Breastfeeding is a lonely experience for many. Look at the representations of breastfeeding in art, at the photos published on social media: most of the time, we see a woman alone breastfeeding her baby and nursing appears to be a private, intimate act which the photographer or artist bursts into. This may be the problem: breastfeeding is not seen as a social act (which it is, since it involves welcoming a new being into society) or an experience of socialization (which it used to be, since the new mother was welcomed by the whole community). One could describe support parents can receive from others as concentric circles surrounding them, providing help, comfort and security, and strength. Of course, your experience with a support network may be very different from what is suggested here. The important thing is to build your own support network and circles during pregnancy so that you can call on them when you need them.
First circle: the partner
Whether the baby’s biological father or a co-parent who is not biologically related to the child – such as an adoptive father or a second mother – partners and supporters are crucial figures in the support network of the breastfeeding dyad. This is explicitly recognised in one of the concepts underpinning LLL philosophy: “Breastfeeding is enhanced by the loving support of the baby’s father, a co-parent, a partner, and/or close family members who value the breastfeeding relationship”.
Fathers’ and partners’ roles in terms of supporting new mothers has evolved considerably over the last century. Before the 1970s, when fathers were gradually invited into the delivery room, their role was generally quite limited and confined to economic support for the household. Nowadays, partners are asked to be much more involved, to attend ultrasound scans and births, to care for and even to feed the baby.
When mothers are breastfeeding, their partners and families may sometimes feel excluded or unable to help. However, they can support breastfeeding mothers in many other ways, notably by organizing their environment and sharing domestic work: cleaning, preparing meals, shopping, etc.
Their moral support is also fundamental. If the partner does not recognize the value of what the mother does, she is more likely to be discouraged and give up breastfeeding when difficulties arise.
However, partners’ help may not be enough, especially since parental leave for a second parent, when it exists, is often very short. The partner may also feel emotionally upset and overwhelmed by the arrival of the baby. And this is where we see the limits of the nuclear family where it is reduced to two parents.
Second circle: the extended family, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins
Extended family, including one’s own parents and siblings, is naturally thought of when help is needed. Before the advent of the nuclear family, women of the extended family (grandmothers, sisters, cousins, aunts) played a much more important role supporting new mothers in traditional societies.
Nowadays, many couples live far away from their own family. And when the family is close, it is often very busy. However, identifying available family members willing to offer support may be worthwhile. A few afternoons spent cleaning or preparing hot meals can be excellent birth gifts and partners can suggest this option to family members. Because breastfed babies need the arms and breasts of their mother. And what nursing parents need is time to welcome their baby and rest. Of course, it is crucial that extended family support breastfeeding and refrain from criticizing the mother’s choices. If you can’t give your time but can give your money, you can offer new mothers a home massage or a housekeeper for a few hours. If the relationship is close enough, you can also offer to come and stay with the new parents for a few weeks so that you are immediately available to help.
Third circle: friends, neighbors
Support networks involve proximity. If family is too far away to be quickly and easily available, it makes sense to turn to people close by, such as neighbors, provided you have a good relationship with them, and friends who live nearby. Neighbors are often happy to run a few errands and, more importantly, prepare a few meals for the new parents.
Fourth circle: healthcare professionals and support associations
The importance of proximity also applies to healthcare or perinatal professionals (depending on the area, these might include gynaecologists, doctors, midwives, pediatricians, doulas, and lactation consultants) and support associations. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to travel dozens of miles to find a breastfeeding-friendly health professional, a lactation consultant or an LLL support group.