Breast is best. Liquid Gold.
This is what comes to mind when I think of breastfeeding. Probably because this is what we see all over Instagram and other social media feeds, from breastfeeding activists and other moms. I get it, I really do. But no matter how many facts you throw at me about why it’s better to breastfeed my baby, or why I should ‘at least give it a shot’… I know what’s best for me.
Five years ago when I had my daughter, I was in my early twenties and had no idea what I was doing. I relied on the advice and example of others, and it seemed to me that everyone was breastfeeding or had breastfed. My mother in law breastfed four children for almost 2 years each. Everyone I knew, in real life and online, seemed to have done it- and with ease.
They raved about the importance of it, how it was ‘vital to the first few hours of life’, how they felt so connected to their babies through it. I felt this enormous pressure. Like if I chose not to breastfeed, I would somehow be harming my daughter. I felt as if everyone would think I was a bad mom if I formula-fed.
My experience with breastfeeding is not a good one, to say the least.
Harper had trouble latching from the very beginning. My nurses tried everything while I was still in the hospital after labor, but nothing really seemed to work. I was sent home with these weird little nipple guard things to help her latch. I had a top of the line breast pump that I was instructed to use in the event that she couldn’t get the hang of latching.
I remember sitting around for hours with that damn pump attached to me like some kind of fifth limb. Crying when I would look down and see the tiniest bit of milk in the bottle. Feeling like I had failed my sweet little newborn. Worried that she would starve. Determined to make sure that come hell or high water, I breastfed this child. Fearing that if I admitted defeat and gave her formula, I would forever damage her IQ and set her up for a life of failure.
The formula was basically equivalent to poison.
I was convinced that if I gave her formula she would be damaged forever. She was around 8 weeks old the first time I was forced to give her formula. We didn’t even have any in the house, because I was so determined to make this breastfeeding thing work. I remember very clearly the first night we gave her that ‘poisonous powder’.
I had a mini-breakdown during a late-night feeding sesh and made my husband go to the store and get the formula. I remember cry/screaming at him that I was giving up. I cried hysterically the entire time I fed her that bottle. I vividly recall the feelings of defeat and unworthiness that washed over me watching my baby drink that formula. I was a horrible mother. I had failed my child.
Still determined to breastfeed, I decided that I would just ‘supplement’ with formula while still attempting to pump. That breast pump became my worst enemy. I loathed that damn thing. I was producing almost no milk, but pumping like crazy trying to get my supply up. I drank the teas. I did ALL THE THINGS recommended to increase breast milk supply.
And then one night I woke up in the middle of the night to feed Harper and I fell over when I stood up.
I was dizzy, I was sweating and I was extremely disoriented. My body ached like I had the flu. I quickly woke up my husband, knowing that something was not right. He took care of the baby while I laid back down. The next day I called my aunt who is an RN and asked her to come over to have a look at me. At this point, I was feverish, barely able to move off of my couch. My left breast was hard as a rock, bright red and hurt like hell. My aunt took one look at me and immediately drove me to the ER.
With my newborn in tow, and barely able to walk- I was admitted to the hospital with a severe case of mastitis. The infection was now spreading to both breasts, and I was put on IV antibiotics and fluids right away. My OB was called in to examine me, and I will never forget his first words after that exam: “I have been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never seen a case of mastitis as bad as this.”
I was scared, shocked and angry.
Here I was, a first-time mom, with no idea how to navigate this newborn thing being told that I had a painful infection in my milk ducts. My doctors told me that I could continue pumping and that in fact, I needed to in order to help clear the infection. They assured me that these antibiotics were safe and to continue feeding Harper any milk I was able to produce.
So for three days, I stayed in the hospital for treatment, all the while pumping out minuscule amounts of milk in massive amounts of pain. All I wanted was to go home and love on my baby. It was three days of absolute hell, to say the least.
After that little dramatic situation was over, I went home still determined to continue pumping and giving her at least some breastmilk. Some was better than none, right? So I continued on with my pumping while supplementing with the formula. At this point, she was eating more formula than breastmilk- but I’m so stubborn I would not just give up and exclusively formula feed.
Even if it meant sacrificing my sanity and ability to properly care for my infant, I was determined to get that liquid gold into her body.
About three weeks after that first hospital stay, I found myself right back in the ER with the same symptoms. Only this time, it was much worse. Having been through it before, I knew that I needed to go to the hospital right away to avoid further complications. So off I went, for round two of treatment for mastitis.
This time, my doctor broke the news to me: I would not be able to continue pumping at all. This infection was again, worse than anything he’d seen in his many years of practice. He admitted me once again, prescribed stronger antibiotics, fluids and morphine and I was again in the hospital for three days recovering. This time I had had enough. I never wanted to see a breast pump again in my life.
I was devastated. I felt like a total failure as a mother. Why wasn’t this as easy for me as it was for everyone else? What was wrong with my body? It was supposed to just know how to do this.
It’s been five years since then, and here is what I’ve learned:
There is nothing wrong with my body.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with formula feeding your baby.
My daughter is so incredibly smart and has been advanced in all of her academic skills thus far, despite having been formula-fed exclusively beginning at age 3 months.
She is strong and healthy and beautiful, with no allergies or other health conditions that the world tells you formula will inevitably cause.
Formula saved not only my life but allowed me to be the best mother I could be.
Sometimes, the universe intervenes and forces you to change your course. No matter how headstrong and stubborn you are, it will swoop in and force you to give up whatever path you are so determined to go down. That’s exactly what happened to me on my breastfeeding journey. I was too stubborn to realize that this was just not meant to be for me and my child. I had been convinced by society that I was not as good of a mother if I didn’t breastfeed. I was convinced that my baby would wither away if formula ever touched her lips.
Not one of those things is true. In fact, because I was forced to give up breastfeeding, I was actually able to be a better mother. I was no longer tied to that breast pump every two hours. I was able to focus more on my own health while knowing that even though my daughter wasn’t getting her ‘liquid gold’, she was being FED. I recovered from the infections, got stronger and healthier and in turn I was happier and a lot less stressed out.
My infant needed a happy, healthy mother more than she needed breastmilk.
My advice to mothers everywhere: listen to your body, your intuition. Don’t feel pressured to breastfeed just because ‘everyone else is’, or because it’s ‘the best form of nutrition.’
If you are able and willing to breastfeed then, of course, it’s the best decision for you. I am an absolute supporter of breastfeeding.
I am an even bigger supporter of doing what is best for you and your baby, no matter what anyone else thinks or says. The key words in that sentence are YOU AND. Of course, you will do what is best for your baby without even thinking about it. You are a mother. That is our nature- to give ourselves to our children selflessly and without regard for our own needs. But if you are a mama who is struggling to breastfeed or a pregnant mama who is struggling with the decision of whether or not to breastfeed, I hope my story brings you a tiny bit of comfort. Trust your own instincts, and listen to what they are telling you. And if you don’t want to breastfeed just because you don’t want to, then DON’T.
I will end with this:
Your baby will thrive regardless. You are not a bad mother or any less of one if you choose not to breastfeed.