By Jessica Smock
It’s been a while since I read a book about breastfeeding purely for informational purposes. My ten-month breastfeeding journey with my second child, a daughter, has been relatively uneventful to date. In contrast, my brief breastfeeding experience with my son was difficult from its unhappy start to its painful finish. He had latching issues, colic, reflux, and severe milk protein allergies. We were both miserable — in pain, exhausted, and frustrated — for several weeks, despite help from a lactation consultant and two doulas. When his pediatric GI doctor suggested that it was perfectly okay to consider a special, prescription hypoallergenic formula, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Breastfeeding, many of us think before our babies are born, should be the most natural thing in the world. However, what is “natural” is not always easy, or even best, for every family. I know that not every woman makes the choice — or has the choice to make — to breastfeed, and I included a few books that will appeal to all mothers and parents of any age, no matter how they feed the babies in their lives.
Instead of breastfeeding guides describing how to breastfeed I’ve recently found myself more drawn to books about the emotional and political aspects of breastfeeding in our culture. As a consequence this list has a little of both: how-to guides as well as literary, scholarly, and humorous examinations of the challenges and triumphs of breastfeeding. I make no attempt to include all of the informational books and guides about breastfeeding, of which I’m sure there are many excellent ones, just a few that were most useful to me.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League (revised and updated eighth edition) and The Nursing Mother’s Companion by Kathleen Huggins
No list of books about breastfeeding would be complete without these two classics. Both books have been revised and updated to reflect the needs of today’s nursing mothers and families. They’re both full of practical, reassuring advice about preparing to breastfeed, getting through the first difficult weeks, overcoming common challenges, and returning to work. I would recommend either book to pregnant moms who would like to breastfeed their babies, and I would particularly recommend that they read the “newborn survival” chapters before the baby is born.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was first published in 1958 as a loose-leaf pamphlet and has come a long way since then. The new edition is well-designed and fun to read. It was the book that my doula gave to me when I asked her for the best book she knew about how to breastfeed.
The Nursing Mother’s Companion is now in its seventh edition. In this book, I particularly liked its quick reference “survival guides,” set off from the rest of the pages, that focus on the most immediate breastfeeding concerns.
Bestfeeding: How to Breastfeed Your Baby by Mary Renfrew, Chloe Fisher, and Suzanne Arms
If you’re like me (and most new breastfeeding mothers), it’s not enough to read explanations about the perfect latch and the various breastfeeding positions. What sets this book apart from most other guides is the inclusion of dozens of pictures and diagrams that help make learning to breastfeed easier. The illustrations and pictures show new mothers not only what they should do but also what not to do, in terms of incorrect positioning. It’s written by three midwives with decades of experience between them, and they successfully combine their interpretations of academic research with their own clinical experiences.
Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family from La Leche International
For many breastfeeding mothers (but certainly not all), sleep can be a challenge. In contrast to my formula-fed son, my daughter has struggled with sleeping longer stretches. Even now at 10 months, she wakes at least once or twice at night for a feeding. Unlike my son, she preferred to co-sleep and nurse frequently throughout the night during her early months. Some may not relate to this book’s emphasis on co-sleeping and bedsharing — or agree with many of its claims about sleep safety and the supposed dangers of sleep training (I do not) — but many breastfeeding families may find that it provides much-needed practical tips and reassurance about patterns in baby sleep. I particularly like the way that it is organized around a breastfeeding baby’s developmental stages and needs.
Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding. Edited by Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly
This intense and relatable anthology includes 25 writers’ reflections of their breastfeeding experiences. I was especially interested to read essays from a few of my favorite authors, such as novelist Julia Glass and frequent Brain, Child contributor Catherine Newman. If the previous how-to guides are primarily about the mechanics and logistics of breastfeeding, this collection is focused on the emotional ups and downs. Several of the writers discuss the internal and external pressures to breastfeed, as well as the shame they felt when breastfeeding was difficult or unsuccessful. Many of the essays are quite funny in parts, describing incidents of spraying milk on unsuspecting bystanders or attempts at dating and romance while lactating.
The Breastfeeding Cafe: Mothers Share the Joys, Challenges, and Secrets of Nursing by Barbara L. Behrmann
This book also focuses on the lived experience of breastfeeding for mothers, this time from the perspective of ordinary women rather than professional writers. The author, a sociologist by training, weaves her own story with insights from women’s first-hand accounts through interviews, and journals, and online interactions. The book does not back away from controversial topics, such as sexuality and “swap” nursing, and includes a diversity of voices, including women from a wide spectrum of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
How My Breasts Saved the World: Misadventures of a Nursing Mother by Lisa Wood Shapiro
I was chuckling along with this book before I even opened its cover. This breezy, witty memoir from a writer and filmmaker tells the story of her daughter’s first year — from birth to weaning — along with advice, information, and encouragement. You can get a sense of the tone of the book from a few of the chapter titles such as “Don’t Bite Your Newborn,” “The Panic and the Pain,” and “Red Angry Nipples.” The main message of the book is that breastfeeding is difficult but rewarding and often gets easier with time (and a sense of humor). And, of course, that no new mother should ever have to go through it alone.
The Places You’ll Feed by Lauren Hirschfield Belden
An even more hilarious take on the triumphs and tribulations of breastfeeding comes from the recently published parody of the Dr. Seuss classic. The author felt blind-sided by how challenging her breastfeeding experience was and wrote this book to celebrate both the joy and stress of breastfeeding. The illustrations and rhyming style are funny and quite truthful, featuring lines like “Your pumping machine/likely came with a case,/which you’ll find yourself dragging/ all over the place.” Belden’s goal was to make women — who often do not feel like breastfeeding is always the pleasurable, idyllic experience that they are meant to feel like it should be — feel less alone. Because of her sympathetic message, this would be a perfect gift for any new mom, even one who did not continue breastfeeding. While it would make a good shower gift it is humor best appreciated after experience.
Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood by Joan B. Wolf and Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t by Suzanne Barston
These books examine the research evidence and concludes that much of our public understanding about the health benefits of breastfeeding are overstated and not substantiated by the medical literature.
Wolf’s book attempts to challenge the notion that “breast is best,” the widespread belief that breastfeeding is scientifically superior for infants than bottle feeding. Rather, she argues, our modern preoccupation with breastfeeding is an expression of our cultural acceptance of the value of “total motherhood,” in which mothers must selflessly devote their entire emotional and physical beings to their children in an effort to reduce all possible risks. I found Wolf’s discussion of our cultural aversion to certain forms of risk (and ignoring others) and the media’s and general public’s difficulty with interpreting statistical evidence to be the most compelling components of the book as she effectively dissects the reasons why so few research studies are able to assess the effects of breastfeeding in a statistically reliable way.
Between the two, I found Barston’s mix of memoir and reporting, including interviews with medical professionals, academics, and feminists, to be more empathetic and accessible to most mothers, who may want reassurance about their personal feeding choices.
After Birth by Elisa Albert
It might seem strange to include a novel in a list of books about breastfeeding, but this raw, darkly humorous, and provocative portrait of modern motherhood allowed me to explore my own thoughts about birthing, caring for a newborn, and reinterpreting one’s identity after a baby is born. And, yes, in this novel, breastfeeding — as it is for many mothers in real life — takes center stage. The main character Ari has a nearly one year old baby but is depressed, full of buried rage and subversive opinions on lots of things, and friendless. The friendship at the heart of the book blooms when Ari begins breastfeeding her new friend’s baby when the friend initially struggles. The book isn’t for everyone, but I found it brave, honest, absorbing, and funny.
Jessica Smock is aneducator and researcher who earned her doctorate in educational policy in 2013. She is the co-editor of The HerStories Project, whose newest anthology Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience will be published in November.
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Brain, Child Writers on the Joys and Challenges of Breastfeeding.