Parents have been hearing the ubiquitous “breast is best” for about 30 years now. They’ve been told time and time again that babies who receive breastmilk have decreased rates of eczema, asthma, lower respiratory tract infections, severe diarrhea, ear infections, and more. And breastfed babies have a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Breastmilk is so beneficial that the American Academy of Pediatrics not only recommends exclusive breastfeeding for a baby’s first six months of life…the organization recently called for pediatricians to support breastfeeding for up to two years.

The Problem with “Breast is Best”

Here’s the thing: We can’t keep crowing “breast is best” while also having no national paid family leave, providing limited (to no) clean and private spaces to pump at work, shaming public nursing, and not making lactation support readily, easily, and automatically available. Telling a new parent that “breast is best” while doing far too little to support breastfeeding is not only unhelpful…it’s damaging. A 2021 report concluded that Mom guilt rises as breastfeeding declines, especially when breastfeeding intentions are unmet. Plus, moms who have negative breastfeeding experiences are more likely to have symptoms of depression, according to another report.

Why Parents Stop Breastfeeding

There’s a reason (actually, several) that 84% of babies are breastfed at birth, but only 58% receive breastmilk by the time they’re 6 months old (and only a quarter of those babies are exclusively on breastmilk at that time). And it’s usually not because their parents don’t want to nurse. In fact, 60% of mothers would like to breastfeed longer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among the top reasons moms stop breastfeeding are:

  • Unsupportive work policies
  • Lack of parental leave
  • Unsupportive hospital practices and policies
  • Cultural norms
  • Lack of family support
  • Issues with lactation and latching

At Happiest Baby, it’s our mission give families the information and tools they need to raise happy, healthy kids. Part of that is helping parents feed their babies—no matter how they choose or are able to do so! But we also know that giving Moms and Dads advice about how they can make breastfeeding easier overlooks all the ways our society makes it really hard. So, in honor of World Breastfeeding Month this year, we’re highlighting a few cultural shifts that could ultimately help breastfeeding parents nurse or pump as long as they would like—without barriers, shame, or judgment.

Make pumping a workplace norm.

Research shows that when workplaces offer clean, comfortable, and dedicated breastfeeding rooms, it encourages—and increases—the rate of continued breastfeeding after returning to work. But it’s not just about having a room devoted to pumping. A 2019 report in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine notes that organizational and managerial support are key aspects of continued nursing—and job satisfaction. While some nursing employees already have pumping-at-work protection, it’s not universal. Enter: The Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act (aka the PUMP Act), legislation designed to expand current workplace lactation protections to all breastfeeding employees in all employment sectors. While it’s true that the Pump Act failed to pass in the Senate in June—it only takes one naysayer to keep a bill from passing through unanimous consent and, unfortunately, the PUMP Act received one objection—that doesn’t mean that the fight is over! In fact, the press and outrage surrounding the failure to pass the PUMP Act has reinvigorated negotiations. That means that now is the time to let your senator know that this legislation is so important—and needs to pass. While you can always email your senator, experts note that calling is the most impactful way to take action. You can text PUMP to 747464 to be connected to your senator’s office. And if you input your info on the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee website, they’ll offer up a call script for you, too.

Pass a paid leave policy.

There are approximately a zillion reasons for paid parental leave. (Read about some of them here.) The fact that it bolsters breastfeeding rates is just one of them. Research shows that employed moms who received 12 or more weeks of paid maternity leave are more likely to initiate breastfeeding and more likely to continue breastfeeding by six months than those without paid leave.

Just look at these numbers: When Canada extended paid maternity leave from an average of six months to at least one year, rates of exclusive breastfeeding for six months shot up 40%. But the harsh and heartbreaking reality is this: Right now, the United States is one of only six countries in the world without a national paid parental leave policy, which means that most working parents in America don’t have access to paid family and medical leave. Currently, only 10 states and the District of Columbia offer paid family leave. Instead, we’ve got the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which only requires certain eligible employers to provide certain workers unpaid family leave.

Bottom line: Establishing universal paid family leave will undoubtedly support breastfeeding. To get there, you guessed it, tell congress to support paid leave for all. Again, call your senators and representatives and tell them to not only reinstate emergency paid leave, but to pass permanent paid family and medical leave so that families have the support they need. Go to Paid Leave for All for more how-tos.

Improve access to lactation resources.

Breastfeeding is natural, sure, but it’s not easy. It’s a learned practice…and one that often requires some professional guidance and support. That guidance not only can help new moms get started on their nursing journey, it can help them stick to it. Research in the journal BMC Public Health found that new moms who received support from a lactation consultant before birth and for up to 10 weeks postpartum were 66% less likely to stop breastfeeding at any point in time compared to those in the control group. And while the Affordable Care Act covers breastfeeding support without cost…this practice has yet to be fully implemented in most communities, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. That means that many, many moms are missing out on the lactation services they deserve.

To help, clinicians need to be aware of—and share info on—community resources, like lactation consultants, local and national support groups, and telelactation opportunities. (Research has shown that rural moms who lack access to qualified in-person breastfeeding support experienced “increased breastfeeding confidence” thanks to telelactation appointments with lactation consultants.) Ask your provider, your baby’s physician, and/or the staff at the hospital where you delivered to suggest a breastfeeding professional for you to consult with either in person or virtually. You can also call the Office on Women's Health Helpline Helpline (800-994-9662), which is staffed with breastfeeding peer counselors who can answer breastfeeding questions in English or Spanish.

What We Can All Do to Support Breastfeeding Parents

Want more ways to help? Awesome! Here are a few things you can start doing today to make a difference.

  • Stand up to shamers. If you overhear someone attempting to shame a parent who is breast- or chestfeeding in public, speak up—it’s legal to nurse in public in all 50 states! Want to take it further? When you’re at your favorite stores, restaurants, and coffee shops, ask if they’d be willing to hang up a “Breastfeeding is welcome” sign. Heck, you can even provide them with one!

  • Normalize breastfeeding as a team effort. If your partner is expecting and hoping to breastfeed, both of you should visit a lactation consultant and/or sign up for a breastfeeding class. Research shows that nursing parents feel more capable and confident about breastfeeding when they perceive their partners are supportive…including active involvement in breastfeeding activities.

  • Offer this kind of encouragement. Be mindful of your supportive words. Saying things like “breast is best!” and “I did it and you can, too!” are subtly judgey. Instead, stick with “you’re doing a great job.”

  • Schedule meetings around pumping. Got a colleague who’s pumping? Work with them so that you can plan meetings around their pumping schedule.

  • Volunteer as a breastfeeding counselor. Many WIC clinics train volunteers who can then offer breastfeeding counseling to others. HealthConnect One, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing equitable support for pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and beyond, does the same but with to goal of also offering culturally appropriate support and information. In addition, if you’ve breastfed at least one child for at least one full year (and fulfill some other requirements) you can apply to Breastfeeding USA’s Breastfeeding Counselor Education Program and/or to join the La Leche League as a peer-to-peer support leader. 

More on supporting breastfeeding:

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.