As a practicing physician and new mother myself, breastfeeding is a fascinating biological phenomenon. In addition to supplying your baby with all the nourishment she needs from day one of life, nursing populates your baby’s digestive tract with up to 40 percent of the beneficial bacteria known as the microbiome, provides immunity to your baby passively through the transfer of antibodies, and even educates your baby’s immune system by sending maternal cells through the baby’s gut to the baby’s thymus (a gland that hosts baby’s early internal immune system). These cells then teach the baby’s immune system to respond to invaders the mother has been exposed to.
Meanwhile there is a feedback loop between mother and baby during nursing—baby’s saliva is transferred into the mother’s breast, signaling cells in the mother’s breast to recruit specific fats, antibodies, and other nutrients the baby needs into the next batch of milk.
And then there are the benefits for mom, from contracting the postpartum uterus to dissolving gluteal-femoral fat (aka butt fat) and assisting in weight loss to reducing long-term risk of breast cancer.
For all of these reasons and more, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend a baby is exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Yet despite this, I find that women are surprisingly unprepared for the realities of breastfeeding before they have their first child—I certainly was. And for many of us, myself included, breastfeeding can be challenging and can feel anything but natural.
As I got deeper into this world, I learned that there are more myths than truths circulating. Here are the most common myths of breastfeeding and the real story you should know:
1. It comes naturally.
While baby’s rooting reflex does take hold the instant the baby is transferred skin to skin to your chest after birth, getting a good latch and stimulating milk to come in can take real work. In fact 92 percent of women report having trouble breastfeeding—so if this is you, you are hardly alone. From pain to trouble latching to not having enough milk to confusion between bottle and nipple, issues are so common. In my case, I had significant trouble with positioning and latching, which led to nipple damage on my left side. I then used a nipple guard that my friend had suggested, which I later learned was impairing my son’s ability to get enough milk. Only through going to both a group lactation class, hiring a lactation consultant to come to my home, and talking to my birth doula and my pediatrician did I eventually get the hang of breastfeeding. It takes a village. Pro tip: The group class was the most helpful of all and the least expensive at $30.
2. You need to "pump and dump."
Generally speaking, this is not true. Most women can have one to two drinks occasionally while breastfeeding—that is 2 ounces of liquor, one or two beers, or 8 ounces of wine. It is recommended to wait two hours after drinking to nurse or pump, when the effects have worn off. In addition, research shows that only about 5 percent of alcohol consumed enters breast milk. That said, heavy drinking and frequent drinking while breastfeeding is not recommended, and it's a myth that alcohol increases breast milk. In fact alcohol has shown to have the opposite effect—slowing letdown and decreasing volume.
3. Breast milk– and cow's milk–based formula are the same.
For all of the reasons detailed above, breast milk is in many ways quite different from cow’s milk–based formula. Formula made from powdered cow’s milk does not contain the same fatty acids to feed baby’s brain, the same immune-boosting antibodies and cells, or the same bacteria. In addition, many formulas contain suboptimal vegetable oils and sugars. Meanwhile, some babies are allergic to cow’s milk proteins, leading to immune reactions like asthma and eczema.
But what if you can’t breastfeed?
There are alternatives to cow’s milk formula, like the bone-broth-based formula I have fed my son as my milk supply dropped off just before he turned six months old. Be sure to use a reputable source for the recipe that accounts for all the important nutrients your baby will need. I used the book Nourishing Traditions’ recipe and now use homemade formula with quality organic ingredients.
That said, is using cow’s milk–based formula bad for your baby? If she isn’t allergic to it, then not necessarily. Look for organic formula coming from pasture-raised cows, which will be higher in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids. And no matter what you feed your baby, as long as she gets enough food and love, know that she will do just fine!