Breastfeeding: 6 Tips for Talking with Patients

Despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for a baby’s first 6 months of life, many women do not breastfeed — whether they aren’t successful, they had to stop early, or this option wasn’t accessible for them. The reasons are unique to every mother.

However, it’s never been more important to talk with your patients about breastfeeding. The AAP recently updated its breastfeeding guidelines as well as issued a call for more support for breastfeeding mothers to help overcome challenges like stigma, lack of support, and workplace barriers. In addition, the national formula shortage has certainly brought new attention to the subject. We know breastfeeding impacts our patients and their families, and as physicians, we have the opportunity to answer questions, offer support, and educate parents on the many studied health benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and babies.

So how do you talk with your patients? We have 6 helpful tips to ensure you check all the important boxes.

Start Early

The earlier you talk to patients about breastfeeding, the better. Your patients will have time to consider the information, ask questions, and even prepare well before the baby arrives. Plus, you’ll have a better chance to talk to patients who end up delivering prematurely. You can play a role in helping your patient prepare by making suggestions about talking with her partner and family members, talking with her employer, buying supplies, researching breast pump insurance coverage, determining whether there’s a lactation consultant on staff where she plans to deliver, and signing up to take a breastfeeding class.

Talk about Breastfeeding Difficulties

Breastfeeding is not easy for everyone, so set that expectation from the start. The three top reasons women stop breastfeeding relate to perceptions about breastmilk production. Addressing potential challenges up front will open the door for better communication with your patient when she has difficulties and questions, and, most importantly, will boost her confidence if she does have concerns — because she’ll understand it’s normal to have problems. Cover all the bases, from mastitis and breast engorgement to nipple confusion and latching difficulties.

Share Breastfeeding Resources

Set your patient up for success. Let her know you’re there to help and there are lots of resources available to her as well. Give her the tools and information she needs to first determine whether breastfeeding is right for her, and then how to find support if she chooses to breastfeed. This can include sharing printed materials, links to websites, links to social media pages and forums, and contact information for local support groups or lactation consultants. One free resource to share is the National Women’s Health and Breastfeeding Hotline. Other options include the March of Dimes and La Leche League. Reach out to your hospital’s lactation consultants to find out their favorite resources and what has helped their patients the most.

Be Encouraging

In addition to being up front about breastfeeding difficulties, let your patient know it takes patience and practice. Be supportive before delivery, in the hospital, and after she takes the baby home. The baby’s pediatrician will monitor the baby’s health and weight and may also offer breastfeeding support and resources. Your encouragement will reinforce the pediatrician’s involvement and recommendations. It’s also possible your patient may feel more comfortable confiding in you if she has questions or concerns, so keep that door open.

Don’t Judge

Breastfeeding is a decision that’s impacted by many variables — from personal choice to family dynamics to work circumstances and more. Your patient may choose not to breastfeed from the start. Your patient may try to breastfeed and ultimately opt not to, again for a variety of reasons. Or your patient may not be able to breastfeed due to issues with her own health. It’s important to remain judgment-free no matter what. If you’ve shared the facts and offered support and resources, you’ve given her what she needs to make her own choices and be confident in them.

Share Alternatives

If your patient won’t be breastfeeding, share resources about formula options, choosing a bottle, and other ways a new mother can bond and build attachment with her infant, like babywearing. New mothers who aren’t breastfeeding still need your support.

To learn more, check out the The American Academy of Pediatrics breastfeeding info site for physicians.

Lindsay Gould, MD
Obstetrics and Gynecology
Eastern Virginia Medical School

Additional Breastfeeding Resources to Share with Patients

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice.