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The top 10 breastfeeding myths debunked by science

By Cradlewise Staff

Breastfeeding your baby for the first time can be one of the most memorable moments of your life. But as a parent-to-be, you might be feeling inundated by all of the advice, opinions, and tips that seem to be coming at you. 

With everyone giving you their two cents on breastfeeding and nursing, it’s important to separate facts from myths and misconceptions. Here are the top 10 myths about breastfeeding debunked by science.

MYTH 1: Breastfeeding always hurts.

FACT: If you are nursing for the first time, it’s only natural to wonder, “does breastfeeding hurt?” It really shouldn’t. “It may be uncomfortable as it’s a new sensation, but it shouldn’t be painful. Pain is a sign that the latch isn’t good,” says Krystyn Parks (MS, RD, IBCLC) and the founder of Feeding Made Easy.

I have raised four children, and I performed these experiments, but even I couldn’t foresee the key results of this study until the statistical data came up.

– Dr. Kumi Kuroda, team leader of the affiliative social behavior unit at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science

While it’s common for your nipples to feel sore initially because of hormone level changes or an initial shallow latch, this shouldn’t persist beyond the early days. 

Abnormal pain during breastfeeding includes:

  • Nipple pain lasting longer than a minute after latching
  • Nipples that are cracked and bleeding
  • Small, tender lumps (may mean a plugged duct)
  • Hard, red lumps with fever (this could indicate mastitis, an infection)

If you continue feeling pain while breastfeeding, consult a lactation professional, and consider learning about breastfeeding before your baby arrives.

“Take a course or make a prenatal appointment with a lactation consultant to learn the basics of your breasts and nipples,” says Taylor Bonacolta, an RN and Certified Lactation Counselor and the creator of June and Lily. “Going into breastfeeding with basic knowledge helps you become more successful.”

MYTH 2:  Don’t wake a baby to breastfeed.

FACT:  Whether you wake a baby to eat depends on factors like the baby’s age, weight, and health. It’s not advised for newborn babies to go more than about four hours without feeding, even overnight. But as babies regain their birth weight and start sleeping through the night, you may not need to wake them if they’re growing well—always consult your pediatrician for specifics.

MYTH 3: Breastfeeding causes breasts to sag.

FACT: Be honest—you’ve probably wondered, “Does breastfeeding make your boobs sag?” But you can’t pin sagging on nursing alone.

Breastfeeding in and of itself doesn’t cause the breasts to sag; instead, the ligaments which support the breasts stretch during pregnancy as the breasts get heavier. Factors such as genetics, gravity, age, lack of supportive bras during exercise, and weight gain may play a role.

Dr. Kecia Gaither, a double board-certified physician in OB/GYN and Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

MYTH 4: When it comes to alcohol and breastfeeding, you need to pump and dump after every drink.

FACT: When talking about alcohol and breastfeeding, CDC states, “Not drinking alcohol is the safest option for breastfeeding mothers. However, moderate alcohol consumption (up to one drink per day) is not known to be harmful to the infant, especially if the mother waits at least 2 hours after a single drink before nursing.”

Alcohol levels are usually highest in breast milk 30 to 60 minutes after a drink is consumed and can be detected in breast milk for about two to three hours per drink afterwards. If you’ve had a drink, it’s recommended to wait at least three hours before nursing.

Did you know?
The more alcohol you consume, the longer it can be detected in your breast milk.
If you have three drinks, the alcohol will be detected in your breast milk for the next six to eight hours.

MYTH 5 : You can’t get pregnant while breastfeeding.

FACT: Maybe you heard that breastfeeding equals birth control. But can you get pregnant while breastfeeding? You certainly can. Breastfeeding creates higher levels of oxytocin and prolactin, the hormones responsible for milk production. Although these hormones might stop ovulation temporarily, it’s not guaranteed. You could be ovulating at any point and get pregnant—even if you haven’t gotten your period.

A mother feeding her baby

MYTH 6: Mothers who are sick shouldn’t breastfeed. 

FACT: In recent times, a common question has been, “Can I breastfeed if I have COVID?” Whether you have COVID or another illness like the flu or the common cold, it’s fine to nurse if you’re sick. “It’s actually beneficial for a breastfeeding mother to nurse or pump breast milk. If you’re sick, your body will create antibodies to help prevent your baby from getting sick or reduce their symptoms,” says Bonacolta. 

A recently published study found evidence of COVID antibodies in the breast milk of vaccinated mothers.

MYTH 7: You can’t drink caffeine while breastfeeding.

FACT: Sleep deprivation is real, so it’s natural to wonder whether you can have caffeine while breastfeeding. Luckily, you can hang onto your Keurig.

If you drink caffeine, labor doula and lactation counselor Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D., MPH suggests, Start with small amounts and watch the baby for potential symptoms [like fussiness].” The CDC states that caffeine passes in small amounts through breast milk but usually does not adversely affect the infant when the mother consumes low to moderate amounts (about 300 milligrams or less per day, which is about two to three cups of coffee). 

Did you know?
The amount of caffeine also depends on the type of coffee you’re consuming. For example, one ounce of espresso (the amount in one shot) has 63 mg of caffeine. On the other hand, regular coffee has 12 to 16 mg of caffeine in one ounce.

Countless other factors like the brand, type of beans, and preparation method also contribute to varying levels of caffeine in your coffee.

MYTH 8: You can’t get a tattoo while breastfeeding.

FACT: Although there are no official medical regulations against getting a tattoo when you’re breastfeeding, some artists may refuse to work on someone known to be pregnant or nursing. Getting a tattoo when you are breastfeeding does have risks, such as infection or an allergic reaction. In their section about tattoos and breastfeeding, La Leche League recommends waiting nine to 12 months after giving birth when your baby is not nursing exclusively.

And, of course, anyone planning to get a tattoo should research their shop to ensure they’re following local and state health regulations for best hygiene practices. 

MYTH 9: Frequent feeding means the baby isn’t getting enough milk.

FACT: That’s actually false. Breastfed babies often get hungrier sooner than the babies that are formula fed because breast milk is easier to digest. They will also nurse more during growth spurts.

Baby drinking milk from a bottle

MYTH 10: Only those who have experienced pregnancy can breastfeed.

FACT: Believe it or not, you can produce milk without being pregnant, and through induced lactation, breastfeeding (or chestfeeding) is available to parents who did not biologically give birth to the baby—like adoptive parents, intended parents through surrogacy, and trans parents.

The steps required include:

  • Preparing the breasts for lactation by growing the glandular breast tissue. This step, which is optional, often uses drugs that mimic the natural milk-producing hormones. 
  • Simulating the breasts to make milk. This involves frequent pumping, stimulating, and draining the breasts, which can be done with an electric breast pump and various manual techniques.
  • Continuously feeding the baby when they arrive. 

With induced lactation, milk is often produced very slowly, so the process must be started weeks or even months before the baby’s arrival. Breastfeeding or chestfeeding can also be simulated using a nursing supplementer. In this process, a bag or bottle will hold milk or formula and carry it to the nipple through a tiny tube. 

Did you know?
It’s not necessary to have ovaries and a uterus or even be fertile to be able to breastfeed. A person needs a hormone called prolactin for milk production and oxytocin for milk ejection. The pituitary gland is responsible for releasing both hormones.

The bottom line

Breastfeeding is a long journey, and it’s essential to have support and reliable information during this time. Here are some evidence-based sources for breastfeeding that might be helpful:

Apart from such resources, “Having a professional to support you on your journey is [also] great,” Weiss suggests.

Besides your own LC and pediatrician, it can also be helpful to connect with other breastfeeding parents to swap tips. Depending on where you live, you might find one at your pediatrician’s office, hospital, or yoga studio. La Leche League also hosts chapter meetings that include a mix of new and experienced parents. 

“Remember that there are so many ways to breastfeed—do not think there is only one way. Do what works for you and your family and get help to meet your personal goals.”

Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D., MPH, labor doula and lactation counselor.

More top breastfeeding myths

You have to wean if you become pregnant while nursing

FACT: Usually, it’s perfectly safe to breastfeed while you’re pregnant, although milk supply decreases around the fifth month due to hormone changes. Some pregnant parents may also choose to wean for their own reasons—it’s a personal decision that’s different for everyone.

Breastfeeding parents must limit their diet.

FACT: Not necessarily—here’s what to know. First, eating a range of foods may be helpful. “Milk flavor changes depending on what the parent eats, so eating a variety of foods can expose your baby to new flavors. There is no truth to avoiding gassy foods to prevent a gassy baby myth. If your baby has an allergy, you may need to avoid that specific allergen,” says Parks. 

There’s no official list of “foods to avoid while breastfeeding.” Parks mentions that certain things like peppermint might decrease supply, but no need to give up those yummy York patties—you’d need to consume massive quantities to see an effect.

Babies can’t drink pumped breast milk unless it’s been heated first.

FACT: “Can babies drink cold breast milk?” is a common question among parents who are storing pumped milk. It’s absolutely fine for babies to drink breast milk straight from the fridge. But when you refrigerate breast milk, a layer of fat will start separating at the top. It contains lots of nutrients, so make sure to give it a good swirl (as recommended by the CDC)

Sources:

  1. Storage and Preparation of Breast Milk. CDC. 2019. “Storage and preparation of breast milk.
  2. Milk supply reduction around 5th month. La Leche League GB. 2016. “Pregnant and breastfeeding.
  3. Breast milk and antibodies. JAMA Network. 2022. “Association of Human Milk Antibody Induction, Persistence, and Neutralizing Capacity With SARS-CoV-2 Infection vs mRNA Vaccination.
  4. Alcohol and breast milk. CDC. 2021. “Is it safe for mothers to breastfeed their infant if they have consumed alcohol?
  5. Caffeine and breast milk. CDC. 2022. “Maternal Diet.
  6. Tattoos and breastfeeding. La Leche League International. “Tattoos and Breastfeeding.

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