There are five little words that ruin breastfeeding.
“Have you got enough milk?”
Don’t feel bad if you have said this to a woman trying to breastfeed – you probably had no idea of the devastating impact this could have on her confidence and her ability to feed her baby. Just pinky-swear promise me you will never say it again. Because chances are she has already asked herself that very question thousands of times since her baby was born. She doesn’t need you questioning her milk supply, too.
For some reason it has become acceptable to openly question, or even pass judgement on, the quality and volume of a woman’s breastmilk. To her face. During my time breastfeeding, this happened to me on countless occasions. My milk was discussed by friends, family, medical staff, people in the street and a lady in the chemist. I was asked if my milk had ‘dried up’ and on another occasion I was described as a ‘good milker’.
I have even had people question the size of my breasts and how that correlates to my ability to breastfeed my baby. They sometimes go so far as to express wonderment that my smallish boobs can feed a baby. Not only is this very strange behaviour, it is also harmful and downright incorrect. This kind of talk is also partly responsible for one of the most worrying public health trends in recent memory – very low rates of breastfeeding. So it is imperative that we set the record straight.
Firstly, there is no such thing having ‘good’ or ‘bad’ milk. Within a species, the composition of milk (in terms of fat content, vitamins, minerals and a myriad of hundreds of other compounds) remains extremely similar from woman to woman, varying only slightly on a microscopic level depending on the needs of the baby. Between species it’s another story and composition varies wildly.
For instance, the milk of a fur seal contains 53 per cent fat and she only feeds her baby once a week.
It’s also incorrect, in the vast majority of circumstances, to say someone has ‘a lot of milk’, ‘plenty of milk’, ’too much milk’ or ‘not enough milk’. The perception that different women produce different amounts of milk is a strange unfounded phenomena of modern breastfeeding. We know that mammals evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to produce the correct amount of milk for their infant. Not too much, not too little, but the correct amount.
There are two very rare conditions which are the exception. It is estimated that 1 in 1000 women suffer from ‘actual’ inadequate milk supply – a condition know as Inadequate Glandular Tissue. And secondly, Hyperlactation Syndrome – a condition where the mother makes too much milk for her baby. This condition is so rare that very little research exists and I could not find an actual statistic on it’s rate of occurrence.
And lastly, there is no known correlation between breast size and milk supply or the rate at which milk is synthesised. In other words, small boobies can breastfeed too.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association estimates that just 15.4 per cent of infants are exclusively breastfed by six months of age. This falls hugely short of the recommendation that babies are exclusively breastfed up until 12 months of age and beyond, with solids being introduced at 6 months. The ABA, along with countless other research papers on the issue, cite the number one reason women supplement with formula or stop breastfeeding altogether is the perception of an inadequate milk supply. So can we please stop fuelling this ‘perception’ by giving a running commentary on the breasts of lactating women? Can we please stop saying things that cause women to doubt their ability to feed their baby?
It’s not just about avoiding the suggestion that there is not enough milk, the suggestion that some women have MORE than enough is equally as damaging and false. I say these things not to shame women who formula feed their babies, but because it is a public health imperative that we create an environment where more babies are exclusively breastfed for longer periods.
Evidence shows that breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from necrotising enterocolitis, diarrhoea, respiratory illness, middle ear infection, type 1 diabetes and childhood leukaemia. Breastfeeding also benefits mothers by promoting faster recovery from childbirth, reducing the risks of breast and ovarian cancers in later life, and reduced maternal depression.
In recent years, entire government strategies and campaigns have been developed to encourage more women to breastfeed. It’s one of the only areas of public health in which developing nations outperform developed nations. But an ad on TV isn’t going to fix this – it’s changing what we say to each other. I know from experience that a single throwaway, completely uninformed comment can influence a mother’s decision to continue feeding or not. It can rob her of one of the single most rewarding and satisfying experiences life has to offer. And it can rob her baby of a few more precious months of breast milk. I am not a lactation consultant, I am not a doctor. But you don’t need a degree in medicine to understand high school biology.
We have enough milk.
Virginia lives off the grid in regional NSW with her husband and two kids. After finishing up as a journalist with the ABC she turned out her hand to freelance writing and mummy blogging. She’s also an Instagram enthusiast and can be found at @bush_bambinos or her blog.