Mommy Myth: Only 1-5% of women are unable to breastfeed
I was a mom who was desperate to breastfeed. I worked with lactation consultants, took supplements and prescriptions, pumped endlessly, and still my daughter was crying in hunger. And she wasn’t the only one sobbing.
When I went to the web for support, the first thing I saw was “only 1-5% of women are unable to breastfeed.” I was shocked. If nearly everyone else could do it, maybe I just wasn’t trying hard enough. My mommy guilt skyrocketed.
But, being the thorough mom that I am, I had to see from where that statistic came.
This often quoted “fact” comes from a study done in the late 1980’s in Colorado. It followed 319 first-time mothers who were highly motivated to breastfeed. Nearly all were white, married college-graduates who made more than $35,000 per year. Each of the babies (all singletons) was full-term and healthy. In the study, 10% needed help to increase their milk supply and 5% were never able to produce enough.
There are some definite problems with this study if it is to be used as proof that very few women are physically unable to breastfeed. First of all, 319 mothers is not a very big sample. Secondly, these are pretty narrow demographics to represent the entire population of women giving birth. As a first-time married mothers who are making a good living, we can assume that all were able to eat well. Lack of nutritious food can lead to inability to produce abundant milk. Also having a full-term and healthy baby greatly increases the chances of being able to breast feed. Many infant conditions such as prematurity, GERD, allergies, cleft palate, and Down syndrome can cause feeding problems that may result in a lack of milk production for the mother.
But despite the predisposition to being able to produce enough milk, still 10% of women needed help and 5% of women were not able to at all. To me, it indicates that there may be a higher percentage of women throughout the U.S. who cannot produce enough milk to sustain their child.
But the truth is, we don’t know. No studies have been done to specifically answer this question. The study in Colorado was to see if women’s breast size, shape, and augmentation had effect on supply. It wasn’t meant to speak as the definitive percentage of women who cannot breastfeed for the entire country. More research is needed to give us that type of insight.
Although the common knowledge is “Breast is Best”, the truth is that some women are simply unable to produce an amount of breast milk that will sustain their child. And feeling guilty doesn’t improve the situation one bit. So, I reluctantly let go of my dream to breastfeed, bought some formula, and fed my hungry daughter. And we were all much happier for it.Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
However you choose to or are able to feed your child, I support you!
Neifert et al. 1990. The influence of breast surgery, breast appearance, and pregnancy-induced breast changes on lactation sufficiency as measured by infant weight gain. Birth 17(1): 31-38)