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 I hope we can all give them the space to do so.
In this week’s FFF Friday, Lindsay eloquently dissects the “dichotomy that exists between the social and political messages aimed at promoting breastfeeding and touting it as ‘best’, and the complete and utter lack of meaningful support provided to many women when they experience problems breastfeeding.”
I recently got named to a “best pregnancy blog” list, and my immediate, panicked reaction (after being sincerely flattered) was that if I’m considered to be writing a pregnancy blog, couldn’t the discussion here frighten prospective mothers out of nursing? But reading Lindsay’s post reminds me that sometimes, being forewarned is forearmed. There are plenty of sites out there that offer inspiring, positive stories of blissful breastfeeding experiences, but hardly any talking candidly about the problems - however rare – that women may encounter. If a physiological problem is going to impede your breastfeeding goals, wouldn’t it be better to know beforehand, to either a)prepare yourself emotionally for what lies ahead b) investigate various remedies or possible solutions, or c) perform your own informed, risk/benefit assessment and make a decision about how far you are willing to go, before the postpartum hormones and newborn craziness set in?
I don’t think the answer is the same for everyone. Some prefer to go into new experiences with blind positivity, and that is absolutely okay. But it’s also okay to be the type who wants to be aware of all the potential roadblocks before getting on the road. Going with that analogy, I hope this blog is sort of like the Sig Alert of infant feeding.
Happy Friday, fearless ones…
I flinch whenever I’m asked the question, “Are you breastfeeding?” It’s almost imperceptible, but somehow the truthful response makes me feel inadequate, selfish and less of a mother than those who breastfeed their children. Intellectually I know none of that is true, but I’ve had a hard time reconciling my truth with the many well intentioned but often insensitive pro breastfeeding messages women are faced with every day. It’s hard not to be bitter.
Truthfully, I don’t feel like formula feeding was any more of a choice than my initial goal of breastfeeding was. While pregnant with my first daughter an enthusiastic, “But of course!” was my standard response when asked if I planned to breastfeed. Having inverted nipples did nothing to dampen my resolve. I spent countless hours reading about breastfeeding, studying diagrams that showed various infant holds, and watching videos that differentiated between an infant that was drinking from the breast versus one that was just sucking. A simple internet search of “inverted nipples” yielded hundreds of articles written by professionals who confidently proclaim that most women with this anatomical imperfection can indeed breastfeed. This was assurance enough to convince me and I never gave it a second thought.
While in the hospital after the birth of my first daughter it appeared she was latching relatively well and able to draw my nipple out when she fed. I tried to disregard the searing pain I felt each time she took my nipple in her mouth because the nurses told me that her latch looked good. No one seemed to feel it was a problem as long as she was spending the requisite 15 minutes attached to my breast every three hours. I asked to see a lactation consultant but was told there were none employed by the hospital. I looked at the posters on the hospital walls that listed the many ailments and diseases my daughter would be at a reduced risk of developing if I breastfed her, and I smiled because I thought we were on our way.
The day after we brought her home is when my milk came in and the problems started. If it was challenging for my daughter to latch onto nipples that would only stubbornly emerge when my breasts had been empty of milk, it was near impossible now that they were full and becoming increasingly engorged as the hours ticked by without a successful feeding.
I turned to hot water bottles and the pump to relieve discomfort from engorgement and soften my nipples in preparation for feedings. My nipples are inverted to such a degree that upon removal of the pump suction they immediately invert. Timing it so that my breasts were ready when she was ready for a feeding was dicey. If I miscalculated, and I often did, I was left with a frantically hungry baby that had no patience for stubborn, slow-to-emerge nipples.
Somewhere in the fog of those first days at home there were failed attempts to use nipple shields which had been recommended by nurses at the hospital. They were quickly discarded along with the breast pillow and lanolin cream as I spent more and more time with the pump and less with my daughter at my breast. After a week she was being fed almost exclusively expressed breast milk, often by my husband as I kept to a strict pumping schedule and lamented the breastfeeding relationship I’d imagined and which was quickly evaporating before my eyes.
By this point I was emotionally exhausted and despite needing help, I had grown increasingly wary of health professionals and any so-called lactation experts. I felt that all of the advanced preparation I had done to ensure we were able to breastfeed was a waste, and most frustratingly I couldn’t discern rhetoric from sound breastfeeding advice.
My family doctor and obstetrician hadn’t bothered to examine my nipples during pregnancy; the nurses in the hospital had all given me conflicting information; the public health nurse that followed up at home was only able to look at me with sorrowful eyes and repeat over and over that babies “breastfeed, not nipple feed”; and most of all, I felt let down by the literature – where was all of the truthful information on the realities of breastfeeding with what I now know to be severely inverted nipples? By the time I reached the point that I should have called a lactation consultant I was so guarded and apprehensive about receiving bad advice or worse, being judged, that I couldn’t even bring myself to make the phone call. Emotionally I had reached rock bottom.
I exclusively pumped for my first daughter with a single electric pump until 8 weeks when I switched to formula. It was during those weeks that I first began cringing when asked if I was breastfeeding. Exclusively pumping was like an indeterminate state somewhere between breastfeeding and formula feeding. I didn’t belong in either camp. My family doctor thought I was crazy – she knew that exclusively pumping was much more time consuming and couldn’t understand why I didn’t just breastfeed. Very few people understood that I couldn’t stand the heartbreak of trying and failing, even just one more time.
My second daughter is now 5 months old and with her I exclusively pumped for 12 weeks before switching to formula. Our time in the hospital and first days at home were similar to the experience with my first daughter with mind-numbing pain each time she fed despite assurances that she was latched on correctly, and complete failure to get her latched once my breasts had any amount of milk in them. Once again fear of judgement prevented me from reaching out to lactation professionals. This time, however I was much more prepared emotionally and resigned myself by day four that a hospital grade double electric pump and I were going to be spending a lot of time together.
I know that I tried as hard as I could. I also know there are many other options that women can explore when they experience problems breastfeeding such as cup or syringe feeding, lactation consultants, breastfeeding support groups, and so on. None of those options made sense for me or my family, and I feel no regret over my decision not to attempt any of those measures. I am completely secure in my belief that formula has provided my children the nutrition then need, and then some.
But what does occasionally keep me up at night is the dichotomy that exists between the social and political messages aimed at promoting breastfeeding and touting it as “best”, and the complete and utter lack of meaningful support provided to many women when they experience problems breastfeeding. To add insult to injury, when women inevitably turn to formula after breastfeeding fails they are made to feel ashamed of their “decision” because in our society acknowledgement that formula is a healthy means of nourishing an infant is viewed as a threat to breastfeeding.
I often recall three years ago when I tearfully offered my four day old daughter her first bottle of expressed milk and felt like I had already failed her. The sadness has faded and the part I now recall, and which escaped me then, is the look of contentment and satisfaction she had after that feeding, and each one that followed it. Breast milk or formula – I’ve learned that a healthy, satiated baby is what’s important, and both can do the trick.