I want to start by saying that I actually never thought I would exclusively breastfeed. Maybe it’s because I know that my husband, who is a healthy, contributing member of society, was never breastfed. And I was only breastfed for 3 months because something happened to my mom’s milk after that time. I knew I wanted to try breastfeeding though. There are many real benefits to it. When people asked me if I planned on breastfeeding, my answer was always “If I can, I will.” Nonetheless, I picked up a bit of formula to have on hand, just in case.
Fortunately, breastfeeding came easily to my son and I. I successfully breastfed for about 8 months and loved growing my stash of frozen breastmilk in the freezer once I got the hang of pumping. But from the time Sebastian was 4 days old, he got at least one bottle-feed a day. And, to be clear, by bottle-feeding I do mean either breastmilk or formula. I don’t regret it, and I would do it again.
Being a mom is hard. Honestly, it’s the hardest freakin’ thing I’ve ever done. The moments in my life where I have been at my lowest both physically and mentally are the same moments where my brain and body were in near-constant demand from a newborn. There is a reason the saying, “It takes a village…” is so popular. It's because it’s true. And Rob enjoyed feeding S; both because he got to spend time with him, and because he knew he was helping me rest and recover. Balance. It’s a beautiful thing.
If bottle-feeding, either exclusively or just as a supplementary feed in the day, enabled me to be just a little more rested and a little bit happier, then why wouldn’t I do it? If it paid off significant dividends and allowed me to be a little more present with my son, essentially making me a better mom, then why would I keep that from coming between S and I? I firmly believe that happy, healthy moms make happy, healthy babies.
You don’t need my permission to bottle-feed, but I’m giving it to you anyways.
I want to share two personal stories that support what I’m trying to say.
Seb was born on a Tuesday night. Due to a couple not-overly-serious complications, we didn’t leave the hospital until Friday morning. One of the complications was that about 36 hours after Sebastian was born, I started to have extremely severe nausea and vomiting. I remember sitting in my hospital bed vomiting with one hand into one of those kidney basins and breastfeeding with another hand. Rob begged the nurses for a bottle, but they refused. We were at an official ‘breastfeeding hospital’ and there was no way we were going to be permitted to bottlefeed in that maternity ward. Eventually, I was given an Ativan to help me sleep between feeds, and the nausea subsided.
The day after we finally came home, I was back in emerg with the same nausea and vomiting. I was given ondansetron (an anti-nausea drug given to chemo patients), and it did little to help me. The best guess anyone could come up with was that it was my body’s reaction to both stress and a lack of sleep. I will never forget the doctor in the emergency room who came and sat beside Rob and I and said, “I know I would get in trouble for telling you this, but you should let your husband do a feed. It won’t hurt your baby at all, and it will help you get better.”
The second story happened about 7 months later.
I had started going to a postpartum depression group once a week. In this group there were about 10 women, and a social worker and a PPD psychiatrist ran the group. The women in this group each had a different story. Different reasons why they were struggling. For some of them, it was breastfeeding. I met women (both in this group and outside of it) plagued with guilt because no matter how many doctors they saw, lactation specialists they visited, breastfeeding clinics they attended, they just couldn’t breastfeed. And on the other side, there were women who could breastfeed but didn’t want to do it anymore. They wanted help with the feedings. They wanted to wean but couldn’t because they felt too guilty. They felt they ‘should’ be breastfeeding because they were able to. I was included in this latter group. S was over 7 months old, and I was getting tired of nursing. It wasn’t a huge bonding experience for me like it is for some women; I felt S and I bonded way more when we played together, read together, and cuddled together. The social worker asked us directly, “Why are you still breastfeeding?” to which we replied, “Because we’re supposed to.” She and the psychiatrist both made it very clear and provided us with literature like this that said we were absolutely not “supposed to” if we didn’t want to. I don’t doubt for a minute that S didn’t pick up on my stress about this, and I regret that. I could have made changes earlier.
The number of women I know who faced some kind of challenge with breastfeeding is really high. Either women who have gone to the ends of the earth to get nursing to work for them, or women who were struggling with PPD and needed the extra support. And these are intelligent, educated women. They want to breastfeed. They know it is good for their babies, and for them. I think in Canada we feel even more pressure to breastfeed because of our generous maternity leave. We think it should be easier to breastfeed and nurse given we don’t have to go back to work for a year. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can only play the hand we’ve been given. And it may not be as easy as it seems from the outside.
One of the mommy-friends I’ve met since S was born happens to be a labour and delivery nurse at one of the largest hospitals in Canada. Her second baby was born around the same time as S, and I would often pick her brain about various baby-related questions. She told me that she struggled with nursing and regrets trying so long to breastfeed her first baby. She said for 5 months, she was basically starving her underweight, premature son because she couldn’t breastfeed well. She tried breastfeeding for about 3 weeks with her second baby and then switched exclusively to formula.
One of the best articles I’ve seen on breastfeeding and bottlefeeding is called Formula Isn’t Poison: Breastfeeding Propaganda Is. It’s not that long, but it’s to the point. It’s time to stop the guilt, pressure, and judgment associated with any suggestion that doesn’t include exclusively breastfeeding. We say that women ‘choose’ to breastfeed or formula feed, but if we’re being honest, there is no choice here. If you formula feed in any way, many people in our society have decided that you are lower on the motherhood totem pole, which is hard enough to climb as it is. I fortunately surrounded myself with like-minded friends and moms, and we supported (and continue to support) each other through our choices and challenges.
So, am I pro-breastfeeding? Yup. Am I pro-bottle-feeding? Yup. I support providing a nurturing home full of love, laughter, and all the milk a little baby could ask for. But it is only by truly being free of guilt and judgment that we will be strong and confident moms. I’m not saying it’s easy. I am guilty of quietly letting judgment pass through my mind at one point or another. But I try to force these thoughts from my mind just as quickly as they come, because I don’t know her story. I don’t know her baby’s story. And more than likely, she needs my supportive smile more than my silent critique of her parenting.