Stop Shaming Moms for Not Breastfeeding

Ariane visiting her newborn baby boy in the NICU.
Ariane visiting her newborn baby boy in the NICU.

When I was 18 years old, I had a breast reduction. I had just graduated high school and there wasn’t anything anyone could say or do to make me change my mind, including the threat of not being able to breastfeed my nonexistent children.

The breast reduction surgery was extremely painful. I remember sitting up in the hospital bed and feeling like my breasts had literally fallen off me. The recovery was very long and painful, but none of that mattered. I was finally happy with my looks and guys would stop staring at my chest! Looking back on it, I wish I could have told my 18-year-old self that she was perfect just the way she was. But she would have never listened.

Fast forward 20 years: I now have a beautiful two-month old baby who has rocked my world in the best possible way. I’ve previously written about how the road to conceiving was rough: after a somewhat traumatic pregnancy loss, we were in the middle of IVF when we unexpectedly got pregnant on our own. We were so excited and terrified at the same time. I can assure you the last thing I was worried about was not being able to breastfeed.

As the pregnancy continued, I discussed with my doctor that I had had a breast reduction. Knowing there was a strong possibility that I might not be able to breast feed, she thankfully helped to manage my expectations, reassuring me that everything would be fine regardless of whether I could breastfeed or not.

Shortly after my beautiful son was born, I immediately tried to breastfeed despite recovering from a C-section and being on heavy pain medication. Early the next morning, our little guy had low blood sugar and was taken to NICU and given formula, yes, from a bottle. I of course never gave it a second thought. The most important thing was getting his blood sugar up.

Over the next few days in the hospital, a rotation of lactation consultants came by to help me with breastfeeding, while also helping me learn how to supplement with formula. They wanted to be sure my baby was getting enough to eat because of his low blood sugar, but also because my milk hadn’t come in, and I may not be able to breast feed at all.

Lactation consultants get a bad rap, and often for good reason. I was fortunate to have a positive experience while in the hospital. I remember telling one of the consultants that if it got too hard, I would know when to throw in the towel. She immediately stopped me, saying it would not be considered throwing in the towel. What was most important was that my baby was getting enough to eat. Unfortunately, I have heard many other stories of moms feeling extremely pressured by pushy lactation consultants to breast feed while in the hospital and being turned off by their persistence.

When I left the hospital, I was given a well-intentioned but intense feeding plan – for each feeding, I would first try to offer the breast, then supplement with formula, then pump to see if my milk would come in. Much to my surprise, my milk came in at about 50 percent of what my baby needed. During my pregnancy, I had kept a very level head about breastfeeding – if it worked, great; if not, no big deal. But now that there was hope, I was all in.

After a week or so, things were not going well. I was pumping upwards of eight (!) times a day and feedings were taking at least an hour and a half. My son was also having a hard time latching. By the time I was done, it was almost time for the next feeding. Even in the midst of extreme sleep deprivation, pain medication and hormones, I stuck with it. I met with a private lactation consultant who—not surprisingly—diagnosed my baby with tongue tie and so I somewhat skeptically had his tongue tie clipped.

I bought all the fancy breastfeeding accessories (whoever said breastfeeding is free clearly hasn’t breast fed), started taking several supplements that supposedly increase milk supply, began eating oatmeal at least twice a day, chugged gallons upon gallons of water and continued pumping all hours of the day and night.

Those first few weeks were rough. I went to a new moms group when my baby was about a month old and when my baby got fussy, I had no choice but to breastfeed him and then—gasp!—bottle/formula feed him in front of everyone. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I felt giving him a bottle. I was so embarrassed and worried about what they would think. I knew what they were thinking: I would surely cause my baby nipple confusion, between the breast, bottle and pacifier (which didn’t happen), and it would derail my chances of successfully breastfeeding.

For the most part, friends and family have tried to be supportive, and I am grateful that I can breast feed, at least partially. There have of course been little comments here and there, and assumptions that I was exclusively breastfeeding, which made me feel like I hadn’t tried everything I could (I had). It took me a good month to be confident about how I was feeding my baby.

My husband has been able to help with the feedings (he takes the 4:00 a.m. shift, God love him!) and it has been a special way for him to bond with our baby and feel involved. We also don't talk about it because we don't want to seem selfish, but being tethered to a baby every 2-3 hours is exhausting. Now that I feel confident, I am ok skipping a feeding to get out of the house and get some self care. This has also helped me to fight off postpartum depression.

After talking to many moms about their breastfeeding experiences over the past few months, I have learned that it works for a lot of moms, and gets easier as time goes on, but sometimes it simply doesn't work. And while we try to not judge each other, the unsolicited advice, extended stares, pointed questions and well-intentioned suggestions leave us feeling conflicted, ashamed and feeling less confident about being moms.

There are so many barriers to breastfeeding yet the predominant message we hear from our health care providers and society is that “Breast is Best” and we should do everything we can to exclusively breast feed our children. That, as well as the “Baby Friendly” initiative, does a disservice to both women and infants and often times isn’t realistic. Even in countries with the highest breastfeeding rates, the majority of moms need to supplement.

I would be remiss if I did not give huge props to moms who are able to breastfeed exclusively or for a long period of time. I admire them immensely. Some of my best friends and family members have sacrificed a lot to breastfeed exclusively, and their kids had better thank them for it one day! They should—without a doubt—be supported and applauded for being able to make breastfeeding work, despite the many barriers they face. They are indeed Super Moms.

We also can’t forget about the moms who can’t breastfeed, choose not to breast feed or need to supplement with formula. The information and support available for formula feeding pales in comparison to breastfeeding (just try googling it). Most child birth education classes are focused solely on breastfeeding; how great would it be if they were more focused on feeding in general? Families need to learn what bottles are best, how to choose a formula, how—and how much—to feed them, how to properly make bottles, and how to supplement if they don’t have a full milk supply, especially in the first few days of life.

Moms are smart. They know that breastfeeding is good for their kids. It’s a hard message to miss, especially when you become pregnant. There is a plethora of research available on the health benefits of breastfeeding. What is less solid is the cognitive and emotional benefits because of so many other factors involved. I will not pretend to be an expert on the benefits of breastfeeding vs. formula feeding, but my point is that if moms can’t breastfeed, they need to feel confident that providing formula to their baby is safe and healthy. Formula is not the enemy. It is highly regulated and has shown to provide nearly all of the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding.

I have heard so many stories of moms who tried everything in the book to breastfeed and it simply didn’t work. The emotional and physical stress of not being able to breastfeed is so raw. I’ve also heard though that once moms are able to let go of being able to breastfeed, they are often happier moms, and better moms.

We need to support fellow moms, regardless of whether they are breast, bottle or formula feeding. Like me, many women may feel that they are in the minority if they are giving formula to their baby, when in actuality many moms are supplementing. But we don’t talk about it because there is such a stigma around formula feeding.

Feeding newborns is downright hard and there is no need to make moms feel even worse than they already do. We need to emphasize that feeding our child is most important, and for God’s sake trust that moms are making the best decisions for them and their families. I applaud organizations like the “Fed is Best Foundation” for advocating for what’s most important for women and infants and hope to see more of this in the future.

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