Handling Breastfeeding Criticism

With the holidays coming up, many of us are on our way to visit friends and family.  Those visits can be full of joy, but they can also be stressful. I am so fortunate to have supportive friends and family, but not everyone is so lucky in that regard. So many times, moms and dads find themselves receiving criticism for the parenting choices they made, particularly if those parenting choices don’t exactly line up with the way grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends view child-rearing.

I believe that criticism, particularly breastfeeding criticism comes from two major places, ignorance and pain, and if you can identify the root of your critic’s feelings, it can make it easier to move past their hurtful words.  To be clear, when I say “ignorance,” I don’t mean stupidity.  Ignorance is simply a lack on knowledge on a subject.  Because breastfeeding wasn’t the norm in the US for an entire generation, much of the tribal knowledge surrounding it has been lost.

Is it any wonder Aunt Edith worries your baby might need to switch to formula if her doctor told her that milk turns to water at six months?  Is it any wonder that Great-Grandma Cathy worries you are overfeeding your baby if her doctor instructed her to space out feedings to every four hours?  Is it any wonder your young, childless friends think you might be spoiling your child by nursing her down for naps if all they see on TV and in movies are peacefully sleeping babies that never, ever seem to need to eat (or poop for that matter)?

I’d like to go through a few scenarios, and by the end of this article, I hope you will have some tools added to your belt to help you through these situations.

Scenario 1: The Opportunity to Educate

Your Aunt Edith approaches you while you are breastfeeding your 8 month old and says something along the lines of, “When are you going to get that baby off the boob? Your milk isn’t enough for her anymore.  She is starving!”

This is a great opportunity to help educate Aunt Edith (and other family members who may be listening in).  Tiny ripples can cause big changes, but it’s important to educate in a way that is sensitive and loving.  Getting angry at your Aunt and giving her a piece of your mind will only leave her feeling hurt and defensive, and while it may get her off your back, it won’t help other family members who may be in a similar situation.

Here’s how I have gently educated my friends and family members when in a similar situation (I’ll highlight the key “gentling” phrases):

“You know, that is a really interesting point that you make.  Did you know that new research shows us that breastmilk grows and changes as the baby grows?  Nowadays, doctors tell us that breastmilk should be a baby’s main source of nutrition until they are a year old and that we should continue nursing until the baby is two!  It’s really amazing how recommendations change over time, isn’t it?

Sure, it’s not brand new research, but it’s new research to her.  And framing it that way can sometimes feel less aggressive and patronizing than saying, “Actually, that’s wrong.  Here is the right information.”

I would encourage you to take every chance you can to educate your friends.  Taking the time to educate Aunt Edith, even though she isn’t nursing anymore, may mean that in the future, when Aunt Edith’s daughter-in-law has a baby, Aunt Edith will be better able to support her.

Scenario 2: The Opportunity to Connect

Sometimes, people’s own breastfeeding-related experiences may have been emotionally painful.  They may feel guilty for not breastfeeding and the fact that you do breastfeed may make them feel defensive.  That defensiveness can manifest in that person being hypercritical of you.  It seems counter-intuitive that a person would want to bring another person down like that, but it’s human nature.  It doesn’t make them a bad person, it makes them a person in pain.

If you run into a situation like this, and if the friend or relative mentions that, well, they couldn’t breastfeed at all because of [whatever reason], you can take the opportunity to reach out and connect to that mom and honor her pain.  No, that doesn’t mean that you grill her on why and tell her why she probably would have been just fine if she had just stuck it out or gotten in touch with a proper IBCLC.  That doesn’t help.  What happened happened.  What you can do, though, is offer her sisterhood and say something along the lines of, “I am so sorry that you didn’t have the support you deserve. I wish I could have been there to hug you and cry with you and tell you that it was going to be okay.”

My dear friend Paris at Mother Revolution is way better at this than I am.  You should definitely read her blog.

Scenario 3: The Jerk Factor

It’s all well and good to talk about the above two opportunities to connect and grow closer to your family.  However, it would be naive to believe that there aren’t people out there who are just plain mean.  I’ve had friends who have dealt with friends and family members who try to cut them down for a variety of destructive reasons, and there are times when your parenting choices simply need to be off-limits for conversation.

The best way to shut a conversation down politely is by using the Bean Dip Method.  I honestly don’t know where this term was coined.  It was something we talked about over on the Kellymom.com forums.  If you know where this came from, please let me know so I can properly attribute this. Update: Many thanks to Amanda down in the comments for pointing me to the source of this, Joanne Ketch. Read more about it here: Parenting Choices – Boundaries.

The Bean Dip Method (or in light of the upcoming holidays, the Cranberry Sauce Method) is a polite way to redirect a conversation.  It’s not about changing someone’s mind.  It’s about setting a boundary and enforcing it.  Here’s how it works:

Cousin Jill has been harping on you all weekend and will not leave you alone about breastfeeding.  She thinks that it is high time you wean your toddler, and despite the fact that you have told her the WHO recommendations and attempted to connect with her in a loving way, she will just not stop.  Cousin Jill has an axe to grind, and you are her current target.

Cousin Jill: Ugh, breastfeeding again?  You’re turning him into a sissy.
You: That’s interesting.  Can you please pass the cranberry sauce?
Cousin Jill: Seriously, when they’re old enough to ask for it, it’s time to quit.
You: Okay.  Can you pass the gravy?
Cousin Jill: Seriously, that’s just gross.
You: I know you love the baby.  We’ve researched and made our parenting decisions, and they aren’t open for discussion.

If it continues, be prepared to quietly remove yourself from the situation.  There’s no need for you to subject yourself to that kind of thing.

 

Family gatherings can be fun, but they can also be stressful.  Have you had to deal with criticism over your parenting choices?  How did you handle it?