Top 10 Breastfeeding Books

Top 10 Breastfeeding Books


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. 

BreastFeeding COVER7-31-15 copyPurchase Brain, Child’s newest archive collection eBook. On sale this week for $2.99.

Brain, Child Writers on the Joys and Challenges of Breastfeeding.


Sleep Training: Two Different Perspectives

Sleep Training: Two Different Perspectives

Sleep deprivation is hard for all parents. But not everybody takes the same approach to a baby, even an older baby, who wakes up during the night. For Wendy Wisner, crying-it-out was not an option: she co-slept with her children and “waited it out” for the years it took them to sleep through on their own. Jessica Smock, on the other hand, believes babies should be actively encouraged to develop good sleep habits, and that sleep training, though difficult, can be best for the entire family. 


Why I Don’t Sleep-Train My Kids

By Wendy Wisner

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 6.15.21 PMWhen it comes to children’s sleep, I think the choices parents make are influenced—at least in part—by their own childhood associations.

When I was a child, we had a family bed: sleep was a shared experience, replete with elbow bumping, shuffling, sleep sighs, and minor snoring. I remember falling asleep next to my mom, sometimes next to my sister. Eventually, I asked for my own bed, but I always knew I could rejoin the family bed whenever I needed to. I never had a stuffed animal or security blanket. My parents were that for me.

As luck would have it, I married a man whose family also espoused a communal bed. So when our first son was born, he naturally joined us in ours. It made nursing a million times easier, and keeping him close minimized sleep disruptions. I was able to latch him on, and go right back to sleep. I’m sure the fact that I spent my childhood settling in and out of sleep with others nearby helped me feel comfortable with this arrangement.

Sleeping with my son wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of wake-ups, and even though I didn’t have to leave my bed to tend to him, my sleep was still fragmented, and I would wake up exhausted and depleted. At the four-month mark, I reached a breaking point. My son was waking hourly, all night long, and kicking me in the head. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I said to my husband, “I can’t live my life this way. I just can’t do it.”

I scoured the Internet looking for solutions. Most of the advice I found was something along the lines of, “Put your baby down, drowsy but awake, and then leave the room.” I hadn’t heard of sleep training or cry-it-out at that point—at least not explicitly—but I knew that if I took that advice, it would result in more crying than I was comfortable with. My son had already revealed his intense personality. When I did leave him alone in the room at naptime, he didn’t just fuss a little until I came to get him: he cried his head off. I wasn’t going to subject him to more than a few minutes of that.

So I waited it out. As an at-home parent, I was able to nap with my baby, cancel plans when necessary, and take my sleepy days slowly. I know mothers working outside the home don’t have this luxury, but I managed to slog through. Sleep got a little better, then a little worse, then a little better again, and I made it through the first six months. At that point, things became more bearable. I didn’t do anything differently; my son’s sleep patterns just changed, with stretches of uninterrupted sleep happening more often.

I soon began to take the baby out, and have my first conversations with other mothers, many of which cycled back to the topic of sleep. As a new, idealistic parent, I was appalled by the other moms’ tales of sleep training. A mom at the playground told me they were still crying-it-out after a month because it wasn’t working yet, and she wondered if the neighbors in her apartment complex heard the screaming. There was the mom at a birthday party who told me that her son had just recently started waking up again after he’d been trained a few months ago, and that they had recently survived a night of four hours of crying.

In that first year of motherhood, I became the classic, righteous attachment parent when it came to sleep training. I’d hold my pure, innocent baby close, and feel sick at the thought of leaving him in a dark room to cry for hours at a time. A baby cannot talk: when he cried, he was asking for my presence. In these early years, I was teaching him about communication and kindness; it seemed inhumane not to respond when he cried. I found articles like this, which demonstrated that excessive crying increased the cortisol (stress hormone) levels in babies’ brains, and this, which showed that sleep training could cause attachment issues.

That was eight years ago. I have two children now. My older son has slept blissfully through the night since he was just under three years old. My second son has recently started sleeping through at around the same age, though he still wakes in the early morning and needs to be soothed back to sleep. Having “waited it out” twice, I will say that it isn’t always rainbows. I have felt sick from exhaustion. Extreme sleep deprivation increases my anxiety and exacerbates my migraines. But most nights my children’s wake-ups were manageable, and I felt as well-rested as most parents of young children feel.

I haven’t changed the way I handle sleep with my own children, but the way I perceive other parents’ choices has changed. I have made friends with many loving parents with awesome kids who have done some sort of sleep training. I understand that not all parents want to attend to their kids in the middle of the night, and that having your child in your bed or in close proximity (which is the best way I know how to deal with sleep disruptions) is just not within everyone’s comfort zone. I also understand that not everyone has the right support or lifestyle to get through months of sleep deprivation.

I am also aware that there are different kinds of sleep training, and different kinds of sleepers. I still have a big problem with letting a baby cry for hours at a time (really, any more than a few minutes is hard for me to fathom). Even Ferber, the father of sleep training, never advocated for hours of crying at time. I think that most parents take a kinder, more measured approach to it, checking on their babies frequently, offering assurance along the way—at least I hope so.

Even so, it still breaks my heart a little (OK, a lot) when I hear about a baby who is sleep trained, especially when controlled crying is involved. I just want to rush to the baby, and place him back in his parents’ arms. I want to tell his parents to wait just a little bit longer, because it gets better on its own. It really does. And someday you might even miss those midnight snuggles.

Wendy Wisner is the author of two books of poems and her writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary Mama, The Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Full Grown People, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


Why I Sleep-Train My Kids

By Jessica Smock

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 6.13.09 PMSleep training my son was hard. But not that hard.

By the time he was four months old, his sleeping habits were becoming more challenging for all of us. He was waking up more times during the night, becoming more difficult to soothe back to sleep, and napping less and less. My husband and I were exhausted. We fought constantly, and our son was cranky and overtired too.

When I mentioned our sleep issues to a few friends, I was given one name from each of them: Weissbluth. Like thousands of parents before me, I devoured Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. From Weissbluth, I learned about sleep associations, infant sleep cycles, wake times, nap schedules, patterns of sleep organization for newborns and older babies, and graduated extinction (“crying-it-out”). From there, I moved on to books by other experts in the field of baby sleep: Ferber and Jodi Mindell.

At that point, I had just finished the coursework for my doctoral degree in education and development. Immersed in the world of academia, it had made sense to me that because I was struggling with an issue I knew nothing about—solving and preventing baby sleep problems— I should turn to research from the experts: people who had devoted their lives to helping parents with this exact problem. Left to our own devices, what my husband and I were doing wasn’t working, that much was certain. We were all miserable. Consulting these books suddenly made me feel less alone. I now had hope.

Online I read some of the criticisms of sleep training—that it could cause long-lasting psychological harm, that it can impact the attachment bond between parent and child. But then I reassessed the sleep training research for myself. It was obvious to me that these critics were grossly overstating and misconstruing the research on infant stress responses. If you look closely at the studies many critics cite, you will see that they are specifically about the effects of chronic, severe neglect and abuse on the infant brain, not about the effects of a temporary stressor, like sleep training, in the life of a baby in an otherwise happy, loving home.

And a secure attachment bond develops over the course of months and years of sensitive and responsive interaction between parent and child. Attachment researchers state that a few nights of sleep training (and even periodic “retraining”) resulting in better sleep for everyone will do nothing to harm that bond. In fact, it’s quite possible that it may improve the bond once the parent and child are no longer suffering the effects of sleep deprivation.

So we did it. We let our son cry it out, using gradually increasing “check-ins” and then no checks at all. He cried for almost an hour the first night. Then less and less over the next few nights. In less than a week, he no longer needed to be rocked or fed to sleep and didn’t cry at all when placed in his crib awake at bedtime. From our video monitor, we witnessed how he learned to self-soothe: he discovered that he liked sucking on his fingers and sleeping on his stomach. Best of all, he now only got up once during the night to eat—rather than four, five, or six times—and woke up happy and babbling, not screaming, crying, and rubbing his eyes.

Three years later my daughter was born. Unlike my son, who was bottlefed from the age of six weeks due to severe milk protein allergies and who never liked co-sleeping, my daughter is breastfed. Up until she was more than four months old, I shared a bed with her, purely out of desperation. The only way that she would sleep more than an hour at a time was nestled in the crook of my arm, inches away from the breast. All the things I swore I would never do with her—bedsharing, breastfeeding all night on demand past the age of three or four months, rocking to sleep, holding her in my arms for naps—I have done. And still do on occasion.

At four months old we decided to sleep-train her as well. While this taught her to fall asleep on her own at bedtime, she continues to wake up inexplicably and inconsistently, screaming again for the breast or for my arms. We let her cry during the night, sometimes, for almost an hour. For two or three nights, she’ll wake up once for a quick feeding, but the next night, she’ll wake up four or five times and refuse to go back to sleep. Naptime is also a struggle.

Despite my daughter’s more challenging sleep habits, I still feel confident in our choice to sleep train her. Before sleep training, she and I rarely slept for more than one or two consecutive hours, and I found it impossible to sleep well in the same bed with a baby who demanded nearly continuous breastfeeding through the night. I was so tired that I was afraid to drive and had no patience for my four year old. Now she stays in her crib all night, and she falls asleep at bedtime without much fuss. My husband and I get at least a couple hours of time together in the evenings before she might wake up.

If my son was the hare of sleep training, my daughter is a tortoise. But that’s okay. Because helping our children to be good sleepers is just like any other skill that we teach our children. Some of our kids are fast learners, some are not. The goals of sleep training are not the same for every kid or family, and neither is the process. There is no one sleep training method that will work for all babies.

So we won’t give up. Sleep is too important. We’ll keep adjusting our expectations and methods as she grows, develops, and matures and is capable of more and more independence. We’ll continue to support her and love her, even if it that means leaving her alone to struggle a bit, every day and every night.

Jessica Smock is a former educator and researcher who earned her doctorate in educational policy last spring. At her blog School of Smock she writes about parenting and education and was the editor of the recent anthology, The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship. She lives in Buffalo, New York with her husband, son and daughter. 

Home Birth

Home Birth


Of the many questions that surrounded my children’s births, “where” was simply not one of them.

There was my house, with its carpeted floors and plush interiors, its tight corners and two flights of stairs. And there was the local hospital, a sterile purpose-built environment. The former I considered a place where people live and watch TV and cook dinner. The latter I considered a place where people go to have medical procedures as safely as possible. Because I counted birth as an essentially medical procedure—a procedure, that is, during which lives are at stake—the distinction between the two locales couldn’t have been clearer in my mind.

So when Jessica Smock approached me with the idea of a feature-length article on the topic of home birth, I was dubious. Jessica and I had already written a pair of essays that turned on the issue of what constitutes a “good” delivery, a debate that illuminated the divide between those of us who view a baby’s entrance into the world as a means to an end and those of us who place a primacy, often a high one, on the process itself. As a woman who is firmly in the means-to-an-end camp, I had to admit to conceptualizing home birth as a rather extreme option on the “process” side, lingering somewhere at the far end of the natural-birth continuum alongside lavender candles and placenta-berry smoothies.

And yet it so happened at the time that a friend of mine was pregnant. This friend, Maria, is one of the most moderate mothers I know, a far cry indeed from the stereotype home birth tends to conjure. She vaccinates her children. They sleep in their own beds; they will attend the school down the road. She is not, in other words, a champion of the kind of anti-institution, “DIY” (do-it-yourself) parenting Emily Matchar describes so well in her book Homeward Bound, the introduction of which contains this gem: “From home births to diaper-free infants to hand-mashed baby food to extended breast-feeding, today’s parenthood often seems to take its cues from Little House on the Prairie.”

Which is why you might be able to imagine my surprise when, on a visit to Maria’s house for tea and cake in the late stages of her second pregnancy, she casually pointed out the pile of birth equipment stashed in the corner of her spare room. It sat there rather ceremoniously, a promise of the major event set to take place a few weeks later in that very spot. It would be an understatement to say I was shocked. But I also became very curious, very quickly. All of a sudden I wanted to understand: what is the motivation to have a baby in your own home?

And this is exactly what Jessica and I set out to discover. We found that home birth, for a certain segment of the population, is not really about answering the question: “Where will my baby be born?” It is about imbuing the birth experience with some sort of meaning that transcends the pragmatic task of getting a baby out of its mother’s womb. Often it is about control and demedicalizing the process of giving life. For once you remove yourself from the hospital setting, with its myriad of medical interventions, there is an inimitable opportunity to let your body lead the way.

Which sounds wonderful, of course, until your body doesn’t quite know the right way to go. Women have been pushing out babies since the beginning of time, fair enough. But women have also been dying in childbirth since the beginning of time, as have infants, in much greater numbers than they do now. A successful home birth might be statistically likely and it’s all well and good if you are in that majority. It can be catastrophic, however, if you are not. And the twist of the knife is that you simply cannot know ahead of time into which group you will fall, however straightforward your pregnancy has been. My sister-in-law, for example, suffered a prolapsed umbilical cord during her labor, a completely unpredictable setback. Had she not been in a hospital, her baby would have been lost.

Risk should be at the center of any discussion of home birth, though as we concluded in our piece, it is a subject about which it is near impossible to draw hard and fast lines. As such, the safety of delivering a baby in your house is one of the fiercest battlegrounds of reproductive medicine: the same data are interpreted variably depending on who is doing the interpreting; new studies with different protocols are drawn up to counterbalance previous studies. Home birth is also an arena that is handled differently in different countries, which affects the perception (and also perhaps the reality) of its safety.

In an astonishing development, announced after our article went to print, the UK has changed its guidelines on home birth and has done so rather drastically. In 2007, the guidelines advised women to be “cautious” about home birth in the absence of conclusive risk assessments. But as of last month the National Health Service is now advising healthy women that it is “particularly suitable” for them to have their babies at home as opposed to in a hospital. That in optimal conditions—low-risk pregnancies of women who have already given birth with no complications—delivering at home is safer because of the lower chances of surgical intervention, accident and infection.

Welcomed here is the idea that certified nurse midwives should play an increasingly important role in childbirth. More suspect is the notion that these midwives should be delivering 45% of Britain’s babies in an environment devoid of certain life-saving techniques should an emergency transpire. According to Amy Tuteur, who goes by the online persona “The Skeptical OB,” “homebirth is no safer than it ever was.” She considers the British development a matter of putting babies’ lives at risk for reasons of political expediency and economic cost-cutting. So too the chairman of the committee on obstetrics practice for American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has reiterated the college’s position in respect of the US, a country with a significantly different medical system from the UK: “We believe that hospitals and birthing centers are the safest places for birth, safer than home.”

What kind of practical effect the NICE guidelines will have is unclear. The home birth rate in the UK has been falling in recent years (2.3%), as it has been rising in the US (1.36%). Whether the new recommendations will ultimately put Britain on a par with a country like the Netherlands (where about 25% of births take place at home) is yet to be seen, as is whether the changes in policy on one side of the Atlantic will have any cross-cultural impact on the obstetric practice of the other side. And while home birth is still something I would never choose for myself, I will now be watching with interest as to whether it becomes a more common occurrence among my friends.