If breastfeeding is natural, why can't I do it?

Sadly, this is something that is often heard from mothers who want to breastfeed but are finding things difficult. There are many things that humans seem to do “naturally” — for example, sitting, walking and talking, but all of these things are only successful after lots of practice AND seeing other people do them too.

And that’s the key — seeing people do something is part of the way we learn. I personally think it’s a BIG part of how we learn and that’s one of the reasons I believe some women feel nervous about breastfeeding and find it tricky to get breastfeeding off to a good start. Most of us aren’t lucky enough to grow up seeing other women breastfeed. This is partly due to the way our family groups are widely dispersed — we don’t tend to live in small communities where we see our aunts, cousins, family friends, etc breastfeeding. Many families are smaller these days and therefore we don’t have younger siblings that are still breastfeeding by the time we are old enough to really remember what’s happening around us. Stories in the news and media about women being asked to stop breastfeeding also mean that many women who are out with their babies tend to hide away when it comes to time to feed their baby, so we don’t always see mothers and babies feeding so much, or as openly, in public either.

Given that many women don’t grow up seeing women breastfeed, it’s no wonder it’s difficult for some of us to work out how to do this “natural thing”. Not all babies are born knowing what to do, and sometimes the process and medication of labour and birth can impact a baby’s ability to successfully breastfeed in the first few days too. It’s critical that women have the support and information they need, when they need it, in order to successfully breastfeed their baby — and by successful, I mean a breastfeeding relationship that the mother is happy with.

If available, antenatal breastfeeding education can help new parents have a better idea of what to expect from breastfeeding, how to get off to the best possible start with breastfeeding, and how to cope with the most common “problems” new mothers experience with breastfeeding. These classes should also give the parents information about how and where to get further breastfeeding information and support once their baby is born. Support in the community from other mothers who have been, or are going through, similar situations with breastfeeding can be very reassuring. Going to antenatal classes gives parents the chance to meet other women having babies around the same time and it can be useful to keep in touch to help each other through the first few months.

There are many organisations and groups set up to help with breastfeeding, some more formal than others. Having a range of ideas and information to draw on can be empowering, and if a piece of information or suggestion doesn’t “feel right” for you, there is usually an alternative to try. It’s crucial to keep asking until you find the right person to help you, with the information that works for you — and sometimes it takes a few goes to get that right. So yes, breastfeeding might be “natural” in that human breastmilk is designed for human babies, but it’s not necessarily a process that is “natural” for us to follow — we have to learn first.


 Printed in Kiwiparent Magazine Dec 2019/Jan 2020