Mothers have been breastfeeding babies for as long as mothers have had babies, so you’d think we’d know all there is to know about it. But despite large volumes of research into breastfeeding and vast amounts written on the subject, there are still plenty of myths surrounding how we feed our babies. Here are a few you may have heard…
1. Breastfeeding is natural so it must be easy
It’s definitely not easy for everyone. It takes a bit of practice for both mum and baby to get the hang of and it can be pretty tricky at first. Some women find it too difficult to continue and a small number of women simply don’t produce enough milk no matter how hard they try. If you do find breastfeeding hard remember you are not alone! Help and support is available from your midwife, health visitor or GP and many areas have local breastfeeding support groups you can drop into.
2. Breastfeeding is unhygienic and can pass on infections to your baby
Whilst some serious illnesses CAN be passed on through breastfeeding (e.g. HIV, tuberculosis) most infectious diseases are not transmitted this way. Breastfeeding actually helps to protect your baby from infections such as stomach bugs and chest infections as antibodies are passed from mother to baby in breast milk. Even if you develop mastitis and require antibiotic treatment you can, and should, continue to breastfeed your baby. And as far as hygiene goes, when formula isn’t prepared and given with strict attention to cleaning and sterilising then it can pose a significant infection risk.
3. Breastfeeding makes your baby clingy and dependent
All newborn babies are totally dependent on their mothers for survival. Breastfeeding is nature’s way of developing a very strong bond between a mother and her baby and this bond is incredibly important for a child’s emotional development. Research suggests that when babies develop that strong connection through breastfeeding they are actually more resilient and independent later in life.
4. Women who breastfeed get less sleep
Waking though the night is normal behaviour for babies. Much of sleep behaviour depends on the individual child and many factors other than feeding. It’s true that formula fed babies often go longer between feeds (formula isn’t as digested as easily as breast milk so it stays in the stomach longer,) but that doesn’t necessarily equate to more sleep. Many breastfeeding mums find that by sleeping close to their baby they can feed and soothe him back to sleep very quickly during the night, as they don’t need to spend time fetching and preparing formula. Breastfeeding also releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps the mum to fall back to sleep quickly after feeding.
5. If you breastfeed you can’t give your baby a bottle so you won’t be able to go anywhere without your baby
Most breastfed babies are quite content to take a bottle and will feed either way quite happily. Once breastfeeding has been established (after about 6 weeks) it’s perfectly reasonable to introduce your baby to a bottle so that she can get the hang of it in case you do want to go out for the night and have someone else give her a feed.
6. Breastfeeding stops your partner from being involved with baby
Feeding your baby is only one aspect of caring for her – it might seem to be a round the clock responsibility for mum in the early days but that doesn’t last long. Your partner can still enjoy skin-to-skin time with your baby as well as being involved with dressing, changing nappies, bathing, rocking, cuddling and playing with your baby.
7. Babies should only be fed every 3 - 4 hours; if you feed your baby more often he will get fat/become spoiled/won’t get enough milk
Any advice that suggests forcing your baby into an inflexible routine or denying your hungry baby milk is highly questionable in my opinion. After all, most of us, if we experience hunger or thirst will take steps to get something to eat or drink, regardless of the time since our last meal. Breastfed babies are rarely over fed because suckling takes a reasonable amount of effort – once your baby is satisfied he won’t waste energy taking more milk than he needs. Frequent feeding and sucking is necessary to increase the milk supply so if your baby wants to feed often, let him – it will encourage your body to produce more milk in order to match his needs. It’s also worth noting that breastfed babies may want to suck for reasons other than hunger, including if they are frightened or in pain. Non-nutritive sucking (when they don’t actually get any milk) may therefore be used comfort and soothe breastfed babies, and some parents prefer to do this rather than use a dummy or pacifier.
8. Breastfeeding makes your breasts saggy
Actually it’s pregnancy that irreversibly changes your breasts. During pregnancy your breasts increase significantly in size and weight and this is what’s responsible for the stretching of the supporting ligaments. It may be small consolation, but regardless of how you feed you baby your breasts probably won’t be the same after pregnancy!
9. You can’t breastfeed if you’ve had breast surgery
If you’ve had breast surgery then it’s best to get specific advice as your ability to breastfeed may be impacted depending on what surgery you’ve had. If you’ve had breast surgery where the nipple has been removed and reattached as part of the procedure then it could be much harder for you to breastfeed. However, if you want to breastfeed then you should still be supported in trying to do so. Even women who have had breast cancer may be able to breastfeed, depending on the treatment they have had.
10. Breastfeeding for more than 12 months is of no value
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends breastfeeding “for up to 2 years or beyond.” If mother and baby wish to continue breastfeeding beyond 12 months then they should do so. Although babies gradually become less dependent on breast milk for nutrition once they begin weaning, breast milk continues to offer nutritional benefits as well as boosting the immune system and maintaining a strong emotional connection between mother and child.
Dr Emma Scott (MBChB, MRCGP) is a qualified GP and mummy to two young children. She works in a GP practice in Edinburgh and in the out of hours GP service in Livingston and she has experience in both obstetrics & gynaecology and paediatrics.
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