Breast is best! But you do whatever you want.
February 13, 2014 2:57 AM   Subscribe

How to encourage someone to breastfeed without making them feel bad if they don't?

Two of my husband's sisters are pregnant, due this spring. I myself have a six-month-old baby. In the country where we live (where my husband and his family are from) "breast is best" has only been pushed by the medical establishment in the last decade. It is gaining a lot of traction, but culturally it is still not quite the thing. Not a single one of my husband's brothers or sisters, any of his dozens of cousins, and or any of his cousins' young children were ever breastfed. I've had to deal with a lot of incomprehension and even pushback from my family-in-law for exculsively breastfeeding my son these last six months, from things like "You mean you ONLY breastfeed him?? But he's so big and healthy!" to "All my kids got bottles. I was never milked like a cow." My own family is very pro-breastfeeding, so I had their support, and I was very commmited to the idea from the beginning.

Both my sisters-in-law want to breastfeed, but I am afraid that they will not have much support from their family. The first few weeks (or months!) of breastfeeding can be a special kind of hell, which I remember all too well, and it really helped me a lot to have people around me (or always avaliable by phone) who supported my decision to persevere.

At the same time, though, I know how fraught with anxiety and judgement the breast vs bottle thing can be, and that there are some people who just can't do it, either for medical reasons or for their own mental health. That's a decision that every woman has to make for herself and I want to respect that 100%.

How can I best give them breastfeeding support while not coming across as judgemental if they don't?

Note: I am looking more for things to say, things to do, and other ways to give them support, not resources. English is not their native language, so is, alas, not a good option.
posted by lollymccatburglar to Human Relations (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In your shoes, I'd be saying things like:
Hey, SIL, you know you can talk to me anytime about this breastfeeding shit, right? What do you think about breastfeeding, do you have any concerns I might be able to help with?
I love it - science and bonding, but yeah, it can be hard. Sometimes other people are really weird about it. Relatives, people in public, what are you expecting to be an issue?
And in fact, wow, learning to get kiddo to latch on - that was a bit tricky - didn't know until I ried it. I found that the lactation nurse was really good, don't worry about not knowing how to do it - it's not as natural as it sounds. Does your birthing plan allow for a lactation nurse?
And owee nipples, but you know, if that's a problem for you, I found out when it happened to me that it eased off after 6 weeks. I did try the cabbage leaves but they didn't work for me."

Which is kind of:
You can tell me anything - I won't judge you.
I like breastfeeding but I'm not a nazi. I see the benefits, but I know it's hard.
Sometimes it's hard because of other people in our family - you want to talk about way to navigate that?
What are you scared about? (I mean, I know what we're scared about in parenting usually is something that never crops up - but you deserve your fears to be heard, accepted, and possible solutions provided).
Don't feel bad if you don't get it right straight away. I didn't - and I had expert help.
Do you have professional support, or maybe do you need to know how to find it?
It's a fantastic experience, but like many fantastic experiences it has its downside, often not publicised - you can trust me to tell the truth.
I'm open to traditional and natural solutions - feel free to share your questions with me.

How does that work?

Disclaimer: It's about 20 years since I breastfed anybody, and when I did it for the first time, I assumed my sister-in-law and I (pregnant at the same time) would feed each other's kids when baby sitting (a bit too wet-nursey for her).
posted by b33j at 3:11 AM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

You could offer to be there for them after the birth, to help with household work (cooking, cleaning, etc). Not having to worry about that stuff could be a great help. You could gift supplies- lanolin, boppy, etc. Beyond that, you let it go and offer to help if they ask. You accept that maybe they won't do it because they don't want to and that's just as OK as not doing it because they "can't".
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:30 AM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

How can I best give them breastfeeding support while not coming across as judgemental if they don't?

By not framing your question in this dismissive manner: "Breast is best! But you do whatever you want."

The mantra "breast is best" ignores the fact that the "bottle isn't actually all that bad" and saying "do whatever you want" is not the same thing as saying "I support your decision either way, because really it doesn't make that much of a difference, and it's an entirely personal thing and if you decide to use a bottle of course I won't think you're a bad mother and I'll be totally supportive of your choice."
posted by three blind mice at 3:47 AM on February 13, 2014 [39 favorites]

...have they specifically asked for your help? Are you really, really close to them? Are you a medical professional?

If the answer to at least two of those questions is not a resounding yes, leave it alone. You could buy them a book or direct them to qualified medical professionals who have expertise in this area, but that's about it. As you know, their kids will be just fine if they are bottle-fed, and again, unless you can answer the above questions positively, it's really really not your business.

If they do decide to breastfeed, go ahead and present yourself as an experienced person who can answer questions and share tips, but only if they actually ask you. The questions b33j listed would be read, to me and lots of people I know, as pushy and invasive. YMMV, of course.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:24 AM on February 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

If they ask for help or support, provide it. Otherwise, stay out of it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:25 AM on February 13, 2014 [24 favorites]

You offer opportunities.

Breastfeeding exclusively is one option
Breastfeeding exclusively for some number of months and occasionally giving a bit the of formula is another option.
Mixed feeding after a few weeks because breastfeeding is challenging and then breastfeeding is another one.

Don't go the exclusive route. Go the: There is more than one way to breastfeed. Let them define what breastfeeding for them and redefine it with their babies.

Whatever you do, do not take the only-breastfeeding-or-no-breastfeeding route. Be open, really open, to helping them mostly or partly breadtfeed.
posted by zizzle at 4:26 AM on February 13, 2014

Response by poster: Sorry, forgot to add that I am definitely open to "say/do nothing" as an answer to my question, as some of you have already said. Many a time I wished that my own family/in-laws/friends/everybody had decided to say/do nothing.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 4:35 AM on February 13, 2014

Say nothing unless they ask you for advice or support.
posted by amro at 4:42 AM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I like b33j's approach, offer your support in light of your experience and then back off and support them in whatever they choose, whenever they choose it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:46 AM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a masculine child, I have only third-hand experience of this so, take my advice accordingly.

I would propose that, if you struggled at all, you share some of the details of that struggle. In our experience the most common thought we had was "do you think it was this hard for anybody else" because we certainly hadn't heard that it was that hard.

I don't mean from books and blogs and websites, I mean from friends and family - the truth, that it is hard and messy and a struggle and emotional and heartbreaking (as well as lovely and a unique bonding experience) just wasn't out there. (For us.)

So - normalising the fact that while it's natural it doesn't necessarily come naturally.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 4:46 AM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

You know they want to breastfeed, so it has obviously come up. If/when it comes up again, you can say something like "It's great that you want to try breastfeeding. It wasn't the easiest thing for me -- example of a problem you had -- but we eventually worked through it. I'm no expert, but if you ever want advice or support or just to talk about it with someone who has been there, I'm here for you."

You don't need to pre-emptively fall all over yourself to declare that you won't judge them if they decide not to breastfeed. You're supporting their decision to breastfeed in the moment, and if it all becomes too hard and they have to switch to formula, you support that decision in that moment, as well.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:00 AM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

It sounds counter-intuitive, but I have said "Yes, this is a really, really hard thing to learn, but I found it was so worth it in the end", to people in a kind of despair spiral over their total inability to ever master some particular thing, and seen them very visibly pull it together and successfully do the thing on their next try.

Recasting their experience as "learning a difficult but worthwhile thing" instead of "failing at life" was like some kind of minor miracle.

YMMV since this was in the context of ski instruction not breastfeeding.
posted by emilyw at 5:07 AM on February 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

Nthing the notion of "offer support before the baby is born, then leave it alone unless they come to you." This is not your decision to make and the last thing you need to do is add to whatever pressure about feeding may be coming their way.

My elder daughter wouldn't nurse for love or money, and even though she's now in her teens I can still gain a few blood pressure points recollecting the intrusive and judgmental crap people sent my way when I was a struggling new mom. Nothing wrong with wanting to be helpful and supportive, but it is not your business unless you are invited into the conversation.
posted by Sublimity at 5:34 AM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of my early parenting favorite moments was when my daughter was six months old and a friend of my mom's came up to me and said "It's makes me so happy to hear you are breastfeeding" and gave me a hug. That was it. A lot of other people tried to give me helpful and not-so-helpful advice about weaning, how great formula is now, etc. But, I think what made this woman's interaction with me memorable was that it was an entirely positive and devoid of anything to stress about later. I'd aim for doing something like this in your SILs early days of breastfeeding. If they want to talk to you about it more, I'm sure they will.
posted by JuliaKM at 6:45 AM on February 13, 2014

Yeah, let them know you're there for advice and support, and make sure it's coming across as 'I've been through this and I'd be really happy to pass on what worked for me' rather than 'I'm an expert on breastfeeding, let me lecture you about it'. (Not that you would be lecturing them, just that with such a potentially sensitive issue, it's really easy to interpret well-meant advice as bossy lecturing even when it's totally not meant that way.) And then step back, and let them come to you if they want.

I would go somewhat against the grain of the other advice you're getting re: telling them how tough it can be, though. My own experience (first baby due shortly, hoping to breastfeed) is really, really not that nobody tells you how tough it can be - it's that sodding everybody tells you how tough it can be, at length and in detail. Even the health professionals, who are all very much pushing the breast-is-best message, are full of 'make sure you get plenty of help with this in hospital because it's REALLY, REALLY PAINFUL AND GRUELLING AND DIFFICULT, but do it anyway because it's best for your baby.' To the point where I was honestly shocked to hear someone say recently she'd had a pretty easy time of it, because I didn't realise anything short of hell was a possibility. And if your sisters-in-law are surrounded by people who think breastfeeding is alien and weird anyway, they're less likely to hear anything good about it.

So, I'd say definitely let them know that you had a really rough time breastfeeding to start off with, and you're glad you persevered and would be happy to pass on what helped you. And if they do seem to have the impression that it'll just automatically be easy, it's an act of kindness to let them know that no, sometimes it's really hard. But go easy on any temptation to present them with The Brutal Truth Of Breastfeeding. Share the good parts of your own experience with them along with the bad, if the subject comes up and they want to talk about it. Just try not to let them get the impression that breastfeeding is both inevitable torture for them and the only loving thing to do for their babies, because that's a recipe for feeling like they're failing whatever infant feeding choices they make.
posted by Catseye at 7:27 AM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I got a ton of pushback from my MIL in particular, who was living with us when our baby was born. She is from Asia, and her youngest is 40, so her ideas about breastfeeding were from a time when formula companies and the medical establishment really marketed formula as being a far superior form of nutrition. Under her tutelage, none of her daughters breastfed, so my child was the first of her many grandchildren that was nursed. She'd really never seen it done, and didn't know anything about it. In particular, she was concerned that I was "starving" the baby, because he breastfed so often.

What I learned from that experience is that, during pregnancy, my hubby and I should have taken more time to educate her along with ourselves about breastfeeding. In your case, I think it might be helpful for you and your hubby to talk positively about breastfeeding to the extended family. What the differences are from bottle-feeding (the baby will want to eat more often because breastmilk is digested more quickly), maybe some of the newer scientific studies or articles that explain the nutrition and health side of things (I think the transfer of stem cells and immunity are particularly fascinating, for instance). Have your hubby and MIL talk about what slack they have needed to pick up in the household in order to support your breastfeeding (for instance, my MIL thought that she was going to take possession of the baby when he was born; she thought she would be sitting on the couch with him all day and bottle-feeding him, while I took care of all of the cooking and cleaning around the house. Boy was she pissed when it didn't turn out that way!) The point is, if you begin normalizing breastfeeding for the extended family, by the time the SIL's babies come the family won't think it's so weird.

For your SIL's, if there are any local chapters of La Leche League or other breastfeeding support communities (maybe attached to the hospital?), just make sure they have the contact info, and make sure that they know you will answer calls or emails as soon as possible if they have questions or troubles. Maybe also have on-hand the name of a good lactation consultant, in case they have difficulty in the beginning. That can all be done in a short, friendly conversation: "Hey, just in case you decide to breastfeed, here are some good folks who can answer questions". And then leave it at that.
posted by vignettist at 7:39 AM on February 13, 2014

I've had pretty much every nursing friend with a baby younger than mine come talk to me about it, so I must be doing something right! For one or two I made a point of letting them know that I'd be happy to talk or help with whatever they needed, and that we'd experienced X,Y, and Z common parenting things, one of which was breastfeeding through toddlerhood. I've given them baby gifts that are nursing-friendly but not nursing-specific. And then I've done the kind of stuff that is supportive of any new parent like bringing over one-handed dinners and snacks, and the conversations pretty much happen.

But I think a fair amount of it is just being a sane parent, a non-judgmental presence, and having some kind of experience on the topic to hand.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:58 AM on February 13, 2014

It was enormously reassuring to me as a new mom when I visited a friend and we sat nursing our babies together-mine 2 weeks old, hers 18 months or so. I knew I was not alone and crazy, but part of a group of moms who not just believed in nursing babies but who thought it was a perfectly normal, natural thing to do.

So I recommend nursing with them if you are still doing it when their babies are born.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:03 AM on February 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ordinarily I'd say it's none of your business, but you say that you know they want to breastfeed and I'm going to assume that that's correct and also that it means they've brought the subject up either with you or with someone who later told you. That changes things a bit.

I think the best thing to do is to just let them know, one time, that they're welcome to come to you if they want to talk about any new-baby stuff, including breastfeeding. Assuming that these are their first kids, they're sure to have tons of questions about child-rearing and you, as a sister-in-law and mother of a new baby, are a natural resource to turn to for information on the subject (assuming that you're on good terms with them). Just say something like "Hey sis, I'm sure you must have tons of questions and worries and such about the new kid – I know I did before I had mine – and I just want you to know that you are totally welcome to come to me with anything at all that you want to talk about. Like, if you're interested in talking about breastfeeding or whatever I'm totally down for that."

Don't put pressure on them, just let them know that you're there and that they can come to you if they want. That's really all you can do; after all, this is their show.
posted by Scientist at 8:51 AM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

My vote is none of your business, sorry.

The most important part of breastmilk is the first stuff that comes out (colostrum or liquid gold) because it carries antibodies; after that, don't be part of the Breast Feed Brigade. Seriously.

Some babies just don't take to the breast and you don't need to pressure a new mom like that. They are probably inundated right now with "you must X or you HATE YOUR BABY" so don't add to that.

Ask if they've heard about the colostrum, ask if they would need any support and then MYOB.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:33 AM on February 13, 2014

I don't think there's any way you can voice an opinion on the matter to her without setting yourself in her mind as someone who has opinion X. Perhaps do that thing that women keep screaming they want and offer a non-judgmental ear for her, and only give advice that she solicits.

Otherwise, if you want to support breastfeeding, look for ways to make your community breastfeeding friendly. Find a list of local restaurants or other places that offer some private or semi-private space for moms who need it. Prepare yourself for dealing with people who don't understand that breastfeeding is an absolute right. Find places that will work for her to go with her child and support those places. Contact your mayor and ask hir to make a public statement that any place that harasses a breastfeeding mother will incur negative publicity. Stuff like that, so that if your friend decides she does want to try breastfeeding, her community isn't actively or passively against her.
posted by disconnect at 11:17 AM on February 13, 2014

I would suggest putting together a list of breastfeeding resources that you could give them on paper or by email. Personally I would have loved something like this when I was trying to figure everything out at the beginning. The list could include information about local breastfeeding support groups if they exist, names and phone numbers of local lactation consultants, books and websites like Ina May's guide to breastfeeding and kellymom, and your phone number/email address with a note that they can call anytime if they want support. Then you could give them the list and say, "I know you've said that you want to breastfeed, but sometimes it's challenging and it helps to have resources. I put together this list for you in case some of the information is useful. I love breastfeeding and I'm happy to give you support if you need it. If you decide not to breastfeed I'm also here to support you with your new baby."

Then you can drop the subject, and they'll know you are available. By giving the information and then letting them decide what to do, you won't be in their faces pressuring them all the time.
posted by medusa at 2:31 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Both my sisters-in-law want to breastfeed, but I am afraid that they will not have much support from their family.

Since I assume this means they've told you about their plans, I think you could go as far as a casual, "Hey, you mentioned you were thinking of breastfeeding - how's that going?" after the babies arrive (when the rest of the family isn't around to criticize, of course), and if they want to ask for advice or support it'll give them an opportunity. But anything more than that, I wouldn't venture.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:31 PM on February 13, 2014

You should really mind your own business. It's not your baby.
posted by discopolo at 7:10 PM on February 13, 2014

There are almost certainly breastfeeding books in the local language, possibly even a translation of one you know, so you could buy a book for them and say hey, this was recommended and I hope it's helpful. You could also ask if they have a nursing cover/breast pump/breastfeeding pillow etc and if they would like you to get them as a gift. If they're going back to work, they may be wondering how they will manage pumping/nursing, and it's pretty ordinary conversation to ask about that and commiserate if their workplace won't give them breaks or doesn't have a fridge etc.

I would also offer to come over and help with the baby and say openly if you're having any troubles breastfeeding, just call me because I remember being very confused at the start and having some problems, and a friend helped me, etc.

I am a bit confused over the non-interfering. I'm in Singapore, and it is totally normal here to ask and discuss feeding and breastfeeding among family and friends. I would be annoyed at someone saying this is the ONLY way, but most of my discussions with other mothers are about stuff like this. A dear friend got me set up with the breast pump I needed and helped me figure out night feeds, when she barely breastfed for her own reasons. It's not a judgmental conversation issue at all.

I would ask someone local how much you're expected to contribute as a sister-in-law. My actual sister-in-law has a good friends support network and so I didn't have to do anything for her babies (and vice-versa), but breastfeeding was just one of those things talked about. For other women I know with babies where I was part of their support network, it was something discussed, colostrum and how long, and what to do if it was uncomfortable and night nursing and supplementing with formula or not, blah blah. It's really odd to me, culturally, to read so many people saying this is a No Go topic.

Of course, I live in a country where asking how much your house cost is considered a normal conversational opener :-)
posted by viggorlijah at 7:52 PM on February 13, 2014

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