How to Support an Exclusively Pumping Mother
Since few people have experience with exclusively pumping breast milk, it is often difficult for a woman who is exclusively pumping to find understanding and sometimes even acceptance. Women who breastfed without difficulty often do not understand how difficult and emotionally trying it can be when breastfeeding problems are encountered and some may believe a woman who is exclusively pumping did not try hard enough or gave up too early. Women who chose to formula feed often do not understand why a woman who exclusively pumps would not choose to feed formula if breastfeeding is difficult or not possible.
The reality for most women who end up exclusively pumping in order to provide their babies with breast milk is that they experienced difficulty attempting to breastfeed and reached a point where they needed to make a change in the way they fed their babies. Yet, given their strong belief that breast milk is the best food for infants, they dedicated themselves to providing expressed breast milk. Sometimes, there has been a lack of support or access to qualified lactation consultants and this has made a difficult situation even more challenging. But often, women who end up exclusively pumping have consulted and worked with lactation consultants. However, the stress and challenge of a situation often compounds until a change must be made in order to remove the pressure from an increasingly stressful experience. The breaking point for every woman is different, and the challenges are different for every woman.
The option of exclusively pumping as an alternative to formula feeding is one that is usually not discussed in prenatal classes or pregnancy magazines; indeed it is an option that is largely unknown and greatly misunderstood. Yet even though many women make the choice to exclusively pump when breastfeeding has not worked out, women who are exclusively pumping often feel alone and isolated. Feeding expressed breast milk by bottle falls between the two most commonly known methods of feeding an infant -breastfeeding and bottle feeding formula- and therefore leaves mothers who are exclusively pumping between the two groups without a clear source of support or information.
Ways to Support Exclusively Pumping Mothers
Educate, educate, educate! Women need to be educated about breastfeeding. Breastfeeding needs to become common place, expected, and supported. New mothers need to know others who are breastfeeding or who have breastfed and have the opportunity to watch babies breastfeeding. The best support is to provide the assistance and education necessary to remove the need to exclusively pump for as many women as possible. The vast majority of women who exclusively pump would breastfeed in a heartbeat if it were possible for them.
It is important to let women know that breastfeeding can require work and dedication. While it is normal and natural, it is a learned skill for both mother and baby. All too often, breastfeeding is given cursory attention or the difficulties that can occur are never mentioned to new or expectant mothers. As a result, if a new mother, already tired and likely overwhelmed from having a newborn to care for, faces difficulties trying to establish breastfeeding, she may simply give up under the mistaken belief that breastfeeding is normal and natural and should therefore also be easy, and that somehow, she has failed or isn’t capable of breastfeeding. This education and support needs to be given in both the prenatal and postpartum periods.
Of course there are situations where breastfeeding is just not possible or complications arise which make breastfeeding difficult. In these situations, it is vital that women who must exclusively pump be given accurate information and unwavering support.
Give credibility to exclusively pumping as an alternative to formula. Share the option of exclusively pumping breast milk with women as an alternative to formula prior to the birth of their baby. Some may be concerned that talking about exclusively pumping as an alternative method to provide breast milk may cause some women to choose it as an alternative to breastfeeding or quickly give up trying to establish breastfeeding if they are having difficulties. This concern is understandable, but with proper education and an honest discussion of the requirements to initiate and maintain lactation with a breast pump very few women will choose to express breast milk instead of breastfeed when breastfeeding is possible. And indeed, without the option presented to women before they experience difficulties, there is the very real risk that new mothers will turn to formula when they experience troubles, diminishing their milk supply, and making it all that more difficult to breastfeed. When presenting the idea of exclusively pumping, it is important that it be discussed as an alternative to formula feeding and not an alternative to breastfeeding. There is absolutely no equal to breastfeeding, but there are far better alternatives to feeding formula.
Acknowledge the tremendous emotional impact breastfeeding can have on a woman, and even more so, the emotional impact of not breastfeeding. It is often difficult to come to terms with the reality of your experience compared to the expectations you had for it. Many new mothers expect to breastfeed, yet we know that breastfeeding is not always easy and does not always work out as planned. It is important to recognize the emotional toll this lost expectation can have. Comments such as “You just need to keep trying a little longer”, while sometimes true, do not take into account the tremendous emotional load a new mother may be straining under. Simply acknowledging the loss, grief, and disappointment a woman feels can be important. A simple question such as, “How can I help you?” can mean a lot. Validating her feelings and encouraging her abilities are also extremely important. Comments such as “I understand why this is so upsetting for you” and “You are a good mother” can provide the boost that is needed to continue persevering.
Often prior to making the decision to exclusively pump, women are in an unending cycle of breastfeeding, bottle feeding to supplement their baby’s needs, and then expressing their milk with a breast pump. This cycle is exhausting and almost impossible to continue for an indefinite period of time- especially without support. Add onto this cycle the stress of having a premature baby or ill infant, or other complicating factors, and a new mother can easily and quickly become overwhelmed. Be prepared to offer not only a listening ear but to also offer concrete support to assist in all other aspects of her life. Many women who end up exclusively pumping turn to it as a means of self-preservation after becoming overwhelmed with the cycle of breastfeeding, bottle feeding, and pumping. Sometimes the emotional price of continually trying to breastfeed and not having the situation improve is enormous and overwhelming; sometimes a woman needs to move on. Support her decision. Recognize it as her decision. Acknowledge the fact that her baby is still receiving breast milk. Provide information and support if breastfeeding is still desired. Again, acknowledgement and support can go a long way.
Help exclusively pumping women connect with others for support and information. There are numerous internet discussion boards and mailing lists dedicated to exclusively pumping moms and many others available for women who are generally expressing breast milk whether it be exclusively or while they are at work. The benefits of sharing with others who are going through the same experience as you, and feeling the same emotions as you, are enormous. Women who are exclusively pumping often think that they have invented the idea and feel as though they are the only woman in the world doing it, but this is far from the truth.
Family and friends must provide support and encouragement. The importance of breastfeeding and breast milk must be understood by everyone supporting a new mother. The time requirements and schedule of a woman who is exclusively pumping is extremely challenging and will not only affect the mother, but will affect everyone in the family. Help with the new baby, older children, and household work is often necessary in order for the mother to be able to dedicate the necessary time to milk expression. In addition to practical support, it is also very important that family and friends support the efforts of the woman to provide breast milk for her baby. Questioning the importance of breast milk, suggesting the baby be fed formula or asking why she doesn’t “just breastfeed” undermines a mother’s efforts, does not acknowledge her struggles, and gives her yet another obstacle to overcome.
There is no doubt that the option of exclusively pumping can be a difficult path to choose, but the value and benefits of breast milk are undeniable, and, when breastfeeding is not possible, exclusively pumping breast milk, as the World Health Organization recommends, should be seen as the next viable option for feeding a baby. This alternative can be made much more viable for a new mother with support, understanding, knowledge, and acknowledgement from those who surround her.