I had a significant set of difficulties breastfeeding both of my sons. If not for the patient and devoted La Leche League leaders and lactation consultants who gave me advice, support, and a shoulder to cry on, I could not have nursed both of my boys into toddlerhood (and still going…) the way I believe nature intended me to. I wanted to be able to provide that advice, support and shoulder to women who struggled to breastfeed. So, last year I became certified as a Lactation Educator Counselor as the start of my pursuit to eventually become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.
Since becoming certified, I have been privileged to counsel a handful of women, mostly over the phone, and a few in person, with what I deem success: confidence in breastfeeding and mothering was bolstered, problems troubleshooted, babies breastfeeding happily, and mothers and fathers more rested.
In recent months, I have counseled two women with week old babies who both had the same question: they wanted to know how to start using a breastpump. Neither woman worked outside of the home or had any difficulty breastfeeding, establishing the milk supply, or adjusting to life with a baby. They were simply ready to start pumping to “sock away milk” and “get some time away.”
Before I go on, I want to say that I understand why breast pumps are helpful and useful. A breast pump helped me establish my milk supply and give my newborn the precious colostrum he needed when he was in the NICU for the first four days of his life. Breast pumps can help women continue to provide breastmilk for their children when they return to work or are away from their babies. I have used breast pumps and I understand why people use them.
So what’s my lactivist beef? (Could that sound any more un-kosher?!) Why do I not recommend (nor would any lactation consultant) using a breast pump with a newborn if there is no pressing need to?
The Science. Establishing and maintaining a milk supply is best achieved by breastfeeding. Period. A breast pump cannot take the place of a baby and can, in fact, interfere with your body learning the rhythms and breast milk desires of your baby. No pump can match the stimulation and sucking power of a human baby, and frequent on-demand baby-to-breast ’round the clock for the better part of the first 3 months is the “best” way to do that. This is good for the milk supply, good for the baby (no artificial breast milk has ever come close to matching human breast milk and that’s not propaganda, it’s just the truth), and it’s good for the mama’s mental and physical health as well.
It Ain’t Broke so Don’t Fix It. Any time you introduce an increase in demand (by pumping in between your baby’s natural desire to breastfeed), you are toying with your body’s ability to learn your baby’s demand and meet it. This can lead to engorgement, plugged ducts, mastitis, and a cycle of problems that may lead to a decreased probability that you will continue breastfeeding. And any time you are pumping as a substitute for your breast, you lose the intimate and endocrinologically significant hormonal rush that most reliably occurs when baby is at your breast. This hormonal party encourages your breastmilk supply to stay strong and consistent, helps you feel connected and committed to your baby, and facilitates long-term breastfeeding success. In addition, bottles are not breasts. Babies can astonishingly quickly learn to prefer a bottle over a breast and once your baby refuses your breast, it is not impossible to get them back on, but it forces you to either negotiate with an angry newborn or to attempt to keep up pumping while bottle-feeding, which will invariably exhaust you and may not lead to you pumping as long as you might breastfeed. For 3 months, I recommend that you sit back, try and relax, and let nature do its thing.
The Sensibility. What I hear from women who are anxious to start pumping right away is that they want to “sock away milk” while they can. I understand the desire to have a supply of milk in the freezer, but if you have no pressing or urgent need to be away from your child, that milk belongs in your baby’s tummy. The “what to purchase for your newborn” lists at most baby stores now include “breastpump,” and while this is indeed a giant step forward from the days when breastfeeding was considered unhygienic and something to avoid, the notion that it is inherent in new motherhood that you “need” a break and will “need” to be away from a newborn is disturbing to those of us who believe very strongly in establishing a strong healthy breastfeeding relationship. Time away from baby can be planned around a baby’s rhythms, and slings and baby carriers designed for easy breastfeeding and comfort can significantly decrease the amount of time you think you “need” to be away from your baby.
Breast pumps are wonderful inventions, but they should not be used simply because they can be, and they should not be seen as a substitute for your skin, your arms, your smell, and your voice cooing to your baby. If and when the time comes for you to be away from your baby, a high-quality breast pump can make the difference between continuing breastfeeding or not, and it ought be appreciated as critical to your breastfeeding relationship.
I decided for myself that my newborns needed me more than I needed time away, and while it may not work for everyone, please know that if a persnickety lactation educator counselor suggests that you wait to start using that pump, don’t assume she is a militant uptight old-fashioned paranoid lactivist; maybe she just happens to have a good knowledge of neuroendocrinology, a great understanding of the wonders of a breast pump, and six years (and counting) experience breastfeeding children with struggles, but also with tremendous joy and bliss.
Also, maybe she’s on The Big Bang Theory and it’s kind of neat to have TV’s Blossom and Amy Farrah Fowler talking to you about your nipples. Or not.
Mayim’s got a lot more to say about breastfeeding. Check out her other posts: