This is one of those FFF Fridays that will make you want to riot in the streets. Which I highly encourage you to do. I’d join you but I have a raging migraine at the moment, so I’m just going to sit here quietly and read Natalie’s post, and gingerly raise my fist in solidarity.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
My mother breastfed me exclusively in the late 70’s in a place where most people were formula feeding, and she was pretty defensive about it. There’s a picture of me at two years old giving a toy bottle (it came with my peeing baby doll) to my teddy bear. When she would show me the picture when I was older, my mother always told me that it’s OK that I’m playing with the bottle, but it’s not really good, because breastfeeding is better.
Fast-forward thirty years or so, I’m pregnant, and my mother’s crunchy beliefs are mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that public health entities present all kinds of “data” to support it: breastfeeding will prevent obesity, cancer (which my mother died of), asthma, allergies, and a slew of other infectious diseases in your children, who will also have higher IQs. And then there are the supposed benefits for mothers: immediately losing “baby weight,” keeping your period at bay, reducing cancer risk for yourself.
Sad to say, the baby weight one really attracted me. I’ve had body dysmorphia since age twelve, and two years prior to my pregnancy I started exhibiting signs of hypothyroidism, including significant weight gain that no amount of careful eating or exercise would shake. The hypothyroidism wasn’t caught or acknowledged until my second trimester, when I also started getting medication for it (I got on the meds and people instantly started complimenting me on my thinner face). I felt better as well, but I couldn’t wait for breastfeeding to straighten me out further postpartum and get me back to my previous thinner self. I also have large breasts, which were always an issue in my dysfunctional family; my parents did not approve, not that I could have done anything about it. I was really looking forward to breastfeeding to give my breasts a meaning beyond early-instilled humiliation. I wanted to feel something about my breasts other than that they were so sexual as to be unattractive.
I was so gung-ho about breastfeeding that I spent almost three months of my pregnancy in a state of fear and dread. My rather negligent and inconsistent OB practice attempted to treat me in a haphazard way for gestational diabetes because I was on the high end of normal, though within normal range, on the glucose test. Their endocrinologist is running research (without obtaining patient consent, I might add) to attempt to prove that far larger swathes of the population have it or are at risk for it than previously supposed. She appears to be sort of shoehorning data (that is, pregnant women at the hospital and the treatment they undergo) to support her theory. Unbeknownst to me I was one of them, even though I didn’t have gestational diabetes and they eventually admitted that the treatment wasn’t medically necessary.
I was so anxious because I’d read that babies born to GD mothers are automatically given bottles at birth. A LLLI representative and every other website I’d read told me that just one bottle would ruin the breastfeeding process forever–which would therefore ruin my kid, or so I believed. These were mainstream websites, traded back and forth on the internet in mainstream online birth month groups I belonged to. Or else were from my own research. Or were recommended by rational, educated people I knew.
Whenever I asked nurses at my appointments, or other hospital officials–like the one who ran our childbirth class, who warned about the dangers of formula feeding—about it, they’d say, “Well, DO you have GD?”
“…no…I mean, I don’t know, they said no, but they said I need the treatment anyway…”
“Well, if you DO, they’ll give a bottle—but breast IS best, I’m just warning you—and if you DON’T, they won’t! Which IS it?”
It was “no,” but it took my husband coming in with me to an appointment towards the end of my pregnancy (and demanding the same answers I’d demanded earlier) for them to stop warning that I was going to get GD treatment “fairly soon, at some point, be ready” and to admit that it wasn’t medically necessary. I even wrote in my “birth wishes” that no bottles could be given without my consent, and had the pleasure of being treated like a Birthzilla by the nurses and OBs, with lots of side-eye, reminders that the health professionals know best, and “you DO know that our hospital is trying for baby-friendly status, don’t you?”
In part, I was so assiduous about internet research and doing what official, “scientific” sources tell me because I’m an American transplant in Canada, and I’m living far from my family or any support network I can really rely on. My mother is dead and my family has never really been the supportive kind. My husband’s family lives overseas. I did have the presence of mind to join a mothers-and-babies group while I was pregnant, and it’s an amazingly non-judgmental group for the most part, with many formula feeders in it—formula feeders with lovely, healthy, happy children. I acknowledged this, but, as with my feelings concerning everyone else’s body shapes and sizes versus my own, I believed that everyone else was fine—beautiful, even, no matter what–but that I had better breastfeed or else.
I was induced when my son was fashionably late, and we had the clichéd but totally-real-for-us bonding moment where we gazed into each other’s eyes. My son was beautiful, happy, healthy, large though skinny, had good scores, and was interested in eating. I had the chance to breastfeed after they finished stitching up my third-degree tears. I had watched videos but didn’t really know what to do on the ground. I put him to my boob and nothing happened. The nurse said not to worry, he didn’t need anything right now, and it was time to go to the mother-baby ward and I could try again later.
In the ward, the supercilious new nurse lectured me for not having breastfed yet, since my baby had been out of the womb now for four hours and I could have done it twice. I was so tired that I was incoherent, though happy, and managed to mumble that I wasn’t really sure what to do. She sneered, “You did prepare for this, right? You did at least watch a video?” and left. It was 3 AM and I’d been awake for 36 hours. A few hours later, when I asked for help with breastfeeding anyway, she bent my hand, which had blood running down it because she was bending it at an unnatural angle around an IV, and then yelled at me when I asked her not to and pointed out that I was bleeding so much from her forced bending that blood was going back into the IV tube. “Do you want to breastfeed or DON’T you?”
Nothing much came out that I could see. Even the colostrum was negligible. I sat zombie-like in a “lactation class” with my husband and baby and five other couples, still dragging the IV tree (an OB decided against medical advice from the OB at the birth that I needed the IV in for another twenty-four hours for an infection that clearly wasn’t there), watching the lactation consultant fondle a plush breast. I was still smelling like birth goo, wearing a hospital gown that was bloodstained on the butt. No nurse would help me take the gown off around the IV, or clean myself—they were only concerned with breastfeeding. A series of nurses who were somewhat kinder but no more competent then the previous one taught me what I now know are incorrect latches that raised blood blisters. My breasts felt like they were on fire. My baby screamed for another day and night until we were discharged. My third-degree tears were agonizing and all I got was Tylenol. They and the bloody IV meant I could never get in a bearable nursing position while in the hospital. We rang for a nurse in desperation the second night and she sneered at us for not quieting our son down with my boob, which we had tried to no avail. Except for me a few hours after the birth, neither my husband nor I slept for about four days.
Our baby continued to scream when we were home. We were clinging to sanity by a tenuous thread when we went to our son’s 48-hour pediatrician’s appointment. The pediatrician took one look at our baby—he was still howling, with a look of desperation and anguish in his eyes–and remarked, “Well, he’s NOT huge.” I wondered what she was talking about—he was long and skinny and looked like me as a baby, except that I had been premature and had weighed about five pounds. The nurses in the hospital had said he was fine and that he needs to get used to the idea that he’s only getting breast milk, after all.
She pointed out gently that he had lost 12% of his body weight, that he had orange crystals from dehydration in his diaper, and that he was very hungry. She told us that we needed to give him formula, that we should try the ready-to-serve liquid kind because there was no point in going for powdered and fussing with all that stuff since I was planning to breastfeed. My husband checked out with our son, and I sat in the examination room alone and bawled silently until I could control myself. I hated myself for causing my baby suffering, even accidentally, and because I was already starting to feel physically like a failure as a woman. My body had changed so much, even before pregnancy, and was failing me, and now I was failing my son.
Giving my baby formula and watching him relax and sleep was one of the scariest, most relieving things I have ever done. I wish that it hadn’t been that way, because there was no reason for it to be that way.
My milk came in a few days later, when I took a brief nap and woke up in a chilly pool of it (good times!). I worked on getting my baby to exhibit what I thought a good latch was from all the literature I pored over, but it wasn’t happening all that well. His sessions were always very long. I both read that at this stage I couldn’t let him use me as a pacifier, that each feeding should last maximum thirty minutes…AND that I had to let him eat as long as he wanted.
My stitches continued to bother me to the point that I had to fashion a donut out of a towel for six weeks in order to sit down (and breastfeed) at all. I would sometimes hide in the bathroom and cry because they hurt so much, long past the time they were supposed to get “better.” The nurse at my OB practice told me crisply over the phone when I begged for advice that they were not responsible for me again until the six-week appointment and that I should consult my family doctor. My family doctor said, “I don’t know what to do. Isn’t that something your OB should take care of? Ask them.” I dreaded the pain of sitting but did it anyway, because I was terrified of not breastfeeding at all. (No variations of lying down worked for us either—my baby didn’t recognize it as a viable eating position.)
Then, my endocrinologist told me I had to go off thyroid meds for two months, I assume so that she could see if I only needed them in pregnancy or needed them long-term. My supply plummeted instantly. For the space of a week, feedings on demand became deranging twelve-hour long marathons. I didn’t sleep. My baby would scream and cry if he wasn’t on my breast, and would nurse fretfully the whole time when he was. I called LLLI, only to be told that by “allowing” an induction and epidural and formula supplementation, I had RUINED my supply. In a pissy, aggrieved voice, the LLLI representative said, “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have done that, exactly, but you shouldn’t have done that.” She also told me that there was nothing wrong with twelve-hour feeds, that it was only a problem if I made it one, and was I dedicated enough to do what it takes? And do I co-sleep? Because our not co-sleeping is also harmful!
Next, I saw about ten lactation consultants at the hospital and local public health office, who said:
a) According to their weighing numbers, I was producing “enough” for my baby (who was at the 95th percentile in height and 25th in weight, and always hungry);
b) My baby’s latch is good. Except it isn’t. Except it is. Except it isn’t. Etc. But no instructions on how to make it better, other than “keep trying;”
c) My body would eventually produce what my son needed if I really worked at it, because our bodies were made to do this;
d) Only 1-2% of women have supply issues and it’s inconceivable that I would be one of them, especially with those breasts;
e) I should nurse for ten minutes on each side, pump for fifteen minutes on each side, and then formula feed WITH THE KNOWLEDGE THAT IT IS WRONG AND BAD FOR BABIES—DO I KNOW THIS? Until he’s done, and then repeat the whole process every 1.5-2 hours, while taking blessed thistle, fenugreek, and Domperidone (which I did not continue with because it made my breasts hurt so much that nursing was impossible);
f) Nobody “really needs” the size Large flanges for the pumps (I did, because hello, G/H cups while lactating!), though they sold them to me reluctantly after I insisted;
g) Also, they kept trying to push hand expressing on me, even though I had severe “mommy thumb” from trying to wrangle my large breasts, because “women have been doing this for thousands of years.” (If there’s any sentence I really hate now, it’s “women have been doing this for thousands of years.”) After letting them corral me into trying it in front of them, I said, “ow, this hurts, I need to stop,” and the lactation consultant replied loudly, “YES, ISN’T IT GREAT.”
h) My goal should be the cessation of formula feeding and the adoption of exclusive breastfeeding. But it was MY CHOICE, of course.
Incidentally, the literature from the hospital on breastfeeding says that formula feeding carries an increased risk of death. DEATH.
This breastfeeding advice, combined with the rest of the abysmal prenatal medical experience, which is not worth going into now, created perfect conditions for my postpartum depression. It didn’t help that my husband has anxiety that usually manifests itself as obsession over finances, and he would stand over me while I was pumping and cluster feeding, saying, “this HAS to work. Formula is EXPENSIVE.” Ironically, the postpartum depression help I’m still receiving at the hospital seven and a half months out is great, and probably the best health care experience I’ve had in Canada. However, I probably wouldn’t need it if I hadn’t had such bad prenatal and postpartum care, and particularly if I hadn’t been subject to the militant breastfeeding propaganda.
At around week 12 of my son’s life, I decided that enough was enough. I hated pumping and usually never got more than two ounces at a time. I preferred getting enough sleep to trying to do the “right” thing, and I was done trying to make exclusive breastfeeding work. I stopped pumping and could finally focus enough to bond with my baby. He started nursing vigorously, maybe because he had energy because we upped the formula, and I could finally see what that proper latch thing was all about. My husband gave him bottles and also got to experience the lovely bond that feeding can facilitate. More formula feeding in public meant I didn’t have to be so crushed by the comments I overheard most of the time that I nursed in public with my large breasts. (My baby never did take to the cover.) I didn’t have to keep searching for nearly mythical, overpriced nursing tops that would accommodate both my breasts and my narrow torso. We would breastfeed in the morning for my baby’s first breakfast and Hobbit-like second breakfast, in the evenings, before bedtime, and when I remembered during the day—or when he wasn’t too hungry, because breastfeeding while hungry enraged him. Wouldn’t you rather have a full meal when you’re really hungry than a steady stream of tiny snacks?
It makes me furious that the public-health-run Living and Learning With Baby class I attended—for people who might not otherwise have family support networks–would only present breastfeeding-related info, despite the fact that probably about half the class was formula feeding their babies. It makes me furious that hypothyroidism is known to be a potential factor in low milk supply, yet my endocrinologist said dismissively when I asked her about it at my two-month postpartum appointment, “yeah, I heard about that, I read an article…but I don’t know anything about it. I doubt it’s important.” It makes me furious that a “baby-friendly” hospital that is adamant that you must breastfeed exclusively to avoid doing horrible things to your child…has an endocrinologist on staff who insists that you do things that will likely further jeopardize your milk supply. Or has nursing staff who are willing to let you hallucinate with fatigue and your baby starve because of their ideology. “Baby-friendly,” my a**. Not baby-friendly OR mother-friendly—more like lactivist-friendly!
And I haven’t even gone into the non-medical pressure: my otherwise lovely belly dance teacher, mid hip-swivel: “are you breastfeeding?” “Yes, but—“ “GOOD GIRL.” (Not wanting to hide what I was doing or misrepresent myself, I told her I was combo feeding and watched the smile fall off her face.) Every woman we know from my husband’s world region, combining collectivist society-style judgemental attitudes with newly-acquired North American values: “are you breastfeeding? OH NO DON’T GIVE FORMULA. IT WILL MESS UP YOUR SUPPLY. YOU HAVE TO STOP WITH THE FORMULA! BREASTMILK IS LIQUID GOLD.” (Funny, isn’t urine liquid gold?) Or my best friend’s mother staring at my chest when we’re on a visit to my hometown: “You’re not just breastfeeding? It’s weird, you don’t LOOK like you’d have a problem.” My best friend, trying to be helpful, warned me that I was pouring GMOs into my baby by giving him formula, and I might want to try GMO-free formula (which, as far as I can tell, is quite expensive and not for anyone younger than twelve months). Another friend, who doesn’t have children, informed me that formula was unhealthy and I should try feeding him goat’s milk.
And then there’s the whole hushed, reverential, and frankly paranoid attitude people have these days towards breastfeeding vis-a-vis drugs of any kind, even people who really should know better. My therapist asked me whether I should really be taking thyroid meds because I was breastfeeding. (Answer—YES. If even the ridiculous LLLI militants say it’s OK, it’s OK. The meds can only help, in this case.) My pharmacist, who knows I’m combo feeding, when I asked her if I could take NeoCitran or zinc lozenges during a debilitating upper-respiratory infection, said “well, OK, but only ONE per day! Baby is nursing! Drugs are bad for baby!” Motherisk, the very conservative entity in Canada you can call with breastfeeding and drug interaction issues, said it was fine to take as much as I needed, and it wouldn’t harm the baby but might cause a drop in supply. (At this point, breastfeeding was largely ceremonial for us, so I didn’t really care.) The Motherisk nurse also asked me how I was feeding my baby and tried to shame me for not breastfeeding exclusively, but I told her that I wasn’t interested in her input on this matter. (I wish I could have been so bold when another Motherisk nurse shamed me for my pre-pregnancy, hypothyroidism-induced weight when I called to ask if I could eat nutritional yeast while pregnant, but hindsight is 20/20.)
So this is what I do now: if someone expresses anything other than neutrality or approval when they ask about our baby-feeding habits, I lecture them passive-aggressively about hypothyroidism and its effects on milk supply until their eyes glaze over and they wish they had never said anything and they change the subject. After all, they brought it up, so they should be willing to hear any response they elicit. If they don’t change the subject, I warn them that I’ve vowed to myself to expunge all undermining negativity from my life at this vulnerable time, and I’d rather not expunge their presence. They usually stop.
When we buy formula cans—the generic Wal-Mart kind, because that’s what we can afford—that say “breast is best” on them (the message that used to crush me), I write “F**K to you!”—a direct quote from Borat–over the message in thick black marker. It’s petty, I own it. But it makes me feel better.
I don’t hide the fact that I’m formula feeding, though I would not blame anybody for doing so. I’m just waiting for someone to tell me in public that breast is best when I’m bottle feeding my child, just so I can threaten to report them to the police for harassment. Or else I will wave them away and say “shoo,” because their opinion is as welcome to me as a stray dog peeing on a fire hydrant. Politeness be damned—I think that enabling their rudeness perpetuates the problem, and I now feel strong and belligerent enough not to.
But I wish I hadn’t believed the hype. My baby is thriving on formula with a little breast milk. According to the lactivists I read or talked to, I should have gotten my period long ago because any flagging in breastfeeding dedication, even sleeping through the night, will bring it back, but at seven and a half months postpartum I still don’t have it. I didn’t have “baby weight” other than the baby to lose, but I actually experienced significant drops in my pre-baby hypothyroidism weight specifically during those times when my supply dropped, NOT when I was mostly breastfeeding. So if anything, the opposite was true for me, and breastfeeding LESS helped me lose weight.
I’m also one of those people who can’t handle severe and prolonged lack of sleep because it exacerbates my depressive tendencies. I have a husband who’s willing and interested—enthusiastic, even—about caring for our baby, but we have no relatives around upon whom we can rely in a pinch. No friends that we’re close enough to that we can just drop the baby off with when we’re desperate, tired, or sick. We can’t afford a babysitter. Under the circumstances, nursing round the clock for months on end at the expense of our sleep may not have been the responsible choice.
It’s also interesting to me that the person who was the most directly involved with my baby’s health—his excellent pediatrician—was the one who urged us to supplement with formula. If that lactivism stuff had a strong basis in fact, wouldn’t SHE have been the one to warn us about his IQ, projected potential weight, and chances of asthma and illness?
I do like breastfeeding now, because the pressure is now off. My baby does it for comfort or “dessert,” which comforts me. I will be a little sad when my baby weans totally, but I can see now that it’s such a little part of the whole bonding and growing process. The next time around, if I am so lucky that there is a next time, I’m not going to read any propaganda, not going to see any lactation consultants, not going off my thyroid meds, and if I have a supply problem at the outset, I will address it immediately so my baby does not suffer. If this happens in the hospital under the gimlet eye of “baby-friendly” nurses, so be it.
Recently, I was rereading one of my favorite books, The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, which spans the era from the 1880’s to the end of World War I. I was struck by a throwaway line in it, about how Imogen, one of my favorite characters, was unable to breastfeed her baby at all. The author just mentions it and then goes on with the story. As though it’s normal. Probably because it is. No judgments of Imogen as a mother, no mention of how “tragic” it is, no comparisons to Imogen’s stepdaughter, who gave birth at the same time and had no problems with breastfeeding. I was extremely grateful to the author for it. We need more narratives like this, which is one reason why I love this site.
Want to share your thoughts on feeding babies? Talk about your experience? Shoot me an email at email@example.com.