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Breastfeeding Support: When It Works, When It Doesn't

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett
Henniker, New Hampshire, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 4, August-September 1999, p. 94

Our connections to other human beings are vital. Researchers who study social support have confirmed this many times. Social support can influence our emotional state, our attachment to our babies, even our will to live. And it is the foundation of our organization, La Leche League.

Some women, however, do not feel supported by us. At times, this has nothing to do with us. Other times, we may unwittingly say or do something that was not helpful. Described here are potential barriers to supporting mothers and what we can do about them.

Barriers to Support

Unequal Power. Some mothers will put us on a pedestal, perceiving us as "super mothers." This can be pretty uncomfortable, but it is natural when mothers are in that fragile new-mother stage. Given that, we need to be sensitive to the fact that these mothers will put a great deal of weight on things we say. We must be extra careful. Even a joke or offhand remark might be interpreted as a rebuke.

Differences of Opinion and Experience. Differences between us and the mothers we try to reach are natural. Some of these differences are due to our past experiences. Some are cultural or related to social class. Some are differences of opinion. For example, a mother may extol the virtues of a highly medicated birth. She may express ambivalence or unhappiness about being a mother. She may have different views on separation from her baby. She may have had such an abusive or dysfunctional upbringing that she may not know how to do many of the things that we take for granted.

Different Choices. Let's face it, not all parenting choices are equal. We believe it is better to breastfeed. It is better to breastfeed longer. It is better to meet baby's dependency needs. Because of the strength of our belief, some mothers may feel unsupported by us because they have made other choices.

Hot Buttons. We must also acknowledge that we are human. There may be issues that we cannot be dispassionate about. Other issues may be too sensitive for us. For example, if we have had a difficult or traumatic birth experience, we might be too "raw" to be able to help mothers with a similar experience. (Although, with the passage of time, we might find that we can help.) Similarly, if we have struggled with depression or childhood abuse, we may not be in a position to help mothers who are dealing with these issues.

Hot-button issues can also be things that we feel strongly about. A hot button for me is letting babies cry it out. This is an issue I feel strongly about, and I find that I am not as helpful as other Leaders can be when mothers think this is a good way to parent.

Burnout and Overextension. A final barrier is Leader burnout: when we feel frazzled, worn out and taken advantage of in an average week, we all struggle with too much to do in too little time. An occasional day with these feelings is normal. But when these feelings become chronic, it is probably time to take a break. We cannot help others when our own well is dry.

What Can We Do?

Once we are aware of potential barriers, we can take steps to overcome them. in fact, awareness of these barriers may lead to additional opportunities to help.

Unequal Power-Empowering Mothers. I have always liked the LLL emphasis on mothers as experts. The classic "many mothers have found..." lets a mother try different suggestions and determine which one is best for her family. We can also empower a mother by letting her know about some of our challenges--the days when chaos reigns, when we don't feel very motherly, when we eat nothing but processed food. While we don't want our problems to become the primary focus, mentioning them can help mothers develop a more realistic perspective. it also takes the pressure off of us to live up to these expectations.

Differences in Experiences- Understanding Her Experience. We can't have all experiences, be from all backgrounds or have all life circumstances. But we can learn. When in doubt, listen to the mother. I always find that I'm more helpful when I do more listening than talking. While there may continue to be significant differences between us, there can also be common ground.

Different Choices-Big Picture. What do we do when a mother makes choices that differ from ours? I don't think it is helpful to pretend we agree if we don't but we can respect her right to make these choices. A more effective strategy is to focus on the big picture. Can we find something positive in what this mother is doing? She breastfed for three months; that's better than not breastfeeding at all. She's limiting the amount of time she is away from the baby; that's better than long separations. We don't know what types of experiences she's had that brought her to this point in her life. The big picture allows us to be respectful of her choices and genuinely positive about what she is doing.

We also need to think ahead to other children she might have. We don't know the impact that we are having on how she will parent future children. A young woman I've known for several years bottle-fed her first child and was an outspoken proponent of this approach. We never discussed breastfeeding. I received an email from her a few weeks ago asking for information about breastfeeding. She's not even pregnant!

"Mothers are the experts on caring for their babies." If that is to become something besides a catchy motto, we must empower them to really choose, even when we don't agree with their choices. If we antagonize a mother, we lose our opportunity to influence her.

Hot Buttons-Referrals. Once we have given ourselves permission to be human and have issues that we are not dispassionate about, we can refer a mother elsewhere. We can also do this when we don't have a great deal of information about a topic. Someone else (or perhaps a relevant article or book) may be a better source of information. Give yourself permission to not have all the answers but instead offer to find out.

Burnout-Self-Care. Finally, we need to acknowledge that there are times when we need to step away from helping. Perhaps one of our children has developed a serious medical condition. Perhaps our marital status has changed. Perhaps our volunteer work is putting a strain on relationships within our family. We will be more effective if we are willing to take a break. What are the aspects of the Leader role you enjoy the most? Could you scale back your involvement or take a leave of absence? While we frequently can be helpful even when we're stressed, we're also at increased risk of being impatient and saying something we might regret.

Your work as a Leader does make a difference. In our study of long-term breastfeeding, Muriel Sugarman and I found that mothers identified LLL Leaders as their most important source of breastfeeding support. By developing a more realistic expectation of ourselves as helpers, we can be more effective doing the work we love.

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