When a mother was arrested and charged with child neglect because her breastfed baby was starving, it brought issues to light that we should not ignore — namely, what happens to those moms who legitimately cannot breastfeed their babies?
Photo credit: Sean Prior/ Hemera/360/ Getty Images

When a Tennessee mother was charged with neglect because her breastfed baby was starving, it brought some issues to the surface that are not often discussed. Breastfeeding advocacy is really important, and destigmatizing breastfeeding in public is also — but what about moms who legitimately suffer from insufficient supply? Where does the "breast is best" campaign leave them?

A starving infant

In May, Rachel Henley from Tennessee was formally charged with aggravated child neglect and reckless endangerment. Her crime? Breastfeeding her baby even when he wasn't being adequately nourished. Her boyfriend defended her, saying that she contacted doctors at least a dozen times because he didn't seem to be gaining weight, but when baby Viktor was admitted to the hospital at the average size of a 2-week-old (he was 3 months old at the time), the only thing that mattered was that he was malnourished.

Where did Henley go wrong? Did she not get the help that she needed, or was she just not careful and observant enough to realize her baby boy was starving?

Seeking breastfeeding help

It's really hard to know when to seek help when breastfeeding isn't going as well as it should. The guilt of supplementing formula can really put a new mom off, especially if she's determined to make breastfeeding work. Sometimes, supplementation can lead a mother down a path that leads to formula-feeding only (it's known as one of the "booby traps"), so breastfeeding professionals can sometimes aim moms away from that solution.

This is the downside of breastfeeding activism. People feel like failures if they can't adequately feed their child so they tell themselves that they can.

For example, Shelly, mom of two, struggled mightily when her first baby was born. She tried and tried to get a proper latch but it didn't happen, so she gave her a bottle of formula. "I felt awful!" she remembers. "Like I'd been starving my baby. I went to see the lactation consultant who gave me a hard time about giving her formula, told me I ruined any chance of breastfeeding and that she was fine, was not starving and would have figured it out. In fact, she wouldn't have. She was lip tied and I had inverted nipples. Had I listened to the lactation consultant who did a very superficial check of Lily and I, she would have starved."

Brittney is a mother of two and is also in nursing school. "This is the downside of breastfeeding activism," she says. "People feel like failures if they can't adequately feed their child so they tell themselves that they can."

But breast is best, right?

Absolutely. Breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed an infant. And we've heard that message over and over — in the doctors' offices, in our online groups, in articles we read in parenting magazines. Even though the U.S.'s breastfeeding rates aren't stellar, they are climbing up every year.

But what needs to be shared in addition to all of the benefits of breastfeeding is the reality that some moms and babies do have real issues that sometimes can be corrected with help, but sometimes they cannot. Moms need to know what to look for as they nurse their babies (Kellymom has an excellent resource on this) and while some pediatricians do rush moms into supplementing when they don't really need to, sometimes moms need to go that route.

There shouldn't be shame in feeding your child

While breastfeeding comes easy to many moms (myself included), it just doesn't for others. Kim is a mother of two and also struggled to produce enough milk, and when she reached out for help, she got the right answer. But the answer wasn't easy for her to hear at all. "Thankfully we got in touch with a lactation consultant who knew what she was doing and told us that she needed to eat, first and foremost, and then worked with me to solve our breastfeeding issues," she remembered. "I felt like the biggest failure at that moment, as if supplementing was the worst thing I could do."

There needs to be a greater awareness of the line between "everyone can breastfeed" and "some moms can't produce enough milk," and there needs to be a reduction in shame for the latter group of moms.

A fed baby is better than a hungry baby
100 percent of the time.

Yes, advocate for breastfeeding. Yes, raise breastfeeding rates across the board. Yes, help moms who are struggling. Yes, support moms who need to supplement. Yes, support moms whose milk completely dries up. And yes, support moms who choose to not breastfeed at all. "So many people think you just didn't try hard enough when you're dealing with legitimate issues," shares Kim. "I had so many people try to tell me to drink more water, or take fenugreek. I was taking about 25 various pills a day at one point, plus pumping eight times a day and all of the other stuff my lactation consultant recommended — while, you know, trying to take care of a newborn."

Breastfeeding is a terrific goal, but it shouldn't be to the detriment of either person involved — either the baby or the mother. As Brittney says, "A fed baby is better than a hungry baby 100 percent of the time."

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