How Can I Support Young Parents’ Choice to Breastfeed?

Date: August 3rd, 2016

Deborah Chilcoat

What’s not to love about two warm bodies touching, eyes gazing into one another’s, holding hands and playing with each other’s fingers…oh, and having relief from utterly engorged breasts?! (Or savoring a private moment listening to the breast pump hum beside you as it deposits your baby’s future meal into portable storage containers…all while inhaling lunch at your desk.) Breastfeeding is fabulous, but it can be challenging to do, or stick with, if too many obstacles get in the way.

So, with just a few more days to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, it seems appropriate to focus on a few ways you can support breastfeeding among adolescents and young adults who are parenting.

Explore young parents’ feelings about breastfeeding in the early stages of pregnancy to get a sense of what is influencing their decision to breastfeed or not. Sometimes, young people are simply not aware of all the benefits of breastfeeding. Maybe breastfeeding is not a norm in their families or community. They could be worried that breastfeeding will be too tedious and too much of a burden when they go back to school or work. Or, maybe they are conflicted about breasts being sexual AND functional.

There are tons of resources available online about breastfeeding, with many resources specifically focused on supporting young mothers. Use these resources to help guide the conversation and educate them, their partners, and their family about the benefits of breastfeeding. Find (or establish) a safe space for adolescents and young adults and their partners to get support from professionals and peers, such as lactation support groups specifically for their age group, or an online network where they can share their experiences and stories.

And don’t forget to support the families of the young parents, too. Provide them with lots of concrete examples of how they can increase the chances of the young mom breastfeeding and her partner supporting her. They can say, “I’m really proud of you for choosing to breastfeed”; they can help scope out comfortable spaces for her to breastfeed; and, they can chip in when all the tiny breast pump accessories need to be sanitized. Families can also share their stories or why they did or did not opt to breastfeed. Keep in mind that attitudes about breastfeeding have shifted over time, and that what may have been a reason not to breastfeed years ago be perceived in the same way now. Reflecting on the context of their own relationship with breastfeeding may turn families into ardent supporters.

If the school the new parents attend does not have sounds policies that specifically support breastfeeding students, start the conversation about lactation accommodations with the school administration and with key leaders in the state. Show them the California law that took effect January 1, 2016 that requires “schools operated by a school district or a county office of education, the California School for the Deaf, the California School for the Blind, and charter schools to provide reasonable accommodations to a lactating pupil on a high school campus to express breast milk, breastfeed an infant child, or address other needs related to breastfeeding” (State of California, California Department of Public Health, Employer Lactation Accommodation section, 2016).  Be sure to check out the Affordable Care Act, too. It expanded protections for nursing mothers in the work place, and can be used to make the argument that the same protections afforded to the employees of the school should also be extended to the students. And be sure all school staff know about breastfeeding policies so that the student is not shamed, embarrassed, or, worse, disciplined for simply wanted to feed her child.

Lest I forget to address the unease about breasts being sexual and functional. When exploring the dual functionality of breasts with young parents and their families, don’t dismiss their feelings or beliefs about this important and often overlooked issue. Talk about what shaped their beliefs and explain that it can be hard for some people, young and old alike, to make peace with the fact that breasts ARE sexual and functional—they are part of pleasure and can nourish life. It may help to explain what breastfeeding feels like and the sensations that may arouse sexual feelings in their body. And don’t forget to remind them of the famous phrase they were told when they experienced new sensations and sexual feelings throughout their lifetime, “It’s Perfectly Normal” (Robie H. Harris).

What if you do all of the above and the young parents still choose not to breastfeed? Simple, support them and their decision. While breastfeeding is amazing, it is not something that every mother and family can do or wants to do. If they are given all the information to make a well-informed decision and all the barriers have fallen away, it is still the mother’s choice to breastfeed or not. And, if she still wants her baby to have breast milk, she can opt to obtain it from a reputable milk bank.

Whether it is because of their beliefs or lack of knowledge about breastfeeding; policies that don’t make breastfeeding easy; or because they need to reconcile that breasts are part of pleasure and nourishment, young parents and their families need our support. Let’s do our part to make breastfeeding easier for young people and their families.

Tell us, how are you supporting breastfeeding among young parents?

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About the Author

Deborah Chilcoat, M.Ed., brings over 16 years of experience in adolescent sexual and reproductive health and an unyielding commitment to improving the health and well-being of young people to her current position as Senior Training and Technical Assistance Manager at Healthy Teen Network. Deb’s extensive experience in project management, capacity-building assistance, collaborative partnerships, as well as evidence-based and innovative approaches has served to meet the needs of diverse youth and communities across the United States.

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