When Breast Isn’t Best

Tuesday morning I sat nursing my four-month-old son, scrolling through my Facebook feed on my phone when I saw it: Breastfeeding Awareness Week. My heart fell.

For a nursing mother, I have, perhaps, an unexpectedly low tolerance for the pro-breastfeeding social media blitz that is Breastfeeding Awareness Week. It seems to me a bludgeon, brought down on formula-feeding mothers again and again and again.

Because I’m one of those too: a formula-feeding mother.

When my oldest son was born four years ago, I intended to exclusively breastfeed. I tried to exclusively breastfeed. But my boy was very big and very hungry and my milk didn’t come in soon enough, so my poor baby spent most of his first few days screaming his head off. And losing weight. By the time we brought him to the pediatrician for his three-day appointment, he had lost almost 15 percent of his birth weight.

My milk still hadn’t come in. (It wouldn’t until day five.) And the baby seemed so pathetic and miserable and hungry and 15 percent was too much anyway, so with a very serious look on his face, our pediatrician handed us a bottle of pre-made formula and said that the baby needed to have it right away, right there in the office.

I have never seen anything that broke my heart more than the relief on that poor, hungry baby’s face when he took his first sips of formula. I felt awful. Awful that I couldn’t provide him with what he needed, awful that I might never be able to, awful that he had suffered because I had been unwilling to let go of my pride and just give him a bottle, already.

The anguish continued for months. I still couldn’t satisfy my boy’s hunger once my milk came in, he still wasn’t gaining back his birth weight on the small amounts of formula we were providing him at first, and he still wasn’t gaining weight when (at two months) I stopped feeding him formula altogether because I thought I’d finally built up my milk supply enough to satisfy him.

All the while, I was driving myself insane with the anguish and the guilt and the work of it all. I would nurse for an hour (sometimes two), then I’d make a bottle, feed a bottle, clean the bottles, pump, clean the pumping equipment, and start all over again. I’d sit in the rocker nursing until my tailbone could no longer take it. I’d go for appointments with a lactation consultant. I’d bring in my baby for weight check after weight check. I’d cry and then cry some more. I’d argue with my husband, sometimes blaming him because my own sense of inadequacy made me eager to shift the blame to someone, anyone else.

I was miserable.

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Four years later, I’m still capable of feeling that misery as if it were fresh. A few weeks ago I looked through my son’s newborn pictures to grab a few for a blog post and I was surprised at how hard it was to see them. It was hard for me to look at photos of my own baby. Each seemed its own little trauma; I knew the pain and the sense of failure hidden in each and every one.

When my second child was born, we had a similar experience, only this time the baby didn’t lose as much weight because we started to feed him formula once we recognized those anguished, can’t-be-satisfied-by-mommy cries. Again, my milk didn’t come in until day 5 and again, it was never, ever enough for my boy. At least with him, however, I was able to nurse (probably more for his comfort than nutrition) for 12 months. My first son had rejected nursing after only five. (Do you know how hard it is for me to refrain from typing “rejected me”?)

Then we had a similar situation with my third son. Before he was born I was just sure nursing would work this time. I will never make that mistake again. Because when it didn’t work, oh how very bitter the disappointment tasted. My milk came in at day 3 and it didn’t matter. He was too hungry to latch on. I was right there before him with milk to provide and all he could do was scream. The child had no idea that such things as formula and bottles existed, but when they were presented to him, he accepted them eagerly, a far cry from the frustrated reluctance with which he nursed.

All of this would have been hard enough. All of this pain and work and rejection would have been hard enough for a new mother to handle, but then salt was repeatedly poured in my wounds by “Breast is best” memes and “Every woman can nurse her baby” internet chatter. And worse, by “well-meaning” women insisting on giving me breastfeeding advice.

(I hope you’ll forgive the quotation marks around “well-meaning.” Some women, I’m sure, are genuinely well-meaning when they give you breastfeeding advice. They love you and they sympathize with what you’re going through and they want to help you. Other women, however, seem so attached to the idea of breastfeeding that they give advice out of loyalty to it, not out of love for you.)

“Nurse every hour!” they would say, when I was still nursing at that hour mark. “Pump between feedings!” they would say, when I had virtually no time between feedings as it was. “Drink plenty of water!” they would say, when I’m pretty much already a fish. “Breastfeeding babies just don’t gain weight as quickly as formula-fed babies!” they would say, when they weren’t the one holding the baby screaming from hunger.

But the worst thing a woman ever said to me when I was crawling through the trenches, struggling to do the best for my baby in those first few weeks of his life, was “Breastfeeding is a very unselfish thing to do.” Yes, a fellow mother told me that. She implied that it was selfish of me to supplement with formula. When I was barely hanging on. According to her – and to too many other women, I’m afraid – I revealed my selfishness the moment I first let that scoop of formula drop into a bottle of water.

Doubly selfish: using formula and counting on the four-year-old to feed it to his brother.

Doubly selfish: Not only do I use formula, but I count on my four-year-old to feed it to his brother.

A couple of months ago, once I got through my initial surprise and pain at yet again not being able to exclusively breastfeed, I thought I was done with my sensitivity on the subject. After three babies, I had finally come to accept that nursing and supplementing with formula is what works for us. It’s what our babies need to be well-nourished, it’s what I need to keep myself sane, and it’s what allows us to be a happy, functioning family.

I have three strapping, healthy boys, after all. For all the “breast is best” talk, my boys are thriving. They’re solid and tall, they have no allergies or asthma, they’ve never had an illness more serious than a simple virus, and they’re cuddly and well-attached. They didn’t need my breastmilk. They just needed to be fed.

With my body’s naturally measly level of milk production, I don’t think I’d ever be capable of exclusive nursing without a major, strenuous, time-consuming effort. And I’m simply not up for that. I need my sanity and the other members of my family need me too much for me to ever go through that. So should we ever be blessed with another baby, I am resolved to welcome that child with a bottle of formula sitting at my elbow. If, after a couple of days, my baby seems to need it, I will provide it with no hesitation, and hopefully, no guilt.

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Helping bottle-feed since before he was two years old.

That’s where I was a couple of months ago: being practical, moving forward, determined to not let those mean ol’ lactivists (I jest – kind of) get to me anymore. But then those newborn pictures sucker-punched me. And soon after, I found myself in a ballroom at The Edel Gathering, twisting open a bottle of pre-made formula while other mothers nursed their babies a few feet away and still more sat on the floor pumping milk for their babies back home.

But I, I had to suffer the indignity of pulling a bottle out of my bag, handing my baby to the kind lady behind me, and pouring that fake milk from one plastic vessel to another. “I just nursed up in our hotel room!” I wanted to shout to the room at large. “I only supplement with formula!” “I can’t produce enough milk!” I felt so ashamed and left out and alone and I realized I’m not over this.

How awful that I should think it undignified to feed my baby.

No one says to a woman struggling with infertility, “Every woman can conceive a child.” Yet we hear again and again, “Every woman can nurse her baby.”

This week, I’m not the only one who is feeling the pain and the unwarranted shame of not being able to nurse, or to nurse exclusively. Amy wrote a terrific post on the subject on Monday. The Washington Post ran a beautiful piece on it yesterday. I know I’m far from alone, and I know that I’m blessed to have been able to nurse my babies at all.

It’s just that I wish enthusiastic breastfeeding supporters would cool down a bit. I’m pretty much never a fan of “awareness weeks” to begin with. I think they’re a little silly and I don’t know what they actually achieve. I think they’re too often excuses for niche interest groups to become their own biggest cheerleaders. But all that aside, the breastfeeding debate has become something that hurts mothers. It hurts mothers who are already suffering exhaustion and physical pain and the emotional turmoil of not being able to satisfy their hungry babies.

So the terms of the discussion need to change. Breastfeeding can be a beautiful thing; it is right and good to tout its benefits, to encourage mothers to attempt it, and to provide support to those who are willing and able to commit themselves to it. But breastfeeding can also be horrible. It should never be advertised as the only good way to feed a baby and it should never be advanced by shaming women.

Let’s remember that this issue is not, at its heart, about breasts or breastmilk. It’s about mothers and babies. Not mothers and babies in the abstract, mind you, but individual mothers and babies who have real needs and unique challenges. Let’s make sure that we speak and act out of a loving commitment to them, not to an idea.

20 thoughts on “When Breast Isn’t Best

  1. “It was hard for me to look at photos of my own baby. Each seemed its own little trauma; I knew the pain and the sense of failure hidden in each and every one.”

    This part of your post really pulled at my heart. I feel the same way looking at photos of my first son because of breastfeeding issues and other life circumstances that made his babyhood a pretty unhappy time for me. Sounds silly, but I thought I was the only one who felt that way looking at baby pictures. I guess we all deal with mommy guilt and so many of us really internalize that guilt and let it frame our memories or even our relationships with our children. Thank you for writing this post. I know it wasn’t the main point of your post, but it touched me and I will feel a little better the next time I look at those baby pictures.

  2. Courageous post. It is my hope to be an IBCLC one day, and I think my own personal experience(s) will go a long way in supporting women like you, because I was one, too. Thanks for the “other side of the coin.” And thanks for not hating on those “well-meaning” moms ;-)

  3. Oh, you are speaking to my heart! I’m getting misty eyed as I read this. I wrote a post about 8 months ago sharing my journey. I wasn’t able to breastfeed my son. I tried for eight weeks before I finally threw in the towel. I tried everything. I’m one of the only mothers in my group of friends who can’t nurse, and it’s heartbreaking still. I say now that I won’t be bothered as much if I can’t nurse any future children, but I suspect the old wounds will resurface.

    Thank you for sharing your story and your heart.

  4. Julie, thank you so much for writing this! It’s an absolutely beautiful piece, and I really think it will help those of us who have a harder time nursing not feel so guilty. Thanks for the courage to put into words what so many feel!

  5. I groan with every FB post about breast feeding, linking it to some new benefit, and with appreciation month as well. I suffer major depressive disorder and a severe anxiety disorder. I was off all meds through my pregnancy, but my doctors ordered me to go back on them two days after k was born. I still wonder if I had worked harder and been stronger, could I have managed to stay off the meds and bf.

    • I don’t think it has anything to do with working harder and being stronger, Kelly. It’s important to do what’s best for your family (and you’re a vital part of your family!) – not anyone else’s. It sounds to me like you did just the right thing for your daughter. Don’t waste time doubting that!

  6. Absolutely right on! I couldn’t agree more. Lukas loved to nurse but my formula production instantly went down when I went back to work – I drank 4L per day and got mastitis several times. I struggled w guilt like you and fought w my husband too. By five months I ended up giving up in frustration and minimal production. He’s almost 4 now and also allergen free, he’s never even been on an antibiotic. Now my second child will be adopted and I of course cannot breast feed him and hope I don’t have to struggle w any guilt or judging eyes when that time comes.

  7. This filled me with rage on behalf of you and every other mother treated like this. If anything, we need a bottle feeding awareness week for those who can’t breast feed (not an insignificant number) and for adoptive/ foster mothers. The irony is that the mothers who ruthlessly police other mothers were most likely bottle fed themselves. It is so heartbreaking that you were bullied because of this, when you clearly love your children. There are truly bad mothers out there (abusive etc), so why waste time berating moms who are doing their best?

  8. I am so sorry that you felt at all intimidated or ashamed at Edel for feeding your child. I think the biggest impulse behind most BFing awareness campaigns is to make mothers feel at peace about just that – feeling their children. There is no wrong way to feed a child.

    However, I also think the reason we still have these campaigns and awareness week is that, although you and many like you are well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding and all the trouble shooting you can do to help potential problems, there are still many women who are not. I know it’s hard to believe; you feel like you’d have to live under a rock not to know! But I’ve seen it even in my own family – women who were encouraged not to breastfeed, not to try, who were told it can hurt your relationship with your spouse, etc. I know it sounds preposterous…but every time we have these awareness campaigns, I am hopeful that we are reaching women who are being given false information. Inroads especially need to be made amongst teenage mothers and women of color – communities where breastfeeding rates are very low, largely for social reasons, not medical ones.

    You are not a bad mother for giving your child formula – and neither are women who do so without even trying to breastfeed. Yet you also know the enjoyment of nursing, and I hope all mothers get a chance to experience that with their babies, if it’s best for the family involved.

  9. Not every mother can breastfeed her babies. I know…I’m one who couldn’t. My first baby was born at 34 weeks by emergency surgery because both of us were in danger of dying. I didn’t even get to hold my daughter until she was 3 days old because the medications I ws on made me barely lucid. Obviously she had to be fed so the NICU nurses fed her a very high quality formula specifically for preemies. 21 months later I was in the hospital having my son at 31 weeks…9 weeks preterm! They couldn’t stop the labor and he had to be born . He had a longer stay in the NICU with multiple health issues, one of which was no suck reflex. Can’t nurse a baby that doesn’t know how to suck. Plus the stress of having a 21 month old toddler with a recent bout of rotavirus and a frail son in the NICU, my body produced no milk…none. Both of my children are thriving now, each in the 95-98th percentile and no allergies or asthma. If it hadn’t been for formula my babies would have starved because NOT every woman can breastfeed.

  10. Well said!!
    I’ve been blessed (I hope none of this post sounds condescending at all bc I would never mean it to) to always have a very ample milk supply. With my first, I was able to exclusively pump for 16 months, all she needed and way more, so much more that I felt sort of like a freak. When I went to pumping support forums and read heartache after heartache about how no one was getting much and how hard it was to keep up — I knew then and there that what the lactivists say about every woman is able to breastfeed with enough support had to be wrong. Yeah I was working my butt off pumping, but these women were doing that too. And taking supplements. And not reaping the supply increases that I naturally had. If I can produce such a high quantity, surely not all women are naturally able to have the same milk production. I have no clue why. I know it has nothing to do with wanting it more or doing more. It must have to do with tissues and glands and sciency things I don’t comprehend fully. But there are women who turn it from science to a mere matter of dedication. That is so, so wrong to do.

    I already knew that not every woman can breastfeed because I couldn’t. My daughter had a large cleft palate, oral aversion, an uncoordinated swallow and vocal chord paresis so she couldn’t protect her airway. I had several “well-meaning” women tell me that “even baby’s with Down’s could nurse!” “Even babies with cleft palates can nurse!” And I wanted to smack them.

    So I totally get what you mean with the lactivist breastfeeding week bombardment. I really do. I also know as a mom who breastfed two other little ones that the culture is still hard on breastfeeding moms. So I don’t know if there is a great solution except for there to also be a movement for formula feeding mothers. I would proudly share those posts all over social media. But I also agree, I’m kinda tired of awareness.

    Can’t feeding babies just stop being taboo??

  11. Thank you SO much for this post. I have so many friends that are very anti-forumla.

    My first born just would not latch on, no matter what. The lactation consultant at the hospital was rude and treated me like I was an idiot. She just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get it right and why my baby wouldn’t latch on. The nurse came in and said “he has to eat” and handed me a bottle of formula. That’s what we went with for baby number one.

    Much like you, I just knew I could get it right the second time around. Our second child had Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and could not hold anything down. I mentioned to the nurses that he couldn’t even hold down breast milk and they said “it is okay, babies spit up.” He started losing weight and then I was told he was “failing to thrive” (which without explanation sounded like a death sentence to me). On top of GERD he was allergic to rice flour which is in nearly every formula, so even with meds for the GERD he couldn’t keep anything down. It was a long stressful six months. Finally we found a formula he could tolerate and it was higher calorie than the average and he started gaining. I also find it difficult to look at his pictures from his first six months because he looks so sickly and I’m reminded of all that helplessness I felt all over again (he’s seven now).

    By the time our third child was born I was not even going to try to breast feed, one didn’t want it, the next one nearly starved depending on me, not to mention who had time to sit down and breast feed with two toddler boys running around?!

    I get so frustrated when I see things that seem to condemn mothers who formula feed because you just don’t know the circumstances behind it. And even if it is completely by choice and for no other reason, whose business is that besides the parent(s) and the child? Maybe it is easier; maybe it allows the mom to work or spend time with other kids or take a nap for goodness sake. The child is being fed and loved and cared for; that is what is most important.

    My children have not suffered physically, emotionally or cognitively because of being formula fed and aside from the GERD, which my middle child outgrew by the time he was one, they have always been healthy as well.

  12. Funny, it seems like there are marathons in every major city. And when the day that many of my friends run that marathon, I don’t see sedentary people or disabled people leaving enraged comments.
    Now, just like women and breastfeeding, some people choose to run, some choose not to, and some cannot run.
    Yet, I never see anyone who chooses not to run or cannot run complain that the marathoners are making them feel bad, and I suspect that if they did, others would set them straight and let them know that it’s okay for runners to be proud of themselves.
    To use your analogy, we don’t criticize expecting moms not to celebrate pregnancy or new babies lest they offend an infertile woman.
    The same applies here.
    If you can’t be supportive of something someone else is rightfully proud of, the least you can do is not minimize the accomplishments of others to make yourself feel better.

    • Well that’s a pretty terrible analogy.

      Marathons, of course, have nothing to do with keeping one’s child alive, nothing to do at all with one’s responsibilities as a parent. One doesn’t get accused of selfishness for not running a marathon. No one looks at their adorable little marathon and thinks, “Wow — all of those cute little rolls of chub — that’s from me.” No sore, exhausted post-partum woman has to hold her screaming marathon in the middle of the night and not be able to help it. And marathon runners don’t go around telling their friends that every person can can run a marathon.

      We don’t have pro-fertility social media campaigns that give high-fives to women who are able to bear children.

      You could have found plenty of respectful ways to disagree with my piece but instead you decided to go the hurtful and dismissive route. Next time you come across a friend who is struggling with breastfeeding, please be kinder to her than you just were to me and the dozen women who commented above. Choose being a good friend over being right.

  13. Julie,
    Thank you so much for this post! I’m expecting baby #4 in just a few weeks and the other day had to tell a nurse “bottle” was my plan after delivery. It’s taken 3 kids before I had the confidence to say it out loud and not feel like i had to hide the fact that yes, i would probably switch to formula after we left the hospital.
    I tried breastfeeding with my others (even as they lost weight) and pumping after I went back to work, but it was exhausting. I realized hour-long nursing sessions, additional pumping, and washing everything was taking up so much time- time when my older ones were home from school and needing my full attention. Something had to give. Once I started formula our family finally found our groove. And really that’s what it’s about, doing what is best for your family. God Bless!

  14. Bless you for writing this, Julie – a MUCH needed post. I’m not as kind as you and get totally fed up with “the breastfeeding police”. Don’t get me wrong, I am for breastfeeding and breastfed my daughter but wish people would understand that it’s not easy for everyone and that sometimes bottle feeding may be a better choice. As someone who had to cope with both Myasthenia Gravis and an autoimmune disorder
    breastfeeding was extremely difficult for me. My daughter nursed every hour on the hour and wouldn’t take breast milk from a bottle. At all. Because I needed rest so badly, I got sicker and sicker – my body wouldn’t heal after the delivery. My pain level skyrocketed, my stitches wouldn’t heal, I had to have a catheter put in and wear a leg bag for weeks because of bladder issues that wouldn’t go away, had mastitis (I’m sure you get the picture…lol). I know now that I also struggled with PPD (no wonder). Looking back upon all this I can see that it would have been better for ALL of us if I had bottle fed. The thing is: my mom and sisters are card carrying members of the breastfeeding police and I caved under the pressure even though deep down inside I knew that it probably would be better if I didn’t breastfeed because of our circumstances. Not because breastfeeding isn’t very good but because sometimes you have to weigh what is “good” and choose what is “better” for all involved.

    I feel as if I missed out on the first few months of my daughter’s life and this crushed me because she was our little “miracle baby”, a beautiful gift from God after struggling with infertility for nine years. When I told my sister that I might not breastfeed if I had another baby she said it was very selfish and listed all the things that would be “my fault” if I chose this route (allergies, colds, etc..).

    But you know what?

    Sometimes a baby needs a mother more than a baby needs a breast.

    Sometimes “breast is NOT best”. Sometimes our choices are actually selfish in the long run though they may not seem so in the short.

    “Let’s remember that this issue is not, at its heart, about breasts or breast milk. It’s about mothers and babies. Not mothers and babies in the abstract, mind you, but individual mothers and babies who have real needs and unique challenges. Let’s make sure that we speak and act out of a loving commitment to them, not to an idea.”

    Amen. Thank you for this.

  15. Please understand that the term “breastfeeding police” ONLY refers to those who attempt to strong arm others into breastfeeding regardless of the circumstances or cost involved. In no way does it refer to the wonderful women who share the joy and benefits of breastfeeding without forcing their will onto others!

  16. Julie,
    Thank you so much for this post. I know you wrote it awhile ago, but I’m just remembering to sit down and comment! It’s been stirring on my heart for quite awhile. I really loved hearing more of the details of your story. Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to share more of mine – that stuff really does hurt. I definitely relate to the pictures thing – I don’t like looking at photos of how darn skinny my first-born got before we realized there were supply issues. Great post.

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