Handling Criticism. Becoming Your Own Advocate


Originally published October 2012 and republished with the express permission of the author.
Image source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Meeting with criticism

I’d arrived with my three-month-old baby for my first get-together with my extended family. Naturally, only a few minutes after everyone gathered in the living room, he began to squirm in my arms to let me know he was ready to nurse. I got comfortable on the couch and lifted my shirt to feed him.

The room got very quiet. Finally my mother-in-law leaned over to me and said, “You’re making people very uncomfortable. If you need to do that, you should go to another room.”

My face bright red, I quickly unlatched my baby (who promptly started to cry), tugged my shirt down, and scooted out to the nearest bedroom. My mother-in-law followed me to add, “Shouldn’t you have him on a bottle by now anyway? I breastfed my babies, but I stopped by the time they were three months old. There is no value in it after that point.”

That was more than 30 years ago, and you might think that breastfeeding mothers don’t hear that kind of criticism these days, with laws in many places to protect the right to breastfeed in public and the ongoing research demonstrating the value of breastfeeding. Guess again. New parents are still often criticized by family, friends and even complete strangers.

The criticism may not be about breastfeeding specifically (since people now often know that it’s “best”); often people make negative comments about breastfeeding-related parenting: feeding the baby frequently, on cue; keeping the baby close by at night and not using sleep training; opting not to be separated from the baby; and using a wrap or carrier to “wear” the baby.

How can you respond?

Much depends on who is offering the criticism, and how you are feeling. If you are struggling with breastfeeding challenges, or have some concerns because your baby is fussy or gaining weight slowly, any criticism can be harder to take. You can’t help but wonder if the person telling you that your baby would do better on formula might be right. Mother of two Linda Boissinot recalls that “questions or criticisms always shook the little bit of confidence I was developing.”

An essential step to coping with criticism is building up your own confidence and finding support. Your local La Leche League Leader and group can be a great source of support and reliable information that can help you get through those challenging times.

With your self-confidence bolstered, here are some options to manage critical comments.

Defuse the discussion

This can be a useful approach to take with a stranger (and there seems to be no shortage of strangers ready to give advice) or a friend or family member you don’t see too often. Your goal is just to end the discussion in a pleasant way. You might say:

  • “Thank you for your suggestion. I’ll be sure to discuss that with my doctor. Did you try the appetizers? They are delicious.”
  • “I appreciate your concern for my baby, and I’ll think about what you’ve said. Did you get hit with that big thunderstorm last night?”
  • “You’ve certainly given me something to think about. Thank you. And if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to change my baby’s diaper.”
Laugh a little

Some women are masters of the quick comeback. Mother of two Linda Clement was nursing daughter Fiona in a restaurant when she was approached by an irate customer who said, “That’s disgusting! People are eating here!” Clement looked down at her nursing baby and replied, “Yeah, she is too.”

Mother of three Loni Bowers offers these responses to the all-too-common question (asked with an incredulous tone of voice), “Are you still nursing?”

  • “Yes, and his doctor is thrilled. So many mothers give up because of pressure from family and friends.”
  • “No, I’m not. My mother lives too far away. Sophia is, though.”
  • “Of course! Nothing but the best for your grandson!”
  • “Everyone asks that, it must be because he’s so strong and healthy.”

Responses to another common question, “When are you going to wean?”

  • “I’m not. She’ll wean me.”
  • “I don’t know, he doesn’t really make plans that far in the future at his age.”
  • “Probably before he graduates high school.”
  • “I hope not for a while. We’re both enjoying nursing.”
Explain and educate

Criticism from family and friends can cut deeply. It hurts to think the people who are closest to you aren’t supporting your decision to breastfeed. My second baby was always on the petite side, and many people advised me that she’d gain weight faster if I gave her formula. It felt personal, as though they were saying my milk just wasn’t good enough.

It helped me feel less defensive when I realized that they were not meaning to hurt my feelings—they were trying to help. Their comments were really an indication of their concern and love for my baby. It wasn’t the kind of help I needed or wanted, but it was given out of genuine caring.

I think that’s true of most criticism we get from our loved ones. Their intentions are good! Unfortunately, many simply don’t understand enough about breastfeeding, its value and importance, and the approaches needed to establish and maintain it.

Mother of four Sarah Dufton says, “The comebacks are fun and witty, but recently I’ve been working on improving my tone—trying to be less adversarial—and maximizing the opportunities to educate.” That doesn’t mean getting preachy about breastfeeding; it means trying to listen for the underlying emotions and concerns in the comment and sharing information when it’s appropriate.

For example, your mother comments that breastfeeding is making your eight-month-old “too clingy.” As you wonder why she might be feeling that way, you try reflecting back what she’s said, “You think Keegan is too attached to me?”

“Yes,” she says. “My friends all have their grandkids for overnight visits but I know Keegan would just cry without you. He cries if you leave to use the bathroom!”

Now you have a better idea of why Grandma expressed that concern: she’s longing to form a relationship with her grandson. You might respond with, “He is very attached to me, isn’t he? Maybe if the three of us spent time together, he’d develop a closer relationship with you without being sad because I’m not there. And when he’s ready, you can be his first sleepover!”

Disparaging doctors

Sometimes, the criticism comes from a rather unexpected source: your doctor, nurse or other medical caregiver. Really, though, we shouldn’t be surprised. Training on breastfeeding in medical school is very limited and ongoing education on infant feeding is often provided by formula companies. Health care professionals are also influenced by their own experiences, by advertising and by what they hear from friends and colleagues.

You may find that taking a curious approach helps with this kind of criticism. Ask questions, ask to see research, ask for more information. That was the approach I took when my doctor told me my son needed to start on infant cereal at three months, because he was a big baby and wouldn’t have enough iron without it. I told her that I’d love to see the research on that, because I’d heard differently. She confessed to being surprised when she actually did look for studies: the evidence showed that exclusive breastfeeding to around six months (and even longer, in some studies) was not a cause of anemia.

Remember, too, that your doctor is really a consultant you have hired. He has medical information and advice to share with you, and that may be mixed in with some of his own personal experiences and opinions. If he’s shared his reasons for thinking that babies should be weaned by six months or started on a bottle by two weeks, and you disagree, you can simply say, “Thank you, I will think about what you’ve said.” If you’re in a significant conflict, perhaps seeking a second opinion might help.

Partner problems

I’ve saved what I think is the toughest for last: when your partner makes critical comments. Your partner is usually the person you turn to for support and encouragement. When he or she is the one saying, “I can’t believe you’re nursing again!” it’s hard to take.

As suggested earlier, it can be very helpful to try to listen to the unspoken emotions behind the criticism. Is your partner feeling left out of the close relationship you have with your baby? Struggling to adjust to the new demands of parenting? Worried about the changes in the relationship between the two of you? It often seems easy to blame all these challenges on breastfeeding.

Being open about your own feelings can help too. You might start a conversation in this way, “Breastfeeding is really important to me, and it hurts when you say I’m nursing too often. I really need your support. Can we talk about this? I want to understand better what you are concerned about.”

Until we reach that dreamed-of day when breastfeeding is “the norm,” nursing parents are likely to hear criticism from time to time. Building up your own confidence in how you parent and feed your baby will help you cope with and respond to critical comments. And looking at your baby’s joyful face as he nurses will remind you that, in the end, no matter what anyone else says, this is between the two of you.
Focus on YOUR priorities. Yes, yours. If other people want things done, well, then maybe they can pitch in and do them. Right now, you are nurturing yourself while you nurture your baby, and, frankly, that can take a lot of time.

Teresa Pitman has been a La Leche League Leader for 40 years. She is one of the co-authors of the LLLI books The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and Sweet Sleep and is the author of 16 other books with a 17th book coming out in January 2019 (on starting solids!). She is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of ten.