Breastfeeding is a journey that is full of worries, excitement, and nerves for new mothers. Many mothers feel vulnerable when starting to breastfeed as this is new to them. They have several questions running through their minds and the most compelling often are: Is breastfeeding enough for the baby? Is my breast milk providing all the food that the baby needs? When these fears come to light, it can make many mothers reach for formula. However, the reality is that, in the vast majority of cases, breastfeeding is enough for the baby. Most of the time, the fear of not feeding the baby with enough breast milk is not founded on medical conditions, but it’s just an overly worried thought that many new mothers have. The good news is that with the correct information it is possible to breastfeed with confidence and this is what we are going to explain in our blog post.
Why Women Stop Breastfeeding
A study shows that between 35% to 60% of women stop breastfeeding earlier than they originally planned because they think the breast milk they produce is not enough. This is a theme found globally as seen in some studies. There are numerous reasons why this percentage of women stop breastfeeding sooner than they thought and sometimes there are medical reasons involved. But, in the majority of cases, it’s because these mothers worry that breastfeeding is not enough.
Why do some women believe breastfeeding is not enough? Most of the time, mothers tend to believe that because of some observations or feelings they might have. For one, they worry about how frequently their baby is feeding, the restlessness of the baby, frequent crying or they may even feel as though their breast is not as full as it was before. Or they think that they no longer get that sensation that milk is letting down when the baby suckles. All these reasons might lead mothers to think that their milk supply is low. Therefore, it’s difficult to rely just on sensations because they might change over time; for instance, the full feeling in the breast is often gone within a few weeks after giving birth and there are several women who never feel that sensation of the milk letting down.
Understanding Infant Cues
It’s not enough to tell mothers that the way their baby acts is not due to the failure of breastfeeding. The infant cues are often mistaken by mothers, who automatically feel that the baby is not getting enough milk when breastfeeding. In a study conducted on 100 women who were really keen on breastfeeding, researchers found that almost all of them required supplementation with formula milk within 1 week from birth, mostly because of concerns about the restlessness of the baby.
No mother should ignore a crying baby, the truth of the matter is that young babies tend to cry very often (infant colic is a very common problem during the first 3 months), and they are going to need to nurse several times per day. Young babies have a smaller stomach, and there is only so much milk that a baby can extract with each feeding, which is all normal. Another factor to keep in mind is that breast milk is quite light and easy to digest if compared to formula milk which is higher in fat and heavier to process. With formula, it’s also easy to provide more food to the baby, while the amount of breast milk produced in every single session is limited. Considering all this, it’s easy to understand why formula-fed babies may not eat as often as breastfed babies, which is something that all mothers notice. However, this does not mean that breastfeeding is not enough for your baby. Breastfeeding is fine and nutritious for your baby, it may simply require more feeding sessions than formula feeding.
The real low milk supply
This common issue has been named “Perceived Low Milk Supply”, which means that the amount of breast milk produced is of an appropriate amount, but for the reasons explained above, mothers think that it’s not enough to make the baby blossom.
To make the situation even worse, people around a vulnerable and concerned mother might have a bad influence. Imagine this scenario: you finish breastfeeding your baby and soon after the baby is crying, wanting to latch on again. You might already have some concerns about this and somebody around tells you that something is wrong if the baby is wanting to eat that soon again. They probably say something along the lines of “you must not have produced enough to fill the baby up”. It is a blow to a new mother’s confidence. Unfortunately, we have now many generations of parents who are used to bottle feeding and there is a common lack of basic breastfeeding knowledge across generations. People don’t know what normal breastfeeding is anymore, and this can cause the transmission of poor opinions and misconceptions to new mothers, who will probably pass them on in due time so perpetuating a vicious circle.
By putting together all these factors, it’s easy to understand where the perceived low milk supply comes in.
The truth is that real low milk supply is far less common than what women realize. According to a study, a real low milk supply only affects approximately 15% of women. These mothers are affected by a medical condition that causes the milk supply to run low, like hormonal deficiencies or structural problems of the breast. Some of these issues can be medically corrected while others make breastfeeding not viable. This group of issues belongs to the primary low milk supply condition and affects on average 5% of mothers.
There is another set of conditions that might cause a low milk supply that are not directly related to the ability of the breast to produce milk but are rather related to the extraction of the milk from the breast. To keep breastfeeding running, it’s necessary that the breast is regularly emptied. If this doesn’t happen the milk production will stop. Another common cause is a poor latch, which in turn leads to inefficient extraction of the milk from the breast. Supplementing breastfeeding with formula will also slow down the production of milk because the breast will be used less frequently. Being away from the baby for extended periods of time could be another reason. These problems (which are labeled as secondary low milk supply) can potentially be corrected for instance with the help of a consultant who will advise on the latch or by pumping milk out regularly.
How to know if the baby is getting enough milk
Thinking that you, a mother, have low milk production can lead to hasty decisions in terms of quitting breastfeeding. However, you need to realize that these are the facts when it comes to breastfed babies:
1. Is the baby gaining weight?
Excluding the first few days of life, a healthy baby normally gains 155-240 grams per week. If this is the case, then the baby is getting enough milk. Speaking of weight, the method of weighing the baby before and after a single breastfeeding session to understand how much milk has been drunk is not really effective. It’s more appropriate to weigh the baby weekly to check if there is a correct pattern of growth.
2. How many diapers is the baby going through?
As long as the baby is regularly peeing (six or more times a day) and pooping (3-4 times a day), then the milk supply is fine.
3. Is the baby hydrated and alert?
4. How many times is the baby eating in a day?
Babies need to be fed very frequently (8-12 times a day on average) and it can vary because every baby is different.
5. Does your breast get softer once you feed the baby?
Which goes to show that the milk is being consumed by the baby.
A very useful tool to assist you is the UNICEF checklist for signs of effective breastfeeding, which you can download HERE.
For mothers who are worried, be sure to check with a midwife or pediatrician about this issue and express your doubts so that you can be on the safe side and to help ease your concerns. The beginning of the breastfeeding journey is beautiful but challenging and it’s common to be overwhelmed by it. It’s normal to feel vulnerable and insecure and that’s why it’s important to ask for help because it can make a huge difference. When digging into the problem of low milk supply it’s clear that support is important for new mothers to breastfeed with confidence. Hopefully, the future will see a continuous effort from the policymakers to provide this support to the communities.
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