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Lactation Failure: It Happened to Me

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I do understand the fervor of lactation consultants, midwives and other medical and lay professionals to delay a diagnosis of failure. After all, most women struggle tremendously with breastfeeding in the weeks after giving birth—it’s painful, the latch might not come naturally, and sometimes milk supply is simply delayed. Todd Wolynn, M.D., who is both a lactation consultant and a pediatrician in Pittsburgh, PA told me that almost all women can successfully breastfeed if they get adequate support in the first week when the learning curve is sharpest.

And I understand that breastfeeding needs to be marketed just as zealously as formula-feeding to counteract the power and reach that formula companies have. After all, every breastfeeding mother is one less customer for them, and so they have ingenious marketing methods (like, until the recently enacted bans in some cities, giving you free formula at the hospital, just as your breastfeeding frustration begins) to get and keep you hooked on the stuff. It’s a heck of a lot easier, if more expensive, to formula-feed, so breastfeeding advocates have to try extra hard to help women surmount the trials of those first weeks and support women enough to make it work.

Except that sometimes it just doesn’t. In my case, what should have been support was actually ignorance and pressure—pressure that left my child starving for a week—accompanied by shame and guilt and fear. Lactation consultants took my money—hundreds of dollars of it—and never told me what my pediatrician uttered immediately in her judgment-free and matter-of-fact way: it ain’t gonna happen.

I don’t mean to villainize lactation consultants and midwives. They perform an important function in modern American society. In addition to their medical training, they are the keepers of a kind of folk knowledge that got lost in the better-living-through-chemistry 1950s, when powdered, cow’s milk-based Similac (“similar to lactation”) made its entrance to the scene—and to the hospital—and changed baby feeding as we know it. The medical world has taken over what was once women’s work, with much information lost in the shift. LCs and midwives give us the help that our mothers and aunts and older sisters and neighbors were able to offer in a less medicalized, more communal time.

But in their enthusiasm for breastfeeding, their desire to reclaim the act, some seem unwilling to acknowledge the medical reality of lactation failure, even though as many as 200,000 women may experience it each year. If you are one of those women desperate to breastfeed, terrified of what you’ve been told will happen if you don’t, the denial will make you feel crazy, on top of terrified.

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