Dr. Wendy Walsh on Breastfeeding Critics

I’m going to begin this blog with the best possible news in the world. I nursed for a total of six years (three years with each kid) and I received far more positive, encouraging words from strangers and intimates alike, than negative. Maybe my situation was unique. My parents were already dead. My peer group is fairly educated and, in California, most people love to see a woman nurse in public. Especially dudes who like to ogle breasts.

But that’s not to say that I didn’t receive some resistance. So I can only imagine the challenges of superhero pioneer breast feeders who are continuing to come out of the breast feeding closet in conservative (read: traditional formula feeding) communities. Thanks for what you are doing.

The way I deal with any negativity is to try to understand my critic. Understanding the emotional process of our critics can give us great insight into what makes them tick. Then from that place of compassion for their experience, we can find humane ways to retort or tolerate. First know this: Most negativity comes from a place of fear or insecurity, i.e. they fear you’re making a mistake or they are insecure about their own choices so they defend them hard. So let’s look at these fears and insecurities.

There are a number of reasons why people criticize breastfeeding. But I think I can boil them down to the four big ones: Insecurity, Shame, Jealousy and Fear of Sexual Cues. Allow me to break it down for you.

INSECURITY: The biggest negative feedback you may get iis from women who are not convinced that breast is best. They may have bought into the misleading ad campaigns of formula manufacturers or have so little support from family and at work, that they are forced to fall on the side of “formula is fine.” But they are still a bit insecure about their decision. So they cement their belief by attempting to get everyone to sign up for their policies. It confirms their choice. These mothers aren’t looking out for you, they are just looking to get someone else to support their decision because they are insecure about it.

SHAME: The second group of women who criticize nursing, know clearly that breast is best. But unfortunately they did not have the cultural support (or, that rare physical inability) to have a successful outcome. They console themselves with the belief that even though they didn’t nurse their “baby turned out fine.” However, the sight of your little angel happily suckling on your maternal bounty could be a big reminder to them. Deep down they believe they failed. If only they knew that our culture makes it so hard for women. None-the-less, you bring up feelings of shame for them that they can’t tolerate, so they project them out to you.

JEALOUSY: We’ve all heard about husbands who actually feel jealous of the baby’s close relationship to your body. That’s certainly possible. But other people can entertain those feelings too. There are a host of adults walking through our culture with severe attachment injuries that were inflicted during traumatic infancies. The sight of the deep bond you have with your baby can bring up ancient feelings of loss that are mostly unconscious. They know they feel mad at your relationship. They just don’t know why.

FEAR OF SEXUAL CUES: Believe it or not, some people still can’t get their head around the idea that breasts have two jobs. They are stuck on the fact that breasts are sometimes sex toys. On top of that, some of these people also have an intolerance of sexual triggers. In the text books, it’s called erotophobia (fear of sex or negative attitudes about sex). These people have a really hard time watching or thinking about a baby suckling because it brings up some of their fears about sex. They tend to be the strangers in public who tell you to “cover that up” or “do that in the bathroom.” Because breast feeding makes them afraid.

Okay, now that you have found some feelings of compassion for all your village of nay-sayers, let me turn things around and ask you to have a little more compassion for yourself. In any human conflict it always takes two to tango. If you are particularly vulnerable to critisism, those quiet barbs will land with a particular sting. Think of it this way. I bet you wear your seatbelt when you drive the car. If someone made a comment to you that wearing a seatbelt was wrong or not the best choice, you would probably just laugh at them. That’s because you are so deeply convicted in your decision that the criticism just rolls off you. Imagine if you could have those feelings about breast feeding?

My advice to you is to practice spoken affirmations about your choices. Try repeating ten times in the mirror each morning, “I’m doing what’s best for my baby,” or “I am an especially good mother.” When you know deep, deep, down in your bones that the sacrifice you are making is the best choice and when you can entertain compassion for those who criticize, then you will be free. Those words won’t hurt anymore.







Brought to you by PumpEase & Posh Pads!

Dr. Wendy Walsh is a journalist, mother, doctor of psychology, and popular culture junkie. She often finds herself asking “Why?” and finds the answers at the intersection of biology, psychology and culture. Well traveled and presiding over a multi-racial family, she has a particular sensitivity to ethnic issues. Want to know why people do the things they do? Dr. Walsh has some answers. She blogs daily for MomLogic.com, her own Blog, Dating.Mating.Relating., and is the relationship expert for Pregnancy Magazine. She also appears regularly as a psychological expert on CNN and The CBS Early Show. In addition she has appeared on EXTRA, The View, Lifetime Television and contributed to countless local TV, Radio and Print Media.  Follow her on Twitter at @DrWendyWalsh and find her on Facebook; she’s got some great videos on YouTube, too!

Dr. Walsh holds a B.A. in Journalism, a masters degree in Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. As an author, she has written The Boyfriend Test, and The Girlfriend Test (Random House).

16 thoughts on “Dr. Wendy Walsh on Breastfeeding Critics

  1. Great insightful article. I too have had far more positive reactions than negative, from strangers. But, how do you suggest I “defend” my decision (especially my decision to nurse as long as my son wants to) to professionals, i.e. nurses and doctors? That’s been my experience, unfortunately.


    1. It seems as though those doctors and nurses are also coming at breastfeeding from a place of insecurity or shame. They know breast is normal and artificial baby milks are inferior, but they’ve already failed so many women in that regard (whether by accepting formula company incentives, not actually knowing how to help with breastfeeding initiation or concerns, or telling women to take the “easy” way out because formula is “just as good”) that admitting the true value of breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding would require a serious and probably painful re-evaluation of their past practice.


  2. I think you’re absolutely right. People are the most defensive when they feel insecure about their own parenting decisions. And they fear the things they can’t understand.


  3. Very good points. Let me add one more: breastfeeding violates cultural norms. I realized this when I was taking a course at University called Gay and Lesbian Studies. I came to see that the intensity with which some people react to public displays of affection by a gay couple, is the same kind of intensity with which some people react to public displays of breastfeeding. And it doesn’t matter how discrete the “couple” are,whether gay, lesbian, or breastfeeding dyad. “It’s breastfeeding, for God’s sake! Don’t do that here!”


  4. One of my favorite bits of advice from one of my clients was, when another women made a comment about the fact that she was breastfeeding her baby in public, she answered in a sweet, but kind-of-sassy voice, “How sweet that you are concerned about me and my baby!” Kill them with kindness, mamas!!!!


  5. This is a great post. I am already at that place where nothing anyone says could get to me, but I will admit sometimes feeling guilty when I nurse around moms who didn’t or don’t. As proud as I am, I don’t want to be a sore spot for other people. It makes me mad that society puts me in that situation.


  6. I can certainly relate to the jealousy and fear of sexual cues. Those were initially hang-ups for me as my wife started Breastfeeding when my son was born. As a man who’s now turned lactavist, I can say I’m really grateful my wife took a stand and helped me see that breast is best for my son and eventually helped me get over those stumbling blocks! I know this article is focused towards women but I think husbands/boyfriends need to get over these same issues too so they can be a support and advocate for their wife instead of another critic. I hope more women follow your advice and we can all help change people’s perceptions of breastfeeding.


  7. Maybe it’s because I live in a suburb of Boston but I have a hard time getting behind this article. My friends who have not been able to breastfeed have encountered a great deal more negativity and judgment than I ever have. My father is a nearly-retired pediatrician from Wisconsin and I find it hard to believe that any physician out there would discourage breast-feeding for a formula preference.


    1. It can certainly be related to where you live. It is not uncommon around my area to have physicians actively discouraging breastfeeding. It usually doesn’t come in the form of “oh don’t nurse, give your baby formula” but instead “you know a lot of moms don’t make enough milk for their babies – here take this sample home in case you are one of them” or “wow your baby is really fussy perhaps your milks is too weak, too strong, too much, not enough, baby is allergic, etc” or some other variation on the theme.


    2. I guess it must be a regional thing, because breastfed babies, and thus breastfeeeding mamas–are still quite the minority nationally according to healthypeople.gov (about 1/3 are exclusively breastfed at 3 months just over 1/10 exclusively breastfed to 6 months–the AAP recommendation). I encountered resistance to and inaccurate advice concerning breastfeeding at each and every pediatrican office visit. I’m in the Nashville area.


  8. One major emotion that you left out I think are feelings of loss/anger/regret – the feelings that go along with mourning (which could potentially be part of both the shame and jealousy categories).

    I’ve always connected with the way that Diane Weissinger describes the feelings (from Watch Your Language):

    “Try this on: You have been crippled in a serious accident. Your physicians and physical therapists explain that learning to walk again would involve months of extremely painful and difficult work with no guarantee of success. They help you adjust to life in a wheelchair, and support you through the difficulties that result. Twenty years later, when your legs have withered beyond all hope, you meet someone whose accident matched your own. “It was difficult,” she says. “It was three months of sheer hell. But I’ve been walking ever since.” Would you feel guilty?

    Women to whom I posed this scenario told me they would feel angry, betrayed, cheated. They would wish they could do it over with better information. They would feel regret for opportunities lost….”

    “Let’s rephrase, using the words women themselves gave me: “We don’t want to make bottlefeeding mothers feel angry. We don’t want to make them feel betrayed. We don’t want to make them feel cheated.” Peel back the layered implications of “we don’t want to make them feel guilty,” and you will find a system trying to cover its own tracks. It is not trying to protect her. It is trying to protect itself. Let’s level with mothers, support them when breastfeeding doesn’t work, and help them move beyond this inaccurate and ineffective word.”


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