We unpack some of the myths that exist, and persist, around why and how mothers breastfeed their babies
Breastfeeding is a right of passage for some mothers but, crucially, not all.
Feeding your baby in whatever way you choose is a sacred, individual and once-in-their lifetime experience to be treasured, but not agonised over. Some mums can and do choose to breastfeed, while others cannot or do not. Every mother-baby journey is different, and none is more precious than another.
In spite of this, there remain certain myths that exist, and persist, around how mothers and parents feed their babies.
Myths and oft-told tales around breastfeeding and other methods can act to prepare new mothers, but can also create unintended taboos, fear and guilt around breastfeeding for the first time, and beyond.
To mark World Health Organisation (WHO)’s World Breastfeeding Week at the beginning of August, we explore some of these myths and attempt to unpack them, to help support and celebrate mothers who feed their babies—in whatever way they can and choose.
1. All mothers breastfeed
The most important myth to dispel at the start is that all mothers can and should breastfeed. This simply isn’t true—not all mothers and their babies take to breastfeeding, and they therefore find another method that suits them, such as bottle-feeding formula or pumped breast milk.
Some mothers may choose to bottle feed from the start, never considering breastfeeding, so that they can keep their baby nourished more easily on the go, outside the home, or around a more structured schedule.
And other mothers may not be able to breastfeed at all due to health conditions such as mastitis, which is caused by milk in the breast building up faster than it's being removed, creating a blockage and eventually preventing production.
2. Breastfeeding is natural and taking to it easily means you’re a good mother
Again, this doesn’t ring true when you hear stories of many mothers’ first experiences of breastfeeding. Some mothers go through eye-watering pain when they first introduce their baby to breastfeeding, and it’s not something people talk about a lot. The pain can be so bad that mothers choose alternate feeding methods, and that’s OK.
As well as feeling unnatural due to pain, breastfeeding can feel unnatural if the baby doesn’t find the right position or latch on as soon as expected, which can be caused by a number of factors, including tongue-tie or the baby’s experience during the birth.
Breastfeeding is not easy and natural for everybody, but with the right support and guidance, mothers can find what works for them and their baby.
3. Breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt
Some mothers experience agonising pain breastfeeding, and in some cases this can be downplayed, with mothers being told that, “it’s just normal to feel something, and it doesn’t hurt that much so you should keep persevering.” The myth here is that it shouldn’t really hurt and if you’re saying it is, it’s probably not as bad as you think.
It’s important these experiences aren’t downplayed, and we acknowledge that mothers who are magnificently strong, giving birth with no drugs apart from gas and air even, can still find breastfeeding hurts a surprising amount at the beginning.
With family member, midwife or medical practitioner support, mothers can learn how to alleviate this pain while breastfeeding, and find positions, methods or pieces of equipment that work well for them and the baby if they decide to continue.
4. Asking for help makes you a bad mother
It’s important that mothers feel that it’s not weak or bad in some way to ask for help. All mothers are different, and some may take longer to settle into feeding their babies—be it breastfeeding, expressing into a bottle or formula feeding—and that’s OK.
Ask for help from midwives or family members who have been through it, or consult social media groups, mothers classes and friends. The most important thing is that mothers are empowered to seek and share stories.
5. It will make your bond with your baby stronger
Pressure and myths around how mothers bond with their babies can be hurtful and damaging, with ideas around breastfeeding especially contributing to feelings of guilt and inadequacy in mothers and parents who don’t or can’t breastfeed.
Breastfeeding is not the be all and end all in bonding with your baby, and it doesn’t define motherhood. Most important is skin-to-skin contact, spending quality time together, and successfully feeding babies in whatever way, so that they’re nurtured to grow into healthy, happy humans.
6. Your baby will take to both breasts equally
As different as all mothers are, every baby is unique too. And some breastfeeding babies have been known to take to one breast beautifully, while resisting the other. It’s just the way it goes sometimes and not something mothers should feel anxious about.
If the baby only seems to like one breast, they can be gently encouraged to the other by being offered the least preferred one when they’re most hungry. It doesn’t always last, and babies can go through phases of preferring one or both breasts, depending—it’s not unusual at all.
7. You should wash your nipples before breastfeeding
This is a myth, and not necessary. Babies respond to the familiarity of their mothers’ bodies and the way they smell, and breasts produce “good” healthy bacteria that support the baby’s breastfeeding experience and health.
8. You should eat more bland food when you’re breastfeeding
Some mothers believe strongly-flavoured food or drink could negatively affect the way their breast milk tastes. But, as with all times in life, it’s important feeding mothers eat a balanced diet, with no need to change food habits especially for the baby.
Babies are actually exposed to their mothers’ food preferences from when they are in the womb, so feeding doesn’t change this.
9. Many mothers can’t produce enough milk to breastfeed exclusively
This is a myth, as human mothers are evolved to produce just the right amount of breast milk, depending on how and when their baby feeds.
As above, breastfeeding should never be seen as a job for the mother alone, but rather as an experience requiring ongoing support to ensure breastfed babies are latching on properly, fed often enough, and fed at the right time for milk to be produced accordingly.
10. You should stop breastfeeding your baby when they get to a certain age
Like all aspects of breastfeeding, the length of time mothers will feed is down to individual choice, balanced with what works well for the baby, and the baby’s journey with transitioning to solid food. And there is no evidence that a baby who breastfeeds for longer is more difficult to wean.
WHO recommends mothers breastfeed for between six months and two years generally, but of course this is dependent on the situation: some mothers plan to do as little as six months of breastfeeding and then stop, while others come to that and feel it’s too soon to wean the child. Trying your baby on self-weaning, and transitioning to solids at their own pace, will help you see when they naturally require less milk, and it can be a gradual process.
Breastfeeding lengths can be pragmatic too, with life factors like returning to work helping you decide when to wean your baby off breastfeeding.
11. You have to stop breastfeeding when you go back to work
The above being said, workplaces have an obligation to support parents, including breastfeeding mothers.
The NHS in the UK, for example, has specific advice for employers to support mothers returning to work who are continuing to breastfeed. It says that employers should provide a clean private room, separate from the toilet, for breastfeeding mothers. Whether that actually happens in reality remains to be seen in many places.
Some women may indeed plan to breastfeed or pump for longer if these facilities were available. There are stories of women experiencing COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 and beyond breastfeeding for much longer than planned, and perhaps if workplaces catered for mothers this would happen more.
12. You shouldn’t breastfeed in public
This one’s got to go. If they are breastfeeding, mothers have the right to feed their baby when and where they like and need. Babies are happiest when they feed as soon as they need to, and if that’s breastfeeding, it could just as likely happen in a public place as it could at home.
Having safe public spaces to breastfeed also means mothers don’t have to worry about carrying extra bottles and sterilisers among their already laden bags. Being able to sit on a bench, or on the ground, and feed on the go is great for mother and baby.
13. Formula is bad for your baby
Obviously depending on the brand of formula (some are better than others), it’s a myth that formula is bad for your baby, and it can actually be used safely as an alternative to, or alongside, breastfeeding.
Formula is, in most cases, developed carefully to replicate breast milk as closely as possible—for example, by containing whey and casein for digestion and health properties—and therefore provides the nutrients and flavours babies generally need to grow into happy, healthy children.
It’s also about trial and error. Some formula may suit your baby, and therefore make them take to feeding straight away, while they may reject others, and that will help you determine what works before for you and your happy family.
WHO’s World Breastfeeding Week runs between August 1-7, 2021
Read more: The history of the bra
Read more: 5 secret signs of high cholesterol
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter