Let me start off with a disclaimer: I don’t believe in judging women for the way in which they nourish their babies. Breast milk, formula, IV nutrition—we are all trying to provide for our babies in the best ways we can.
In February 2016, the American Congress of OB/GYN (ACOG) released a statement outlining recommendations to OB/GYNs for supporting breastfeeding women. It discusses educating a woman about breastfeeding while she is still pregnant, strategies for support during and immediately following birth, and suggestions for post-partum outpatient support. It recommends that OB/GYNs champion public policies that protect a woman’s ability to maintain breastfeeding or pumping long after the delivery.
It’s a great start, especially the part about public policy.
But here’s the deal: Breastfeeding happens literally 24 hours a day. The challenges don’t confine themselves to appointments, and many cannot be anticipated or described during prenatal care. Breastfeeding happens with cracked, painful nipples or clogged ducts at 3 a.m.; when a stranger gives a wayward look at a restaurant; when milk supply seems to be plummeting; when you pump in the car on the way to work because it’s the only private place you have or the only free time you will get.
Most of the official recommendations are geared towards breastfeeding mothers, but women need more than didactics and spot-checks. They need a village.
I was lucky to have an incredible support system, and with their help, I was able to achieve my goal of keeping my baby breastfed for a year—despite most of the obstacles listed above. So here are some non-scientific, completely subjective tips for a woman’s breastfeeding community.
1. Tell her.
Breastfeeding can be difficult and frustrating. An acknowledgement of what she is doing goes a long way. This is especially potent from a partner in the middle of the night, but it is wonderful coming from anyone at any time. It turns out that newborns can’t give much feedback other than happy sounds and really full diapers in appreciation. A simple, “You’re doing a great job!” means more than you can imagine.
2. Keep her company.
Breastfeeding and/or pumping can be incredibly lonely, and takes many hours throughout the day and night. Join her for a session or two. Just having someone to talk to during those times can make it seem less isolating.
3. Bring her water.
It turns out that breastfeeding makes women very, very thirsty. A large amount of water goes into producing breast milk, and dehydration is a common cause for decreased supply. But most women are too exhausted to even notice their own dehydration, let alone keep track of their water intake. Just keep refilling her cup, or bring her a cool new bottle so she can keep track. I drank anywhere between 4-8 liters of water a day while breastfeeding. So keep the water coming—she won’t even know to thank you for it until later.
4. Bring her snacks.
It turns out that breastfeeding also makes women very, very hungry. A large number of calories and a huge amount of energy go into producing breast milk. She may not have the time or energy for consistent, well-balanced meals. She is just trying to grab food in the margins. A well-stocked pantry of easy to grab snacks will make a huge difference. This is where a stack of lactation cookies (recipes online!) would really do the trick.
5. Have her back in public.
At some point, you may find yourselves in a public space. Help her out. Does she want to use a cover? A second pair of hands, for fixing a wrap or helping out with baby, can be priceless. Not covering up? Be her advocate. Allow her to focus on the baby and do some crowd control if needed. Are you in public and a woman you don’t know is breastfeeding nearby? Act normally and proceed with whatever you were doing. Don’t like it? Act normally and proceed with whatever you were doing.
6. Give her gifts that keep on giving.
There are some things that a new mother (or a newly breastfeeding mother) may not think of for the registry: breast soothers, lanolin, nursing pads, hands-free bras, nursing tank tops, extra pumping supplies, a hand pump, or a pumping bag. These aren’t exactly sexy gifts, but that’s what friends are for!
This list is in no way complete, nor is it the only list out there. My hope is to expand upon ACOG’s guidelines in creating a culture of support. Whether you know someone who is breastfeeding (by being her spouse, family member, friend, or colleague) or are breastfeeding yourself, hopefully this list can help guide the village of which you are a part.