Defining Breastfeeding Success: Where Social Media Can Get It Wrong
Lactation educator, Sarah Siebold, dives into the messy microcosm of social media and its impact on our perceptions of ‘successful’ breastfeeding
I worked with a client recently who, by all accounts, is a breastfeeding whiz. A real expert. She’s breastfeeding her third baby, exclusively, after breastfeeding her first for 13 months and her second for 18 months. Despite a history of breastfeeding “success” — growing two peanut newborns into spunky toddlers — she’s worried that she doesn’t make enough milk for her newest addition.
It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that this baby is healthy and robust. Rolls are beginning to form around her wrists and ankles; she’s alert and wide-eyed; her diapers are consistently wet and heavy. She’s the very definition of a thriving infant. And as luck would have it, women grow more breast tissue with each baby, and thereby produce more milk with each birth.
I can’t pretend to know where this mom’s fear derives; I’m no mental health expert. But I do know that social media can play a toxic role in the breastfeeding parent’s journey, and that it did for this mother in particular.
The most common reason for women to stop breastfeeding is from perceived, rather than actual low milk supply. As breastfeeders, we’re often under the impression that we need to express upwards of 6 oz. of milk during a pump session to feed our growing babes, that we need to buy deep freezers to stash hundreds of extra ounces of milk that we’ll one day need, and that our breasts are supposed to remain full — even engorged — for months on end if we want to maintain our supply.
And none of these assumptions accurately reflect what breastfeeding ought to or often looks like for the average breastfeeder. So where does our reality get distorted, and why are we so afraid?
I believe in the power of social media to do good in this world: to harness change, increase public awareness, and inform in ways that feel generationally meaningful. There are countless Instagram accounts dedicated to re-normalizing breastfeeding by relaying accurate, evidence-based information, and supporting marginalized populations with lower breastfeeding rates. This is important work.
But what about the accounts that give breastfeeders or breastfeeders-to-be inaccurate portrayals that send them into tailspins? The accounts from women who “power pump” dozens of ounces ‘round the clock and turn pumping into a sport for show? I want to be clear that I fully support those who choose to pump and donate their milk to milk banks around the country for babies who desperately need it. This is a noble, beautiful act (you, too, can donate if so inclined! More information at hmbana.org). But I don’t endorse posting photos of 10 oz. pumping sessions without providing context or explaining what normal pumping outputs are like. Whether we like it or not, we measure ourselves against the photos we see on our feeds. If we don’t “stack up,” we must be doing it all wrong.
So here’s what I propose: a rough blueprint to guide you on your breastfeeding journey. Use these tidbits of information like mantras. Recite or reference them whenever you need a reminder:
Only a small percentage of women are physiologically incapable of making enough breastmilk
The vast majority who worry that they don’t make enough milk actually do. The key to making milk is removing milk, and the best way to remove milk is to breastfeed, breastfeed, breastfeed baby.
Average bottle feeds
From 2-weeks until whenever baby stops drinking breastmilk, average bottle-feeds range from 2-3.5 oz. So a 10-month-old in daycare? 2-3.5 oz. bottles every few hours will do the trick. No need to increase the volume to 4 oz. or more for breastfed babies.
Average pumping sessions
The average pumping session produces 1.5-3 oz. of milk, not 5-8 oz. Unless I have twins or triplets, I’ll never need to pump more than my one baby takes in.
By 4-6 weeks, my hard breastfeeding breasts will soften. My milk supply hasn’t vanished; on the contrary, my body has regulated its milk production to my baby’s needs. My softened breasts are the new normal.
When I’m worried that my baby isn’t thriving or that I’m not making enough milk, I can remember that there are five objective ways to tell that my baby is getting milk and that I am making exactly what I’m supposed to make:
- My baby sucks, swallows, and breathes in a patterned way while breastfeeding.
- I hear my baby swallow between bursts of sucking.
- My baby takes a 3-5 second pause between bursts of sucking and self-starts once again.
- My baby has consistently wet diapers and frequent stools.
- My baby is gaining weight.
Social media portrays snippets of reality, but the only reality I need to focus on as a breastfeeding parent is the health of my body and the health of my baby.
For detailed, personalized care, contact a local lactation consultant in your area or reach out to me for support.
See more from Sarah Siebold at IM.MA Lactation.