10 Basic Rules For Supporting A Mom With Undersupply
It seems like everyone has an opinion about how you should feed your baby. Many people believe that "breast is best" and plan to breastfeed. I know I did. Unfortunately, no one told me that breastfeeding can be difficult, painful, and sometimes impossible. So, when I was tired, depressed, and struggling with undersupply, I didn't open up to anyone. When I did, I often received condescending, conflicting, and just plain bad advice. I had no idea there were basic rules for supporting a mom with undersupply, and that failing to follow those rules can actually hurt instead of help.
When I struggled with breastfeeding the first time, I received such poor advice. "Just keep nursing," my friends said, "of course you are making enough breast milk" (I wasn't). The lactation consultant added, "Undersupply is really rare. You don't need to worry about that." (It's not rare, and I did need to worry about it). People on the internet questioned my efforts, asking, "Did you try hard enough? I bet you just need more information about how to breastfeed correctly" (I had tried my hardest, and I could write a book about how breastfeeding should work), and co-workers and family members told me all about their wonderful breastfeeding experiences (which is not helpful at all). I felt like no one actually listened to me, and if they did, they didn't believe me when I explained what I was going through. Honestly, it sucked.
Breastfeeding was completely different the second time around, though. I had an awesome physician and lactation consultant who listened my story, diagnosed me with the medical condition that was causing my undersupply, and really listened to me about my challenges and fears. With her, my friends and family on my side, I created a plan and successfully breastfed my son for eight months, something that I never thought was possible with my low supply. I learned what real breastfeeding support looks like, not just support for the parents for whom breastfeeding comes easily. You know, breastfeeding support for the rest of us, because those of us struggling deserve support and real advice, not just a brochure saying "breast is best" or people telling us how easy it should be when it's totally not.
So, with that in mind, here are 10 basic rules for supporting a parent with undersupply, from someone who has been there and knows what a difference the right words can make.
Assume They're Doing Their Best
I can't tell you how many times someone told me yet another thing I should do to try and "fix" my undersupply, as if there was some magical remedy that I hadn't thought of. However, believe me when I say I tried everything. Most days I breastfed, pumped, and supplemented with a supplemental nursing system every two hours. I also took herbal supplements, prescription drugs, and ate some seriously gross foods. To make matters worse, every time I mentioned my undersupply, someone would question if I was trying hard enough.
Rather than offering someone random ideas ,or telling them what worked for you, try asking them what they've already tried. If they told you they are having issues, I guarantee they are working hard.
Listen Before You Speak
Listen to a person's issues, questions, and goals before assuming you have all of the answers. So many people thought I wanted to "exclusively breastfeed" at all costs. They nonchalantly said things like, "breast is best," which made me feel super guilty about having to use formula. Not a single person told me that it was possible to continue breastfeeding and supplement with formula if I didn't make enough, or that formula could be a tool that could help me breastfeed.
My point is, if a person is depressed, in pain, exhausted, or their baby is sick or not thriving, you need to provide real support and not just push an agenda.
Invest In Them, Not A Specific Outcome
Good breastfeeding support is individualized, not "one size fits all." It's ironic that my most successful breastfeeding experience began with someone telling me I would never breastfeed exclusively. My doctor told me that a fed baby and a healthy mom was the most important, and that was just what I needed to hear.
Someone else might need someone to commiserate with about lost sleep and sore nipples, while someone else might need power pumping tips. Someone might want to try everything to make it work, while someone else might feel like they need permission to stop breastfeeding entirely. You won't know unless you ask.
Avoid Medical Advice
Unless you have a medical or advanced nursing degree, you shouldn't be giving other parents medical advice. Full stop. Please encourage them to get help from a medical professional and to listen to their doctor's instructions regarding what their babies need to thrive. I can't tell you how many people told me to ignore my doctors' advice when it came to breastfeeding. That's so not OK.
Realize It's Not About You
Every parent and child pair is different when it comes to their ability to successfully breastfeed. For some it comes easily and is pain-free, but for others it is challenging and not worth the effort or pain. It's not about you, your experience, or your priorities. The last thing a struggling parent needs to hear is how easy breastfeeding was for you or how they should continue doing something that is harmful for them or their baby.
Don't Be Ableist
Not every person with breasts can lactate and not all babies can breastfeed. To suggest otherwise is ableist. Don't be ableist.
You might feel like your advice has more credibility with statistics to back it up, but many statistics about breastfeeding are absolute bullsh*t and can feel extremely invalidating to a person who is struggling. Lactation is complex, requiring the right conditions to exist (in both mom and baby), and can be impacted by so many things, including health, social pressure, previous trauma, support, mental health, sleep, time, nutrition, and hydration, just to name a few. All I heard when someone shared statistics with me was that they didn't believe me. It really hurt.
Don't Shame Formula
When I brought my daughter home from the hospital, I worried I wasn't making enough breast milk. Rather than tell me that it was OK to supplement with formula, everyone I asked told me that even a little bit of formula would ruin my supply or make me unable to breastfeed, when formula is actually proven to help promote long-term breastfeeding. I needed someone to tell me formula would be beneficial, but everyone treated formula like a dirty word. Most breastfeeding/chestfeeding parents use some formula, so when you shame formula, you are shaming them, too.
Don't Gaslight Them
Just because someone's experience with breastfeeding is different than yours, doesn't mean they aren't having real issues. Please don't tell someone with undersupply that they are imagining their problem, that their undersupply or pain is "just in their head," or worse, that their feelings don't matter. It's super invalidating, and totally unkind.
Provide Support, Not Judgment
Providing breastfeeding support to someone with undersupply requires empathy, which is actually really hard for most people. It means you have to put aside your own agenda, feelings, and experience to put yourself in someone else's nursing bra, and not take it personally if they make different choices than you or your advice doesn't work out.
Ultimately the most important words you can say, and the words they need to hear, are, "I support you." If you are able to provide that support, you might just find that they will be better able to safely and confidently feed their baby, which should be the goal, right?