I wrote the following post for the Happy Bambino blog as part of the Carnival of Breastfeeding. I’m putting it below for those of you that don’t (yet) read Happy Bambino’s blog. – Adria
As part of our Carnival of Breastfeeding this post looks at the tough problem of what to do when you, the parents, think breastfeeding is important but your extended family doesn’t. As a bonus, while this post is about breastfeeding, it applies to any aspect of parenting. Breastfeeding is just one of many parenting choices that our extended families might not support.
I think that before we even start the interaction with our extended families, we need to feel confident of our choices. I’m assuming that you’re reading this because you agree with me that breastfeeding is important. If you’re at all doubtful, then check out any or all of these summaries of why breastfeeding is right for babies: Case Closed: Breast Is Best (Mothering Magazine, May/June 2009), American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation, or the statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Even the most confident person can be insecure in the face of criticism. New parents are extremely vulnerable to this insecurity. I think it’s because we want so badly to be good parents. So if we value breastfeeding then we need to protect our convictions. I’m not saying that we should ignore other points of view, I’m suggesting that once we’ve made a reasonable decision it’s ok to stop second guessing ourselves. To do this it helps to find friends that have successfully breastfed their babies. These friends will be sympathetic in hard times without asking “Why are you still breastfeeding?”. They’ll share solutions besides “Why don’t you wean?”. They won’t keep asking why your baby still nurses during the night or wonder if your baby is “too attached”. Books are the friends that never sleep and are never busy. It’s important to read the ones that don’t undermine your values. Reading conflicting advice leaves us confused. So don’t read both The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and Babywise (actually, I’d suggest not reading Babywise at all..). You’ll just be frustrated. Visit blogs and online forums that are breastfeeding-friendly. Our pediatricians aren’t (usually) our friends but we often turn to them for parenting advice. So take the time to find a doctor that supports breastfeeding. By this I mean someone that is up to date on practices that promote breastfeeding, works with professional lactation support for breastfeeding problems, and refers to community breastfeeding support groups.
Once you know what you want, have surrounded yourself with supportive friends, are reading breastfeeding-friendly material, and have helpful health care, then you’re in a secure place to deal with your unsupportive family. Since I’m assuming that you want to maintain a friendly relationship with your family, you’ll need to think about what strategies would work best with them. Here’s a range of approaches:
Nod-and-smile. With this one you don’t tell your family much about your baby feeding choices. This works well with family that lives in another city. They may not think breastfeeding is important, but it doesn’t matter because you aren’t asking them about it and aren’t telling them what you’re doing. If they start to talk about formula, bottles, starting solids early, or weaning, you just nod and smile (and keep right on breastfeeding).
Because it’s important to me. This approach doesn’t try to convince anyone of anything. You just ask your family to do (or not do) specific things to support your breastfeeding because it’s important to you. You don’t ask them to agree that a bottle of formula is a bad idea. You just say that you don’t want your baby to get formula. You don’t ask them to agree that it’s right for you to not leave your newborn with them for the weekend. You just tell them that you keep your breastfeeding baby close because that is important to you. This relies on your family wanting you to be happy and respecting your wishes because they care about you.
Research shows… Some families are open to new ideas. While they may not initially support breastfeeding, once you tell them about the studies that show how great it is they become fans. Many families are impressed by the studies that show formula-fed babies have more ear infections, higher rates of obesity, are more likely to die of SIDS, and may not be as smart as their breastfed peers. If you need a list of these studies, you’ll find them in the links at the beginning of this post.
Seeing how well it works. Sometimes all it takes is showing family how happy breastfeeding makes everyone. I’ve heard mothers talk about how their families were amazed at how few ear infections their babies had or how peaceful nights were with a breastfed baby. Families that fed their babies formula can be surprised by how convenient it is to travel with a breastfeeding baby. I talked with one grandmother that hadn’t breastfed her own children and just loved to watch her daughter and grandbaby nursing. She loved how relaxed, content, and natural they looked. This grandmother went from being dubious to being an active supporter of her breastfeeding daughter.
As a final note, I think that no matter what approach you take to dealing with your unsupportive family it’s helpful to try to understand them. There are so many reasons that they might not support your decision to breastfeed. They might worry that it is too demanding or that your baby won’t grow well. Many grandparents were told that formula was better for babies. They might not be up to date on new recommendations. Members of your family might have chosen not to breastfeed and regret it now. Maybe they resent the feelings of guilt or loss they have as they watch you. Maybe they feel inadequate in comparison. They might feel like your choice to parent differently than they did is an unspoken criticism of their parenting skills. I believe it’s worth the effort to understand them because it’s much easier to defend our own choices without anger or fighting when we understand the other person’s point of view. Our families can know that we appreciate their concern and care about their feelings. Sometimes that alone is enough for them to become supportive of our choices.
Babies grow up and wean. But figuring out how to get along with your family about parenting choices lasts your whole life. This is a great chance to work out the best strategies for you.