Updated: Aug 7, 2019
Breastfeeding can be a hot-button issue. It’s no secret anymore that breast milk is the best food for baby, and research continues to out pour with new benefits for both mom and baby. Benefits like bonding, reducing childhood illnesses, building baby’s immune system and reducing the risk of cancer in mom are great incentives to start and keep breastfeeding. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for at least the first 6 months, and optimally until 2 years old. ACOG (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) put out a statement in September of 2018 outlining the benefits of breastfeeding and policies which should be in place to support mothers in breastfeeding.
We all know it’s best to breastfeed. And this week is all about celebrating and raising awareness about breastfeeding. But breastfeeding does not look like the image above for all of us.
For me as a photographer, I love to use my art as a way to normalize breastfeeding by sharing images and stories, and encouraging moms to breastfeed wherever and however they want. But this is a hot topic issue because many mothers who genuinely WANT to breastfeed are unable to, and often feel a sense of loss, judgement and even shame when they share that their baby is not breastfed. And my heart goes out to them.
I recently asked the question in some mommy groups about how they feed their babies. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of women were able to exclusively breastfeed their babies (including pumping); Over half of the women were able to either produce enough of their own milk to breastfeed, or use breast milk with the help of a donor.
Of those who used formula for their babies, most wanted to breastfeed exclusively, but were unable to. Usually this was because of a lack of supply. I was lucky enough to never have this problem, but I’ve known many women who do, despite consuming all the lactation cookies and fennel tea they could handle.
Side note: I’ve heard arguments against these moms - shaming them for not trying hard enough or not caring enough about their babies to put in the hard work of breastfeeding. The claim that “women have been feeding babies for centuries and humans have survived, so that’s just an excuse to be lazy" is just plain wrong and mean. Bottle feeding is hard too. And so is being a new mom. These comments suck. So stop it.
Women have struggled with supply issues for centuries. In fact, supply issues have been documented as early as 2000 BC. But somehow the human race has survived (and thrived) without the use of formula (which didn’t exist until the 1800s). So how?
In case you don’t already know, wet nurses are lactating women who nurse another mother’s baby - usually because the mother is struggling with producing enough milk. This practice was so common before the 19th century that wet nursing was actually a profession.
But in our society today, the idea of having another woman nurse your child has somehow become taboo - even so far as some calling it “weird” or “gross”. (but drinking milk from a cow - a mother from a completely different species - is totally fine…but I digress...)
Here’s the cool thing: Wet nurses, in a way, are making a comeback. With all the new research on the benefits of breast milk that man-made formula could never replicate, and recognition from the medical and scientific communities of the superiority of breast milk, we are coming up with creative (though not original) solutions to breastfeeding that don’t involve creeping anyone out (or at least anyone who matters). But instead of calling them wet nurses, we call them “donors”.
A good friend of mine feeds her baby almost entirely with donor milk from mothers who have an abundant supply. When I polled the same mommy group again, I found that 30% of moms who breastfeed have received donated milk, and 48% have donated themselves. And while some of these babies may not be exclusively breastfed, they’re still getting at least some breast milk to grow on.
While I will never shame a mom’s choice (because momming is hard enough, and I’ve had my fair share of “probably shouldn’t do that” moments), I am a big fan of education, knowing the risks and benefits to any choice, and making the best choice in any given circumstance. With the growing number of moms donating (thanks to the culture shift that it’s not “weird”), we are finally getting to a place where ALL mothers who want the best food for their babies are able to get it. Creative problem solving + working together without judgement = best outcomes for our babies.
And THAT is what I want to celebrate this week for World Breastfeeding Week. Yes, we know breastfeeding is best and we all want the best for our babies. And with the help of donor milk, there are TONS of ways to make it happen (even supplementing with formula). Any breast milk, for any length of time, from any mom, is worth celebrating.