This is the last in a series on the Lamaze Healthy Birth Practices, why they are important in birth, and how they are less commonly "allowed" in women of size. The previous entries have been:
1. Let Labor Begin On Its Own
2. Walk, Move Around, and Change Positions During Birth
3. Bring a Loved One, Friend, or Doula for Continuous Support
4. Avoid Unnecessary Interventions
5. Get upright and follow urges to push
And the final Healthy Birth Practice is [drumrollllllllllll] :
6. Keep baby with you
Although you'd think that this one was a no-brainer, it's surprising how many women are kept from early and frequent contact with their babies after birth, which then can impact bonding and breastfeeding.
And because of the incredibly high rate of interventions used with "obese" women, women of size often have even less contact with their babies after birth, which strongly contributes to lower rates of breastfeeding in this group.
Why Skin-To-Skin Contact and Rooming In Is Important
You wouldn't think you would have to fight for contact with your baby after birth, but sadly, mothers and babies are separated far too often postpartum and it can have long-lasting consequences on breastfeeding and bonding.
This separation seems to happen even more in high-tech, high-intervention births, especially cesareans. Breastfeeding initiation rates are lower in women who have had cesareans, skin-to-skin contact is often not available (even though it could be), and contact is often delayed, sometimes for hours or even longer. In the meantime, babies are often given pacifiers and bottles of formula or glucose water, which decrease the baby's desire to nurse and which often interfere with a good latch.
Even when the baby is born vaginally, the mother often gets only a few moments with baby before it is whisked off, cleaned up, weighed and measured, examined, given eye goop, and then bundled into a blanket. When the mother gets the baby back, no skin-to-skin contact is available anymore and critical early moments together have been missed. In addition, many mothers are discouraged from having their babies "room in" with them at night, yet frequent nursing at night is very important in establishing a good milk supply.
Research shows that early skin-to-skin contact and continuous time (rooming in) with the mother improve outcomes. Babies sustain their temperature better when skin-to-skin with their mothers, they maintain higher and better blood sugar, and have better cardio-respiratory function. Skin-to-skin contact decreases crying behaviors, increases maternal gestures of affection, and long-term bonding seems improved after rooming in. In addition, both short-term and long-term breastfeeding rates are improved with skin-to-skin contact and rooming in.Yet hospital routines often get in the way of this important time.
One study in Pediatrics in 2008 looked at six "Baby-Friendly" practices to see which were associated with less cessation of breastfeeding before 6 weeks. These "baby-friendly practices" included:
- Breastfeeding initiation within 1 hour of birth
- Giving only breast milk
- Rooming in
- Breastfeeding on demand
- No pacifiers
- Fostering breastfeeding support groups
The practices most consistently associated with breastfeeding beyond 6 weeks were initiation within 1 hour of birth, giving only breast milk, and not using pacifiers. Bringing the infant to the room for feeding at night if not rooming in and not giving pain medications to the mother during delivery were also protective against early breastfeeding termination. Compared with the mothers who experienced all 6 "Baby-Friendly" practices, mothers who experienced none were approximately 13 times more likely to stop breastfeeding early.Interventions, Women of Size, and Impact On Breastfeeding
These practices may be even more important in women of size. Research shows that there is a lower rate of breastfeeding among "obese" mothers. Some of this may be because of legitimate supply issues from PolyCystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a metabolic disease that many fat women have. Other factors that may impede breastfeeding establishment include possible subclinical hypothyroidism, subtle or overt discouragement of breastfeeding in women with large breasts, more difficult mechanics with a larger body, or postpartum anemia. [More on this in a future post.]
However, the role of aggressive birth interventions in the lower rate of breastfeeding among obese women typically goes conveniently unexamined in the research. Breastfeeding failure is blamed solely on fatness, when in fact, the high level of interventions in obese pregnancies and births may also play a significant role.
For example, "obese" women are induced at a higher rate than women of average size, with most induced women receiving pitocin at some point in labor. Pitocin is an anti-diuretic, and when combined with aggressive IV fluids, can cause significant edema in the mother. This can cause greater breast engorgement and make it difficult for the baby to latch on and nurse efficiently.
A high rate of inductions usually means a high rate of pain medication use in the mother, and some research indicates that more pain meds results in impaired breastfeeding behaviors in the baby, especially with IV narcotics. In particular, some research shows that the combination of pain meds and separation of mother and baby after birth significantly inhibits initial breastfeeding behaviors, while other research shows that avoiding pain medications in labor is protective against early breastfeeding cessation.
Because the rate of cesareans in women of size is so high, it also has strong impact on breastfeeding rates. Research shows that lactogenesis (the mother's milk "coming in") can be delayed after a cesarean compared to a vaginal birth. This may be due to some inherent hormonal differences between vaginal birth and cesareans, or it may be due to decreased immediate contact after birth. Delayed initiation of breastfeeding may also be a factor; research shows that in women delivered by cesarean, aggressive early suckling leads to better breastfeeding rates than delayed suckling.
Another possible reason for breastfeeding difficulties in fat women is the excessive intervention commonly seen with big babies, which are more common in women of size. Big babies have a higher risk of low blood sugar after birth, so there is often aggressive testing and formula supplementation of these babies after they are born, but all the separation, testing, and supplements can end up further sabotaging breastfeeding.
Research shows that most of the time routine testing and supplementing is not necessary in big babies if the baby is not symptomatic and is nursing well. Furthermore, as noted above, skin-to-skin contact has been shown to improve blood sugar rates and stability of babies after birth, so the common interruption of time between women of size and their babies is usually unnecessary.
The high rate of interventions commonly used in the births of "obese" women often leads to a "perfect storm" of conditions that inhibit neonatal adaptations to life outside the womb, and interfere with bonding and breastfeeding in babies of women of size.
Alas, my own first birth was a good demonstration of the negative effects of such interventions on breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding came very close to "failing" with my first child....for all the reasons cited above.
The doctor feared a big baby, so he induced labor. Labor was long and hard, high doses of pitocin and IV fluids were pushed, and pain meds were eventually needed. The induction failed, and we ended with an extremely traumatic cesarean.
After the cesarean itself, there was no skin-to-skin contact, and only a brief moment of bonding in the post-op recovery room, after which I was separated from my baby for EIGHT HOURS. By the time we tried nursing, she had had many bottles of formula, glucose water, and had been regularly given a pacifier.
Even after I started breastfeeding her, the nurses pushed more bottles of glucose water to "flush out the jaundice" (jaundice is a common side-effect of pitocin). Never mind that glucose water doesn't flush anything and actually prolongs or worsens jaundice.
I experienced massive fluid overload postpartum because of the anti-diuretic properties of pitocin combined with an over-zealous IV protocol. I had severe edema everywhere, including my breasts. That made it very difficult for baby to latch on, and baby was very sleepy from the jaundice caused by all the pitocin. This made breastfeeding very inefficient even when it did happen.
I had a long, stressful labor and a horrible cesarean experience. A cesarean plus a stressful labor can cause real problems with lactogenesis. My milk didn't come in for a week....and when it did come in, the baby could hardly latch on because I was so severely engorged. Add into that her sleepiness, all the formula and glucose water, all the resultant infrequent nursing....and you have a classic recipe for delayed lactogenesis and breastfeeding issues.
So was the problem here really my fatness? Or was it all the interventions that I experienced because of the way the doctors treated my fatness, interventions that snowballed into the classic cascade of complications?
I did eventually manage to preserve the breastfeeding relationship, but mostly through sheer luck and stubborness. But it took about 2-3 months before things really started to work, and I almost gave up any number of times.
I should also note that I never had problems again with breastfeeding in my subsequent pregnancies. If fatness was really to blame, the problems with breastfeeding would have been consistent. Instead, the difference was in the interventions used and my insistence on early and frequent nursing, rooming in, and constant contact with my babies. For me, that made all the difference in the world.
What Can You Do To Avoid This?
While there may definitely be something to the idea of hormonal imbalances like PCOS causing breastfeeding issues, it is important not to overlook the negative influence of the aggressive interventions commonly used in women of size. These can also affect breastfeeding, but are rarely controlled for in most research.
For fat women to have the best possible chance to succeed at breastfeeding, the best approach is to:
- promote a vaginal birth with spontaneous labor
- not use routine birth interventions unless truly medically indicated, especially IV fluids and pitocin
- encourage early contact and breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth
- avoid separations between mother and baby
- promote skin-to-skin contact as much as possible and as early as possible
- have the baby "room in" after the birth, and especially at night
- avoid routine neonatal testing for low blood sugar unless baby is symptomatic
- strongly discourage formula and sugar-water supplementations unless necessary
- encourage frequent breastfeeding (every 2 hours or more)
- give help and information about positioning to women with very large breasts
- provide strong encouragement for breastfeeding to women of size
Some women of size may still experience breastfeeding problems--even when they do everything "right"--because of the hormonal imbalances that PCOS can cause. However, that doesn't mean that breastfeeding should be discontinued or discouraged, because any amount of breastmilk a baby receives is extremely beneficial immunologically.
Instead, these women should be given information and support for increasing milk supply through the use of herbs and medications if needed, they should be given emotional support while working on breastfeeding issues, they should be given information and support for improving baby's latch (craniosacral therapy can work wonders in some babies), and they should be provided information about supplementation alternatives like Lact-Aid or the Supplemental Nursing System if the addition of formula is needed.
Of course, sometimes weaning is the only sane thing to do under certain circumstances, and it deserves to be grieved and accepted if that becomes necessary. But too often, women are not told that breastfeeding does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Many women who experience problems can breastfeed at least partially, short-term or long-term, thereby giving baby much-needed immunological protections while still providing formula supplements if necessary.
But most of the time, most women can breastfeed, and more would probably breastfeed successfully if there were fewer interventions routinely used around labor and birth, if early skin-to-skin contact were uniformly utilized, if early and frequent breastfeeding was encouraged, if better breastfeeding support were given after birth, and if rooming-in became the standard of care.
Question: How many of the "Baby-Friendly" practices (breastfeeding initiation within 1 hour of birth, giving only breast milk, rooming in, breastfeeding on demand, no pacifiers, breastfeeding support groups) did you experience with your babies?