FFF Friday: “How breastfeeding nearly killed me”

All I can say about Maria’s story is that it is not the first I’ve read that nearly ended in tragedy. And I know it won’t be the last, until we start prioritizing maternal mental health over meeting breastfeeding recommendations. There is a perfectly acceptable alternative when a mother does not breastfeed. There is not a perfectly acceptable alternative when a mother does not receive help for severe postpartum depression or anxiety. 

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

***

Maria’s Story

My name is Maria. I have two gorgeous children, who were both, ultimately, formula-fed. My youngest is nearing his second birthday, and I have found I still get bothered by the whole “breast is best” campaign. A part of me assumes I always will be. Since healing can be done through sharing stories, I thought I would share mine.

My first child was a girl. She was perfect, hairy, chubby, and amazing. I was a new mom of 22 with zero information on this whole parenting thing. Facebook was still new, and not every detail of life was out there. My choice to feed formula after a week of bleeding nipples was a quiet one, one met with little to no issue. My mother formula fed me, after all, and I was a single mom so it was no problem. Fast forward to my son. My husband and I anticipated the arrival of this boy like no other. We did not, however, anticipate preterm labor at 25 weeks, or preterm birth at 36 weeks. But he was perfect. 7 pounds, 12 ounces of perfection. His first cries were met with audible relief, as it meant his lungs worked. My first words were “He’s not small!”. He immediately latched to the breast, it was bliss.

He had mild jaundice at discharge two days later, and had lost 12 ounces. My first regained her birth weight in under a week, so I wasn’t concerned. I was determined to successfully breastfeed this time, but I did buy a pump and accessories in case the need arose. We went home a happy family. My milk came in some days later, and I knew something was wrong immediately. I wandering my son in bed, and when I pulled him away, I noticed my shirt was wet. Most of what my son pulled from me never made it into his mouth. Well, I figured my milk came in, so I will be more careful with latching after that.

Impossible. It was discovered at his 2 week appointment that he could not latch, due to a lip tie. I had already started pumping by then, and using bottles he could get his lips around. The downward spiral began.

He was barely gaining weight. 2-3 ounces were all he gained after coming home. His jaundice was technically in the zone of hospitalization, but the doctor said to try putting him in sunlight at home first. I was failing him. Then my milk started drying. I had a freezer stash. Excess coming out of my ears… and I was already dipping into reserves. His appetite grew, my supply shrank. I bought supplements, I pumped hourly, I drank dark beer, ate enough oatmeal to kill a horse, pumped less often, more often, for thirty minutes after nothing came out…. it was useless. He was insatiable, and drinking twice as much as I could produce.

I started to hate him. Every time he woke up at night I wanted to scream and run away. I would feed him and change him, then attach myself to the pump for an hour. Go back to bed and repeat. I got no sleep. Not “Oh I slept terrible last night” I am talking hallucinations. I hated my husband, he couldn’t help. He was on night shift and didn’t have boobs. I hated him. I hated this baby we made, I hated my family and myself.

One night, while the baby screamed in his pack n play, literally starving, I got the gun. I sat and listened to him scream for an hour, gun on my lap, weighing my options. Hearing over and over, “breast is best” “formula gives you cancer” “you don’t love your baby unless you breastfeed”, etc. Somehow I had the stamina for one more feeding.

The next day I went to the doctor. I was fine and then started bawling. After I became coherent I was scolded, lightly, for taking it this far. I should have switched as soon as I started having bad feelings towards my baby. He said breastfeeding is not at all a requirement of motherhood. He was formula fed and a doctor! I started antidepressants that day.

I switched my son to formula. He was 14 pounds by 2 months. By a year he had grown an entire foot! His jaundice was gone almost immediately, and he became a very happy baby. He is now nearly 2. One slight ear infection a month ago, a tummy bug last week are the only illnesses he can claim. He is happy, he is healthy, he is smart. All the things they say formula-fed babies can’t be.

So when I hear “breast is best”, I scoff. The breast nearly killed me, and was starving him. Tell me how that is best for anyone?!

Bottle or breast… FED is best!

***

Feel like sharing your story for an upcoming FFF Friday? Simply email it to 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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13 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “How breastfeeding nearly killed me”

  1. This is why all of the absolutist parenting philosophies are dangerous. No one should ever be pushed so far for an unreachable ideal that they are on the brink of harming themselves or their babies. Whether it’s how you feed, whether you let your baby cry sometimes, or anything else, one size DOES NOT fit all.

  2. I had a similar experience with my first (and so far, only). She was lip tied and tongue tied. No one figured it out for 6 months. So for 6 months I was attached to a pump, desperately trying to get anything to come out. I had zero reserve. Every ounce I pumped immediately went to the baby. It was hell. I’d feed her on one side, pump on the other (2 or 3 oz. if it was a REALLY good day). Repeat every couple hours. I finally switched to formula. It was the best decision that I ever made. It saved my sanity, so I could be a better mom for my baby. And baby happily gained weight. She’s now very healthy and strong. Breast milk is pretty awesome, but so is a well fed baby.

  3. Great piece! I didn’t breastfeed either of my children and the invasive questions, disappointed looks and shame cast upon me was real , and prevalent. Strangers would ask me why. I actually had a co-worker I respected ask, “why would an educated person like you harm your baby with formula?”. It got to the point when people would ask me, “if I was”, or “why I wasn’t”, I would respond with “why?”, and usually as they were getting on their soap box and preaching, I could ask another question and successfully deflect answering. I’m currently on maternity leave with a 5 week old. I’m better equipped to field the questions the second time around and hold my head up high. Truth is, I didn’t get milk either time. Truth is, I only have a milk duct system on one side due to surgery for a papilloma in my 20’s and the oncologist recommended removing the duct system. Truth is, I shouldn’t have to defend myself, but I do…

  4. AMEN!!!! I was a young first time mom, and after trying so hard to breast feed, but my son never, ever stopped crying. I was strapped to a pump for so long, I started to moo whenever someone asked me a question. I remember crying to friends on the phone, telling them that I had broken my baby. My single, non-parent of a health nurse told me I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Eventually we switched to the bottle, and my demon possessed baby was suddenly happy. After my second child came home from the hospital, she was rushed back at 5 days old, literally starving to death, and hooked up to an iv to replenish her electrolytes. Doctors finally figured out that my lovely to look at breasts were mainly decorative, as I simply do not produce enough milk to support an infant… even after milk-producing drugs, pumping, taping the tube over the nipple into the supplement, so as to stimulate more milk production while she was feeding….etc, etc. Long story short, both kids ended up being formula fed babies. And I was wracked with guilt for years. Kudos to you for trying to break the stigma attached to bottle feeding. Fed truly is best, no matter what form it takes.

  5. I read this and I think: how did the women who lived in the centuries before us feel about their breastfeeding “failures”? How did a woman feel in the 1700s, when PPD didn’t exist and the women were simply called “hysterical”? Formula saved my son for several reasons but the main reason was because it saved my sanity. Brava wonderful woman, brava for sharing!

  6. l felt a lot of pain in that story of your struggle to feed. I just wondered why you didn’t get the lip tie cut? Did no one suggest that? That seems so poor in terms of postnatal support, and we always question that.

  7. I think this is a super important story to share, but I think it could be framed in a more helpful way. Yes, breastfeeding expectations mixed with PPD created a very dangerous situation for this mom, but more important than trying to remove stigma of bottle feeding is promoting knowledge, understanding, and ability to identify post partum depression. Making this story all about breast vs. bottle undermines the efforts to remove the stigma of mental health issues. “How post partum depression nearly killed me” would be a more accurate and more appropriate title, and would help more women get the help they need.

    • I get what you’re saying… but the author of this piece chose the title, and that is presumably how she feels it was framed within the context of her life. I don’t think it’s my right to frame it a specific way or use her story in a context that she didn’t intend it to be.

      As an advocate for both better maternal mental health care and for changing the conversation about infant feeding, I think it’s important to not only acknowledge PPD, but to identify stressors that may exacerbate symptoms or prevent mothers from getting the help they need. I have heard far too many stories from moms who claim that breastfeeding (or the pressure to breastfeed) created the perfect storm for their PPD. We have no problem promoting breastfeeding as a way to prevent PPD, so I’m not sure why we are so uncomfortable with the idea that it can also have the opposite effect. In this particular woman’s case, it was the obsession with breastfeeding as a measure of her worth as a mom that provoked feelings of worthlessness. Those are important stories to tell, both from a societal perspective so that we can be aware and learn, but also – and in my mind, most importantly – to allow her to speak her truth.

    • I was deeply depressed in the first few months of my baby’s life, solely because of the “Breast is Best” bullcrap.

      The only time in my entire life I had known formula to be used, it was for a foster baby whose parents were unavailable. I remember breastfeeding, I remember being in a mock trial group and the mom running it just casually lifting her shirt up to feed her baby. That was just how babies were fed. I actually broke down in tears when I realized that I needed a bilateral mastectomy and couldn’t put it off until after having children. Throughout pregnancy, “breast is best” was drilled into me despite knowing about my surgery and that there was no way in hell I could produce a full supply. NO ONE gave me any information about formula. It wasn’t until I was in labor that I actually thought about it, we went to the store and just stared at the aisle for awhile, trying to make a decision between contractions that we had no idea was so complex.

      My toddler has a very sensitive stomach, not a surprise given that both his dads have one as well. Our newborn was in agony because we couldn’t find the right formula, we went through hell switching. Our pediatrician yelled at us for doing it because “Babies never need to change formula!”. We were working with the Nurse Family Partnership, designed to help first time parents- she couldn’t give any guidance on switching formula. Whether out of ignorance or policy, I don’t know or care. My parents couldn’t help, no one around us could help.

      (I am also so, incredibly fortunate we were able to afford formula. WIC wouldn’t cover the formula our baby needed, even with a pediatrician note that we never would have gotten. My heart breaks for the families that rely on programs like WIC and have babies who need a different formula)

      Throughout this, we were constantly told “If you could just BREASTFEED, this wouldn’t happen!”.

      As soon as we found the right formula, the guilt and depression faded.

      Then I started meeting EBF parents whose children HAD gone through it. I started meeting parents whose EBF baby had constipation, even though “breastfed babies don’t get constipated”. I started meeting parents whose EBF babies had eczema, digestive distress, everything else. I started meeting parents who went through the same things we had, despite giving their baby “liquid gold” straight from the tap. I started meeting parents who did extreme elimination diets that probably nearly killed them and couldn’t have led to nutritious milk for their baby before finally accepting they needed to do formula. And that’s when I realized that it was all a bunch of hooey.

      The SOLE reason for my deep depression related to early parenting was because of the “Breast is Best” crap and the complete lack of resources in finding the right formula. If that hadn’t existed, if I had gotten adequate support and resources and guidance in my quest for the right formula, I wouldn’t have had anything resembling PPD.

      So do NOT tell me that this is just because of PPD and has nothing to do with “breast vs bottle”. This has EVERYTHING to do with “breast vs bottle” and that there is currently a social system in place designed to attack parents and intentionally keep them from getting the information and support they need to successfully feed their babies.

  8. I’m very sorry you went through this. Sounds like you could’ve used some serious help, which you did not receive. But breastfeeding did not almost kill your baby.

    • Breastfeeding nearly drove her to suicide. The title is “breastfeeding nearly killed ME”. I don’t know how anyone can be so bull-headed as to ignore that, and then to leave this utterly insensitive comment.

      Also, insisting on breastfeeding when you aren’t producing enough milk (which does happen) HAS nearly killed babies. It’s resulted in hospitalization that is completely avoidable with a bit of supplemental formula. Because having your baby hospitalized and hooked up to an IV tube is MUCH better for the breastfeeding relationship than one or two supplemental feedings a day! If it weren’t for modern medicine, those babies just would have died- it’s why pre-historic baby bottles have been found. There has never been a point in human history where all babies were 100% breastfed, the closest is the point where babies whose parents couldn’t produce enough milk were at severe risk. It’s WHY formula was invented, because there have always been parents with inadequate supply and newborns with special needs, and without formula those babies had a very high chance of death or permanent damage.

      Formula saves the lives that breastmilk is unable to support.

  9. Reminiscing brought me back to this piece. I thought I would update! My son is now almost 5, and the tallest in his class. He is the size my husband was at 5 1/2, and he is 6’4″!! Still no real illnesses to claim, though he did have his tonsils and adenoids removed simply because they were huge and he had some apnea. While it is true that “breast is best” still bugs me, I am so much better off than I was those several years ago.

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