Sometimes, Breastfeeding Isn't As Easy As Olivia Wilde Makes It Look

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lactation_consultant_3Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Like it or not, breastfeeding is having a bit of a moment. Olivia Wilde, Ashley Nicole, and Gisele Bundchen have done it proudly, and it’s touted as the best thing you can do for your baby. But, when breastfeeding doesn't come easily, what’s supposed to be a beautiful bonding experience can quickly turn into an extremely stressful one. Enter the lactation consultant — a career you probably haven't heard of, but one that's sometimes necessary to make the transition to breastfeeding as smooth as possible.

Dana Ben-Ari delved into the world of lactation consultants when working on her recently-released documentary, Breastmilk, which focuses on new moms' quests to breastfeed. “They’re told [breastfeeding] should be very natural, but still so many find it difficult,” Ben-Ari says.

Ayelet Kaznelson is both a certified lactation counselor (CLC) and an internationally board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC). Many of the issues people come to Kaznelson with (such as nipple pain or latching difficulty) are usually straightforward to address, she says. But, that’s not the whole picture. “People are surprised by how much work goes into breastfeeding...it’s also that a newborn just needs a lot of care and attention,” says Kaznelson.
lactation_consultant_2Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Indeed, breastfeeding may be just one of many obstacles new parents face. But, because it’s the one they're told will somehow magically just happen, it becomes that much more devastating when it doesn’t. “I felt like a total failure when I couldn't instantly do this thing that I felt like any cat could do,” says writer Marjorie Ingall, who has two children. “Everyone was telling me [breastfeeding] was natural and easy — and it just wasn’t.”

The lactation consultant Ingall originally saw didn’t help that much. Ingall's first daughter, now 12, had difficulty latching in the hospital, so she called a consultant as soon as she got home. “[The consultant] had this real air of anxiety to her, and that didn’t help me,” Ingall explains. So, she tried someone else. This consultant had a “soothing, chill air" — she helped improve Ingall's breastfeeding experience. But, it still wasn’t easy: “I constantly got infections and plugged ducts... My boob turned the color of a cosmo!”

After four months of work, Ingall’s time with her consultant paid off, and her daughter nursed without any major issues. But, Ingall still feels that she missed out on her chance for a perfect, natural breastfeeding experience. “I was ready to be Queen Boob Activist, whipping it out everywhere — and I didn’t have that,” she says. Instead, the experience left her feeling inadequate. “I like to think that I’m smart, but I’m really shitty at driving a car, and I’m really shitty at breastfeeding.”

Even with a lactation consultant, the choice to breastfeed might not necessarily be up to you. When Sharika Cabrera's daughter was born 16 months ago, Cabrera didn’t produce enough milk. And, her consultant’s advice — to pump up to 10 times every day with a hospital-grade device — seemed impossible to put into practice.
lactation_consultant_1Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Eventually, Cabrera elected to feed her baby formula. “It was nothing short of devastating,” she says. “You think, ‘This is what I‘m here for, and I can’t even do this; this is just supposed to happen.'" Having to let go of her breastfeeding dream led her to question herself as a mom.

“I wish somebody had told me how challenging it could be,” Cabrera says. “I never heard of breastfeeding as a challenge before actually having a baby; it’s a deep, dark secret that nobody tells you.” But, more than anything else, Cabrera wishes someone had just told her everything would be all right either way. Ingall feels similarly: “I wish I could have been way less hard on myself,” she says.

Fueling much of this pressure to breastfeed is the debate over the health benefits of breast milk versus formula. But, Cabrera says, “Formula is not kryptonite.” And, even if breastfeeding has benefits, those probably shouldn’t come at the expense of a new parent’s precious sanity or self-confidence.

"Imagine if we took half the energy we spend sniping at the formula crowd," Ingall writes at Babble, "and turned it, instead, toward making it easier for women who breastfeed to keep their jobs and for women who formula-feed to keep their dignity.”

The bottom line, says Kaznelson, is that “if someone finds they are hitting a wall, getting support is important.” Although home visits are an option, she acknowledges that not everyone can afford them. Luckily, groups such as La Leche League and NYLCA in New York City can help connect people with consultants — and Kaznelson runs group clinics out of the nonprofit Seleni Institute. Whether or not things go according to plan, having the encouragement of an expert can make all the difference. And, you don't need to be a celebrity to have a support network.