Courtesy of Sabrina Joy Stevens

The One Reason We Need To Stop Calling Breastfeeding 'Natural'

Ad failed to load

The idea that breastfeeding is “natural” is almost as ubiquitous as the “breast is best” messaging public health advocates use to encourage new moms to nurse. I’ve certainly heard it plenty of times in the almost 19 months I’ve been nursing my son, and well before. I love breastfeeding, and while I am a huge advocate for moms to nurse if (and only if) they choose to, and while I've been guilty of this in the past, I also believe it may be time to stop calling breastfeeding ‘natural.’

The term ‘natural’ has been used so much, and applied to so many things, that it is all but meaningless at this point. Yes, it is absolutely beautiful and normal that mothers nurse our children. However, it's also "natural" for parents to seek out any and all other means to feed their children if they don't want to breastfeed, or if breastfeeding isn't an option. It's "natural" to give birth vaginally without medication, but it's also "natural" for people to use whatever means are available to dull their pain and discomfort and to get a baby out if vaginal birth isn't happening or no longer safe. Indeed, anything humans do can be construed as "natural" or "unnatural," if we take the time to make an argument for it. I mean, it's as "natural" for us to forage for or grow organic food as it is "natural" for us to use our highly intelligent and adaptive brains to experiment with hybridization and genetic modification in agriculture.

However, the biggest reason we should reconsider using the term "natural" as a default defense of breastfeeding is that it misleads families, and gives them false expectations of how their breastfeeding journey should or will unfold. Indeed, I would wager that the misperceptions fostered by the belief that breastfeeding is the "most natural" way to feed a baby probably contributes to many mothers who want to truly want breastfeed not meeting their breastfeeding goals.

Ad failed to load
Courtesy of Sabrina Joy Stevens
However, the biggest reason we should reconsider using the term "natural" as a default defense of breastfeeding is that it misleads families, and gives them false expectations of how their breastfeeding journey should or will unfold.

Though breastfeeding feels like second nature to me now, that was hardly the case when I gave birth to my son. I had a great birth experience, and both myself and my son were very healthy afterwards. However, I was tired like anyone would be after a day of labor and birth, and my son was constantly not just hungry but hangry (something he clearly inherited from me). He was also incredibly strong and mobile, refusing to be swaddled or even cradled for an extended period of time, armed with fearsome little baby talons that would scratch me whenever he attempted to latch. (If only breastfeeding pamphlets had moving pictures, like the newspapers in Harry Potter. Then we’d all know that, actually, nursing babies squirm all over the place and aren’t all peaceful and still like they seem in the brochures.) He would latch perfectly sometimes, including at his first pediatrician’s appointment, yet more often than not he’d be flailing and scratching, getting a horribly painful, shallow latch.

Ad failed to load

Fortunately for me, I have a supportive and encouraging partner who was available to bring me food and water around the clock, and take care of everything else so I could focus on recovering and nursing. He also bought cold packs and other comfort measures that gave me relief between feedings, so I could get through the early days when things were still painful and give myself and our son a chance to learn what we were doing. I also had amazing midwives who, as a matter of professional routine, check all the babies they catch for signs of tongue and lip ties and don’t leave until they see the new baby latch successfully (and until they witness other clues that let them know mom and baby are healthy enough to be left to rest). They focused a lot on how breastfeeding was going/troubleshooting breastfeeding issues during our one-day, three-day, two-week, and six-week follow up appointments, and gave me information about support groups and lactation consultants we could meet with ASAP if we needed additional support.

Biological tricks alone aren't enough to automatically create a successful breastfeeding relationship.

On day five, we went to see an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) who taught me a few tricks to help my son get a deep latch every time, and within a couple of weeks we really got the hang of and enjoyed a pain-free nursing relationship. (I also got really good at clipping baby nails, because baby nails are the freakin' worst.) At my two-week follow-up visit, one of my midwives taught me how to nurse while laid back and laying down, which turned out to be so clutch. I could stop completely waking up for night feedings and, instead, just let my baby latch himself on and eat while we both slept through the night. We also learned how to nurse while babywearing, which made nap time a lot easier and helped me hike, shop, and do all sorts of other stuff while nursing my little guy.

Ad failed to load
Sabrina Joy Stevens

It's true that breastfeeding is the means of nourishment that newborn babies are biologically primed to expect upon being born. There are multiple things, in addition to our hormones, that exist to help moms and babies get started on this journey. Our areolas darken and grow during pregnancy so they're more visible to babies, whose vision is poorer than it will be as they grow. Babies have a rooting instinct and an instinct to suckle. All of that is in place to help a healthy, full-term baby to nurse successfully. However, biological tricks alone aren't enough to automatically create a successful breastfeeding relationship, nor do they prevent babies from quickly learning to bottle feed, if that's what they're presented with early on.

Moreover, and more importantly, the fact that babies and moms have certain biological things that help us nurse does not mean that there is no learning involved with breastfeeding. Yet in our culture, the term “natural” implies that something is effortless and instinctive. “If breastfeeding is natural,” folks may reason, “then I don't need to prepare to do it. It will just happen.” But breastfeeding absolutely does require preparation, learning, and practice, especially in societies like ours where bottle feeding is the norm, and where many functions of women’s bodies, lactation included, are both stigmatized and poorly understood.

Ad failed to load
'If breastfeeding is natural,' folks may reason, 'then I don't need to prepare to do it. It will just happen.' But breastfeeding absolutely does require preparation, learning, and practice...

Many of us do not grow up seeing breastfeeding in action, particularly not in the earliest days when mothers and babies are both learning how to latch effectively, how to communicate with each other about nursing, and much more. By the time most mothers get to the point of nursing publicly, they've usually already mastered latching and overcome most of their initial problems, and they often nurse so while totally covered up, so none of the latching-on tricks, comfort measures, or anything else they had do to nurse successfully are visible. Worse, most health and sex education classes don't cover the basics of lactation when teaching about reproduction which, you know, is a glaring oversight.

Ad failed to load

Taken together, all of that means many new parents don't know basic facts about nursing that they’ll need in order to be successful, yet they still have an expectation that everything will go smoothly because the process is “natural.” That’s a setup for failure. When people believe that breastfeeding is “natural” yet don't understand how it works, many of the totally normal things that happen can be misconstrued as evidence that something is wrong, leading them to quit before they've gotten a chance to get started.


So many mothers, who expect that breastfeeding should just come “naturally,” are set up to fail when the reality doesn't match the image they're given, and when everyone around them, equally under-informed about breastfeeding and normal newborn behavior, suggests that their baby is “eating too often” or that they should just give the baby a bottle. They’re set up to think they did something wrong or that they're not cut out to breastfeed, when in fact everything they're experiencing is totally normal, and could likely be overcome with the right information and support.

Ad failed to load
Though breastfeeding feels like second nature to me now, that was hardly the case when I gave birth to my son.

When I think of much of the support that made it possible for me to breastfeed, a lot of it came down to what my partner and midwives were able to do for me. Unfortunately, almost none of that could be said to come “naturally” in a society that doesn’t always teach men to fully respect or nurture their partners, doesn’t provide universal paid parental leave for all parents, doesn’t ensure that all healthcare providers understand what it means to support mothers’ efforts to breastfeed, doesn't teach people what it looks like to establish a nursing relationship, and pushes mothers to put all sorts of other things (financial obligations, social pressures to entertain guests and/or “get their body back”) ahead of their postpartum recovery.

If we really want everyone who wants to breastfeed to be able to, then instead of relentlessly suggesting that it is natural, we should make sure people actually have the knowledge and support they need to breastfeed for as long as they're willing or able. We should make sure that new moms know their feeding journeys can take many different forms, and that as long as they and their children are healthy and well-fed, that all of those journeys are valid. We should make sure people understand that while breastfeeding may not be instantly effortless and instinctive, it’s entirely do-able for most people, it typically gets easier as you go along, and it has plenty of benefits for mothers and babies.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

15 Baby Names With Unique Nicknames, So Your Family Has Options

I love a good diminutive name, also known as a nickname. I believe I’m partial to them because of my own name, Abigale, but I go by Abi. And since they’re both uniquely spelled, everyone thinks my name is pronounced Ah-bee for some reason — but even …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

The Entire Family Can Enjoy These Movies & Shows Coming To Netflix In June

It's just one of those sad facts of life: every month, shows and movies vanish from Netflix, their varied excitements no longer at your fingertips. But luckily the streaming service is always prepared to fill that content void with lots of new things…
By Megan Walsh

The Reason Why Babies Smile At You Will Seriously Make You Smile

Whether you're currently the recipient of your own baby's sweet smiles or you just seem to be a magnet for baby grins in general, you might find yourself wondering why babies are always smiling at you. Sure, you could be a 'smile whisperer' but scien…
By Kate Miller

8 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say That, Yes, You Are Their Favorite

For a baby to show a preference for a specific person is not only normal, but an essential part of their development. Babies need to form strong attachments to their caregivers for their emotional, social, and physical wellbeing. Usually, but not alw…
By Kimmie Fink

10 Reasons Why I Won't Apologize For Giving My Toddler A Pacifier

My first child had no interest in a pacifier. I tried a couple times to get him to take one, but he always spat them out and gave me an incredulous, judgmental look. But my second? It was love at first suckle. And after a while, the incredulous, judg…
By Jamie Kenney

Being A Dog Parent Prepared Me For Having A Baby, Really

I’ve always wanted kids; I was never as sure about raising a puppy. Then I spent six months living with someone who brought home an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy, and I see no way to make it out of that experience claiming not to love dogs. I…
By Heather Caplan

20 Of The Most Popular Unisex Names Of All Time, That You'll Be Hearing More Of For Sure

You might think of unisex names as a fairly recent trend, but the truth is these versatile monikers have been commonly used throughout history (well, some more commonly than others). That's why the team over at recently compiled a list of t…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

How To Have A Date Night With No Babysitter, Because It's Easier Than You Think

After having children, many couples feel that their love lives immediately go out the window, but it's so important to make your romantic life a priority so both you and your partner can be the best versions of yourselves you can be. As we all know, …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

9 Ways Baby No. 3 Made My Family Feel Complete

My husband and I decided to have another baby right after we got married and, well, we had no idea what we were getting into. I got pregnant right away, endured a high-risk pregnancy, and, before I knew it, my third baby had arrived. Together, we emb…
By Steph Montgomery

8 Stereotypes About New Dads That Are *Totally* True

Much like new mothers, new fathers have a lot on their plate. Parenting can be scary and complex, especially at first and regardless of your gender. People want to do right by their kids, after all. And since all new parents are a hot mess, dads are …
By Priscilla Blossom

8 Differences Between Being Pregnant In Your 20s Vs 30s, According To Science

Whether you're planning a pregnancy, or just thinking about your future family, it's typical to think about things like child-spacing, how many kids you want, and when to start trying to conceive. When making your pro/con list, you might also conside…
By Steph Montgomery

16 Moms Share Remedies For Their Most Intense Chocolate Cravings During Pregnancy

For better or worse, pregnancy is usually synonymous with odd cravings. Sure, there are the stereotypical combos like pickles and ice cream that plague gestating women the world over, but there are other mind-boggling combinations, too, including but…
By Candace Ganger

Putting Sunscreen On Your Kid Doesn't Have To Be A Fight — Here's How To Do It

I am almost translucent, so me and sunscreen are basically besties at this point. Even though my children are beautifully deep brown thanks to my husband's genetics, I still slather them like biscuits being buttered because I refuse to take risks wit…
By Cat Bowen

19 Moms Share The Way They Cured Their Pregnancy Comfort Food Cravings

I was obnoxiously sick during the first trimester with, "lucky" for me, both of my pregnancies. For the first three months I lived on saltines, lemonade, and fresh bread. Once I was able to eat, however, all I wanted was savory and sweet comfort food…
By Dina Leygerman

I Used To Judge Formula-Feeding Moms — Until I Became One

The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I …
By Katherine Martinelli

7 White Lies It’s Necessary To Tell To Keep Your Relationship Healthy

Telling lots of lies typically isn't associated with a healthy, strong, lasting relationship, and that's still certainly true, but not all lies are exactly the same. Though you've probably heard from someone at least once or twice that the lie they t…
By Lauren Schumacker

The Skinny Jeans That Saved Me Postpartum

Accepting my post-pregnancy body is hands-down one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s something that I still work on every single day. During my first pregnancy, I was 20 years old, so I managed to bounce back quickly. In fact, I dropp…
By Allison Cooper

7 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say They Feel Safe

In those first weeks of new motherhood, it can feel like you need an interpreter for your newborn. With their limited means of communication, figuring out what message your baby is trying to get across to you can be a challenge. With time, however, y…
By Kimmie Fink

Here's Why Dogs Are Obsessed With Babies' Poop, According To Science

Most family dogs seem to understand babies, and they're more than happy to make friends with the newest member of the pack. It's adorable... for the most part and until you go to change your little one's diaper. Suddenly, you're wondering why dogs ar…
By Lindsay E. Mack

6 Signs You're Meant To Have A Big Age Gap Between Kids

There's a five year age difference between my two children, to the day. Their age gap wasn't planned but, for a variety of reasons, works well for our family. And since I was so focused on having a second baby, I totally overlooked the signs that wou…
By Candace Ganger

My Dog Knew I Was Pregnant Before My Family Did

Growing up, I was 100 percent sure I'd be a mom one day. To a dog, that is. My baby plans came later. And once my husband and I were sure we wanted both a dog and a baby, we'd add to our joint dog-and-baby name list over Sunday brunch or on date nigh…
By Melissa Mills