News and Education for health professionals

Get off mothers' backs!

Dr Joe Kosterich ponders the pressure placed on breastfeeding mothers, and the consequences undue stress can cause.

 It is the quintessential motherhood statement to say that it is good for babies to be breastfed. It is not the purpose of this blog to list the benefits or why we should encourage mothers to breastfeed. As doctors, we all know this.

 Plus, virtually all women want to breastfeed their baby and the vast majority of women do so for variable lengths of time.

 Over human history, some mothers have struggled to successfully breastfeed. In previous centuries those with enough money could hire a “wet nurse” to feed their baby.

 In modern times we can substitute with formula, which whilst is not as good as breast milk, is not all bad. At the very least, as John Cleese said in one episode of Fawlty Towers, “it can certainly be used in an emergency”. (No, he was not referring to breastfeeding but the principle applies!)

 You might think that this is all pretty straightforward and should not be a source of stress or anxiety. In fact, it should be a source of joy. Yet I am finding new mothers increasingly anxious about whether they can breastfeed and if they will get it right!

 Can you really get it wrong?

I am amazed at the number of stressed mothers “told off” for doing it wrong!

 Breastfeeding is a bodily function. It is not something learned from a book or a lecture. It is something innate - all mammals do it! Mothers with more than one child will say that each baby was slightly different. Nature finds its own way. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen and nothing can change this. Sometimes, assistance will help.

 This is where lactation consultants and nurses come in. Ideally they can provide tips, ideas and practical suggestions. In the real world this has morphed into something more zealous. I am amazed at the number of stressed mothers “told off” for doing it wrong!

 Their “error” could be feeding at the wrong time, on the wrong schedule or in the wrong position.

 Even worse, they are made to feel like failures or bad mothers!

 The stress felt by mothers is increased by a myriad of studies claiming breastfed babies will do everything from get better grades in school, to getting sick less often and being generally streets ahead of their bottle fed brethren.

 These observational studies prove nothing. We know that breast is best. But that does not make those mothers who are unable to do so bad mothers. Use of formula as a part of full replacement is not a hanging offence.

 It is sad to see mothers placed under this pressure. Apart from the obvious it is also counterproductive. Increased stress hormones will not augment milk production or make the experience better for mother or baby.

 As GPs, we can be a voice of reason. We can provide useful tips. We can reassure that the world will not end if formula is used. Above all we can support women who are doing their best in a positive way rather than hectoring them and making them feel they are failures and bad mothers!

Jow KosterichDr Joe Kosterich MBBS
Doctor, speaker, author of three books, media presenter and health industry consultant, Dr Joe Kosterich wants you to be healthy and get the most out of life.

He is a regular on Channel 9 and radio, writes for various medical and mainstream publications, as well as maintaining a website and blog providing health information. He is the health ambassador for locally grown fresh potatoes. Dr Joe also gives practical motivational health talks for the general public and organizations.