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Kelly Mahoney, Medill News Service

Chicagoland lactation experts answer breastfeeding questions and quash the common myths.

New moms embrace breastfeeding

by Kelly Mahoney
March 07, 2007


Kelly Mahoney, Medill News Service

Nine-month-old Will Grant plays near his mother Amy after a feeding.  The Round Lake Beach mom has breastfed exclusively and Will’s weight is on target for his age.

Breastfeeding isn’t what it used to be.

Fifty years ago, less than 20 percent of women breastfed their babies compared to 74 percent today. Evanston resident and La Leche League founding member Marian Tompson said baby books of the 1950s told her that formula was the same as breast milk.

“I had wanted to breastfeed my babies. Yet with my first three babies, and I had three different doctors, I was never able to breastfeed past six months,” Tompson said.

Tompson started a group with her friends so women in North Shore communities could swap stories and tips about breastfeeding. A half-century later, La Leche League International has offices in 67 countries and reaches out to millions of women worldwide.

Now, 74 percent of women breastfeed babies during the first six months of life, according to the National Immunization Survey. Changing attitudes and laws protecting mothers who breastfeed in public or on the job have helped this societal shift. Yet with all the new knowledge available to moms, generations-old myths are still perpetuated.

Jeanne Cygnus, a lactation consultant who started Cygnus Lactation Services in Mundelein, said more women are nursing today just because they realize it’s natural.

In promoting their products, formula companies coined phrases such as the "breast is best" and "benefits of breast feeding" to change women's perception of formula feeding.

“What they’ve done over the years with this ‘breast is best’ is said that formula is normal and breast feeding is sort of the extra credit,” Cygnus said. “We are mammals and our babies come out expecting breast milk.”

Wilmette-based lactation consultant Patricia Berg-Drazin said women are becoming more knowledgeable.

“There’s a lot more awareness of the marketing techniques of the formula companies and pharmaceuticals,” Berg-Drazin said.

Even though breastfeeding is natural, it’s not easy, Berg-Drazin said.

“It’s like anything else, you need to work at it -- it’s a learning experience. Breastfeeding is a learned art so it takes time, it takes practice,” Berg-Drazin said. “It’s not instinctual at all.”

Cygnus said women often have problems breastfeeding because they rarely see other women doing so.

Felice Davis, a Chicago mother of three, said she had the luxury of watching her mom breastfeed.

“My mother was a hippie and just breastfed all of us and there were six of us,” Davis said. “It didn’t even occur to me not to breastfeed.”

Amy Grant of Round Lake Beach has two children and did it both ways. With her older child, she was unable to breastfeed and, instead, pumped breast milk to give to her daughter for six months.

“The big thing was before I had [my second child], I started going to La Leche League,” Grant said. “Being around other moms who were breastfeeding just made it more comfortable. Knowing what I know now, I think the problems we were having were correctible.”

Myths are still pervasive in breastfeeding literature and in the medical community. Berg-Drazin said a common myth is that women should adhere to a strict diet without spicy foods, sushi or alcohol.

“Think about it on a global level," she said. "Women from Indian don’t stop cooking with curry. Women in Mexico don’t stop eating spicy foods.”

Cygnus said she often fields questions from the parents of teenage mothers who think that their daughters should not breastfeed because of all the fast food they consume.

“Our bodies take what the baby needs first and puts it into breast milk,” Cygnus said “Even poor breast milk is better than the best formula that’s out there.”

Berg-Drazin said it’s also a myth that women on medication cannot breastfeed. Almost all medications are fine except for heavy-duty prescriptions.

Cygnus said even most anti-depressant are fine for breastfeeding mothers but she advised checking about specific medications.

Another common misconception is that pain during breastfeeding is to be expected.

“If Mom is in pain through a feeding, something is wrong” Cygnus said. “It’s a myth that breastfeeding hurts until you toughen up.”

While myths remain, Tompson said attitudes are changing.  In Illinois, for example, mothers can breastfeed wherever they are legally allowed to be. The pendulum has shifted from formula being the norm to breastfeeding being the norm.

“Now women who don’t want to breastfeed are very intimidated,” Tompson said. “Women who are bottle feeding are now feeling what breastfeeding women used to.”

Actually, both are accepted. Davis said she understands why some women choose to bottle feed their baby.

“It may be a stress factor or you don’t feel very pretty or sexy when there’s a baby tugging at one boob and there’s throw up on your shoulder and your husband can’t help you,” Davis said.

Nancy Mohrbacher, the co-author of  the book Breastfeeding Made Simple, holds monthly Baby and Me meetings at the Cygnus Lactation Services in Mundelein. She tells mothers and mothers-to-be and that any period of time a woman breastfeeds is better than no time at all. There are plenty of resources for women who want to try breastfeeding, she emphasizes.

“A mother should know that there’s someone out there who can help them,” Mohrbacher said.

Davis said she would tell any new mom to give it a try.

“It’s a really wonderful, special thing to do for yourself and your child,” Davis said. “I think you’ll be a lot happier in the end. Once you get past that first week, it’s so much easier.”