Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.
Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They also are not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.
I chose Caroline’s story as the last FFF Friday of the year, because she hits on so many aspects of what is wrong with our current infant feeding discourse. The misrepresentation of facts; the myths about how breastfeeding is “supposed” to be; the guilt women are feeling when they fail to give their babies “the best”; hell, the very name of what we give our babies as an alternative to breastmilk, as Caroline so wisely points out below…this is all wrong. And the more women that speak up – brilliant, honest, brave women like Caroline – the more that I feel it has to stop. Being that it’s time for resolutions and all, I’d like to make one in Caroline’s honor: I will do whatever I can in 2013 to attack these injustices, and I don’t mean simply by writing about it. It’s time we took this discussion off the page and onto the streets. Maybe it’s just because I saw the movie version of Les Miserables last night (98% perfection except for the super stinky 2% composed of Russell Crowe and his atrocious attempt at singing) but I am feeling like a revolution is just around the corner, and 2013 will be the year it begins.
Do you hear the people sing?
Happy Friday – and happy New Year, fearless ones,
I always knew I would nurse if I had a baby: it’s natural, easier, and best of all, free! When I was pregnant, I pored through nursing books and websites, attended a lactation session, and asked nursing moms for tips. Unfortunately, I also bought into several myths quite prevalent in pro-nursing circles: better bonding, fewer illnesses, formula=obese and breastfed=healthy, etc. The worst (and most arrogant) myth I bought into was the claim that very few women are truly unable to nurse. So, by the time my son came, bottle-feeding wasn’t even a consideration.
According to the nursing experts, everything was in our favor: my son was not born before term or underweight; I had immediate skin-to-skin contact following birth for one hour; no epidural or other placenta-crossing drugs were taken to run the risk of leaving a newborn too lethargic to latch for hours/days; his APGAR score was high; I was in a comfortable environment (home) when it was time for my milk to come in; we were blessed not to have a c-section; my son did not have tongue-tie; I had a supportive husband… Name the factor that improves your odds of success, and I probably had it. In fact, three days after my son was born, my breasts began to feel a tad heavier, so I convinced myself my milk had, indeed, truly come in. I was happy, and my son was healthy. Sure, he cried a lot, but at least I was able to nurse!
Looking back, I was ignoring warning signs during those first few days. My son’s crying and screaming got worse each day. At his check-up three days after his birth, we were told he was extremely dehydrated and he’d lost a higher percentage in body weight than average, but I assured them my milk had just come in, so that would solve that – no formula for us! Most significantly, I had never seen any white liquid in his mouth after a feeding or even heard him swallow. Despite all this, I was so self-assured in my ability to use my breasts for what they were there for that I was blissfully blind – after all, very few women truly can’t nurse, right?
Several hours later, panic… My baby’s cries and screams had progressively gotten worse over the course of the evening to the point that his voice had grown hoarse. He began refusing my breast, thrashing his head about and screaming instead of trying to nurse at all. We couldn’t get him to settle down, he would not rest, and we simply didn’t know what to do. We called our midwife at 2 a.m. in the morning, and she suggested we give him a bit of formula. It still makes me cry to recall that first time I gave my son what I saw as white poison. I had a sample tin of formula I’d received from my OB’s office that my husband used to go prepare some in a cup (we didn’t even know to sterilize), and I grabbed a baby syringe dropper because we owned no bottles. I had bought into the line that giving any formula at all to a newborn can be detrimental, so I sobbed as I administered that first dropper. However, something remarkable happened: after swallowing his first few drops of real food, his stomach gurgled wildly, and his mouth became wet for the first time. It dawned on me that my son had been out of the womb for more than 80 hours, all without food and very, very little liquid. He was starving and extremely dehydrated, but I had ignored the signs because I was so confident that I was, in fact, nursing him.
The following day was one of more panic and worry: oh, no – my milk hasn’t come in yet, the tea must not be enough, what else do we try, etc. We contacted La Leche League and a lactation consultant, spent a bit of money on every known milk-supply aid out there (what in the world is Goat’s Rue, anyway?!), revisited all of my nursing literature, and followed every bit of advice (Have we used the correct position while reclining in bed in order to aid milk production? Did my mental imagery exercise of my breasts flowing like waterfalls last long enough?). My midwife came by to double-check our latch and the baby’s tongue, and I broke down in sobs over the fact that I wasn’t breast-feeding my son. She placed her hand on my shoulder and said something along the lines of, “Your first priority is to feed your son. Your second priority is to nurse him if you want to, and are able to.”
When I think of my son’s first 25 days, I don’t have memories of soft cuddles, gushy fall-in-love moments, or happy dreams of his future. Instead, I remember day ten, when he had regained his birth weight but was still very dehydrated, and me, at wit’s end, consulting an internet forum of nursing “champions” to see if it took any of them longer than ten days for their milk to come in, only to have woman after woman tell me I should just cut off the formula completely. I remember my husband being away at work, and me spending the day pumping and pumping for tiny droplets of liquid, one hand on the breast pump for one side, and the other holding a screaming infant, watching the timer to tell me when to switch sides, then carrying the infant and supplies down to the kitchen to sterilize, and beginning it all again later after feeding him. I remember that at the height of my breasts’ milk production, yielding almost a full ounce of watery, whitish liquid in one single day, and me pleading with my son to drink all of it because it had mommy’s special, hard-earned milk in it. I remember my bull-headed determination to nurse my baby first for 20-30 minutes before giving him any formula, despite the fact that as he grew stronger, the pressure he exerted in trying to get something out of my breasts increased to the point that it felt like he was sucking knives from my ribs out through my nipples. I remember the shame in having to reply in the negative to all the friends and family who asked if we were nursing. I also remember feeling like I had been slapped in the face when consulting the information labels on formula canisters, all of which begin with a hurtful warning statement, usually in bold: “Experts agree on the many benefits of breast milk,” or “IMPORTANT NOTICE: BREAST MILK IS BEST FOR BABIES.” I remember the worry over giving my son formula, opening him up to viruses and obesity. I remember being more comfortable feeding my son a complete stranger’s donated milk rather than that horrid formula milk. I remember all of the disdainful looks I received when having to break out a bottle to feed my son in public. I remember the emotional turmoil of getting my hopes up that a new solution would work, only to have them dashed again when it didn’t. These are the memories I have of my son’s first few weeks.
The little “milk” I had (which never looked anything like the donor milk) quickly dried up. I still remember the last time he rooted towards my chest, when he was about a month old. It had been a few days since he had nursed or I’d seen anything at all come out of my breasts. He latched on for a minute or so, lightly suckled while looking up into my eyes, then dropped his head back to fall off my breast. That was the last “comfort feed” he ever received from me, and it was also the most peaceful nursing session I ever had with him. It was as though he somehow knew that there was nothing in there, but maybe he wanted to try to let me know the bottle would be okay or something. When he was six weeks old, I was diagnosed with post-partum depression and placed on medication. A few weeks after that, I read a book describing formula or bottle feeding as “artificial.” That was probably my rock bottom – I lost what little self-esteem I still had as a mother. I had obviously failed my son if I could only feed him artificially. Those were the days of constant weeping and continual apologies to my son for getting stuck with such a bad mom.
As the months went on, the pain lessened in intensity, but only grew with experience. It hurt every time I heard a nursing mom complain about nursing, claimed I must have it easier, ask why I wasn’t nursing, etc – the pressure in our society to nurse can be brutal, and there were countless times I went crying to my husband because someone’s offhanded comment broke my heart all over again. I began resenting all of the fuss and time it took to clean, sterilize, and prepare bottles of formula for my son while he had to wait and cry. Thankfully, I never projected that resentment toward my son himself, despite all of his colic and neediness, but at the same time, I was pretty numb in the midst of my post-partum depression, simply going through the motions while taking care of him day and night.
More time passed, and I began to heal. I read the stories of dozens of women who weren’t able to nurse – I was not alone. I began calling formula “milk” when preparing it and offering it to my son – formulas are things you use in geometry; milk is a food source for babies. When he was five months old, I remember giving him a nice hug and kissing him on the cheek – I had my first experience of any sort of motherly love toward him as a baby in my arms. I realized my son will not care if he received breast milk or formula milk during his first 6-12 months of life – I care, but he doesn’t, and won’t. I came across information that dispels some of the harmful myths about formula feeding. Finally, what my midwife had told me began to sink in – my first responsibility as a mother is to feed my son. In the end, it really doesn’t matter so much where that food comes from – what matters is his ability to grow and thrive.
Viva la revolution! Email your FFF submission to firstname.lastname@example.org.