Common Breastfeeding Myths Debunked | Breastfeeding FAQs

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It’s UK national breastfeeding week, an important time to speak not only about breastfeeding but how new mums can best be supported to establish successful breastfeeding. Biamother expert Cordelia Uys is here to tell us more.

This is an important conversation. The UK’s breastfeeding rates are shockingly low compared to other countries.

A 2010 UK-wide Infant Feeding Survey found:

At 6 months – percentage of babies getting any breastmilk:

  • The UK: 34%
  • The United States: 49%
  • Norway: 71%

At 12 months – percentage of babies getting any breastmilk:

  • The UK: 0.5%
  • The United States: 27%
  • Germany: 23%
  • Brazil: 56%
  • Senegal: 99%

There are a variety of reasons for this low number, but the biggest factor is that we live in a culture where bottle feeding is the norm. Could this be due to the many myths surrounding breastfeeding? Cordelia Uys is an NCT breastfeeding counsellor who has been facilitating breastfeeding for 11 years. With a team of colleagues, she runs classes on introducing solids, parenting, and facilitating breastfeeding. Cordelia is Biamother’s breastfeeding expert and is here to debunk some of the myths surrounding breastfeeding.

Establishing breastfeeding is easy:

Breastfeeding might be natural, but for most new mothers it doesn’t come naturally; it’s a physical skill they need to master, like learning to dance. It takes some time and practice before muscle memory sets in, and then it does become easy.

Breastfeeding makes your breasts sag:

It’s pregnancy and in particular, the hormone relaxin which loosens the ligaments in a woman’s pelvis in preparation for birth that causes some women’s breasts to sag. A study in 2008 concluded that breastfeeding does not have an adverse effect on breast appearance.

Breastfeeding mothers need to eat healthily:

New mothers, just like the rest of us, benefit from having a balanced diet, and eating plenty of fresh, home-cooked foods, but the quality and volume of milk they produce will be just the same whether they eat well or exist on junk food. You may be interested to know that seven mothers whose babies were born in Auschwitz shortly before liberation, all managed to successfully breastfeed their babies despite being severely malnourished.

Breastfeeding mothers need to drink milk

Have you ever seen an adult cow drinking milk?! There is absolutely no need to drink milk in order to make milk.

Breastfeeding mothers need to avoid spicy foods

Breastmilk is made from a mother’s blood, so all the food a mother eats is digested, metabolised and filtered. Only a trace of whatever she has eaten will be in her milk. In fact, these tiny traces are a good thing as they mean that unlike formula, the taste of breastmilk is constantly changing. It’s believed this is why breastfed babies tend to be more adventurous in their food preferences once they start solids.

Breastfeeding mothers need to avoid citrus fruit and wind-inducing vegetables, or their baby will have wind/tummy ache:

Please see above: the foods a mother eats are far too filtered to give a baby wind. In every culture, there are foods mothers are told to avoid, and in every culture, these foods are different.

Breastfeeding mothers can’t drink alcohol:

According to the Breastfeeding Network (BfN): “Alcohol passes freely into breastmilk reaching approximately maternal levels BUT maternal blood levels have to reach 300mg/100ml before mild sedation is reached in the baby. This compares with a level of 80mg/100ml needed to fail the police breath test in England. To reduce exposure of the baby to alcohol, avoid breastfeeding for 2-3 hours after drinking.” In short, if you can legally drive, you can safely breastfeed. 

All medications need to be avoided when breastfeeding:

According to Dr Thomas Hale, author of Medications and Mothers’ Milk: “All medications transfer into human milk to some degree, although it is almost always quite low…Most drugs don’t enter milk in levels that are hazardous to a breastfed infant.” It is of course vital that breastfeeding mothers check on the safety of any medication before taking it. The Breastfeeding Network (BfN) has drugs sheets available online covering every topic from antidepressants to X-rays. They also offer an individual information service.

Breastfeeding mothers can’t do vigorous exercise:

A randomised trial from 2019 showed that moderate to high-intensity physical activity has no impact on the volume or the macronutrient (meaning the fat, carbohydrate and protein) content of human milk. In a good illustration of what’s possible, in 2019, the runner Sophie Power stopped briefly during a 106-mile ultra-marathon to breastfeed her 3-month old son.

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Pain is normal and inevitable when you breastfeed:

In everyday life, pain means something is wrong, and this is also the case for breastfeeding. If a mother is experiencing pain when feeding, she needs to seek out support from a Breastfeeding Counsellor or Lactation Consultant ASAP. If a baby is well positioned and deeply latched, breastfeeding will almost always be pain-free. Often a small adjustment is all it takes to make feeding significantly more comfortable.

Nipples need toughening up during pregnancy:

It was common in the past for pregnant women to be told to rub their nipples with a rough towel, and sometimes even with methylated spirits, to prepare them for breastfeeding! Unfortunately, this advice is sometimes still given. A woman’s nipples don’t need any kind of external preparation, the hormones of pregnancy prepare breasts for feeding.

Nipple creams prevent pain and damage:

A mother’s areola have little glands on them called Montgomery’s Tubercles that produce sweet-smelling, antibacterial oils which lubricate the nipple and protect against infection. If mothers put cream or ointment on their nipples, it will mask these oils, and will sometimes make it harder for a baby to latch. What prevents a mother from experiencing pain and damage is having her baby well-positioned and deeply latched.

(If damage does occur, a mother can apply some breastmilk, which has healing properties, to her nipples. It can also be helpful to apply a pea-sized amount of Vaseline or ultrapure modified lanolin to her nipples, as this encourages moist-wound healing. If there is substantial damage, Jelonet gauze dressing helps nipples to heal.)

Breasts need to be washed before breastfeeding:

This isn’t recommended as it can dry out the areola and nipples and wash away the lipid-rich oils produced by the Montgomery’s Tubercles (see above).

Mothers need to time breastfeeds:

Mothers are often told their baby needs to spend X amount of minutes on the breast to get everything they need. Sometimes they’re told it’s 15 minutes, sometimes 20 and sometimes 30. Anyone who knows anything about how breastfeeding works knows this advice is ludicrous. Imagine telling someone that they need to spend 20 minutes eating breakfast, or they won’t have eaten enough. Some babies who are well-latched and whose mothers have a generous milk supply can get all the milk they need in 5 minutes, and some babies can spend an hour on the breast with a poor latch and transfer virtually no milk at all.

According to Wikipedia, clocks have existed for circa 700 years. Since the human race has existed for circa 200,000 years and up until around 150 years ago a baby would only have survived if they were breastfed, it seems fairly obvious that if were necessary to time breastfeeds, the human race would have died out a long ago.

Many women struggle to produce enough milk for their baby:

Over 95% of mothers can make all the milk their baby, or babies, need. Contrary to popular belief, the size of a woman’s breasts does not impact on the volumes of milk she can produce. Milk production depends entirely on supply and demand: in the early months, milk needs to be removed effectively from both her breasts at least 8 times in 24 hours for a mother’s supply to be established and maintained. By far the most common reason for low milk supply is under-stimulation of a mother’s breasts, either because her baby isn’t feeding frequently enough or isn’t removing milk effectively.

You need to empty the breast:

It’s impossible to empty a breast: the more milk is removed, the more milk will be made. Breasts are like rivers, not lakes. If a baby is fed whenever they show feeding cues, offered both breasts at each feed, and allowed to decide for themselves how long to spend on each breast, a mother will make exactly the right amount of milk for her baby, and the baby will get exactly the amount of milk they need.

Women with fair skin have more sensitive nipples:

This is very commonly told to mothers and is not only patently ridiculous but also borders on being racist. Fair skin might burn more easily in the sun, but it’s no more sensitive to being hurt than very dark skin.

Biamother is the world’s first app that cares for new mums. We are a team of maternal health experts, all women, mostly mothers, offering guidance and recommendations to help you eat, move and sleep better, as well as personalized workouts you can do at home that adapt to suit your changing needs, body type and concerns. Vogue Magazine, June 2020 issue calls Biamother “a life coach in your pocket.”

Article by Biamother expert Cordelia Uys, NCT Breastfeeding Expert

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