For many women, breastfeeding comes with a challenge. The combination of severe sleep deprivation, unstable hormones, and inexperience, can leave the most confident woman, feeling uncertain about her ability to nuture and feed her baby. It is in these moments of uncertainty (and tears) that women rely on a variety of support systems to aid and encourage her success. Beyond family, social and community support, the single most determining factor for a breastfeeding mothers confidence, commitment and satisfaction is the support of her partner [or support person for single mothers].
A 2013 study in the International Breastfeeding Journal examined the perceptions of partner support during breastfeeding from 76 postpartum mothers and the association between partner support and breastfeeding outcomes. The results from the study revealed direct association between partner support and encouragement and maternal confidence in her perceived ability to breastfeed. The women who received positive support and active engagement from their partners demonstrated higher levels of confidence in their ability to breastfeed than women with partners who were ambivalent towards breastfeeding.
"Partner support was predictive of maternal confidence in breastfeeding regardless of any previous breastfeeding experience or the age of the infant" (Mannion, Hobbs, McDonald, & Tough, 2013).
Whose opinions of breastfeeding is most predictive of initiation beyond the partner?
We created this chart a visual to demonstrate areas of influence in breastfeeding self-efficacy with women of color. The women in the study mentioned above, reported their maternal mothers, friends, and providers as the most influential. One limitation of this study was that it most diverse in terms of socioeconomic status or race, as most of the women in the study were married, highly educated, and resided with their partner. So...lets expand that scope of influence and look at what other areas influence a mothers decision to initiate or continue to breastfeed.
Socio-economic status, is a crucial determinant in breastfeeding success. Health disparities and racial inequality underly access to information, support, and health equity. Concentrated poverty within many urban and rural communities of color, foster unhealthy attitudes towards breastfeeding (leading to greater mortality and morbity rates) and render new mothers psychologically distressed, unable to focus her attention nurturing and bonding with baby, but rather on survival.
Place of employment is another determing factor. Mothers who are lower-income are more likely to have low-paying jobs without benefits, forcing them return to work prior to 6-weeks postpartum and not having the adequate facilities to pump and store their milk. Women are also more likely to work longer hours, or leave their babies with care providers who are unsupportive or uneducated about the benefits of breastfeeding.
Single mothers who are also lower-income, are less likely to have a supportive network of people who are educated about breastfeeding. Additionally, these mothers have a greater chance of quitting in the first week due to the absence of partner support and the demands of caring for a new baby. When single mothers have a supportive network, the lack of partner presence is mediated.
Grandmothers if your mother breastfed, or you have a family history of breastfeeding, it is very likely that you will breastfeed, as it will be considered the 'norm'. However, mothers or mother-in-laws who are very engaged in the relationship of the couple [or the postpartum mother] and do not support breastfeeding (usually due to their own lack of support received or simply ignorance) will typically result in the mother giving formula prematurely. As Birthworkers, Lactation Consultants, Midwives, etc. working with families of color, it is critical to not only educate the mother [and partner], but also the family and peer support system as well. We encourage our Community Birthworkers to do at least one visit with all the family members and close friends present. This allows for us to identify early on who is in her support network, and what beliefs they hold around birth, breastfeeding and baby care.
Vicarious experiences. I can remember the first person I saw breastfeeding was my bestfriend. She was also the first person I ever saw give birth. I had already affirmed prior to this that I wanted to breastfeed as it seemed like the cheapest thing and most natural thing to do. I was 22, when I had that first vicarious experience. Because of the low rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration in our community, many women, particularly those in the 80s-90s generation have never seen anyone breasfeed, at least not successfully.
The more we normalize breastfeeding and breastfeed publicly, and unashamedly, we begin to transform the culture of the breast as sexual objects. We begin to reauthor the narrative of the colonization of the black body, and the reduction of black women to hypersexual beings, into a narrative of power, confidence in ones body, and elevate self-esteem.
What can partners [and family/friends] do to promote breastfeeding success?
Trust the mothers intuition. I know we hear this all the time, but I can't believe how many times a mother is pushed to ignore or second guess her intution. Women in our society are taught to not trust their intution, but to trust research and science. As the old saying goes..."mother knows best". Trust your partner enough to know that nature has designed the perfect process for her to nurture and feed your baby.
Attend breastfeeding classes/workshops. An important aspect of building confidence in breastfeeding skills is knowledge. Learning the range of normal, common issues, feeding cues, and positions, aid you in being a more active and engaged supporter. You serve as the first line of defense recognizing issues, that is pertinent to breastfeeding duration.
The mothers job is to breastfeed. Your job is to support. I hear many a mother justify supplementing because the partner wanted to feed the baby or they needed a "break". So...mothers, your only job postpartum is to rest (as much as possible) and feed your baby. If partners (in this case men) were meant to feed the babies, they would produce milk. But, nature gave you, the mother the boobs! Trust me, I understand the sleep deprivation, but seek out support, from a postpartum doula, a friend, or family member that can come hold the baby for a few hours so you can nap. There are many things the partner can do to help that is just as vital as feeding. You can helping with calming and soothing the baby before it is time for a feeding; change baby's diaper; ensure the mother has water and snacks/food; and help with positioning the baby. All this will boost her confidence!
* Verbal Persuasion. Your encouragement will boost her confidence, esteem, and trust in her body to nuture and feed the baby. When she is having a challenge, remind her what is normal and to be patient with herself and the baby. At least once per day, tell how great of a job that she is doing and how beautiful she is. Encourage her to not give up, and seek out help and support for her when a problem is recognized. The earlier you intervene, the greater likelihood of continued breastfeed.
Listen. She just had a baby. She is exhausted, overwhelmed, happy, confused, emotional, etc. She may just need to listen to her vent. Validate her feelings, and address her concerns.
House chores. Practical help such as caring for older children, washing dishes, cooking, cleaning the house, and grocery shopping, are all things that will allow the mother to focus solely on breastfeeding. Family and friends can utilized meal train to coordinate meals and pratical support. For mothers with little to no support seek out a postpartum doula. Some offer their services on a probono or sliding scale fee.
It takes a village to encourage successful breastfeeding
image by Health Connect One
photos on this site unless stated, are the property of Mamatoto Village, Inc. cannot be used without permission.
The information in this post does not replace the medical guidance of your provider. If you are concerned about the well being of yourself or your baby seek medical advice.