Breastfeeding, although natural, is also a learned skill. And, like with any new skill, it can take some time to get the hang of. The most common breastfeeding problem mothers experience is sore nipples. Research has found that in the early days of breastfeeding almost 80% of mothers reported nipple pain and that by eight weeks this reduced to 20%. The main cause of sore nipples is suboptimal positioning and attachment.
Indeed, it’s common to find breastfeeding difficult, especially in the early weeks. The good news is that most mothers, with timely and knowledgeable breastfeeding support, are able to overcome breastfeeding challenges and go on to reach their goals. Regardless of whether you’re a health professional working with breastfeeding mothers or a support person, it’s really important to choose our words carefully when talking to a mother who is struggling with breastfeeding. After all, what we say can have a huge impact on a mother’s breastfeeding self-efficacy and her self-esteem, both of which are important factors in helping mothers reach their goals.
Here are important factors to consider when talking to a mother who is finding breastfeeding difficult:
Understand That Breastfeeding Problems Are Experienced Very Differently
A problem such as cracked nipples can be experienced in very different ways by different mothers. While the amount of nipple damage that can be seen in different mothers may outwardly appear similar, how the pain is experienced by different mothers can be very different. For some mothers the pain may be insurmountable and for another woman the pain is insignificant. This is because the pain a woman experiences can be impacted by many factors such as level of social support, confidence in her ability to breastfeed, previous trauma, pain history, personal situation, anxieties/expectations etc.:
Meet Her Where She’s At
This is probably the most important aspect of supporting a mother who is struggling. It involves being patient, actively listening, providing empathy and unconditional positive regard. Even if you haven’t experienced the same problem, you can still try to put yourself in her shoes. She may be experiencing so many mixed emotions such as frustration, fear, sadness, grief etc. Meeting a mother where she is at can help her feel comfortable and confident that you are there to support her no matter what and you will help her work through the challenges she’s facing regardless of what that may involve. For some mothers experiencing problems, they may have the resolve to be able to tackle things head-on and never look back.
Offer Information And Resources
If a mother who is experiencing difficulty with breastfeeding asks for help, there are many things you could suggest. For example, you could help her find relevant articles, videos and mayerials that could help her during this period.
Don’t Tell Her How Important Breastfeeding Is
It’s not appropriate, and can be hurtful, to tell a mother who is really struggling about how important breastfeeding is for her and her baby. This kind of pressure isn’t useful to someone who is probably worried about how the next breastfeed is going to go, let alone her breastfeeding relationship.
Remind Her How Awesome She Is
Struggling with breastfeeding is not only often painful physically but can also be a very emotionally painful experience. It can really help to boost a mother’s confidence by reminding her that she is doing an incredible job and she is the best mother her baby could ask for.
Do Not Suggest Weaning
A mother experiencing difficulties doesn’t want it to be suggested to her to wean and formula feed. This undermines all the time and effort she has put in so far and having this suggesting can be highly annoying. Rather, provide her with support, in all the ways suggested above. In that way you’re providing her with a safe environment for her to work out what’s going to work best for her. She doesn’t need you making her mind up for her. Of course, in the situation there is a medical need for formula, a health professional should inform a mother of this, not you.
Let Go Of Your Own Ideologies
It’s important to remember that what you would do in a certain situation is irrelevant when it comes to helping a mother work out what might be best given her individual situation. While breastfeeding is important from a public health perspective, for some mothers, weaning or not breastfeeding may be what’s best given their individual circumstances. All mothers need to be supported regardless of how they choose to feed their babies. So, remember, how you support a mother who is experiencing breastfeeding challenges can have a significant impact.