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B-N moms share the realities of breastfeeding amid new national guidelines

There's overwhelming consensus that breast-feeding is the optimal way to feed an infant. But the topic of how breast-feeding may influence cognitive ability is controversial.
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The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends breastfeeding children up to age 2.

For the first time since 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics has updated its breastfeeding guidelines.

The recommendations now encourage breastfeeding children until age 2 or beyond. Previous recommendations stopped at age 1. The AAP says it’s bringing its guidelines more in line with those of the World Health Organization. The academy says the changes are, in part, to help normalize breastfeeding for older children.

But the academy is also acknowledging the obstacles that exist to breastfeeding for many mothers. “Breastfeeding can be challenging for new parents, and support from their families, doctors and workplaces is essential,” the AAP said in a statement.

Elizabeth Austin is familiar with the obstacles a mother must contend with during breastfeeding. Austin lives in Normal and has breastfed all three of her children. One of the primary considerations around breastfeeding is time, Austin said.

“Hours, hours, hours, hours,” she said, tallying up the time it takes to produce milk for a child. “There are statistics out there that tell you it’s a part-time job. On top of another fulltime job, and on top of the other fulltime job of raising your kids,” Austin said. “It is exhausting.”

Austin would know. She has a fulltime job and worked through the birth of all three of her children. She's worked for companies that have been very supportive of her needs as a breastfeeding mother, providing up to four months of paid time off and designated rooms to pump milk. But she's also worked for companies that were not so supportive.

“I got told don't talk about breastfeeding. It makes people uncomfortable,” Austin said of one experience.

As a new mother, Austin was frequently sleep deprived after waking multiple times a night to breastfeed. But she was told not to bring her personal problems to work. When she would excuse herself to pump milk – something that breastfeeding mothers must do multiple times per day - she was met with scorn from her co-workers. They would demand to know where she was going and why she was taking so much time.

“And it just made me want to scream,” Austin said.

Caitlin Wilson is a registered nurse and lactation consultant at Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal. She said she hopes conversation around the new breastfeeding guidelines can spur the kind of change that will lead to more support for families that choose breastfeeding.

“I really think it's a call to action for our pediatricians, our obstetricians, and our community as a whole to realize that this is a public health concern,” Wilson said.

Because of the purported health benefits to both mother and baby, there is a heavy emphasis placed on breastfeeding in the United States. The idea that “breast is best” is enforced both culturally and in the doctor’s office. Wilson said breast milk contains important antibodies that can't be found in formula.

Through those antibodies, Wilson said, “we’re protecting (babies) against possibly having more bouts of respiratory tract infections. (Breastfeeding) has been shown to decrease bouts of diarrhea, ear infections, obesity, and the list kind of just goes on,” she said.

Given that list of benefits, some mothers report feeling pressure to breastfeed their babies in order to be good parents. That pressure can lead to a real sense of failure when, for whatever reason, breastfeeding isn't possible. And for moms like Catherine Carroll who have struggled with perinatal mood disorders, breastfeeding can be difficult for a variety of reasons.

“I had seen other people do it, it looked so easy, so natural. Nope. It is hard. It is hard. It is a lot of work. And that was a huge contributing factor for my postpartum depression and anxiety,” Carroll said.

Through her participation with the Bloomington-Normal-based support group Surviving to Thriving that addresses perinatal mood disorders, Carroll was finally able to give herself permission to stop breastfeeding.

“And when I did finally decide to stop, it was a huge weight off of me,” she said.

Wilson said in her work as a lactation consultant, she prioritizes a mother’s mental health. Wilson encourages mothers to take their own wellbeing into consideration when making decisions around feeding their kids.

“My personal stance on providing food for your child is that in any other relationship in your life, if something was causing you mental harm, I would tell you it's okay to part ways of that relationship,” Wilson said.

That's a sentiment echoed by Elizabeth Austin, who said she got lucky in that breastfeeding her three kids came easily to her. But every mother is own her own journey, Austin said, and has to make the decisions that are best for both her and her baby.

"If you want to do it, if it comes naturally to you - great. If not, this is 2022. There's plenty of healthy alternatives as well,” she said.

Austin said no matter the recommendations offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfeeding is an incredibly personal decision that's influenced by many factors. And she believes it’s important to have a realistic understanding of what breastfeeding entails.

“It's exhausting. It goes through ebbs and flows, and phases. And I don't say that to discourage moms at all. I almost say that not to moms, but to the rest of society,” Austin said.

And it's not just breastfeeding. Austin said society has a lot of work to do around parenting in general.

“We as a country, I think, just need to change our mindset of what it takes to raise children,” she said.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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