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When Breast Isn't Best

Photograph by ThinkStock

If you've been reproducing in the United States in the last decade, you've gotten the message: Breast-feeding is the far superior method for baby feeding, mothering, and all-around angelic-ness. If you've actually successfully breast-fed your infant, this is where you nod your head in agreement. If you, like me, had a nightmare of a time trying to feed that tiny wiggly thing "naturally" then you, like me, bang your head against your desk every time you hear those three little words.

In this week's TIME, Lisa Selin Davis shines a great big light on the problem with the education of women by repeating, "Breast is best." Selin Davis points out something that has long been ignored: the medical issues surrounding breast-feeding. While I would also add, the lack of maternity leave and support all of these issues are routinely minimized by friends, family and most disturbingly, the medical profession. Instead, we are all told it's the most natural thing in the world, and if we really want to do what's best for our babies we'll whip out that boob and make it work. As a true believer in my own natural abilities as a woman, my firstborn was starving as I was told, "You can do it!"

My daughter was a wee bit premature, and her first home was the NICU. I had an emergency C-section and was on enough drugs to knock out my entire freshman dorm. Later came the jaundice, and that crazy space-age blanket, and more pain in my boobs than I could ever have imagined. We were off to a rough start. Still, I believed this was the right thing to do, and all my friends were doing it, and I lived in Brooklyn. I knew breast was best, and all of the warnings about obesity, allergies and attachment were swimming in my head. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

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When I reached out for help, my pediatrician blamed it on my lack of sleep (umm, I have a newborn) and the fact that I "wasn't allowing my husband to help." Anyone who knows our family knows how laughable that is, and also has much sympathy for my husband, the super dad. My obstetrician thought maybe I had an infection and my baby had thrush, even though she showed no signs of it and the only evidence were my beaten-up nipples, which felt like they had been chewed on with glass vampire teeth. I even called in the big guns—my local La Leche League—only to be told "You're doing it, don't worry" after I paid my $35. Yet my daughter still lost weight that she could not afford to lose.

Breast-feeding is being treated as something you should just do, and not as something that could be impossible in light of various medical conditions.

Writing about it today, almost seven years later, still enrages me and frightens me to my core. If it weren't for my incredibly helpful husband (ahem, doc) who woke up in the middle of the night to give my baby formula, I can't imagine what would have happened to my tiny preemie. I have no idea how many issues were at hand, but neither did any of my physicians. Which is the problem. Breast-feeding is being treated as something you should just do, and not as something that could be impossible in light of various medical conditions. Instead you hear that "only 1 percent of women can't breast-feed" and are to assume that you are not special enough to be part of that elite crew that gets a pass.

And that's the biggest issue for me, that knee-jerk judgment: the assumption that I could do it, if only I wanted to badly enough. As the TIME article points out through Dr. Marianne Neifert, "A health care professional would never tell a diabetic woman that ‘every pancreas can make insulin’ or insist to a devastated infertility patient that ‘every woman can get pregnant.'" There are reasons beyond "you need sleep," and the medical community has no clue how to check out your mammaries and see what's going on up in there.

The good news is, as Selin Davis points out, the Affordable Health Care Act advises insurance companies to cover lactation consultants—something that was not covered by my own insurance when I desperately needed it, and was on unpaid leave. There is also the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine that is working to include protocols for breast-feeding problems on the exams for the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

So while I can only guess the C-section, preemie birth and god knows what else all combined to kill my breast-feeding dreams, new moms will hopefully have a heck of a lot more information when they're facing the pump. That is, if everyone can agree to focus on medical issues, and not emotional ones when it comes to the care and feeding of our babies. It's about time.

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