Barriers to Breastfeeding

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Shortage of baby formulas raises questions about the low number of moms who breastfeed

A few different factors have contributed to the recent shortage of baby formula, including breaks in the supply chain and fewer mothers choosing to breastfeed during the pandemic. 

The latter reason stems from the limited availability of lactation consultants at hospitals and other nursing experts, sick mothers fearful about nursing their infants and fewer peer and family supports available to help.

Experts estimate that about 95% of mothers are physically and medically capable of breastfeeding. However, only 24.9% do for six months for a variety of reasons. For those willing to breastfeed, reducing these barriers can increase the percent of moms who breastfeed.

“You see on social media ‘A lot of moms can’t breastfeed’ and that’s not true,” said Dianne Cassidy, internationally board-certified lactation consultant who has a master’s in lactation and operates Dianne Cassidy Consulting in Rochester.

While some circumstances such as double mastectomy and certain medications would prevent a mom from breastfeeding, the number of moms who cannot breastfeed is small, Cassidy said. “A lot of times, we’re told we can’t breastfeed on certain medication, but that may not be true.”

She recommends that moms check with a certified lactation consultant to make sure the medication would prevent breastfeeding instead of guessing.

“Many times, the primary care provider is telling them to not breastfeed without really looking into the medication,” Cassidy said.

Sometimes, moms taking a prohibitive medication may be able to switch to something safe for nursing. Some may be able to nurse part-time, depending on how long the medication stays in their system.

Some women believe that they need to eat a special diet to produce healthful milk and think that because they cannot afford those “special foods,” breastfeeding will not work.

Cassidy said that is not true: a basic balanced diet is all that is needed. Spending more for specialty foods is not necessary.

New York Milk Bank in Valhalla, Westchester County, provides milk by prescription for sick or premature babies whose mothers cannot provide milk or adopted or surrogate babies, as well as full-term, healthy infants. Milk donors are screened for health issues and the milk is pasteurized and tested for bacteria.

Education on breastfeeding makes a difference. Many women who begin nursing quit within a few weeks because of concerns about milk supply. A woman’s bodily size and breast size are not determinates of how much milk she can produce. Normally, milk does not immediately “come in” when the baby is born. It can take a few days. Once it does, factors such as stress, hydration and sufficiently frequent nursing and/or pumping all contribute to adequate milk supply—not the woman’s cup size or clothing size.

“Some think that when babies cry after feeding, they don’t get enough milk,” said Alison Spath, international board-certified lactation consultant and owner of Beautiful Birth Choices in Rochester. “Or she thinks that baby nursing every two hours is not normal. Some say that giving a bottle or cereal will help the baby sleep better. Nursing less tells her body to make less milk. Low milk supply is often a lack of support.”

While nursing is natural, it is not always intuitive for mothers or babies. The wrong latch can mean pain for mom, for example. Spath said that breastfeeding should not be painful and support and guidance from other moms and a lactation consultant can help moms develop the right techniques.

Some babies are born with tongue tie, a condition that can prevent latching properly and can be easily repaired.

Working moms

For working moms, returning to work represents another barrier to long-term nursing. Learning how to use a breast pump can help moms leave behind milk for their baby’s childcare provider. However, they must pump during the workday to keep up the milk supply. Just nursing while home will not do it.

Recently passed legislation requires employers to provide a place for moms to pump. But a fair number of loopholes exempt certain industries and sizes of employers. Plus, there’s a difference between providing the bare minimum to meet the requirements. For example, a conference room with a locking door would be considered sufficient, even though psychologically, some moms may find it hard to pump in a room where they sat in a meeting with colleagues minutes beforehand. Or moms may have to use a room where scheduling is problematic. Pumping cannot be delayed, as waiting too long can cause leaks and contribute to mastitis.

Businesses also need to generate a corporate culture that supports lactating moms.

“I hear stories all the time of people saying to mom, ‘I hope you don’t take as long pumping as the last woman,’” Spath said.

Creating a working environment where lactation is accommodated and honored can encourage more mothers to continue to provide breastmilk. Nursing babies longer can mean fewer missed days for mom as breastfeeding reduces illnesses among infants.