I remember sitting in the lactation consultant’s chair, her hands positioning my tiny but full-term newborn twins to my breasts. She had just weighed them, and I was nursing them to see how much milk they were consuming. She weighed them again when they were done.
“They’re using more energy trying to nurse than they’re actually consuming,” she told me. “You need to supplement with formula until they are stronger.”
So I did. And I pumped. Every two hours like clockwork. A few weeks later, I returned both babies to the breast. Each session would take over an hour, and both babes would pop off exhausted and still hungry.
“You need to nurse the stronger twin to bring your milk in. Right now, you’re not making enough for both babies,” my lactation consultant told me. What she said was different from what I heard, which was: Your body is failing these babies.
I ate the oatmeal, supplemented with fenugreek, and did all the things a mom’s supposed to do to boost milk supply. I was exhausted, depressed, frustrated and in very real pain. Even worse, my babies were hungry. So at 6 weeks, they became formula babies.
Sound familiar? Well, the specifics may differ, but 40 percent of the more than 1,000 moms we surveyed in conjunction with HLN’s Raising America say they gave up breastfeeding because they weren’t making enough milk. They are women like me, who know breast is best, but worry that it’s just not enough.
Truth is, the majority of new moms out there do, in fact, have the ability to produce enough milk for their babies. Research shows that only about 15 percent of women are physically unable to maintain a healthy milk supply, with only about 5 percent having physical problems that simply can’t be overcome by any measure.
That’s a pretty big disparity between perception and reality. Are moms just taking the easy way out? And does it really matter?
“If 40 percent of mothers are finding it’s not working for them, then we have a big problem — a problem that needs systematic studies of strategies to fix the problem,” says Alison Stuebe, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Dr. Stuebe has real concerns about saying that moms citing low-milk supply are taking the easy way out of breastfeeding. “I find that the overwhelming majority of mothers want to do what’s best for their babies.” And if she’s having problems, then it’s her doctor’s job to help her find a solution, Dr. Stuebe says. “What we don’t need is finger-pointing that blames individual mothers and tells them this is all in their heads.”
She pointed out Dr. Marianne Neifert’s 2001 report that said: “A health-care professional would never tell a diabetic woman that ‘every pancreas can make insulin’ or insist to a devastated infertility patient that ‘every woman can get pregnant.’ The fact is that lactation, like all physiologic functions, sometimes fails because of various medical causes.”
For many mothers, the odds are simply stacked against them from the get-go: Giving birth in a hospital that isn’t “baby friendly” – that is, one that doesn’t support practices that have shown to boost breastfeeding success rates such as nursing within an hour of birth and not giving pacifiers – significantly decreases a mom’s chances of making it work. And modern feeding practices such as nursing every few hours instead of every 5 to 15 minutes, also affects a mom’s milk supply, Dr. Stuebe says.
The fear of low milk supply is so great that one company, Upspring, created a test called Milkscreen for moms to use at home to see if they’re making enough for their babies. The product was met with outrage last month from breastfeeding activists, who claimed there was no accurate way to test milk supply at home and that the product played on a huge insecurity of new mothers. Almost immediately, retailers pulled Milkscreen from shelves and the company suspended production.