As bodily processes go, breastfeeding is one that is particularly fraught. First, there’s the pressure to do it, something bolstered by a mountain of headlines and statistics about how it’s essential for your baby’s growth and development and immune system and preventing illnesses—oh, and not just for the baby, but for the birthing parent too (the CDC states that it lowers the risk of certain cancers, diabetes, and high blood pressure).
Then there is the physical depletion and emotional struggle, and intense stress of actually doing it (not to mention finding the time to do it), something that nearly all women will experience to some degree. And there is the lack of easily accessible resources to help those who choose to do it: Lactation consultants in hospitals are not a given, and once out of the hospital, help can be cost-prohibitive.
“There is inherent inequity around access to support and information in the breastfeeding world,” says Betsy Riley, cofounder of Swehl, a new brand of breastfeeding tools rooted in the belief that education on the matter should be open and accessible. “Breastfeeding has been around since the dawn of civilization, and if anything, that means we should be innovating frequently.”
Swehl is aiming to do just that. Riley and her cofounder Elizabeth Myer both became parents during peak COVID lockdown and, in trying to navigate a dated and confusing breastfeeding landscape themselves, the idea for Swehl was born. “We wanted to break down barriers to give new parents access to better, more realistic resources and experiences,” says Myer of Swehl’s system, which, she adds, merges expert-led video education with digital talk circles and innovative products (like the clever Cloud 9, a baby bag that does double duty as a nursing support sling).
They see Swehl as an information hub and resource but also an authentic space for parents. “In addition to resources being sterile and complicated, it also felt hard to relate to the blissed-out images of mothers nursing their babies on the packaging; the whole experience felt entirely unrelatable,” adds Riley. Key to their mission at Swehl is what they have dubbed their Motherboard, a team of experts, including a lactation consultant, holistic nutritionist, pediatrician, ob-gyn, and doula, who all contribute their knowledge on breastfeeding.
“Lactation is a broad, yet nuanced topic, and an IBCLC is going to approach it with a different lens than a pediatrician—which can feel really confusing for new parents who are trying to learn the ropes (on little sleep),” says Myer of their intentional approach of putting together a team with diverse backgrounds. “We wanted to highlight that actually, yes; there are varying approaches to feeding (and to parenting!), and as long as they’re rooted in science, we’re here for all of them.”
Besides breastfeeding simply being an often overwhelming topic, it can also be a polarizing one: the choice to do it or not, doing it in public, doing it at work; these are all very real pain points for women. There’s been a shift around awareness of breastfeeding recently—only in the past five years has it become legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states—and, with the formula shortage, a broader discussion of how parents choose to feed their babies.
“These events underpin much larger issues around the overall lack of societal support for parents in the U.S.,” says Riley. “This is one of the core reasons that community is so central to our offering—it is the most effective way to band parents together around common issues while arming them with the tools they need to feel confident in their choices. If a parent can harness this assurance early on, it will certainly come in handy as feeding is one of the first moments of judgment in parenthood, but certainly not the last.” And while breastfeeding may be as old as time, myths and misunderstandings around it still abound.
Here, Brandi Jordan, IBCLC, Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Doula, and a member of Swehl’s Motherboard, addresses some of them.
Breastfeeding is easy for everyone; moms and babies naturally know how to do it
One of the biggest myths I encounter daily as a lactation consultant is this collective societal picture that many have in their minds related to breastfeeding. It’s a mom in a hospital room, with sunlight shining on her and her baby, while she lovingly stares into her little eyes as she nurses with a smile. While this can certainly be the case for many mothers, the majority of women find that there is a learning curve to breastfeeding for both their babies and themselves. While there is a naturalness to breastfeeding (we are all mammals), we have to remember that most women need support and education to find their rhythm with nursing and that this is actually the norm.
The ability to breastfeed happens immediately or within a day or two after birth
Let’s say that breastfeeding can and should happen immediately after birth; that time, we in the maternal child health world like to call the golden hour. That first hour after birth that should be spent with baby and mother doing skin-to-skin and hopefully beginning to breastfeed. Now some birthing outcomes, such as a cesarean birth or other complications, might warrant separation between mother and baby, which would prevent feeding from happening right away; to be clear though, this isn’t optimal, but it also isn’t something that can’t be remedied.
Breastfeeding is always painful
This one is a hard one. Here is the truth: Almost no one is prepared to have the equivalent of a Dyson vacuum cleaner hooked to their nipples every 2-3 hours a day. There is, for lack of a better word, some “toughening up” of the nipples that has to happen as you acclimate to feeding your baby.
On the other hand, feeling pain after the initial latch should not be synonymous with pain, and especially not after the first few weeks. As a lactation consultant, one of the things I spend a lot of time doing is educating mothers that they should not accept pain as a normal part of long-term breastfeeding. If they are experiencing discomfort, we want to support those mothers early on in the process so that both baby and mother are equipped with the tools to make nursing more comfortable and long-term should they choose to.
A lot of women don’t make enough milk
It’s generally untrue that women don’t make enough milk. What is true is that many women struggle with milk supply issues because they aren’t given enough education and information to be informed about how birthing choices and postpartum routines can either increase or hinder their production of a healthy milk supply. The creation of a healthy milk supply is predicated on supply and demand. That demand is created by having a newborn at the breast early, often, and consistently. If this is not happening, a mother’s body does not get the cues that it should be kicked into gear to produce according to the needs of their baby.
Another thing we often don’t talk about, and we should, is that many of the hormones that are necessary for milk production are some of the hormones that are needed for fertility. Thankfully in this day and age, families that are having issues with conception can use modern medicine to help them get pregnant. We now know that many (definitely not all) can be at a higher risk of milk production and some other lactation-related issues. Knowing this in advance, having a plan, and access to a trusted feeding expert could mitigate many of these issues.
Breast and nipple size make a difference in your breastfeeding success
This is completely false. Breast and nipples come in various sizes and shapes, all of them with the ability to be successful at breastfeeding. Neither of these attributes has any bearing on the body’s ability to produce milk supply. There are some practical concerns; for example, a mother with very large nipples and a preemie baby may have to work at ensuring the baby can latch and effectively transfer milk (but an IBCLC or other feeding professionals are available and willing to help families hatch a plan and solve breastfeeding issues).
You won’t make enough breastmilk to feed your baby in the first days
This is a myth. In the early days of nursing, your baby has a stomach similar in size to a marble, and a large portion of that marble is filled with meconium. To be concrete: Your baby cannot and does not want tons of milk at this time. The primary function of early breastfeeding is to get the colostrum, which is higher in calories as your earliest milk production, in order to naturally negate the need to intake large amounts. The mere act of sucking creates perastalsis of the gut, which helps the baby rid the gut of meconium and also helps to coax mom’s body into the beginning stages of creating a more abundant milk supply. All of this is choreographed perfectly on its own. As the baby’s tummy becomes clear of meconium and begins to grow in size, it’s perfectly timed with the increase in milk supply, which was stimulated thanks to a hungry newborn snacking every few hours.
Nutrition-wise, formula isn’t as good as breastmilk
Human breastmilk is made for human babies, and your milk is even more specifically developed for the needs of your particular baby. With that being said, in the past decade, formula companies have done a lot to mimic many of the nutrients found in breastmilk. At face value, nutritionally speaking, your baby will get a similar breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and water that they would get from human milk. What can’t be replicated is the live antibodies that protect the baby against illness and infection. If you feed your baby formula by choice or necessity your baby will grow and develop along the same trajectory as a breastfed baby. I think it’s important not to demonize or romanticize either. If you can breastfeed and you want to, you should, as there are so many benefits, many of which can’t be replicated in a lab. If you choose to formula feed by choice or necessity, you should also know there are many products on the market that are nutritionally sound and safe for your baby.
If you don’t breastfeed, you won’t bond in the same way with baby
This is completely untrue. While mothers who breastfeed may tell you of the specialness and closeness they feel during this experience, every baby and parent has the ability to bond and attach to their babies regardless of how they are feeding them. Attachment and bonding is an ongoing process that is determined by the many ways in which you provide safety, consistency, and nurturing throughout the early weeks and months.
You have to pump and dump after you drink alcohol, and you can’t breastfeed if you take necessary medications
Pumping and dumping is an outdated practice. The rule of thumb is if you are good enough to drive, then you are good enough to breastfeed. If you are concerned about the levels of alcohol in your system, you would pump and freeze your breastmilk as the alcohol would denature. I always remind clients to label it as such so they are aware when the baby is feeding from that milk. Pumping and dumping does nothing to reduce the amount of alcohol in the mother’s system. The only thing that will do this is time; as the mother’s blood alcohol level decreases, so will the alcohol in her breastmilk. As far as medications, there are some medications you cannot take while nursing, but nowadays, most have alternatives that a medical provider will be able to counsel you on. Don’t assume because you take medication that breastfeeding is out of the question; make sure to discuss it with your doctor, who most likely will be able to help you come up with a solution.
Once your baby is a year old, breastfeeding is just for comfort
At one year old, breastfeeding is definitely not your baby’s primary source of nutrition since they are hopefully well into eating solid foods. However, the immune system and other nutritional foundations found in breastfeeding make it more than just a comforting tool.
After they start solids, babies don’t benefit from breastfeeding
It is true that after six months of age, there are some nutrients your baby needs that aren’t found in breastmilk at the amounts in which they need them. Though immunity, and the good fats, proteins, and carbohydrates they get from breastfeeding are still beneficial to your growing baby. Especially since these nutrients are made in exactly the form that is easily digestible and made specifically for your baby.