Silencing The Shamers: 15 Reasons Some Women Really Can't Breastfeed

Breastfeeding is effing amazing. We’re all for it. Every woman that is able to and wants to breastfeed should do it. It produces healthier, smarter babies that have more fully developed immune systems to ward off illness in the future. They are the future, after all. The babies we are having today will make up a global population when we’re nothing but dust. What we do for them today truly matters.

But what if a mother can’t breastfeed? What if it’s not about a lack of desire to, or a poor education on the importance of it? What if she really can’t lactate? Are we helping these women by shaming them in the name of the ladies who could nurse but choose not to? Are the women with legitimate reasons not to breastfeed slipping through the cracks of society feeling isolated and alone?

We should be asking them to share their stories. We should be supporting them during a time that may be very painful, emotionally. Why do we have sympathy for women who cannot carry children, but we don’t show the same sentiment for those who cannot nurse their babies? What kind of personal insecurities are we trying to cover up while we cast these women aside as unworthy of being mothers?

It’s true that only around 2 percent of women truly cannot breastfeed. While there are certainly far more opting out of it, many do make excuses for their choice. They don’t want to hear the ridicule and shame. They don’t want to be told they are choosing not to do what is in their child’s best interest. But somewhere among them are those 2 percent, and this is their voice that we’ve been silencing.

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15 Status: HIV Positive

This one is tricky. In some cases, breastfeeding is not advisable if the mother is HIV positive. The risk of transmission to the baby is very high. Unless, Mom takes an antiviral medication during her breastfeeding relationship with her little one.

While breastfeeding was once completely off limits to these mothers, doors are opening in the world of medicine that now allow them to breastfeed as any other woman would. Of course, this is a decision that needs to be made between a woman and her care provider. There are risks, and some of the antiviral medication may be passed to the baby through Mom’s breastmilk.

Mothers in this situation must weigh their options and decide what is most important to them. Obviously, no mother wants to pass a lethal illness onto her child, but the benefits of breastmilk are enormous, and it’s understandable why many women don’t want to miss out on that experience for their babies. Moms with HIV who aren’t willing to breastfeed can still opt for donor milk. HIV positive mommies are not limited to formula.

14 I Literally Loathe Letdown

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Dysphoric milk ejection reflex affects a varying degree of women. It can strike anyone, but women with a history of hormonal sensitivity or progesterone intolerance — such as those who experience depression and anxiety during pregnancy or have had negative mood responses to artificial hormones in drugs like birth control — may be more likely to develop it.

This condition causes the mother to experience extreme emotional and mood disturbances when her milk lets down. It sounds minor, since it slowly fades away for most, but some women will experience this aversion to nursing the entire time they are feeding their baby.

While D-MER still isn’t fully understood, it is though that it may be some type of negative chemical reaction to oxytocin, which is released upon letdown. Mothers who discover they suffer from this condition are often extremely upset by its occurrence all of them having initially chosen to try breastfeeding. The good news is that having D-MER with one baby does not mean you will have it with them all. Many mothers choose to tough it out and nurse through the emotional pain, but it’s completely understandable why some cannot. A healthy, functioning mother is what’s best.

13 It’s Too Triggering

Sometimes, breastfeeding triggers a familiar response in some women, and it’s not a pleasurable one. Roughly 1 in every 2 women have encountered some kind of sexual violence in their lifetime, and this doesn’t include rape statistics. For many of these women, breastfeeding is something that hits too close to home. It can trigger PTSD-like flashbacks and bring forth anxiety attacks that cause these new mothers to have total meltdowns.

The women who are prepared to shame a survivor of sexual assault for choosing not to breastfeed need to sit down and STFU. Babies need mothers that are mentally and emotionally stable. They need mothers that are comforting and nurturing — not mothers that are crawling out of their own skin. Last but not least, no mother with a past history of sexual abuse owes anyone any details about their choice to forego breastfeeding.

12 Glandular Issues

For some women, they have preglandular lactation failure. This means hormonal culprits are at play. For instance, postpartum thyroiditis may be causing a hormonal imbalance that is suppressing prolactin and causing a low or completely diminished milk supply.

Other mothers will suffer from glandular lactation failure. In some cases, these women have had breast surgeries in the past that have left them with too little breast tissue to produce milk. However, the most common culprit of glandular lactation failure is IGT, short for insufficient glandular tissue. Sometimes, it’s a case of severe asymmetry that tips a doctor off to IGT, but most women who suffer with this condition also struggle with polycystic ovarian syndrome — and that’s what causes their IGT.

Many of these women also have luteal phase defect and chronic low progesterone caused by estrogen dominance. If estrogen dominance persists in the postpartum period, all that estrogen may squash out prolactin and leave them dried up. This can happy rapidly, or slowly with each menstrual cycle causing a dip in supply that never fully bounces back after bleeding ceases. On the upside, these mothers can generally still nurse while supplementing with an SNS.

11 Anatomical Anomalies

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Sometimes, it’s not mom’s fault at all that she can’t breastfeed. Certain defects — like a high palette in the baby’s mouth, which is a known midline defect linked to the MTHFR gene mutation — may make it impossible for the mother to nurse without intense pain. This pain is often indicative of a poor latch. Most of the time, a poor latch can be rectified with diligence and the help of a good lactation consultant, but when there are anatomical defects present that make nursing more difficult, this isn’t always possible.

Most of the time, anatomical abnormalities that occur in the infant’s mouth during early fetal development are due to the MTHFR gene mutation. This gene causes everything from a high palette and cleft lip to tongue and lip ties. All of these issues can make breastfeeding both painful and impossible in some cases — even with surgeries for revision and craniosacral therapy.

10 It’s Either Breastfeeding Or Sanity

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Women are 40 percent more likely to develop a form of mental illness than men are. It’s estimated that around 23.8 percent of women in the United States experience a mental health condition in any given year. Plenty of those women are mothers, and they have to make the difficult choice of whether to abstain from medication, or breastfeed. It might seem like an easy choice, because most of the time these women are already foregoing their meds during pregnancy, or they’re on a pregnancy-safe variant of them.

However, most women that suffer from mental illness are increasingly prone to postpartum mood disorders, too. The postpartum period demands mental healthcare more than any other time, and if medication is the answer, then breastfeeding may be out when said medications aren’t safe for passing onto baby through Mom’s milk.

9 These Weren’t Always Mine

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Often, women are chastised for choosing not to breastfeed when they have legitimate reasons why they can’t. That being said, not every woman wants to announce those reasons to the whole world. No one should be made to feel that they need to prove why they’ve made the choice that they’ve made. One case for such is among women who have had previous surgeries on their breasts.

Sometimes, it may be augmentation with breast implants that a woman is hoping to keep on the down low. Others aren’t so quick to advertise that they had a breast reduction at some point — which is far more likely to interfere with breastfeeding. Even more serious, some women have had mastectomies to safeguard against or treat for breast cancer, and they owe no one an explanation detailing how their reconstructed nipples won’t work for breastfeeding.

8 I Have An Active Infection

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Chronic immune diseases like HIV aren’t the only concern when it comes to maternal illness while breastfeeding. While some infections are commonplace and present no dire risk being passed onto the infant alongside antibodies that fight back against it, some conditions are worrisome. Tuberculosis is one such illness. When a woman is actively infected with TB, she should usually not be breastfeeding.

The risk of transmitting TB is high. However, new anti-tuberculosis drugs have made their way onto the market and are now giving women with TB the opportunity to breastfeed with the active infection. That being said, these drugs also pass to the baby through their mother’s milk. If a mother is breastfeeding while infected with TB, her baby needs to be monitored closely. The biggest concern is if baby develops jaundice, which means the therapy drugs could have caused the infant to develop hepatitis.

7 I Can’t Kick This Bad Habit

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While many people will still blame the mother in this situation, many are doing the best they can to avoid harming their children even though they can’t stop harming themselves. Addiction is no joke. It claims lives every day, and robs children of the mothers and fathers they deserve to have. When a mother opts out of breastfeeding because she’s too deep into substance abuse for it to be safe for her child, it’s not a sign that she’s a bad mother; it’s a step toward putting her child first.

Addicts deserve this recognition. While they aren’t making all of the quality choices most of us would like to see them make for their babies, they are trying. Babies who are breastfed by mothers who are doped up or boozing are more likely to be harmed by their mothers, even when unintentional. For instance, many cases of suffocation of infants happen when intoxicated parents fall asleep with their children in their arms or in unsafe places.

6 Get Back, It’s Galactosemia

Galactosemia is a genetic disorder caused by mutations on the GALT gene. It renders individuals with it unable to metabolize sugar glucose effectively. In short, it leaves too much glucose in their blood stream. Keep in mind that this disorder is not one that typically impacts the mother and impairs her from breastfeeding. Rather, when it occurs in the infant, the baby is unable to digest the natural sugars in a breastfeeding mother’s milk.

These babies must be promptly switched to formula-based diets inclusive of elemental or soy-based formulas since they contain lower levels of galactose. This condition — even when properly managed — can cause the child to grow up and experience speech delays, problems with motor skills, and cognitive deficits. Unfortunately, baby girls with this condition often grow up to find they have premature ovarian insufficiency, as well.

5 PKU Babies And Mothers Are Sometimes Off Limits

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Phenylketonuria affects roughly 10,000 to 15,000 babies in the United States every single year. It is recommended that all babies be tested for this at birth. The condition causes the infant to be unable to break down the amino acid phenylalanine. When the presence of this amino acid becomes too large in the blood stream, it can cause hyperactivity, tremors, seizing, growth retardation, eczema and more.

When PKU goes undiagnosed, it can rapidly cause permanent, severe brain damage and disabilities. Treatment involves placing the child on a very specific diet that is free of high-phenylalanine producing foods.

PKU does not always hinder the mother’s ability to breastfeed. If she has PKU herself, research has shown that high amounts of phenylalanine in the mother’s milk are still metabolized proportionately in the infant. On the flipside, a baby with PKU requires a mother that is willing to go on a strict, low to no phenylalanine diet. Most babies with PKU can be breastfed or formula fed, although the latter require precise dietary guidance since formulas contain phenylalanine. Still, some babies will not be able to breastfeed with this condition.

4 Viral Transmission That Causes Cancer

Kezia Fitzgerald and her 14-month-old daughter Saoirse share a light moment while waiting for chemotherapy treatments at Children's Hospital Boston, August 25, 2011. CNN

Ever heard of human-T lymphotropic virus? With two strains to boot, this virus attacks a person’s immune system and carries a small but serious risk of causing cancer in the individual’s lifetime. While only about 5 percent of people with the virus will go on to be diagnosed with cancer, the virus itself causes plenty of uncomfortable symptoms that no one would want their baby to suffer through.

HTLV-1 can also cause demyelination of neurons in the brain, which often leads to degenerative issues like sensory problems and worsening motor skills. When this form of HTLV myelopathy occurs, individuals may experience bladder dysfunction and erectile dysfunction, too.

While there are no physical impairments to the breasts or baby that cause HTLV-1 or HTLV-2 to impair the breastfeeding relationship, the risk of transmission is far too high for mothers with either strain to breastfeed safely.

3 Cancer And Chemo

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Guess what? Some mommies have cancer. They may be the brave women you hear about in the news that refuse to abort their child just so they can seek treatment. Instead, they push the pause button on treating their own health — knowing that it will continue to worsen — and give their babies time to develop in the womb.

While rare, this does happen, and these mothers go through their pregnancies knowing their entire life is going to change as soon as the baby is born. No, we aren’t just talking about losing some shuteye and acclimating to life as a mother. We’re talking about vomiting, hair loss, and the realization that you may not see your new baby turn one-year old.

Those mothers have to take desperate measures as soon as their littles are Earth side to treat their cancer aggressively. This often means chemotherapy, which is completely unsafe for babies. Moms who go through chemo have to pump and dump throughout the process until all radioactive components are out of their bodies.

2 And It’s Not Just Chemo

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Mothers who are undergoing radiation of the breasts also need to abstain from breastfeeding. Studies have shown that contrast dyes given to these mothers pass through to their breastmilk. It is important to note that these mothers do not have to cease breastfeeding altogether. Rather, it is wise for them to pump and dump following exposure to contrast dyes.

In addition, they may struggle with milk supply, because radiation hinders milk production. Combined with other measures to treat breast cancer specifically — such as lumpectomy — milk production may be scant.

Mothers with cancer can breastfeed without any ill effect coming to their babies. Cancer cells are not passed through breastmilk. You cannot give your child cancer. Radiation rendered to other areas of the body, such as the brain, should not limit milk supply. Certain drugs given to cancer patients may make breastfeeding unsafe. It is important to run all medications by your provider, as well as a pediatrician and/or Infant Risk.

1 Septic Breastmilk

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It is highly dangerous for a mother to continue breastfeeding if she has developed sepsis. This maternal infection doesn’t tend to come out of nowhere. So, women do have time to run it by their doctors and seek medical attention.

If you experience a fever while breastfeeding and there is any possible reason to suspect infection, it’s best to get checked out. Even a mild infection, like mastitis, can turn into something serious. That’s where problems often come in. Mothers are encouraged to nurse through an infection like mastitis. Most of the time, it works out just fine. But sometimes, the infection grows deeper and can turn septic.

The infection can then be passed through the breastmilk to the vulnerable baby who isn’t as equipped to fight such an infection as the mother is. Babies have died from maternal sepsis being passed through the breastmilk.

Sources: Rape Response Services, The Guardian, Dual Diagnosis, The Lancet, Hindawi Journal of Pregnancy, Galactosemia Foundation, March of Dimes, Healthline

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