Breastfeeding: How much is too much? How long is too long?

Breastfeeding: How much is too much? How long is too long?

In my third year of breastfeeding my daughter (yes, you read that right), a pediatrician colleague pointed out that I was being over-enthusiastic and need to consider some methods to stop. Since she was a senior colleague, I respected her enough to not downright say that breastfeeding is my choice and personal decision. I simply smiled and changed the subject.

WHO Breastfeeding Recommendations

Of course, she already knew the advantages. The World Health Organization clearly suggests breastfeeding as long as possible and at least for 2 years and beyond, with clear advantages for the baby and the mother.

As a doctor and a public health advocate, how could I preach breastfeeding to others if I did not practice it myself? All the breastfeeding difficulties I faced on physical, mental and social levels made me a stronger advocate, allowing me to help mothers facing the same issues.

Two Stories

As most of my friends and medical colleagues became well-versed with my work on breastfeeding, I often became a listening post to their concerns and queries. Two such incidents really pushed me to think about how our overzealous advocacy of breastfeeding impacts the mothers who have no choice in the matter.

A doctor friend called me from her hospital bed, having delivered a healthy baby through normal vaginal delivery. Despite trying her best, there was no colostrum. Her obstetrician, lactation consultant and I all had the same advice- keep trying. “As the baby suckles, the milk will come,” we told her. Multiple efforts, medications and professional consultations later, there still wasn’t enough supply to maintain the baby’s wellbeing. The baby formula fed alongside breastfeeding. My friend felt disheartened, developing a fear that a lack of breastmilk will cause difficulties for her child later in life. This was probably the first time that I found myself observant of the thoughts a non-breastfeeding mother could get. My friend felt that she could not provide for her baby, deeming herself a not good enough mother. I had to convince her otherwise. A stamp of exclusive breastfeeding is not the eligibility to be called a good mom. It took a while to overcome these thoughts. Not being able to breastfeed is a regret she still harbors.

In another instance, a breastfeeding friend became aware of a breast lump, unfortunately diagnosed as cancer. Chemotherapy is a clear contraindication to breastfeeding, forcing her to stop immediately. In this instance, the fear was not of a baby growing without breastfeeding but of a baby growing up without a mother.

Lessons Learnt

What I am trying to convey here is that, while breastmilk is the ultimate elixir of life, it is not more important than the mother and her well-being. As we advocate for exclusive breastfeeding, continued breastfeeding and co-feeding practices, let us remind ourselves that there is a group of mothers as loving as us, who despite their will for it, worry on finding themselves unable to breastfeed their babies.

Of course, as breast milk banks grow in numbers, we see babies having more access to breastmilk. However, let us not convert breastfeeding and its duration into a competition or a badge of honor. There is no such thing as ‘too much’ breastfeeding or doing so for ‘too long’. There may also be judgement from overzealous advocacy and peer pressure for moms who can’t or don’t breastfeed.

When we ask for a choice to breastfeed as we choose to, let us also allow them the choice to limited or no breastfeeding as well. Let us admit that despite our differences in opinions, circumstances and choices, motherhood is full of challenges. How a mother faces or chooses to deal with these challenges should not be used as a tool to define her.

Breastfeed. As much as you want. As long as you choose to. Educate about breastfeeding. Talk all about it. But remember to throw in a disclaimer for the moms that can’t. Let them know, they are still a part of the tribe. Every mother is a good mother, irrespective of how much or how long she can breastfeed.

Dr Diksha S Chadha

MD, Preventive Medicine (Gold medalist) and PGDCR ( First Rank). Working in public health for the last 8 years, she is passionate about women and child health issues. After completing her senior residency program from the prestigious Lady Hardinge Medical College, she started working with new mothers, helping them prepare for childbirth and the days after. The experiences during and after the birth of her daughter inspired her to design "THE PURPLE NEST" program for the modern Indian mother. She is a budding entrepreneur with a foundation in medicine and a passion for health and safety of women and children. A skilled speaker and educator, avid reader and writer, epidemiological thinker and researcher, Dr. Chadha is working with the Sirona Hygiene as a Consultant and also heads the Sirona Hygiene Foundation as Director of Social Programs.

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