A resource to inspire, inform and empower parents.

What To Know About Breastfeeding And Custody Issues

By Wendy Wisner, IBCLC

It is never easy when you are faced with a custody dispute, and when breastfeeding is involved, things have the potential to get complicated, stressful, and downright awful – and at a quick pace.

Part of the problem is that breastfeeding and the breastfeeding relationship are so misunderstood in general. Many of the people you encounter as you navigate custody issues – judges, lawyers, mediators, social workers – are not properly educated about what breastfeeding entails, or don’t fully support breastfeeding (even if they say they do). And if your child’s father doesn’t understand that breastfeeding is both a feeding method and an exchange of love between you and your baby, things can get icky.

In some cases, especially if you are fighting intensely with your child’s father, your breastfeeding relationship can be used against you. It can be easy for an angry ex to characterize you as an overly attached, breastfeeding-obsessed, smothering mom – and then try to paint you that way in court. It’s terrible, but it happens all too often.

I am not a lawyer, but as an IBCLC, I have counseled many moms as they’ve dealt with custody issues and breastfeeding. It can be a very painful process, but you will get through it, especially if you are armed with good information, and you reach out for support.

Here are some key points to get you started:

1. If Possible, Negotiate With Your Child’s Father Outside Of Court

It’s not always possible, but if you and your child’s father can reach a settlement out of court, that would usually be preferred, because if you go through the legal system, you are putting the final decision in the hands of one person (the judge). A mediator is a good option for many families.

2. Find A Lawyer Who “Gets It”

You may not be able to find a lawyer who knows everything about what a breastfeeding relationship looks like, but finding one who “gets it” in some way is key. Maybe your lawyer breastfed or someone in their family breastfed. Maybe your lawyer had another client who faced the same issues. The idea is to get someone who is on your side when it comes to the breastfeeding issue – and perhaps more importantly, who knows how to navigate the court system as it pertains to this issue.

Check out this article from the Pennsylvania Breastfeeding Coalition for how to find a good lawyer, and also how to find a low-cost one, if that is a concern for you.

3. Have Realistic Goals

If you go into the situation thinking that the only option for you is zero separations from your baby, you will likely be let down, and harbor continued feelings of anger or inflexibility. The truth is, although there may be ways to negotiate so that the separations are minimal, your child’s father is probably going to have some visitation rights, and you need to accept this. What your goal should be is to make the separations as breastfeeding-friendly as possible. This might mean several shorter visitations rather than long ones, or visitations where you will be nearby for breastfeeding.

4. Bring In Experts

If you are dealing with this issue in court, it might make sense to bring in an expert who can attest to the importance of not interrupting the breastfeeding relationship. It is best to have your lawyer arrange this. As the Pennsylvania Breastfeeding Coalition explains, sometimes bringing in a lactation consultant is helpful, but more times than not, bringing in a child development expert who can speak about attachment parenting, or a pediatrician who can speak about the health benefits of breastfeeding and attachment, is an even better bet.

5. Emphasize What Is Best For The Child

It may feel totally counterintuitive when what you are most concerned with is maintaining breastfeeding, but it is usually best not to emphasize that as much as your relationship with your child and what is best for them in terms of emotional stability (and bring in experts who can attest to this). The reason, again, is that most judges and other involved in custody disputes don’t really get breastfeeding, and will likely tell you to just pump and put your milk in a bottle as the solution to resolving the breastfeeding issue.

6. Give As Much As You Are Comfortable With

I remember getting some great advice a few years back from a fellow lactation consultant about how to advise a mom dealing with custody issues. She said that the more you can offer your spouse, the better. Now, that doesn’t mean offering to have your breastfeeding baby do overnights when they are two months old. But, for example, let’s say overnights are what you want to avoid (understandable for a breastfeeding mama!). What you would do is offer as much daytime visitation as you feel ok with so that overnights don’t feel as much of an issue. The more you are able to give — while holding tight to the boundaries that are most important to you — the less your spouse will feel that he is in a war with you over visitations.

7. Band Together With Other Moms Going Through This

You may feel isolated and alone, but you are not the only one who has struggled through a custody dispute while breastfeeding. It can be so helpful to connect with other moms who have gone through this — for advice, but also for commiseration and solidarity. Reach out to your local La Leche League or an online breastfeeding support group to connect with moms in similar situations.

8. Don’t Give Up; It’s Going To Be Okay

While you are working through this, it may feel at times like your whole world is coming crashing down. But as upsetting as the whole experience is, it’s going to be ok. If you are suffering and can’t keep your anger or anxiety in check, please reach out to a therapist or counselor (here is good a resource for how to find a low-cost counselor). You will need all your strength and wherewithal to get through this, so self-care is a must. Anger in particular will make it very difficult to negotiate effectively.

Bottom line: You’ve got this, you’re a great mom, and everything is going to work out in the end.

Here are some resources for further reading:

Breastfeeding and Child Custody: 6 Points to Empower You, by Marie Biancuzzo, IBCLC

Breastfeeding Really a Visitation Issue?, by Elizabeth N. Baldwin, Esq. & Kenneth A. Friedman, Esq. 

A Journey Through Breastfeeding and Visitation, The Leaky Boob

Protecting Breastfeeding While In A Divorce Or Custody Dispute, Pennsylvania Breastfeeding Coalition.

Wendy is the mom of two awesome boys, a freelance writer and editor, and a lactation consultant (IBCLC). Find her on the web at www.wendywisner.com.