Supporting parents and babies during the World’s Breastfeeding Week

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated January 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The decision to breastfeed is a personal choice and may require a significant commitment from a parent. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for the first two years of life due to the parental and infant health benefits. However, this un-paid commitment is not feasible or possible for many parents even if they support breastfeeding. Regardless of whether a parent decides to breastfeed, try to offer encouragement and accept their choice.

World Breastfeeding Week is a global alliance highlighting the complexities surrounding breastfeeding and raising awareness of the benefits of supporting and normalizing breastfeeding. It is supported by the World Health Assembly and takes place in the first week of August every year. By gaining more knowledge in this area during World Breastfeeding Week, you may make a more informed decision for yourself or help a friend choose the option that's best for them.
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Frustrated by the demands of breastfeeding?

What can make breastfeeding challenging?

Anyone with breast tissue can breastfeed or chestfeed, regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Non-gestational parents may breastfeed by including lactation with a lactation expert, and many gestational parents develop milk after pregnancy. However, some circumstances may make breastfeeding unhealthy or challenging, including the following. 

Certain illnesses

Some conditions won't impact breastmilk, but others, like HIV or T-cell lymphotropic virus, can. Acute illnesses, like active herpes simplex virus, may warrant a temporary halt to breastfeeding. Consult your doctor to find out which choice is safest for your baby.

Surgery 

Many parents who have had a lumpectomy can still breastfeed. However, radiation treatment may limit the amount of milk flow. Many individuals with breast or nipple surgery can breastfeed, but the situation may depend on the complexities of the surgery and how much tissue was removed.

Mental illness 

For some, the stress of breastfeeding may exacerbate certain psychiatric disorders. The decision to breastfeed is personal, and if it harms the parent's mental health, it may be worth considering formula. 

Certain medications 

Your doctor may be able to advise you on whether your medications are safe for use while breastfeeding. 

Substance use 

Having a substance use disorder can make your milk unsafe for your infant. Those who are narcotic-dependent and in a supervised methadone program, and are not using other drugs may be able to breastfeed. 

“Breast is best” controversy

The slogan, "breast is best," can be a harmful proverb that may lead parents to low self-esteem if breastfeeding is not desired, possible, or feasible. A 2021 study found that mothers who feed their infants formula may experience guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression about the choice. 

However, infant formula is shown to be a positive alternative to breastmilk, and building a close connection with your child is about more than breastfeeding. Both types of feeding offer an opportunity for bonding and attachment. 

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Advantages of breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is often recommended as the best defense against infections and certain diseases. If you can breastfeed and have chosen to do so, below are some advantages you might encounter. 

Bonding and connection 

Research shows that babies benefit from skin-to-skin contact with their parents after birth. Nursing can help parents and babies feel more connected, and suckling releases oxytocin, which helps the baby feel safe and calm.

Better immune function 

Babies who nurse receive their mother's antibodies through the milk, and they are better equipped to fight off infections and illnesses, including ear infections, respiratory infections, and diarrhea. Breastfeeding may also reduce the risk of developing asthma, allergies, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). 

Weight management 

Breastfeeding burns around 500 calories daily and may result in greater pregnancy-related postpartum weight loss. It also helps infants gain weight at a healthy pace. 

Mental wellness 

While breastfeeding can cause distress for some parents, others may find that it helps their mental health. It can reduce the risk of developing postpartum depression in some cases.

Sleep improvements 

The nutritional content of breastmilk can vary based on the time of day, with milk fed at night containing higher amounts of tryptophan that incite the production of melatonin. This process may aid both the parent and baby in getting more rest. 

Financial benefits 

Baby formula can be expensive and difficult to find during shortages and recalls. Some estimate that mothers may pay as much as $10,000 annually for high-end formula, compared with $847 annually on breastfeeding equipment and lactation consultations. 

Fewer digestive challenges 

Babies may have an easier time digesting breast milk than formula. Breastmilk is available to their digestive system and causes less stomach upset and gastrointestinal problems.

Disadvantages of breastfeeding

While breastfeeding can have advantages for a parent and child, it can also have disadvantages. It may be beneficial to be aware of the pros and cons to decide whether nursing is right for you. Below are a few points to keep in mind. 

Public stigma 

If you're out in public and need to feed your baby, you may be subject to stares, rude comments, or other uncomfortable situations. Pumping breastmilk when you are not with your baby can also be challenging, with some women describing difficulty finding spaces to pump at work. 

Potential discomfort 

Breastfeeding may be uncomfortable or painful, especially if you experience nipple cracking or develop a condition like mastitis or thrush. As your baby grows and develops teeth, breastfeeding may become more uncomfortable.

Frequent feedings 

Breastmilk is easy for babies to digest, so they need to eat it more often. Baby formula may take longer to digest, so babies might not feel hungry as often. 

One parent for feeding 

If you're in a relationship with someone who cannot produce breastmilk, you may be the only parent available for feeding. However, if you're in a relationship with another person with breast tissue, they may be able to induce lactation with a lactation consultant, even if they did not give birth, are not currently breastfeeding, and are not pregnant. 

More time 

If breastfeeding, you may have to set aside more time throughout the day for extra feedings or to pump, which could interfere with your work schedule or responsibilities. 

Breastfeeding disparities

Although breastfeeding is recommended for most newborns, not everyone chooses or can nurse their baby. Additionally, parents may face barriers that keep them from breastfeeding, including the following. 

Racial disparities 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85.3% of non-Hispanic White infants are breastfed at some point, while only 74.1% of non-Hispanic Black infants are ever breastfed. As highlighted by the ACLU, breastfeeding is often more challenging for a Black person due to work schedules, disparities in healthcare, and stigma. 

Income disparities 

If you have a job that isn't flexible and doesn't allow you to breastfeed, using baby formula may be the best option, even though it is more expensive than breastfeeding. Racial minorities are more likely to need to return to work sooner after giving birth, making formula a more feasible choice. In addition, there may be a socioeconomic gradient for parents who breastfeed. Parents with high educational attainment and high-paying professional careers are more likely to breastfeed. 

Information drive

Those belonging to minority groups may be less likely to receive adequate advice and assistance after giving birth. For example, doctors may emphasize the benefits of formula but fail to discuss the potential benefits of breastfeeding or how to get babies to latch. In contrast, white mothers often have more information about breastfeeding given to them by healthcare professionals. 

Cultural norms or stigmas 

Having poor familial and social support can be a barrier to breastfeeding, as can public stigma. In the United States, bottle feeding is viewed as the cultural norm. Those who breastfeed in public may experience fear, guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Since breastfeeding babies must be fed often, avoiding feeding them in public can be challenging. 

How to make breastfeeding easier

Breastfeeding can be challenging, as it demands time and effort from parents. Since breastfeeding is recommended for the first two or more years of life, it can be valuable for society to make nursing more convenient and acceptable for parents. Below are a few ways that breastfeeding might become more manageable. 

More public locations for breastfeeding and pumping

Breastfeeding stations can be challenging to find, where parents can nurse their babies or pump. Parents may end up pumping in the bathroom, which can be uncomfortable and unsanitary. Workplaces may give new parents a dedicated space to pump while at work, and public areas can incorporate lactation rooms. Employers can also offer work-from-home opportunities for new mothers so they can spend time with their children and breastfeed or pump from home. 

Paid parental leave

Advocating for paid parental leave is a key step in making breastfeeding easier. Giving new parents 12+ weeks of paid time off from work to focus on parenthood can reduce the risk of postpartum depression and increase the likelihood that they choose to breastfeed. Parental leave allows paid time off for both parents instead of maternity leave, which is often limited to birth and adoptive mothers.

Spreading awareness 

Social media marketing can influence positive behavioral changes, potentially helping families understand the benefits of breastfeeding and improving social support for loved ones. By reducing the stigma around breastfeeding and giving parents more resources, breastfeeding may feel more available. 

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Frustrated by the demands of breastfeeding?

World Breastfeeding Week

World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) is a WABA-sponsored annual world campaign that began in 1992. The WBW campaign is now recognized by over 100 countries worldwide and is celebrated annually from August 1st to August 7th. The global campaign aims to raise awareness of breastfeeding, promote the practice, and help parents and babies get the resources they need with the help of organizations dedicated to the purpose. 

Since 2016, the WBW campaign has aligned itself to the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, determined by the General Assembly and Economic and Social Council. World Breastfeeding Week has an annual theme to highlight certain issues. The specific goals of World Breastfeeding Week are to:

  • Inform the public of the benefits of breastfeeding for both the parent and child

  • Encourage community involvement in breastfeeding-related issues

  • Partner with organizations around the world

  • Help parents gain the resources they need to breastfeed

  • Enable parents to be able to work and breastfeed successfully

  • Defend family rights through maternity and paternity assurance laws

  • Spread awareness about breastfeeding and eliminate misinformation

  • Encourage workplaces to be parent-friendly 

  • Spur society to action to make breastfeeding more reachable and acceptable

Many people do not have breastfeeding education and resources. World Breastfeeding Week is an opportunity to reach communities around the world. 

Breastfeeding, parenthood, and mental health

Parenthood and breastfeeding can be challenging. While it is believed that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of postpartum depression, many parents find breastfeeding causes stress and anxiety. 

The perinatal period, which begins in pregnancy and ends one year following birth, is a standard time for gestational parents to experience symptoms of psychiatric disorders. One study found that more than 20% of women may experience major depressive disorder at some point during this period, and 10% experience an anxiety disorder. 

Some practices, like getting enough sleep, taking time for yourself, getting routine exercise, socializing, eating well, meditating, and practicing deep breathing exercises, can reduce stress and symptoms of mental illness. However, if lifestyle changes haven't helped you feel better, or if you're having difficulty implementing lifestyle changes on your own, you might consider contacting a licensed therapist. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy frequently used to address mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety disorders. During CBT sessions, therapists can guide clients to identify and reframe maladaptive thought patterns and behaviors to help themselves respond to the stressors of parenthood more healthily. A study of 3,623 participants with postnatal depression found that CBT was effective at reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Counseling options 

New parents who spend time at home with their baby may not feel ready to make an appointment with an in-person therapist, as it can mean preparing the baby to leave the house and worrying about where to breastfeed. In these scenarios, it may be beneficial to try online counseling, which can be done through platforms like BetterHelp for individuals and Regain for couples. 

Additionally, online therapy has been proven effective. A study from 2020 found that online CBT was as effective as in-person CBT at addressing most cases of depression and anxiety. Another study found that online therapy successfully decreased anxiety and postpartum depression symptoms in new parents. 

When you sign up for an online platform, you can contact a therapist on your own time. Many platforms offer 24/7 messaging capabilities for those who have a question throughout the day or night that their therapist may be able to help with. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions depending on your preferences.  

Takeaway

The choice to breastfeed is personal, and each new parent can benefit from being provided with the necessary information to make the best decision for themselves and their child, regardless of socioeconomic status or race. While breastfeeding has many benefits, not all women can breastfeed, and disadvantages can make it unfeasible.

Many mothers experience stress and anxiety about choosing to breastfeed or feed formula, and any parent can experience postpartum depression. If you are concerned about your mental health, consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and support.

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