Four Kinds of Breastfeeding Support: Emotional, Practical, Improper, and Unhelpful
I can't emphasize enough that when you have a new baby, you need support. Going it alone is unnatural and stressful. They say it takes a village, and while you may not have an entire village to help you, I hope you at least have your partner and a few trusted friends and relatives who are there for you.
When it comes to breastfeeding support, you need to make sure that (a) you have some, and (b) you have the right kind.
I've identified four types of support for new mothers. Each description below contains suggestions for the new mom herself and for the support people around her.
1. Emotional Support
For Mom: Emotional support is crucial. You might also call this moral support. This kind of support could come from your partner, your mother, your sister, aunt, cousin, best friend, a random person you meet in the park, or even someone on the internet. When someone is offering emotional support, it's those encouraging words when you're at the end of your rope; it's the, "You're doing great!" when you feel like you're doing everything wrong. Emotional support helps you keep going, push through the rough spots, and lets you know that others have been where you are, and it does get better.
To Support Mom: Even if you don't have personal breastfeeding experience, you can be there for her. Let her vent, listen to her concerns, and offer an encouraging word, whatever comes naturally to you. Some of us are more comfortable with being cheerleaders, while others are better at simply listening and being a sympathetic ear. Avoid trying to give advice she isn't asking for, but offer to help in any way you can. For example, "Can I do something around the house for you so you can rest? I'm a great laundry folder! Do you need anything from the store? Diapers? Snacks? Juice? Can I get you a glass of water?" Make specific offers, not a general, "Is there anything I can do to help?" because she may not be able to think of something in particular, or she may feel uncomfortable making a request.
2. Practical Support
For Mom: Practical support is also crucial. As much as you think you might know going in (and I say this as someone who's nursed a few babies!), it never hurts to have someone you can call upon when you have a practical question about your baby's latch, strange nursing behaviors, or other concerns. Every baby is different, and every nursing relationship is unique, and you'll want to know someone you can contact who has seen lots of mom-baby pairs and helped solve many types of problems. It's important that whoever you lean on for practical support actually knows what to say or do to help. This may be a La Leche League leader, a breastfeeding peer counselor or other trained breastfeeding support person, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, or even just your mom who's nursed four kids. You need to know that the advice you're going to receive is correct advice. If you get advice you're not sure of, feel free to double check it on a reputable site like Kellymom.com, or contact a lactation consultant.
To Support Mom: Unless you're sure you know what you're talking about - i.e., you're a lactation consultant, peer counselor, CLC, La Leche League leader, or you've at least done your breastfeeding research, it's best to leave the advice to someone who is one of those people. If you do know how to help, make the offer. "Hey, I'm a lactation educator. If you want, I can come sit with you and check out your baby's latch." If I'm not absolutely certain what to say or do to help a new mother with her question, I will always recommend that she meet with a local lactation consultant. If you don't know of one, you could help her find one. If you do, give her the number!
3. Improper Support
For Mom: Many friends and relatives will mean well, and they probably really do want to help you. However, sometimes you get tips and advice from people that is not what would be recommended by a lactation expert. For example, just because your best friend introduced a bottle of formula every night but continued to nurse for a year doesn't mean it's a good idea or that it will work for you. People improvise, get lucky, or make decisions based on unique situations that may or may not apply to you. Make sure you've done your own research and have consulted with someone trained in lactation before you supplement unnecessarily or make a decision that could harm your breastfeeding relationship.
To Support Mom: It's important not to give advice willy-nilly. Every mom will have different circumstances, and unless you are a trained lactation support person or have an educational background to go with your personal experience, you can end up doing more harm than good, even if you're trying to help. Simple suggestions like, "Maybe you want to get his latch checked," or, "My son had a tongue tie and I had the exact problems you're having" can be very helpful and give her a starting point for finding assistance. Thoughts based on your own experience that may make her life easier such as, "My daughter was really fussy, too, and babywearing really helped us on the bad evenings." It's best not to begin supplementation or take drastic measures without being seen by a lactation expert, however.
4. Unhelpful Support
For Mom: The least helpful kind of support is from people who think they're being supportive but are actually making you feel worse. A great example of this would be, "I'm can see that you're trying really hard to nurse your baby, but if it's this stressful, I would totally understand if you wanted to switch to bottles. A happy mom makes for a happy baby!" This kind of advice, while usually well-meaning, does not help the mother who sincerely wants to exclusively breastfeed but is in the throes of the two-week growth spurt or is battling thrush or mastitis. It's hard, but as a new parent it's important to not allow unhelpful comments like these to affect your mindset.
To Support Mom: Rather than trying to deter her from a path you think may be causing her stress, it is more helpful and more supportive to try to understand what her own goals are. A better comment in the above situation might be, "I can tell you really want to make nursing work, and you're doing an amazing job. I heard of a great lactation consultant in the area. Do you want her number?" If the mom really wants to breastfeed, suggesting that she stop will not make her feel supported. Helping her attain her goals will improve her mood and situation.
Preparation and Education
As new parents, we need to be prepared to avoid the improper and unhelpful advice and to call upon our emotional and practical support people whenever we need to. Gather your support system around you before you give birth, and be ready to discard information and advice that isn't what you want to hear.
As supportive friends and family members of new parents, it's our job to say the right words and be prepared with the right information. It doesn't hurt for others besides the new mom to learn a little about breastfeeding so that we can help in a way that the new parents will appreciate. It's important to know what the parents want and how to help them achieve that. Parents are bombarded by advice, some of which is contradictory, and knowing they have people to lean on who will simply be there to say, "I know it's hard now, but you're doing great, and it gets easier" will be invaluable.
How have you supported friends or relatives as they begin their parenting journeys? How have you been best supported when you've had a new baby? When we came home from the hospital with my third son, it was an incredibly hot and humid day, he screamed whenever he wasn't on the breast, and I was completely emotionally drained. A friend texted me just to say I was doing great, and it felt so good to hear that, even though it was my third baby. What is your favorite thing to tell a new parent, and how do they usually respond?