FFF Friday: “Formula felt like failure.”

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 saw the most awesome tweet today, from a Canadian physician named Dr. Daniel Flanders. “Want to improve #breastfeeding rates without guilting moms who choose not to breast feed?” he asked. “Think ‘SUPPORT’ not ‘PROMOTE'”.

I don’t know this guy from Adam, but I wish I could buy him a pony out of gratitude. (Provided he wants a pony, of course. They might be kind of messy and expensive to feed.) There is a marked difference between promotion and support, and this is the fundamental problem in how breastfeeding is being handled in today’s society. Laurie, whose story is below, could have been spared a lot of grief and bother – and may have had a better breastfeeding experience all around – had there been care providers around her armed with better research and skills.  When we focus so much on raising breastfeeding rates, rather than on fixing the common and (not actually so) rare problems which can impede or destroy a mother’s attempts to do what she feels is best for her baby – well, we’re the failures, not the moms. 

There is no reason women like Laurie should be left feeling guilty, and yet they do. Not that I advocate guilt, but honestly? If anyone should be feeling ashamed, it’s those championing a system which put zealotry above real research, and statistics above individual experiences. 

Support, not advocacy. Wise words.

Happy Friday, fearless ones…


Laurie’s Story

I was determined to nurse my first child.  I had no desire for an unmedicated childbirth, but I was all for breastfeeding.  Best-laid plans…after a very long labor in which my epidural failed miserably, I got to the pushing stage and then, before I knew what was happening, my baby’s heart rate had dropped dangerously, and I was going into shock and being rushed into an emergency C-section.  It was such an emergency, in fact, that they hadn’t even finished putting me under before they started cutting. Turns out, I had a uterine rupture.  After a few very scary hours (for my family, not for me — I was unconscious!), it seemed certain that I would pull through.  And, thankfully, my son was just fine.

So…Evan was perfect, but I was not. In fact, before long, the breastfeeding thing really had me discouraged. In my breastfeeding class, we were told that holding your baby skin-to-skin within the first two hours of birth would increase your likelihood of breastfeeding success by 80%. Well, guess what? I was unconscious the first several hours after his birth and didn’t even get to see him until 6 hours later, so that didn’t happen.

When we did try nursing, it did not go well. Evan seemed to latch on but then would get frustrated and scream. The lactation consultant at the hospital was not very encouraging. Leaving aside her pronouncement on my shortcomings (inverted nipples, if you care to know), she informed me that Evan’s mouth was too small to keep a latch and as he got older and bigger he might be able to nurse, but in the meantime I should just pump.  A few weeks later, the pediatrician diagnosed tongue-tie, and we got that fixed, but things were no better.  Every time I tried to nurse, Evan just screamed.  I originally tried to follow the La Leche leader’s advice and feed him only with a medicine dropper so that he wouldn’t get nipple confusion, but do you know how long it takes to feed a baby even two ounces with a medicine dropper? By the time I finished, it would be time for the next feeding!

But pump I did, with the hospital-grade pump I rented, every 3 hours around the clock. At most I was getting 2 oz. at every pumping, and Evan soon needed at least 24 oz. a day, so, if you do the math, you will see that I had to supplement with formula. I tried to boost my production by taking a zillion herbs, eating oatmeal, drinking lots of water, even drinking beer, but nothing seemed to help. My doctor called in a prescription for Reglan for me, and I was told that if I followed the dosing schedule, my production should double within 5 days. Alas, I am allergic to Reglan. I took my first dose and woke up with a red, itchy rash all over my neck and chest.

I threw in the towel at 6 weeks. Formula felt like failure. I know lots of people were given formula and turned into healthy, contributing citizens (I’m one of them, actually!), but I also knew (perhaps you’ve heard?) that breast milk is best. So, even though Evan is a now very healthy toddler who has only had a handful of colds and one ear infection in his life, I held out hope that things would go better with my next child, at least on the breastfeeding front.

Unfortunately, I had another rocky start with my second son — he was born at 30 weeks, so I didn’t even get to try to nurse until he was 4 weeks old.  It was just me and that darn pump again.  Once I was able to try, though, I found that Ben latched immediately and was a very good nurser. While he was in the NICU I got to nurse him once every day when I visited, and he was getting bottles of my pumped milk.  At first my supply seemed pretty good, but it never increased to more than 2.5 oz per pumping session.  I tried nursing him around the clock  when he came home, then supplementing with what I pumped, but he was losing weight because he had to work so hard to get very little. The NICU LC was the first one to tell me that my problem is not low supply, it’s the fact that my nipples are so inverted that I have an exit problem. (Apparently, this only happens “in very rare cases.”)  The milk is not able to exit, which signals my body to stop making so much milk, which means that even though I was pumping religiously, the amount I was able to pump kept dropping.  A lightbulb went on when I got this diagnosis — that’s why with Evan I kept getting plugged ducts even though I thought I had a supply problem.  I was sending my body mixed messages.

My preemie is 21 weeks old now, a whopping 12 lbs., and I bid the pump adieu more than two months ago. I am not beating myself up about it this time around, but I am sad that my problem wasn’t detected before; apparently I could have had surgery to correct it in between pregnancies, but it’s too late now.  I am glad that my preemie was fed breast milk exclusively for the first 7 weeks of his life — at least he got all those touted immunities when he was most vulnerable. But now when someone asks if I’m breastfeeding (and people do, even mere acquaintances who really don’t have any business asking about the functioning of my breasts), I can just say, “No” and not feel the need to go into the whole sordid story so that they know it’s NOT MY FAULT.  Having gained a little perspective after my first child, I now know that the time when my babies are getting only liquid nutrition is fairly short in the grand scheme of things, and my breastfeeding “failure” was only the first of many, many opportunities for mommy guilt.


Share your story for an upcoming FFF Friday: email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com. 


Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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8 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “Formula felt like failure.”

  1. I made myself miserable for quite a while exclusively pumping because I too felt like formula would be a “failure” (even though I knew that latching issues aside, I’d have to give up sooner or later to start medications!) I’m so fortunate to have found this site which helped me come to terms with it.

    I wish more women and doctors spread the message that formula isn’t failure. I was reading a message board post recently about a woman with a 4 month old who was 9lb and change, exclusively breastfed, and had not gained even a pound since the baby was 2 months. She was upset and felt like a failure because the doctor suggested rice cereal, and if the baby wasn’t gaining weight for another month, to then supplement with formula. What has this world come to when a DOCTOR would reccomend feeding a 4 month old rice cereal (empty calories) who should probably be diagnosed as failure to thrive with the abysmal weight gain (although was apparently otherwise healthy) and suggests WAITING a month before seeing if they should supplement with formula? When formula is tailor made to provide complete nutrition?? I can understand it is rough to accept you need to supplement when you are staunchly pro breastfeeding/anti-formula but once you’ve agreed to give rice cereal prior to 6 months, what could you possibly have against formula? And I don’t blame the mother – I blame the doctor for not using common sense, let alone medicine, to determine the best course of treatment for this baby. The mother isn’t a failure for not being able to produce enough milk. Society is a failure for making us think that being breast fed is more important than being adequately fed.

  2. “Having gained a little perspective after my first child, I now know that the time when my babies are getting only liquid nutrition is fairly short in the grand scheme of things, and my breastfeeding “failure” was only the first of many, many opportunities for mommy guilt.”

    A thousand times yes! Great post, it’s good to hear you got a proper diagnosis. I wish we were taken more seriously when breastfeeding problems arise. You are not trying hard enough is soooo unhelpful.

    • Thank you, Jenny! I am hoping if any other women have my “rare” problem, they’ll come across this post. In all my research — and I probably read the Kellymom and La Leche sites in their entirety! — I never saw a mention of the possibility of a “milk exit problem.” And you’re right, it is not at all helpful to be told to try harder!

      • I am that woman, Laurie. I have gone through hell trying to breastfeed my 4 children with my inverted nipples. I tried for three and a half weeks with my now 6 week old… the longest I have gone with any of my children. I have always thought I had an “exit issue” but kept being told that it was not possible. I tried pumping exclusively for 5 days and the most I got was a combined 2 oz from both breasts. By the fifth day one side was only producing a few drops, and the other only a quarter of an ounce. You have no idea how much hearing your story means to me. I know I am not alone with my issues and knowing that has given me hope that I can pull myself out of the dark place full of guilt that I am in right now.

        • Oh, Heidi, I’m so sorry — I can’t imagine going through this with four children. I am so thankful for the NICU LC who “diagnosed” me; at least I had an answer to WHY I couldn’t make enough milk. Also, I found a one-sentence mention of the possibility of this problem in the book “The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk,” but only after my second child was born — and, of course, it said “in very rare cases…” But just knowing there was an actual physical reason I was unable to produce enough milk alleviated my guilt — I hope it can do the same for you. Hugs to you.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story! It helps me heal from the sorrow of having also been “thwarted” in breastfeeding 2 out of 3 of my children. It was a horrible experience, but I am surprised that I am crying about it (now) 15 years later!!! I hope others can get “over it” faster than I am. 🙂

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