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11 Reasons New Moms Shouldn't *Have* To Try Breastfeeding

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If you've spent time any time on social media, you've probably seen pregnant women discuss how they're going to feed their babies. The comment threads may start differently, but in my experience they almost always end the same way: someone says the new mom should at least try to breastfeed. The implication of this admission is clear: breastfeeding is the only legitimate choice. And while trying (and I mean really trying) and "failing" at breastfeeding is acceptable, choosing not to breastfeed at all is not. But new moms shouldn't have to try breastfeeding, for a variety of really valid reasons. They don't have to give nursing a go when they're in the hospital, or to see if they'll like it, or to figure out if nursing will work for them, or to assuage the social media masses.

A large number of parents, doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, child-free friends, and strangers on the internet have spent a solid amount of energy imploring new moms to at least give breastfeeding a shot. Hell, I used to be one of them! I would tell anyone who would listen that they should try breastfeeding, and I truly believed I was doing them a favor. I figured I was at least acknowledging the possibility that breastfeeding doesn't always work out; a kindness that isn't always offered to new parents. And on the surface I will admit that the whole "just give nursing a go" comments seem reasonable, and even well-intentioned. But when you dig deeper, these notions imply that there is only one right way to feed your baby. And that's just not true.

By using the word "should" in this context, people imply that the decision to breastfeed is a moral choice rather than a personal one that every new mom gets to make for herself. It places a not-so-subtle pressure on people to use their bodies in a way they might not want to, and in a way that somehow proves their abilities as a parent. As a culture, we've become so devoted to ensuring that babies are breastfed that we seem to have forgotten that there's another person who's part of the equation: the lactating parent. And that person has an inherent human right to make choices about their bodies and without facing shame or pressure.

So, yeah, there are so many reasons new moms shouldn't have to try breastfeeding, including the following:

Because Formula Is Awesome

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Formula is amazing. Science has created a life-saving, nourishing food for babies that is safe and nutritionally balanced. I think breast milk is great too, don't get me wrong, but considering that for the most part babies do just as good on formula, why are we telling new moms they can't choose to formula-feed from the start?

Because Everyone Deserves Bodily Autonomy

Everyone deserves the right to decide how they use their body. Full stop. Breastfeeding is a wonderful choice for some moms and some families, but it's a choice and not a moral obligation. No one should feel pressured or coerced to breastfeed.

Because Breastfeeding Can Really Suck

After three completely different experiences trying to breastfeed babies with varying degrees of success, I can tell you that breastfeeding really sucked sometimes (pun intended). It wasn't the effortless, blissful, bonding experience I thought it would be, especially not in the beginning and when I felt pressure to try as hard as I could to make it work. It's definitely not for everyone, and that's OK.

We seem to have a difficult time admitting that breast isn't best for all babies and all nursing parents

Because It Might Not Be A Healthy Choice

We put new moms under extreme pressure to breastfeed, and usually without knowing if they will be able to do it, like it, or if they even wanted to try in the first place. This not only completely invalidates the context in which they have to make that choice, but implies that a mother's health is less important than the act of breastfeeding. What's more, "trying" to breastfeed and failing isn't just disappointing, it can actually increase the risk of postpartum depression, according to a 2011 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Because Women Know What's Right For Them

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Before my second child was born I was terrified at even the thought of nursing. I had tried and "failed" at breastfeeding the first time around, and since I didn't know that my supply issues were due to insufficient glandular tissue (so no amount of effort would make exclusive breastfeeding happen for me), I was convinced I was going to "fail" again and it would be all my fault.

But when I told the nurses about my supply issues and that I wanted to use formula in the hospital, I was dissuaded from using formula and, instead, promised that things would be different this time around. Spoiler alert: it wasn't.

Because People Experience Trauma

After surviving sexual violence, and later experiencing the trauma of my daughter almost dying from not getting enough breast milk, I can say that there are more than a few good, personal, private reasons why someone doesn't want to even try breastfeeding. If you're a sexual assault survivor, breastfeeding can be triggering. If you've experienced hardship nursing previously, breastfeeding can be emotionally taxing and detrimental to your overall mental health.

If a woman has a history of trauma and believes breastfeeding will harm her emotionally, mentally, or otherwise... well, that's reason enough to say no from the start.

Perhaps instead of saying, "All new moms should try to breastfeed," we should start saying, "New moms who want to breastfeed should get all the support they need."

Because Breast Isn't Always Best

We seem to have a difficult time admitting that breast isn't best for all babies and all nursing parents. Some babies, like my daughter, are too little, sick, or weak to breastfeed effectively. Some babies, like my son, are allergic or intolerant to substances in their mom's milk. Some babies, like all of my children, need more milk than their moms can make.

Because Work Schedules Aren't Always Flexible

When the United States is the only developed country without mandatory paid family leave, only 13% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and one in four moms go back to work two weeks after childbirth, according to a 2012 analysis of data from the Department of Labor published in In These Times, the decision to "try" breastfeeding isn't as simple as people make it seem.

While we should definitely work towards better policies so more moms can breastfeed if they want to, we can't ignore the reality many working moms face.

Because Women Want Their Bodies Back

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In our culture we seem to think that female sexuality isn't a thing to be valued or enjoyed, especially in moms. I, for one, love sex, and am so tired of the idea that moms can't be sexy, or worse, should have to use their breasts to feed their babies when they'd rather have their bodies back after pregnancy. It's not selfish to choose not to use your breasts to feed your baby, and it's misogynistic to think otherwise.

Because Not Everyone Wants To

People rarely make sweeping value statements about any people's parenting choices like they do about breastfeeding, save perhaps for legitimately life-or-death decisions like vaccination, not doing drugs, or using a car seat.

If you try to apply the same language to other choices it just sounds wrong. Like "all people should try to eat a vegan diet" or "all people should try to run a marathon" or "all people should try to use a vibrator during sex." I have tried all of those things myself, but would I make it a point to argue that because I did everyone else should to? Nope. So, why do we think it's OK to tell women how they "should" use their bodies?

Because It's No One's Business

It's not that breastfeeding isn't great, and it's not that people who want to breastfeed shouldn't receive support. It's just that breastfeeding is a choice, not a value, and there are other valid and equally great choices new moms can make for themselves, their babies, and their families.

Perhaps instead of saying, "All new moms should try to breastfeed," we should start saying, "New moms who want to breastfeed should get all the support they need."

This post was originally published on Aug 17, 2018. It was updated on Aug 1, 2019.

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