Breastfeeding Advice: Help or Hinderance?

by Barbara L. Behrmann, Ph.D.

Many factors likely influence your decision to nurse, how you go about establishing and maintaining your nursing relationship, and how long you keep going. Even if you assert that you are not influenced by others' opinions, your experience, knowledge and values are still influenced by the larger culture and society in which you live.

But how do you figure out who or what to listen to? Say you want to travel to Italy. Do you rely on the advice of someone who has scarcely crossed the state line? Do you read promotional literature about Italy produced by a French tourist agency? Do you go to your own travel agency who specializes in domestic cruises? Maybe, but the helpfulness and reliability would be suspect.

Breastfeeding is not much different. A lot of breastfeeding promotional materials are produced by companies that make formula. (Would you go to Pepsi to find out why you should drink Coke?) On the surface the information may appear sound, but probe a little deeper and it's not always the case.

If you are surrounded by family and friends who have had successful breastfeeding experiences, great! But what if they haven't? How do you react when they ask, Do you need to feed that baby again? He just ate! The poor thing's crying. Do you think you don't have enough milk? When are you going to wean that child? She's got teeth already!

Most of us value input from those who care about us. But with breastfeeding myths and misinformation so prevalent in our society, if we are going to let anyone influence our decisions, perhaps they should be from people who have been there, done that.

This is even true when it comes to medical advice. Some doctors and nurses, for example, know a lot about breastfeeding and have much to offer nursing mothers. But just because someone is a pediatrician or family doctor doesn't make him or her a breastfeeding expert. In fact, studies have documented that medical textbooks on the subject are often filled with errors and misinformation. Many doctors freely admit that they don't have the knowledge, training and experience to adequately counsel breastfeeding mothers.

Contradictions often result. One mother, for example, had a hard time getting her newborn to breast while recovering from a c-section. She recalls, "Every four hours I had a different nurse. One said don't worry about it; the next said I should be pumping and giving her formula in the meantime; the next said something completely different. One nurse said it's because I wasn't holding her right. There seemed to be no standard. It was very frustrating."

General Guidelines

So how do you know who to turn to? How do you know who or what is credible? Here are five suggestions:

•Don't rely on literature produced by any source with an opposing interest. This means any breastfeeding information coming from formula companies probably doesn't have you or your baby's best interest at heart.

•If you are reading a magazine or other resource that relies heavily on advertising from formula companies, they may feel a certain limit on how free they are to present certain information.

•If you have a partner, obviously he hasn't nursed (unless your partner is female, of course). That doesn't mean you don't want to respect his (or her) opinion. But it's important to share information with each other so that your thinking can evolve together. He or she may be wonderfully supportive and willing to help you in any way possible, but may also be uncomfortable with breastfeeding in general, have concerns about you nursing in public, not want the baby in your bedroom, or may encourage you to wean before you want to. Hopefully you can learn together.

•Know who you can go to for help before you give birth. Bring their phone numbers with you to the hospital or birth center. Not all lactation consultants are equally trained and some providers may use the title even though they aren't certified. Someone with the initials of IBCLC -- International Board Certified Lactation Consultant -- has the most expertise and experience counseling nursing mothers.

•Chose health care providers who are breastfeeding-friendly. (See Does your provider support breastfeeding.) Declaring support for breastfeeding is not enough. Be wary of providers whose offices seem to promote formula. Find out ahead of time if your family physician or pediatrician has someone on staff to offer breastfeeding assistance and find out what kind of training they have. You can also ask them what percentage of their new mothers are nursing.

Doing What is Right For You

I think the best advice comes from a woman I know who is now a grandmother. She says,

Whatever the cultural climate is at a given time, you have to be centered in what you want to do because there is no right and wrong. You have to do what's right for you. If you can please yourself, that's wonderful. If you can please yourself and your child? Wow! And your husband? Incredible! And then you want to please all of society? Forget it. You have to be happy with what you're doing because there is no single way and every person and situation is so unique.

Barbara L. Behrmann, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and author of The Breastfeeding Café: Mothers Share the Joys, Secrets & Challenges of Nursing, University of Michigan Press, 2005. She is a frequent speaker around the country and is available for talks, readings, and conducting birthing and breastfeeding writing circles. The mother of two formerly breastfed children, Barbara lives in upstate New York. Visit her website at

Copyright © Barbara L Behrmann. Permission to republish granted to, LLC.