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  Home  > The First Year  > Myth: Mothers Know Instinctively How to Breastfeed.

Myth: Mothers Know Instinctively How to Breastfeed.

Fact: Babies are born knowing how to find the nipple and to suck; their mothers, however, do not instinctively know how to nurse. It is a skill that must be learned. Many new mothers—myself included, prior to the birth of Siena—have never seen a baby breastfeeding, and have little access to experienced nursing mothers. Like many others, I believed that when the time came, I would just “know how.” I didn’t. I found myself unprepared for what was to become one of the most precious experiences of my life—the experience of breastfeeding my infant and young child.

Each generation of babies learns how to breastfeed by suckling at their mothers' breasts, by following what she shows them to do. Mothers learn how to breastfeed successfully by having been breastfed, by seeing it all around them as part of their culture and by having the baby itself as her body's teacher. The main reason why so many women today are not breastfeeding is that we are preceded by nearly three generations where bottlefeeding was the norm. People have come to believe that formulas are as good as breastmilk for their babies (a belief formula companies spend millions of dollars a year promoting); and that sucking on an artificial nipple is as good as suckling on mother’s breast.

Since the beginning of humankind, women have put their infants to breast. Extending the physical bond that begins at conception, they have nourished and protected their young with their bodies. These tender moments, in return, have brought pleasure and fulfillment to the task of mothering. —Kathleen Huggins

Expectant moms are likely to hear stories about women who tried to nurse their babies but failed: the milk dried up, wasn’t rich enough, the baby suddenly decided she wanted a bottle instead, or maybe, like me, they believed that because nursing is natural, it must come easily. Today, half the mothers who start out nursing their babies give it up within the first six weeks. The reason is rarely that the mother is unable to produce enough milk. Typically it is because she knows little about nursing, has little or no guidance, and experienced pain and frustration in her early efforts (as did I). This simply need not be so. Mothers can breastfeed their baby even in the intensive care unit, although they may need to express their milk if the baby is being tube-fed.

The fact that breastfeeding problems are not seen in traditional cultures where bottlefeeding is not yet established, is proof that the problems we encounter are not the result of something wrong with women or babies but with our culture. Though we know the long-term hazardous effects of bottlefeeding—from increased risk of allergies, dental caries, and hospital emergency room visits for infections, to chronic conditions such as asthma and heart disease—we do not even try to see that every baby is breastfed for at least six months. Recognizing the importance of breastfeeding to both mother and child's wellbeing, we must begin to structure hospitals around the real needs of the two, rather than around staff convenience.

Optimizing the Success of Breastfeeding

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