Physical, Cultural, and Psychological Impacts of Breastfeeding Challenges for New Moms

When I was pregnant with my eldest, I knew nothing about breastfeeding. I only knew that being in China with my husband, I desperately wanted to breastfeed. That was because of the whole melamine scandal with baby formula in China.

My parents sent over a care package full of formula from the states just in case. Thankfully, I didn’t need any of it and gave it to the moms in my expat group that needed it.

I was also lucky in that I found Vivien, my wonderful breastfeeding coach, who I met through La Leche League, a non-profit that helps mothers globally with breastfeeding. Incidentally, if you or anyone you know needs help with breastfeeding, or you are pregnant and wondering if you might, visit the website and get that help. It is a wonderful organization; without Vivien’s support, I’m not sure I could have been successful.

See, breastfeeding is painful when you don’t get that latch right. And in the beginning, it’s very time-consuming. You spend most of your time in the first 6 to 8 weeks as a boob slave while barely having a moment to pee, shower, or even get a bite of food into your mouth.

That’s very likely the reason why major health authorities like the CDC, AAP, and WHO have revealed that while over 80% of American women start out breastfeeding, only about 20% continue to exclusively feed their baby this way at the age of 6 months.

By attending the free La Leche League meetings that Vivien hosted like a champ in both Mandarin and English, I learned how breastfeeding improved the growth and development of the baby, how it reduced the risk for SIDS by half, and how it could boost my baby’s immunity.

Additionally, I knew that if I wasn’t struggling to buy imported formula (there was NO way I’d use any formula made in China), I’d be saving our family a fortune.

Interestingly, it saves more money than that for the healthcare system too. A study in Pediatrics found that if 90% of families in America breastfed for at least 6 months, it would save $13 billion annually in medical costs. It would also save lives – over 900 of them per year.

So, let’s take a look at all the barriers standing in the way for breastfeeding moms and how you can seek to jump right over them and feed your baby with your boobies.

Barriers to Breastfeeding

It’s more than just physical barriers to breastfeeding. Physiological barriers to breastfeeding are indeed much rarer. That’s not to say that women don’t struggle in the beginning. I know I did, but having the right people around to help you get it right can help you overcome almost every issue.

Let me get into these various barriers…

Not enough knowledge about breastfeeding

Most women, my past self included, have little or no information about breastfeeding except that it exists. I didn’t know anyone who breastfed among my friends who had babies before I lived abroad.

All I knew was that it was healthy for the baby, and that’s why we have boobs. But I couldn’t have told you anything more than that. I learned that using the resources I found through other expat moms who had given birth in China before me. Through them, I met Vivien and got the coaching I needed to succeed.

Misconceptions about formula

Before formula existed, there were significant jumps in infant mortality. This was back in the late 1800s. Incredibly, they could find a way to feed all babies. However, the formula should be used as a last resort.

As you can see from the current formula shortage, there are indeed risks to using formulas. Breastfeeding should be encouraged over formula use unless there is no other alternative.

Societal views

While in China, many nurses were not as educated about breastfeeding as they should have been when I gave birth to my eldest. Since Vivien’s Chinese was better than my own, she spoke to them all and stopped them from trying to give my eldest water (babies do not need water!).

However, the hospital staff seemed much more knowledgeable when I had my youngest. Even before that, though, they were wonderfully kind and offered support for my breastfeeding.

In China, I felt mostly at home breastfeeding while I was out. I would wear a cover for my own personal comfort. People stared at me all the time, and I didn’t want to accidentally flash them and give them more reasons to stare.

I had so many people offer up their chairs. Store clerks would bring their seats around, so I wouldn’t have to sit on the floor. Restaurant workers would bring me extra water or a snack while nursing.

It was a stark contrast to what I’d heard about in the states, where women were shunned for sitting on benches to breastfeed their babies. Yet, no one would have said a word if they paraded around in a bikini top and short shorts.

What strikes me is that even though this is the function our breasts are supposed to have, people act like it’s not normal. That’s the way your body was designed!

Inadequate support

mom breastfeeds her child

Indeed, one of the hardest things for moms when breaking the barriers of breastfeeding is the lack of support from loved ones. Even my in-laws became my biggest supporters when Vivien shared information with them in Chinese. Once they understood, they were very helpful.

One of the few things I did feel lucky about while living in China was that the people there were super supportive. I can’t imagine if I had to feed a baby in Target only to have someone tell me that’s disgusting and I should sit on the toilet and do that.

Embarrassment in public settings

I remember asking Vivien how I could nurse in public. “Won’t everyone be looking at me?” She assured me they wouldn’t be looking at me like that. She also said that if I felt more comfortable wearing a cover, I should use one because if I’m relaxed, my milk will flow more easily. Vivien additionally advised me to practice feeding my baby in front of a mirror to see how it looks and feel confident.

So I did. And I realized through doing that exercise that no one could see what I didn’t want them to. I also gained confidence in being able to latch in that position.

As I mentioned before, the fear of breastfeeding in public is genuine. I am so lucky no one ever said one negative thing to me.

In fact, one day, my husband was with me at a park, and our eldest got hungry. I sat on a bench and began feeding her. My husband stood protectively nearby. Some old ladies toddled along and said something. I couldn’t understand them, but my husband translated and explained that they said I was a good mother for nursing my baby.

However, when there is a lack of proper places to feed your baby, it may feel embarrassing. Maybe it was just that I lived in China and was used to being stared at and feeling embarrassed that I just didn’t care anymore.

Or that people were often quite kind to women with babies. But I feel you on the embarrassment. Those barriers to breastfeeding in public definitely exist. Still, if I ever see a mom breastfeeding and someone says anything negative to her, I’ll be opening my big mouth about it, believe me.

Problems with lactation

This is undoubtedly a physiological problem, one that can be helped by a breastfeeding coach or a lactation consultant. But women who don’t know there is someone who can help them often give up breastfeeding in the first few weeks.

Work and childcare

working on laptop while pumping breast milk

Many people complain about the lack of proper maternity leave in the states. I think that’s most definitely an issue, particularly for lower-income families. So many moms are forced to head back to work soon after giving birth. It’s not good for them as they recover, making breastfeeding even harder.

Additionally, there’s no on-site childcare or breaks for pumping. I’m hoping that new policies and changes will correct all this, but for these women, it breaks my heart to see them having no choice but to go back to work immediately because they need to keep a roof over their heads.

Psychological factors

It’s also true that women give up breastfeeding early on or don’t try at all because of psychological factors. They worry about the duration of breastfeeding, don’t have faith in their milk, have false expectations (because no one thought to speak to them about it during their pregnancy), and other things. These factors can most certainly impact your breastfeeding.

Barriers to breastfeeding for low-income women

I want to get a little more in-depth here for the low-income women trying to breastfeed. Huge disparities exist here that overlap with social, environmental, and individual barriers. It is even more common for women in America on WIC (otherwise known as food stamps). Nationally, they have the lowest breastfeeding rates of all.

pretty mom is with newborn baby outside and breastfeeding

They are mostly embarrassed about breastfeeding in public, need to return to work (or school), have lactation complications but no one to help them, have no social support, have low income, lack of childcare, and have less education.

As such, that’s why they’re obtaining WIC anyway because the low-wage jobs they hold don’t even bring in enough to help them stay afloat.

And the jobs they hold do not have flexible schedules, paid breaks, or places where they can express their breastmilk. So, when they return to work after having a baby, they usually stop breastfeeding.

Cultural barriers to breastfeeding

Some cultures encourage it while mixing it with food, like rural Cameroon. Meanwhile, Lebanese women seem to be discouraged from breastfeeding. I’ve explained that while there was a bit of a lack of information in China about breastfeeding, it was largely supported there. But here in the West, there are bad attitudes about breastfeeding.

As I mentioned before, people have sexual connotations involving breasts. They may also fear breastmilk, and as such, this low acceptance level makes women lean into formula usage. Women really do need safer spaces to do what they need to do as moms. This lack of care in our modern society really astounds me, especially since this is what your body is designed to do.

Just like your stomach is designed to process food and send it along the rest of the digestive system, your boobs are designed to, when stimulated by suckling, create breast milk to nourish your baby.

Interestingly, white British moms have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the UK. Yet, Asian (particularly Chinese) or black women tend to have more support and a higher rate of breastfeeding. This is vastly different from the US, where black women tend to breastfeed for much shorter due to poverty and lack of proper healthcare access.

Workplace barriers to breastfeeding

Overall, this all needs to change. Governments must come together and create environments conducive to breastfeeding in more than just practical support in a thumbs-up kind of way. Workplaces need to step it up.

Even in China, I had my own private space to pump my milk and the full support of all my colleagues. I shudder to think about what may have happened here if I had my babies in the US.

Overcoming those barriers to breastfeeding

I want to discuss how we can all break through those barriers to breastfeeding. Even though I will not have any more children, I am a strong advocate for my fellow mamas. This is a safe place where you can find breastfeeding information and support. You can always message me any questions you have if you do not see them here.

Addressing experience

As I stated at the beginning, I had no idea about anything regarding breastfeeding. Some women feel more comfortable with it right away because they were breastfed or had friends or sisters that did it. When you’re around someone who can comfortably breastfeed, it certainly helps you realize you can do it too.

Knowledge is power here, so we need to share the information. Again, I want to direct you to La Leche League, where you can get free support for breastfeeding in your area.

Find your own Vivien; I swear you’ll be so happy you did. You can also talk to your doctor and ask for resources in your area. Learning about it now before you give birth and getting support from someone who will show up after you give birth to help you get latched will be a huge help.

Get involved in your community too. Ask those you voted for what they’re doing to support new moms and educate them and the public about breastfeeding.

Fighting misinformation

This brings me to my next point. Have you ever been told some women can’t make enough milk? You can’t breastfeed if you take a certain medication? There are tons of myths out there. Breastfeeding is the healthiest food you can give your baby. Read more stories here.

Yet, some people have been told that only the poor breastfeed because they can’t buy formula. Honey, we weren’t poor, but I wouldn’t spend that much on formula! Good grief!

I’ve had friends tell me they didn’t have enough milk, and I was flabbergasted that someone made them believe this.

They don’t tell you that colostrum is that liquid gold milk that comes in the first days to give your baby the best start. Your full milk comes in just after that. Believe me; you just need to get the baby latched on there to send those hormone signals to your brain to make that milk.

No support

If no one in your life supports you for your efforts in breastfeeding, take it upon yourself to join a group that does. Besides La Leche League, you will find local groups in your area. Please do it now before giving birth and get that support you need. It is there, and these ladies are phenomenal people who will advocate for you even when you feel like you’re all alone.

Latch problems

The biggest problem you will face with breastfeeding in the physical sense is the latch. That is crucial, and having a coach or consultant that can help you will make the biggest difference.

mom tries deep latch holding breast as sandwich

Breastfeeding should NOT hurt. If it does, you’ve got the latch wrong. Use these resources to ensure you have a helping hand. My husband called Vivien when my water broke. She walked in like an angel when I came to from the drugs after my c-section. She was there to help me get my baby latched on.

You can also ask your doctor if any staff at the hospital can help you latch on when you go in for your checkups. Having one less thing to worry about is always a good idea.

Help with returning to work

It sucks that some employers may make you feel embarrassed to speak to them. Ages ago, while I wasn’t pregnant, I at least was grateful I felt comfortable talking to my male boss when my pants split on the seam, and I needed to go home and change.

I know not every mama has a boss like that. Or a desk job where it may be easier to hide in a break room or even have an official space set up. Some women work in sandwich shops. Cafeterias. Delivery services. So many jobs aren’t flexible and have no place to pump.

That said, there was an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which requires an employer to provide a break time for you to express your milk for one full year after the birth of your child AND provide a place that is NOT the bathroom where you can pump.

Unfortunately, there are some stipulations, though, but this link can help you find out if it applies to you.

I know there seem to be many barriers to breastfeeding but use the resources and let them help you find the way to success in breastfeeding. I wish you all the best.

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