Breastfeeding and Divorce or Separation

Breastfeeding and Divorce or Separation

Categories: Leader Today, Uncategorized

Nicole Quallen, Durham, North Carolina, USA.

Mary Francell shares her write-up from the recent LLLI webinar: “Supporting Nursing Parents through a Divorce or Separation.”

La Leche League International recently hosted a webinar with Nicole Quallen, a collaborative family lawyer and mediator in North Carolina, USA. She discussed strategies to help preserve the co-parenting relationship and avoid traumatic conflict during a divorce or separation. La Leche League Leaders can not provide legal advice, but can support nursing parents and suggest strategies for the parent to help make this difficult situation less contentious.

First, it’s important to understand what divorcing parents may be going through. Divorce is a huge upheaval in someone’s life—financially, emotionally and socially. When the mother is also breastfeeding a baby or small child, there is the added worry of the effects on that child’s nutritional and emotional health. Nicole recommends using tenderness and non-judgment when working with these parents—something Leaders do well!

Often the first question a Leader receives in this situation is, “What are my rights?” The answer to this question is not straightforward—laws vary significantly in different countries and even different states or provinces. In the United States, for example, there is no absolute “right” to breastfeed a child, but there is strong protection for all responsible parents to have custodial time with the child and for the child to be protected financially. Leaders can urge the mother to retain a legal professional who knows the laws in their specific locality, interviewing several if possible to determine if they are sympathetic to breastfeeding and are skilled in collaborative techniques.

In most of the United States and many other nations whose law originates in English roots, legal divorce involves four basic issues: custody, child support, spousal support and equitable distribution of assets (these issues may be different in other parts of the world). Leaders are contacted most frequently about custody issues regarding separation of a breastfeeding child.

It’s important to empathize with the emotions of a distraught mother before gently helping her explore creative custody schedules that she can discuss with her lawyer and partner.

Bird-nesting, where the child stays in one home and the parents switch houses or apartments, works for some couples. Leaders may also need to answer pumping questions so the mother can provide fresh or frozen milk during separations.

Parents are more likely to work out a favorable situation if they remain flexible to a co-parenting relationship that will change over time. It helps to focus on the need of the child for a relationship with both parents and emphasize that visitation will become more frequent and/or longer as the child grows older and weans from the breast.

Leaders can reassure nursing parents that breastfeeding is still doable even through it might look different than it would otherwise. The mother may also need help thinking through her financial needs for child support and/or alimony (to discuss with her attorney) if breastfeeding affects her parental leave or her work situation.

Depending on your location, other out-of-court processes may be available to divorcing parents. Alternatives like mediation, collaborative divorce or negotiating a separation agreement can often be more constructive and less adversarial than litigation. When sharing information about these alternatives, encourage the parent to discuss them with an attorney. It may be helpful to mention the cost savings and the fact that these processes often make it easier to come to an agreement that is in the best interest of the child.

Mediation involves a neutral third party who helps the partners negotiate the terms of their divorce. This cost-effective solution can help willing participants to communicate, but may not be appropriate in cases of abuse or a severe power imbalance. One possible alternative is caucus mediation, where both parents are not in the same room at the same time.

In a collaborative divorce, spouses and their lawyers meet together in person to work through issues. In this case, both attorneys need to be skilled in conflict resolution as well as in providing legal advice. Collaborative divorce costs more than mediation (although less than litigation in a courtroom) and can be a good solution for a parent who needs more individual support during the process.

A separation agreement is a legal contract that can be negotiated between spouses on their own or with the help of one or two attorneys. If the parents cannot agree on the terms of their divorce, then litigation in court may be necessary. This is the most expensive process and can be extremely stressful. The judge has the final say in court, so if litigation can not be avoided, it is helpful for the mother to appear amenable and emphasize her desire for the child to have a good relationship with the other parent, as well as her willingness to be flexible on visitation as the child grows older.

La Leche League Leaders can provide needed emotional support and information to breastfeeding parents undergoing the stress of a divorce or separation. Contact the Professional Liaison Department in your Area for further guidance and answers to questions regarding specific situations.

Mary Francell and her husband Howard are the parents of three children, ages 26, 22 and 19. She has been an LLL Leader for over 20 years and is a contributing editor for Leader Today. Mary is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) in private practice in Bellingham, Washington, USA and formerly served as Area Professional Liaison for LLL of Georgia, USA.

Nicole Quallen, JD is a collaborative family lawyer and mediator in Durham, North Carolina, USA. She works with divorcing families exclusively outside the court system, facilitating respectful divorces that preserve a co-parenting relationship, avoid traumatic conflict and begin two new healthy households. She is currently breastfeeding her second daughter. Learn more about Nicole and her work at and