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Doing It Right

Today my guest blogger is one of my favorite people in breastfeeding, Diane Wiessinger, coauthor of the new The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and author of the seminal article “Watch Your Language,” which forever changed how we think about the “benefits” of breastfeeding.   

I took my young son to a Chinese restaurant for lunch years ago.  I asked our waiter to show us the right way to use chopsticks.  “Well,” he said, scanning a nearby table of Chinese waiters, all busy eating lunch, all with chopsticks, “None of them are doing it right.”

Whether we’re eating, walking, or putting on socks, we don’t have to do it “right”; we just have to do it so it works for us.  So why are there so many rules about breastfeeding?  And why don’t they work very well? 

More than 30 years ago, when my first child was born, there were no rules at all about how to make a baby take the breast (there was no such thing as The Latch).  All anyone knew was that if a baby’s cheek is touched when he’s hungry, he responds by turning his head with a wide, searching mouth.  It was the height of the natural childbirth movement, and many of us who were interested in breastfeeding also had medication-free births, which meant our babies were competent from the start.  Skin-to-skin was unheard of, our babies were kept in central nurseries, often they had a bottle before their first nursing… but most of them latched with little or no difficulty.  It didn’t occur to us that they might not.

Trouble is, we were sore, often for weeks.  So the field of Lactation Consultants began – not to help babies latch, but to figure out what caused the pain.  We LCs looked carefully at each tiny piece and realized that the pain was usually from holding the baby as if for bottle-feeding.  But we broke everything into tiny steps, created rules about how to do each step “right”… and the whole thing worked even less well.  Now we began seeing non-latching babies!  So we added more rules, and more, and mothers’ confidence eroded.

When a baby learns to walk, he’s pretty awkward.  He falls a lot, he wobbles, but no one says, “Oh dear, if you don’t take that baby to a specialist, he’ll never walk right.”  Everyone knows he has the basics built in, and just needs time.  Making him follow a detailed set of rules would probably drive him back to crawling! 

That’s what happened with breastfeeding.  We laid down rules for something that had never had any, and we left mothers feeling incompetent and babies feeling totally confused. 

So try this:   lean back comfortably, your baby’s whole front on you, and let gravity take care of the holding.  Your baby lies there with his cheek against your breast.  If he’s hungry, he turns toward his cheek, and there’s that wonderful nipple right nearby.  You’ve done nothing in particular (in fact, any fumbling that you do probably helps), and he chooses the moment that suits him best.  What a concept! 

Are you doing it right?  Well… if both of you are comfortable and the milk is flowing, what else could possibly matter?  Let the Lactation Consultants save their problem-solving for if you have a problem. 


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Reader Comments (19)

I like this! What a wonderful message.

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhotoquilty

I love Diane and her work! I heard Changing Thoughts on Latch and Watch Your Language at an LLL of MO conference and they changed my life!

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

[B]ut no one says, “Oh dear, if you don’t take that baby to a specialist, he’ll never walk right.” <p> Sadly, even that's not true. My niece as a one-year-old was taken to work with a therapist to help her learn to navigate stairs. The child lived in a one-story ranch at the time--no surprise that her stair skills weren't exercised much. My MIL is convinced that the child never would have learned to use the stairs without professional intervention. As parents we are amazingly prone to doing whatever we think it takes to do right by our kids--by and large a good thing, but it makes us vulnerable to stuff like this!

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPenny in Texas

This is a wonderful article!! I completely agree.. My son is 11 months and we are still breastfeeding!! :) The LC's told me that he wasn't latching right. But thank you to my wonderful husband he assisted me as they "attempted" to teach me how to help him "latch properly" as I was falling asleep because I did not sleep at all while I was in the hospital. They told me that I had to make sure he was on the areola.. but my son kept pushing it out where he was just on the tip of the nipple. There was good milk flow and he was swallowing.. So after we left the hospital, I let him latch his way and we are still going strong!!

My cousin just had her baby and was planning to breastfeed but said she couldn't get her daughter to latch.. she has been formula feeding and said she would try again...

My best friend just had her 2nd preemie daughter as well. I told her before she delivered to let her lil girl latch her way.. as long as she was swallowing then there was milk flow and she is getting it. She unfortunately had to pump and bottlefeed it to her for the first 11 days.. but now she is coming home and has taken great to the breast!

i am glad i went with my instinct and allowed my son to go his way.. otherwise, i don't think we would have made it this far.

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Thornton

Thank you for this. I think even when there are problems we over-think, over-analyze, over-help what we think the problems are and sometimes chip away further at a mom's security. Being honest about the wide range of variety in breastfeeding experiences goes a long way and being honest that babies are usually born knowing how to breastfeed it's us that get in the way would probably help so many moms just relax. That and modeling it, moms that see other moms breastfeed tend to have less trouble, maybe because the natural relationship of breastfeeding is revealed and the technical can take a back seat.

Thank you again!

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe Leaky B@@b

Thanks for this article! We're at 6 mos with dd #1 and still going strong :) At the beginning I was stressing about latching and timing and reading many how to websites and books and then one day I just looked at my daughter nursing happily and decided to just do it our way and let her decide when and how long and how she wants to latch! It made everything less complicated and took stress away. I told my husband I was just going to do it my way and figure it out and he said that was good, just follow to follow my instincts.
"i am glad i went with my instinct and allowed my [daughter] to go [her] way.. otherwise, i don't think we would have made it this far." ME TOO!

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanelle

This is so true of childbirth as well. Obstetrics is a wonderful field, focusing on the rare serious complications that can occur during pregnancy and birth. But when applied to the 90% of women with healthy pregnancies and labors, we find that old hammer looking for a nail again......

What results is that we turn normal variations into huge problems. Instead of letting a baby nurse through a growth spurt, women panic and supplement with formula, leading to a decline in supply, which leaves them lucky to not wind up exclusively on formula. Likewise we see a normal stall in labor progress, and instead of having mom walk through it so the body can progress as dictated by nature, we pump her with pitocin, and she's lucky if the baby doesn't go into fetal distress resulting in emergency surgery.

The worst part is that our society has taught us that most of those women truly could not have birthed OR fed their babies on their own. We know this isn't true. It isn't true anywhere else in the world, why would it be true in America? Because we've overanalyzed something that was designed to regulate itself 90-something % of the time, tried to turn it into a textbook phenomenon, then intervened if it didn't match the model that WE designed for it. If we could learn to help ONLY when help is needed, we wouldn't do so much harm.....

November 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterastraeal

Nancy and Diane, It was a pleasure to hear you both speak at the LLL of WA conference! I took many useful, take-home messages from your presentations that I have incorporated into how I present ideas to mothers, thank you! I love this blog post you just shared and wholeheartedly agree that our quest for the "holy grail of latches" does/did more harm than it ever did good. And quite honeslty when I do see moms and babies copign with breastfeeding issues it isn't usually the latch that is the main issue although the poor moms have been made to believe that if they could just latch right, all would be fine. Laid back breastfeeding and encouraging moms to tap into that right brained, instictive place is so useful.

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa Cole, IBCLC

While I agree with this post and previous commenters, I have to say that for myself (and I've had a beautiful 21 month nursing relationship so far!), I am thankful for all of the "how to" videos, books, and diagrams. My first 2 months of nursing were very painful. I have sensitive "Irish" skin and my daughter insisted on sucking her bottom (and sometimes top) lip when we nursed. I kept expecting to heal and things to get better as I got used to her nursing, but, as my mother phrased her pain nursing ME, sometimes you had to peel me off the ceiling it hurt so bad! At around 6 weeks or so I began getting serious and taught myself some beneficial methods for getting a wide, earnest mouth with no tucked lips. It worked. Finally, at 2 months, we were nursing pain free. It was another month before she was latching herself this way, without all of my directing both nipple and baby. After that, it was absolute smooth sailing. I am so glad I had the determination to not give up, and I'm even more glad that retaught my daughter how to latch so that I wouldn't be in pain all the time. My mother nursed all 4 of us and gladly gave it up at a year each because all but one of put her through excruciating pain when she nursed us. Bless her heart. She gave us a wonderful gift, but I wish,for her sake, there had been someone or something showing her how to teach us to nurse without the pain.

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

QUOTE There was good milk flow and he was swallowing

This is absolutely the important bit isn't it? How many women get told "latch is wrong" or "latch is just fine" when it isn't? if baby is swallowing enough milk and mum isn't in pain - it works!
Fab article going to share :)

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

I totally oldest is 19 and my youngest is 10 months, and the difference in approach to breastfeeding over these 20 years is stunning. Yes, new moms no longer have to worry quite so much about being undermined with bottles of sugar water and being told their breasts are too small to nurse, but now there's a whole new dynamic at play with lactation consultants and nurses watching like a hawk to see if the latch is "right". It's no wonder people think breastfeeding is hard and worry that they will fail. :(

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkristindoggirl

Love this. And my goodness, can't this philosophy apply to 99% of MOTHERHOOD?! After four kids, I have learned this: if it works, it *works*.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMissy @ it's almost naptime

I agree... but, and of course there is a but...

My daughter was tongue tied. As a result, I had blisters on my nipples and I can't even explain the pain. The first LC didn't catch on to the reason, but the second LC, whom I visited at her home, DID. A nipple shield, a bunch of info for my new to me piediatritian and then a visit to the ENT and the tongue was clipped and nursing improved. Then, the really bad acid reflux, again caught by a LC and another trip to the doc... I really don't think that I would have nursed longer than a week without my wonderful LC and the friends in the breast feeding support group at the hospital. For those of you lucky enough to not have problems I am so very happy for you. But, for those of us with issues (and there were even more than that) the LCs can be the difference between a BF baby and a formula baby. Happily, with all of the support and help, I nursed for 17 months, but it was definitely an act of love and determination!

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergreen

You have got to be kidding me. I am totally pro-breastfeeding, always planned to do it at least a year, and we are still going strong at 20 months. But it WAS NOT easy at first. We did everything "right," drug-free delivery, immediate skin-to-skin, he didn't go to the nursery.... And, oh yes, my son got his milk. He was back at his birthweight in 3-4 days. But my baracuda baby did this in spite of a poor latch, he'd tuck his lips in, which left me bloody and in extreme pain within less than 24 hours.

Please don't minimize the difficulty that some women face and the benefit of a good LC. By portraying BF as this simple, natural act, I would think that women who are struggling are more likely to give up since they are obviously failing at something that is natural and so easy. While the first LC I saw was not much help, the second not only got us going in the right direction but also gave me suggestions to help with his reflux so that we didn't need to resort to medicines.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

Kathy and others, you are absolutely right! When working with moms I always stress that while breastfeeding is natural, it is not always easy! In my earlier post I said, "And quite honestly when I do see moms and babies coping with breastfeeding issues it isn't usually the latch that is the main issue although the poor moms have been made to believe that if they could just latch right, all would be fine." By that statement I meant that when moms are more than just a little tender and they are going on week 1, 2 + postpartum, it is usually not the latch that is the problem. Most commonly it is tongue tie (50-60% of the babies coming to my practice have some sort of oral restriction that has usually been missed by their other providers ). Besides tongue tie there are lots of other causes for inefficient breastfeeding and maternal discomfort, and every once in awhile it will be something as simple as the latch, but quite often it is something else.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa Cole

I'd like to clarify, too. The main point of this post is *not* that we shouldn't provide help to women who are having problems or minimize their struggles. The skills we've learned that can alleviate pain and trauma are wonderful. Diane is questioning whether teaching *all* women to breastfeed *as if* they are having problems has made breastfeeding unnecessarily complicated, contributed to the epidemic of breast refusal we're seeing, and caused many women to give up. Every breastfeeding technique and tool can be either used appropriately or misused. The trick is knowing the difference.

November 23, 2010 | Registered CommenterNancy Mohrbacher

This is a fantastic article. Too often, we are overly obsessed with 'The Perfect Latch'. If mum is not sore and the baby is getting lots of milk, its all good :)) I helped a woman with her second baby who was so worried about the latch because a midwife had told her that her first baby had a terrible latch :0 She fed him exclusively for 6 months and then onto just over a year!? Fancy that! All that worry for nothing :( Equally, all the current information out there on how to latch is really helpful for lots of women... Just seeing a picture (unfortunately we rarely see breastfeeding up close) can really really help. Lovely article, thanks.

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJo Martin

Thank you for a terrific post!

I'm a midwife and my daughter is 30 and I fed her for a year and and the most enjoyable feeds were laid back in the bath! I wish I'd realised this was because the position was the key!

January 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Aram
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