For new mothers, pain, discomfort, and the embarrassment of having to ask “silly questions” often betray popular images portraying them as smiling, confident women breastfeeding their babies.
The surprising truth is that while most give breastfeeding a try, they end up quitting before the six months recommended by doctors, turning instead to formula out of convenience, if not frustration.
“It’s hard to breastfeed,” says Martha Gonzalez, a participant at a recent workshop on breastfeeding at the Bell Gardens WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) center, a federally-funded nutrition program.
Gonzalez whose own experience with her nine-month old was filled with uncertainty says she had so many “silly questions” when she began, including ones about how to hold her own baby and whether or not her breast would suffocate him while he was feeding.
“Thinking back in my head, those questions just sound silly,” but she asked them anyway. “At the time [those questions] were really important to me,” she says.
She was able to find answers at the WIC center in Bell Gardens, which she says is one of the best around with its breast pump loan program, dedicated breastfeeding counselor and multitude of workshops and support groups where mothers share techniques and tips.
Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOL: Mamás Obtienen Apoyo y Consejos Acerca de Dar Pecho en el WIC de Bell Gardens 
During the workshop, Gonzalez’s ears perk up when a woman behind her asks for advice about how to fit breastfeeding into a busy work schedule. She is eager to offer help in this area and informs the woman that WIC loans out high quality breast milk pumps
Like a few of the other mothers there, Gonzalez only learned about WIC’s breastfeeding program after experiencing some early complications. Her baby, Adrian, was born two months premature, but she says most people would not be able to tell that now.
She attributes this to feeding her son breast milk instead of formula.
Breast milk is believed to have added nutrients that reduce incidences of childhood complications, as well as obesity and diabetes, say counselors at the Bell Gardens WIC. Every year, the Bell Gardens WIC holds a breastfeeding awareness walk, something that they began nearly two decades ago.
WIC Supervisor Stella Sancedo says their goal is to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding among women who come to their Bell Gardens center. About 50 percent of mothers breastfeed exclusively during the baby’s first month, but the number drops soon after to 15 percent, as some mothers begin introducing formula into their baby’s diet, according to the center’s figures from July 2012.
They often give up because breastfeeding can hurt if not done correctly, or the mothers do not think they have the time to do it, says breastfeeding peer counselor Hilda Estaban.
Thirty-two year old Downey resident Sonia Hernandez first came by the Bell Gardens WIC to redeem some formula coupons that she received from the hospital. Like many mothers, Hernandez wanted to give breastfeeding a try, but gave up after a frustrating attempt with her first son. “He didn’t like it,” she said.
When her second son was born, she told herself, “I’m going to try it, but if it doesn’t work, I’m not going to keep on doing it.”
She says it just was not that important to her at first, but when her second son Steven contracted a serious infection at three weeks old and had to be put on antibiotics for 21 days, counselors at the WIC advised her to try breastfeeding him.
She believes the breast milk helped, and says Steven got over the infection and is happy and calm now. As she bounces her son, now three months old, on her lap, she is crossing her fingers that she will not have to take him back to the hospital.
“It’s the best thing for your child. For me, the experience I’ve been through, I don’t know what would have happened to my son if I didn’t breastfeed,” she said.
But many of the people around her are not yet sold on breastfeeding. Her husband sometimes complains about the time commitment. Early on, some babies need to be fed as often as every half hour. Hernandez recalls fighting with her husband about it. “I said, you see him, if he gets sick again… what do you want me to do, stop breastfeeding and get him in the hospital again?”
Most of her female friends prefer to use formula, says Hernandez. They think it will make them smell like milk, she says, calling the rationale “stupid.” Her mother did not breastfeed, but seems proud that she is doing it, she adds.
There has been a relatively recent national push to get more women to breastfeed, with spokespeople ranging from the U.S. Surgeon General and First Lady Michelle Obama, says Deborah Myers, chief nutritionist for the South Los Angeles Health Projects which runs local WIC centers, including the Bell Gardens location.
Myers says WIC began offering a new package to promote breastfeeding in 2009. Unlike the usual WIC food packages, this one gives mothers an incentive to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months by extending the food supply to the entire first year.
She adds that breastfeeding awareness is also starting to extend to hospitals where more and more are working to become more “baby friendly,” meaning more are encouraging of breastfeeding over formula. “I would say the hospitals are in their early stages, but they’re aware and working on it. Most of them are beginning or in the process of examining policies and updating procedures,” Myers says.
The country has come a long way from when formula was considered the first choice and a whole generation of babies were fed only on formula, says Myers. “For many years there was a feeling that those who were breastfeeding advocates were going against the tide. The lowest rate of breastfeeding I believe was in the 70s.”
For more information about the Bell Gardens WIC call (310) 661-3080  . They are located at 6501 South Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens, CA 90201.
Editor’s Note: The Bell Gardens WIC number for more information has been updated.