Breastfeeding: fact or fiction?

Common myths about breastfeeding can affect the breastfeeding relationship between a mother and her baby. Here are some truths to dispel these wrong ideas.

Truth: It is not normal for breastfeeding to hurt

Tender nipples in the first days are common. However, if breastfeeding hurts it usually means that a baby is not attached well to his mother’s breast. See our article on sore/cracked nipples and attachment.  If your nipple becomes sore after a period of comfortable feeding, you may have a nipple infection. If breastfeeding hurts, get help as soon as possible. For example, call one of our breastfeeding counsellors on the Breastfeeding Helpline on 1800 mum 2 mum (1800 686 268). The earlier a breastfeeding problem is dealt with, the easier it is to fix. If a counsellor feels you need more help, she will suggest a lactation consultant or a medical adviser.

Truth: Most mothers can produce enough breastmilk

Most mothers can make more than enough milk for their baby (or babies!). Indeed, having too much breastmilk is common. If a mother has a low milk supply it is usually because her baby is not feeding often enough.

Truth: Breast size has nothing to do with milk production

Breast size depends on how much fatty tissue you have. The larger the breast, the more fatty tissue and vice versa. It is the amount of glandular (milk producing) tissue in your breast that matters. If you follow your baby’s lead and breastfeed whenever your baby shows that she needs a feed (by squirming, grunting, mouthing her hands and nuzzling into your breast), you will have plenty of milk.

Truth: Night feeds are important for babies and mothers

Prolactin (the hormone that tells the breast to make milk) is highest at night, so night feeds are important for your milk supply. Babies have small stomachs that need to be re-filled often, including during the night. Night feeds ensure that a mother and her baby have close contact around the clock. This helps a baby’s fast-growing brain. 

Truth: Breastfeeding mothers get more sleep

During the first 3 months, parents of exclusively breastfed babies may actually sleep longer at night (by 40 minutes on average) than parents of babies who are given formula.1 Giving formula at night to try to get more sleep doesn’t work. It may make things worse (eg if your baby doesn’t react well to the formula). Missing night-time breastfeeds can reduce your milk supply. In the time you take to make up a bottle in the middle of the night, your baby may become more distressed. Once they get used to it, most mothers find they can pick up and feed their baby without waking fully. Breastfeeding hormones help both mother and baby relax and get back to sleep quickly.

Truth: You don’t need to wait for your breasts to fill up with milk

You don’t need to wait a certain amount of time before putting your baby back to your breast – there is always milk there. Your breasts are making milk all the time. The rate is related to how much your baby drinks. If she drinks more/less, your breasts will make more/less. So if your baby still seems hungry after a feed, you can put her back to the breast and there will be more milk there for a top up.

Truth: It is easy to tell how much breastmilk your baby is getting

There are ways to tell whether your baby is getting enough (eg plenty of wet and dirty nappies, gaining weight, meeting developmental milestones etc). See our article on baby weight gains for more information.

Truth: Soft breasts do not mean you have ‘lost’ your milk

Many mothers worry that they don’t have enough milk if their breasts feel soft, or if they cannot feel their let-down reflex. After the early weeks, your body adjusts to your baby’s needs. The full feeling that you may have had in your breasts in the early weeks disappears. This simply means that your milk supply is now in sync with your baby’s needs. Some mothers never feel their let-down reflex. Fortunately there are other ways to tell when your let-down reflex occurs. Your baby’s sucking changes from a shallow, quick suck to a deeper, more rhythmic suck and milk may drip from the other breast

Truth: Your breast is more than a dummy

A breast cannot be a dummy, as the dummy (like the bottle teat) was invented to be an artificial breast! Babies don’t breastfeed just for food. This often comes as a surprise to parents, but babies go to the breast for many reasons — they may be hungry, thirsty, tired, hurt, over-stimulated, bored, lonely, in the mood for cuddles, etc. All are equally valid reasons to breastfeed.

Truth: Milk supply cannot be measured by the amount of milk you can express or pump

The amount of milk you can express is a poor measure of how much milk you are making. There are many mothers who breastfeed their babies just fine but who can’t express much. A baby who is feeding well triggers your let-down reflex and gets the milk from your breasts better than a breast pump can.

Truth: There are few medications that preclude breastfeeding.2

If you have questions about medications and breastfeeding, the Medicines Information Centre in your state can give you current and accurate information.

Truth: Breastfeeding a child past babyhood is normal

Anthropological research has shown that the natural age of weaning for humans is between 2.5 and 7 years of age.3 Breastfeeding doesn’t have to stop once your child gets teeth, can talk etc. Breastfeeding can and should continue for as long as both mother and child wish.

Truth: Formula is nothing like human milk

Human breastmilk is the biological norm for humans. It is what nature intended for our young. It is a living substance, so complex that scientists are still trying to find everything that is in it. Formula contains no antibodies, no growth factors, no living cells, no enzymes to help digestion. They contain much more aluminium, manganese, cadmium, lead, protein and iron than babies should have. The proteins and fats in formula are very different from those in breastmilk. Formula does not vary from the beginning of the feed to the end of the feed, or from day 1 to day 7 to day 30. Your breastmilk is made as required to suit your baby and changes to match your baby’s needs as he grows.

"If a multinational company developed a product that was a nutritionally balanced and delicious food, a wonder drug that both prevented and treated disease, cost almost nothing to produce and could be delivered in quantities controlled by the consumers' needs, the very announcement of their find would send their shares rocketing to the top of the stock market. The scientists who developed the product would win prizes and the wealth and influence of everyone involved would increase dramatically. Women have been producing such a miraculous substance, breastmilk, since the beginning of human existence." Gabrielle Palmer

Truth: You don’t need to worry about ‘foremilk’ and ‘hindmilk’ (If you have never heard of these, then don’t bother reading this one!)

True foremilk-hindmilk imbalance usually only occurs when there is too much milk or where feeds are timed. Many parents are told by other people to worry about their baby getting the fatty ‘hindmilk’, but all breastmilk has some fat in it. Fat content of breastmilk naturally varies throughout a feed and throughout a day. Early in a feed, a baby gets breastmilk that is lower in fat. Towards the end of the feed, he receives breastmilk that is higher in fat. Simply put, the emptier your breast is, the higher the fat content and vice versa. In the early part of the day, if you have very full breasts, fat content will be lower. Later in the day, as your breasts soften, the fat content will be higher. If you follow your baby’s lead and breastfeed your baby whenever he is looking for the breast, your baby will get what he needs.

Truth: Breastmilk never loses its nutritional and protective value

Breastmilk changes to meet the needs of a child. It continues to provide excellent nutrition, immune and other health and emotional benefits for as long as a child continues to breastfeed.

Truth: Most mothers want to breastfeed

Most mothers start out breastfeeding, but the number exclusively breastfeeding drops off a lot during the first 6 months. Most mothers who stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to, did so because they ran into problems. They switched to formula due to lack of good information and support at the time they needed it. That is why we are here to help! See our artice on when breastfeeding doesn't work out for more information.

Truth: Many mothers do find breastfeeding hard at first

Breastfeeding is natural, but in today’s world it is often not easy. Mothers don’t fail at breastfeeding, but society often fails mothers. Some of the factors that make breastfeeding harder are birthing practices, poor breastfeeding information, marketing of formula products, lack of support, and concerns about breastfeeding in public. Setting up a support network and getting good information before your baby is born (eg by doing a Breastfeeding Education Class with ABA) can help to put the odds back in your favour. Mothers are not meant to breastfeed or bring up a child all alone, so don’t be afraid to ask to for help!

Truth: Babies sleep through the night when they are developmentally ready

Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone and will occur when your baby is ready (usually somewhere between 6 weeks and 6 years). Most people who say that a baby should be sleeping through the night from a certain age think that they only wake because of hunger. Once she is older and feeding well, they may say that she is waking at night because you don’t have enough milk or because she is developing a bad habit. Feeding at night will help maintain your milk supply. Children wake at night for lots of reasons. Who is to say that each and every one of those reasons is not just as important as hunger? They are all important reasons for the child. Many mothers find that they can take a relaxed approach. They trust that their child will sleep through the night at some point, even if they do nothing about it. This can help them feel better about the whole issue. They have peace of mind knowing that their child reached this milestone in their own time, when they felt secure enough to do so.

Truth: A breastfeeding baby does not need extra water in hot weather

Breastmilk contains all the water a baby needs. In hot weather, just like adults drink more, it is common for a baby to want to breastfeed more often too.

Truth: A mother with an infection or mastitis should keep breastfeeding

With very rare exceptions, a mother will actually protect her baby if she continues to breastfeed when she has an infection. By the time the mother starts to show symptoms of an infection (eg fever, cough, diarrhoea, rash or vomiting etc) her baby has already been exposed to the bug. She will have produced immune promoting factors in her breastmilk, which will help to protect her baby from getting sick. If the baby does get sick, he will be less sick if he keeps breastfeeding. Sometimes it is the baby who has passed the infection on to his mother, even though the baby did not show any signs of illness. A breast infection (eg mastitis) is not a reason to stop breastfeeding. Indeed, mastitis will resolve more quickly if the mother continues to breastfeed from the affected breast. Keeping the milk moving is very important if you have mastitis. The milk is quite safe for the baby to drink.

Truth: You don’t need a perfect diet to breastfeed

In most cases a breastfeeding mother does not have to worry about what she eats. There are only a very few nutrients that affect milk content. Even mothers who have a very limited diet will usually make quality breastmilk for their babies. A mother should eat a wide variety of healthy foods for her own health and wellbeing, but her diet has very little, if any, effect on her milk supply. See our article on breastfeeding and diet for more information. A baby who has allergies or intolerances to certain foods may react through breastmilk to something that his mother consumed. If you are concerned about this, seek advice from a dietitian who has an interest in breastfeeding (lactation) or infant feeding as well as food allergy and sensitivity (see www.daa.asn.au)

Truth: It is better for a mother who smokes to breastfeed than formula feed her baby

In an ideal world, it would be better if the mother did not smoke. But if she cannot stop or cut down, then it is better for her to smoke and breastfeed than smoke and give her baby formula. Breastfeeding has been shown to decrease the harmful effects of cigarette smoke. See our article on breastfeeding and smoking for more information.

Truth: A breastfeeding mother does not have to completely abstain from drinking alcohol

It is safest if a breastfeeding mother does not drink alcohol, in particular when her baby is a newborn. However, with some thought and planning, she can consume some in moderation. See our article on breastfeeding and alcohol for more information.

Truth: Nearly all shapes and sizes of nipples and breasts are fine for breastfeeding

Mothers with various shaped/sized breasts/nipples can breastfeed. Babies breastfeed, they don’t nipple feed. Truly inverted nipples (ie where the nipples are completely stuck inwards) are very rare. Some mothers have nipples that don't stand out or nipples that take more 'coaxing' to come out. With good help and persistence, most mothers find that breastfeeding becomes easier and that their nipples stay out more and more as their baby gets better at breastfeeding. Even if your baby has problems at the start, he will eventually get the hang of it, as long as you maintain a good milk supply. If you are concerned about your nipples, contact one of our breastfeeding counsellors on the Breastfeeding Helpline.

Truth: A pregnant mother can continue to breastfeed her baby

In most cases, if the mother and child desire, breastfeeding can continue throughout pregnancy. However, some mothers find their milk supply decreases due to the hormones of pregnancy and some babies wean themselves at this time. Some mothers continue breastfeeding the older child even after the new baby is born (tandem feeding). See our article on breastfeeding and pregnancy for more information. 

How can we separate fact from fiction?

  •  Speak to an ABA breastfeeding counsellor by calling our Breastfeeding Helpline on 1800 mum 2 mum (1800 686 268)
  • Look at the ABA website at www.breastfeeding.asn.au and other ABA resources (eg from www.mothersdirect.com.au) for current and accurate breastfeeding information.
  • Mix with other breastfeeding women (eg attend ABA group get-togethers).
  • Seek a second (or third etc) opinion.
  • Be confident in your innate ability to breastfeed. Nature has designed mothers and babies to breastfeed.

References

  1. Doan T, Gardiner A, Gay CL, Lee KA 2007, Breast-feeding increases sleep duration of new parents. Journal of Perinatal Neonatal Nursing, 21(3): 200–206.
  2. Amir LH, Pirotta MV, Raval M 2011, Breastfeeding evidence based guidelines for the use of medicine, Australian Family Physician 40(9): 684–690.
  3. Dettwyler K 1999, A Natural Age of Weaning. Dept of Anthropology, Texas A and M University. URL: http://www.kathydettwyler.org/detwean.html Accessed 15/2/12

The information on this website does not replace advice from your health care providers.

© Australian Breastfeeding Association December 2013