Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Fiona Audy, Alberta, Canada
Photo: Anna Bondarieva
A school for pregnant and parenting teens where breastfeeding is on the “timetable”
Supporting teen breastfeeding ￼
Once a month, for the past eight years, at a school for pregnant and parenting teens in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada there has been a La Leche League meeting. Those who attend are young women at various stages of pregnancy and young breastfeeding mothers, whose babies range in age from newborn to toddlers. Some come and plunk themselves down on the couches for a chat every month and others hover near the door, ask their question and then dash off.
The rate and duration of breastfeeding amongst the young women who attend the school is higher than the community average for teen moms. I would like to think that La Leche League has played a part in normalizing breastfeeding within this school community.
In some families, communities and cultures becoming a mother in your teens is almost an expected rite-of-passage and in others it is looked on as an extreme deviation from the expected path. In north America the rates of teen pregnancy have fallen over the years, but, interestingly, teen mothers are much more obvious in communities than they were in the past decades.
Can a teenager breastfeed?
Generally if a girl is able to get pregnant then her body is physiologically mature enough to produce breast milk. Mental maturity and the supporters the young mother has around her are important. Most young women have only regarded their breasts in a sexual context, so the idea of breasts for feeding a baby requires a major shift in thinking, and often even more so for their boyfriends. Talking about how the body makes breast milk, supply and demand, and what foods a mom can eat goes a long way toward helping a young mother feel more comfortable and confident about her ability to breastfeed.
Benefits of breastfeeding
The teen mothers I meet seem to be well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. Focusing on the benefits that fit with their stage of development can help them solidify their plans.
- Cost is a huge factor in the decision to breastfeed for most young mothers. In our community, unfortunately, there is very easy access to free artificial baby milk through food banks and other social support programs so cost alone isn’t enough to get them through any tough days.
- The ability to nurse lying down and not have to get up to make a bottle in the middle of the night is a breastfeeding benefit that is very appealing to someone who is still in the “stay up late, sleep in late” stage of life.
- For some young mothers the idea that breastfeeding is something only they can do for their baby is very appealing, but for others the idea that this baby will be totally dependent on them is very scary.
Plans and sharing
Forward planning is one of the stages of brain development that is often a few years away for many teens. Talking with young moms about their plans for specific situations can be helpful to get them thinking about possibilities.
At our meetings a lot of the discussion starts as open-ended questions: what do you plan to do if …? What have you thought about…? Like any LLL meeting the sharing of stories and experiences between the mothers, with a Leader to add in information or clarity, is what gives all the mothers a greater feeling of power and knowledge.
Because our meeting is in a lounge area of the school, girls who are no longer breastfeeding often wander by and join in the conversation or make comments. The misinformation or poorly managed breastfeeding challenges that they tend to share allow the Leader or other moms to balance their stories with correct information. Some teenagers are dogmatic and judgmental of each other and if these conversations took place only in the hallways of the school, the view of breastfeeding and the shared knowledge base could end up very skewed.
Like any LLL meeting the sharing of stories and experiences between the mothers, with a Leader to add in information or clarity, is what gives all the mothers a greater feeling of power and knowledge.
One of my hopes is that the girls whose breastfeeding experiences were shorter than they had anticipated, or who ran into problems that they couldn’t resolve, will leave the conversation understanding what information and support they were missing. This may set these young women up for more successful breastfeeding experiences in the future as they come to realize that their bodies did not fail them and they develop into better informed peer supporters for the other teen mothers around them.
Specific teen issues
The issues that teen mothers deal with are often different than those of adult mothers.
- Many will need to be back at school or work within a couple of weeks after giving birth.
- They are less likely to have their own transportation so they will need to deal with public transportation or be dependent on others for rides.
- Some have no qualms about breastfeeding in public but for most, in those early weeks, they can’t handle any additional strange looks beyond what they are already getting as a teen with a baby in tow.
- Helping them figure out how to manage the judicious use of a bottle or a pacifer can make the difference between continuing to breastfeed and giving up completely.
- Alcohol use, smoking, street drugs and birth control are other issues that come up far more often in the teen group.
For mothers of any age, the supporters they have around them can make all the difference to whether breastfeeding gets off to a successful start or flounders in the early days.
For young mothers, because of their lack of confidence (and other people’s lack of confidence in them), attitudes and knowledge of those around them hold great power. Teen mothers can give off an aura of being knowledgeable and self-aware and often have a hard time admitting when they are struggling with breastfeeding or parenting issues.
They are oriented to their peers and therefore much of their information about breastfeeding and babies can come from people who are equally ill informed.
In our meetings we try to ensure we have talked to each pregnant mom about who is going to be there in the early days when she has her baby and how those people feel about breastfeeding and their knowledge level. Things tend to go better when the grandma or older sisters are going to be nearby and have successfully breastfed themselves.
Boyfriends who have stayed around through the pregnancy have a huge influence over the breastfeeding decisions of a teen mother. Some boys are extremely supportive and want the best for their baby and will do whatever is needed to help make it happen. Others are very possessive of their girlfriend’s body and breasts and are not invested in the baby; their comments and attitudes can make breastfeeding very difficult to sustain.
This La Leche League group is a special situation where all of the participants (except the school staff who drop in and Leaders) are in their teens but this should not suggest that teen mothers are not welcomed at meetings held in the community. Young mothers who attend community meetings often come first in the company of someone they know and trust.
For all the bravado that many teens show it can be very scary to walk into a group where you know everyone will be older than you, where you assume everyone is in a stable partnership and where you do not know how participants will view a pregnant teenager. Teen mothers who come to La Leche League meetings generally find themselves welcomed and supported by the other mothers.
While the experiences and specific concerns of the older mothers and the young mother may not be the same, they hold in common a love for their babies and a desire to breastfeed and that is the bond that holds all of us together at meetings and throughout La Leche League.
La Leche League helping teens
Josie, Kerikeri, New Zealand: My story began at 16 years old when I fell pregnant to my short-term boyfriend, Mike. Our daughter, Emily, was born by cesarean section, five weeks early. Breastfeeding was a struggle for most of the five months I fed, despite having huge support from my mum. It sounds silly now that I am older, but I believe image played a role in my decision to swap to formula feeding.
I was 17 by then and no other girls I knew of my age were getting their breasts out in public—not to feed their babies anyway! Two and a half years later Mike and I decided to have another baby. Max was born in 2009, on time and with no difficulties and I was determined to make breastfeeding work. My midwife was extremely supportive and took a relaxed but firm approach to making sure I started off well.
Unfortunately, I was hit with postpartum depression a few weeks after Max’s birth. This is when I discovered La Leche League. Luckily my doctor was fully supportive of my breastfeeding needs and I have been mostly well ever since.
La Leche League Kerikeri and the mothers involved never made my age an issue and that was how I needed and wanted it to be. I always got a positive reaction when people found out my age and when I had started my wee family. I didn’t want to be treated any differently simply because I was a young mother. They were more interested about the issues that mattered, like helping establish a breastfeeding support network so that I felt comfortable to express any issues or questions I had.
Max is now two and a half and still regularly breastfeeds before bedtime and we are still involved with La Leche League. Due to my returning to study, thoughts of weaning have worked their way into our lives. I am thankful for having the full support of many people in my life to make my mothering journey as successful as it has been, though I am all too aware that this is not the case for many young girls. I saw this firsthand when I attended He Matariki – Teen Parent Unit. There is much to be done to ensure our young mothers and families are being supported and don’t become just another statistic.
Catherine, Quebec, Canada: I had my first baby ten years ago, when I was 17.
I decided to breastfeed and had some help at the hospital at the beginning. When I got home and had to deal with dreadful engorgement, I got in touch with La Leche League. I started going to weekly meetings for new mothers who were breastfeeding.
It was the ideal time and place for me; I got over my feeling of isolation, talked to other new mothers about my new life, asked all kinds of questions, attended workshops and information sessions, met a lactation specialist and did the thing I liked best: the weekly weigh-in! Getting my baby weighed was reassuring for me. What a relief it was to be told my baby was growing well! I’d feel so proud of myself. I was impressed to learn that even after my pregnancy was over my baby continued to grow entirely because of my milk and depended on me alone. Going to these meetings, the fact a Leader was always available by phone and having written material that was easy to find and understand, were the way I got help and support during my first experience of breastfeeding as a teen mother.
Allison, Auckland, New Zealand: I was a teen mom and fortunate to have come from a family where breastfeeding was normal, so I never really thought about breastfeeding as a choice. My mother was wonderful when my son was born, and the midwives gave me any “technical” help I needed to ensure a good latch.
Once I realized that I was the only person I knew breastfeeding a toddler, I phoned La Leche League and went along to some LLL meetings. I never really noticed the age difference (although I am sure it was considerable at the time) but felt a kinship with fellow breastfeeding mothers, who were discussing the very same issues I was dealing with. I was no longer alone! I am now an LLL Leader myself, and have breastfed all four of my children (including twins) until they weaned themselves. My eldest son is now 20 (and absolutely wonderful!). Being a teenage mother can be quite isolating at times, but I always felt safe and accepted within LLL.
Ali, Poole, UK: I was 17 when I gave birth to my first son. I was not breastfed myself and was brought up in care. I had never seen anyone breastfeed and breastfeeding was not something I had ever considered. Then, when I was pregnant, I did see someone breastfeed and I was amazed—no washing up!
When Billy was born, I put him to my breast and he knew what to do. I had another son at 19 and another at the age of 21, then my daughter at 36! All were breastfed and Molly still is. I found La Leche League only after I had Molly and learned that the way I had mothered my boys was normal (not weird as many of my friends thought at the time) and I am now an LLL Leader, too.
I had no support as a teenage mom. I wish I had found La Leche League then but I just followed my instincts.
Fiona Audy and her husband are the parents of four adult children and grandparents to two (with one more on the way). She is the Chair of the La Leche League Canada Board of Directors and leads LLL meetings at a school for pregnant and parenting teens. She was a teen mother too.