“Breastfeeding Failure” is an Oxymoron

Lately I’ve been wondering if “breastfeeding failure” is an oxymoron. I mean, to fail at something don’t you need to have a predetermined understanding of what failure is and what success is? Must you not be able to assess and quantify? But breastfeeding is a relationship—not a test—and success looks different for everyone. A teen mom, the mother of a preemie, a woman working outside of the home, a stay at home mom: might breastfeeding not look different for a woman in each of these situations?

So why is it that so many women in our society today feel as though they failed at breastfeeding? Is it possible to even fail? If you breastfed, even for a short time, were you not a breastfeeding mom? How is it then that you can do something, but yet fail at it?

In almost every other human endeavour, we give credit for the attempt; we give credit for the effort; we give credit for the action. I am unsure of exactly what determines “breastfeeding success”—is it the WHO guidelines, the AAP, my mother’s experience, the local La Leche League members? It seems that are there many criteria that we hold ourselves and other women up against when it comes to breastfeeding failure. If you are one of the many women who believes she failed at breastfeeding, my question for you is “Who told you you failed?”

It was only when the breastfeeding relationship with second child was coming to an end—a  relationship that had been a three year odyssey in healing—that I began to think about my first breastfeeding experience and how the emotions surrounding that first breastfeeding effort affected my nursing relationship with my second child. It was at that point that I realized “breastfeeding failure” might very well be an oxymoron.

With my first child, my son, I had every intention of breastfeeding. I floated through my pregnancy thinking everything was going to be rainbows and sunshine! And then at 30 weeks, I got hit hard with pre-eclampsia and my plans began to dissolve.

From the start I pumped, expressing milk every two hours around the clock. My breast pump soon became a permanent fixture in my living room and remained so for the first year of my son’s life. Breastfeeding was more challenging than I could have ever imagined, and even though my son received far more breast milk (albeit by bottle) than most babies in our modern world, I still felt like a failure.

And I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard from many, many women over the past several years who feel that they failed at breastfeeding, and even more heart wrenching, feel they failed their children. Women who have struggled to breastfeed, who have believed the motto of “breast is best”, and who have in many cases gone to extraordinary lengths to try to provide their babies breast milk, are feeling enormous guilt and a burdensome sense of failure.

Breastfeeding is a biologically expected activity, but it must also be socially supported. If we were to follow our biology we would breastfeed our infants until they naturally wean, which Katherine Dettwyler’s research suggests is somewhere between 2.5 and 7 years of age. If this is the criteria we’re to use for “breastfeeding success” then almost every breastfeeding mom and baby are failures!

But in our human experience, breastfeeding is not only biologically led, it is also largely influenced and supported (or not supported) by our society. The division between what is biologically expected and what is socially supported can create a tremendous amount of difficulty for moms. When it comes to breastfeeding—and many other activities in life—moms will look around them to determine what success mean,  and our society presents some questionable determinates of breastfeeding success.

So I’ve come to this conclusion: “breastfeeding failure” is an oxymoron. You either breastfeed or you don’t. You can’t breastfeed—regardless of how long it lasts—and be a breastfeeding failure. How can we fail at something that has no predetermined finish line? You may not be satisfied with your experience; you may not reach your intended goal; but you do not fail when it comes to breastfeeding.  You do not fail your child when you have given everything you could and done everything you could do to breastfeed.

The reality of the situation is that due to the biological nature of breastfeeding and the expected relationship between a mother and her child, when breastfeeding doesn’t work out, there is a loss felt. This loss is sometimes not recognized as a loss and as a result many women carry with them feelings that they identify as guilt and a sense of failure. Just like any other loss we experience in life, it is important to recognize it and grieve it. There are things you can do to work through the loss of a breastfeeding relationship and to refuse the label of “breastfeeding failure”:

  • The first step to overcoming the lingering pain of a breastfeeding relationship that was not what you expected, not what you hoped for, is to reframe your understanding of what success and failure looks like. Who or what made the determination that you were a breastfeeding failure? Don’t give your power over to people, companies, media, or other groups that are not willing to recognize the success of your efforts.
  • Take back control of your experience. So you didn’t breastfeed as long as you may have planned; plans change. Things don’t always go as expected. Recognize all that you did do to make it work. Give yourself credit for your effort.
  • Consider your experience at the time. We have the luxury of looking back on our breastfeeding experience from a position of relative calm, hormonal stability, and rest. My guess though is that after your baby was born and you were struggling with breastfeeding, you were not feeling calm, hormonally stable, or particularly well-rested. It’s important to acknowledge the circumstances at the time and what you accomplished given the challenges. Then figure out how you will overcome those the next time around.
  • Grieve your loss. Breastfeeding is a relationship that is biologically expected. So when we don’t get that relationship, we experience a loss. As with any other relationship that ends, you need to grieve it. Just recognizing it as a loss can go a long way in helping you to come to terms with your experience. Talking about it will also assist you to process the emotions you are feeling. If you don’t work through the loss of your first breastfeeding experience, those emotions are likely to surface again with your next baby.
  • Learn from the experience and make it something positive. We can either choose to define our “failures” or be defined by them. Choose to define your experience as a learning opportunity and as a period of growth. You might use the experience to help support other women, take it as a lesson of persistence or humility, or use it as a vehicle to rail against the dangers of formula advertising. Whatever you take from the experience, let it be positive, for even in seemingly painful experiences there are opportunities for positive outcomes.

My final plea would be for all women to be kind and fair to each other—and to themselves. Question what success means and who it is that determines the criteria for success. And most importantly, avoid using “breastfeeding” and “failure” in the same sentence; I’m convinced it is an oxymoron.

Stephanie Casemore has experienced breastfeeding as a challenge, a gift, and a healing experience. She exclusively pumped for a year for her first child and nursed her second child for three years. Turning the challenges into a positive as an opportunity to support other mothers, Stephanie shares her experience through her books:  Breastfeeding, Take Two: Successful Breastfeeding the Second Time Around and Exclusively Pumping Breast Milk: A Guide to Providing Expressed Breast Milk for Your Baby.



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39 Comments | Last revised on 11/03/2011


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