infant behaviour and milk production. Sometimes this worry causes mums to panic and introduce additional milk/formula which, without the right support and information, their breasts can receive the message to reduce milk production, thereby causing a problem where there was none.
Sadly we are often very quick to doubt our bodies and to interpret normal changes and behaviours as signs of low supply. Behaviour that doesn’t fit with that “good” baby idea (feeding often, waking during the night, wanting you to hold them) makes mums worry that their supply is lacking. Many find feeds also become shorter as their babies get über efficient but a short time feeding effectively doesn’t mean they are getting less milk. This video shows a baby feeding super well (Jack Newman, Good Drinking) https://www.breastfeedinginc.ca/good-drinking and this article also talks about watching for signs of good milk intake https://www.breastfeedinginc.ca/is-my-baby-getting-enough-milk
Changes in our breasts can be disconcerting too but breasts that feel softer than before or don’t leak milk are still productive. Not feeling the sensation of the let down reflex doesn’t mean milk isn’t there. Our bodies get more efficient, muscles tighten and sensations fade and that’s normal. An inability to express buckets of milk also doesn’t mean your supply is low. It is a totally different process to that of breastfeeding your baby and there are lots of variables that can impact on how much we can express. Some useful info on expressing here: https://abm.me.uk/breastfeeding-information/expressing-breast-milk/
A more reliable way of evaluating your milk supply is to look at your baby’s nappy output and weight gain.
- Nappy output: once your milk comes in (around day 2-5) you’re looking for 6 wet nappies and 3 poos (size of £2 coin or larger) in 24 hours. By 4 weeks old it’s common for their poo rate to slow and skip several days but you should still see plenty of wet nappies.
- Weight gain: By around 2 weeks old newborns usually return to their birth rate after an initial loss. Then they typically grow by 150-200g each week until about 4 months old when this rate tends to slow.
Usually when weight gain and nappy output isn’t what it should be it is down to a baby not getting the milk their mother has (often due to a sub-optimal latch) as opposed to a lack of milk available. If you are concerned about your baby’s nappy output and weight gain someone like a Breastfeeding Counsellor or IBCLC will help support and reassure you and ensure underlying issues are addressed.
Myth: Breastmilk loses all nutritional benefit after X months. After that the mothers are just doing it for themselves.
Reality: Breast milk and breastfeeding does not lose value. Milk is a child’s main source of nutrition in their first year and the World Health Organisation advocates breastfeeding to 2 years and beyond. Children’s immune systems don’t mature until they reach around six years old and studies show that many immune factors which are passed on through breastmilk actually increase during the second year. Breastfed children are ill less often and recover more quickly than those who aren’t. Plus it’s sometimes the only nourishment they manage when ill and it’s even a source of pain relief!
Continuing to breastfeed beyond a year also helps prevent allergies, asthma, eczema and food intolerances as well as reduces the risk of obesity. It improves cognitive development and research suggests breastfed toddlers are more happy, social and confident as a result of knowing that security and comfort.
The idea that women breastfeeding beyond a certain age are just ‘doing it for themselves’, although untrue, would still be a bloomin’ good reason to, even without all the amazing benefits for your child. Breastfeeding helps protect us from osteoporosis as well as from breast, ovarian, uterine and endometrial cancers and the longer we breastfeed the more this protection increases. There is no point where breastfeeding ceases to be beneficial for mums and children and we shouldn’t be made to invalidate our own feelings about breastfeeding. It’s a brilliant parenting tool and I’m all for an easier ride through motherhood but importantly breastfeeding is an emotional bond and often comforting for us mums too. https://abm.me.uk/breastfeeding-information/breastfeeding-beyond-infancy/
We encounter so many myths and misconceptions that complicate, undermine and devalue breastfeeding and it’s sometimes so hard to know what to believe. Over the years we’ve lost our breastfeeding culture and our village. In the past we would have been surrounded by breastfeeding and gradually learned this skill from birth. Now many of us entering motherhood have never seen breastfeeding up close before and never really had meaningful conversations about it either. No wonder we are left doubting ourselves when the myths and pressures of today’s society reach us before evidence-based information does.