That first year with a baby is all about feeding, feeding and more feeding. For every parent, there is a time when he or she decides whether to breastfeed, exclusively pump, stick to formula, or use a combination approach. There are a variety of factors that push a parent towards one choice over the other. There is no “right” choice outside of what works best for a caregiver and baby.
Unfortunately, there is a push in our society to breastfeed. We see signs of it right from the day we deliver. There are subtle cues from healthcare staff as they share latching tips before inquiring whether formula is preferred. We are provided pamphlets of breastfeeding support in our care packages before bringing our newborns home. There are posters for breastfeeding help at our midwives’ office.
This blog post is not to push formula feeds. I have no right to claim whether formula is better than breastfeeding, or vice versa. Ultimately, I am true believer that fed is best. As long as your baby is getting the nutrients he or she needs to develop, I consider it a win. Instead, this post is for the parents who are struggling to breastfeed. Whether by choice or by capacity, they are stuck in that internal battle of guilt, frustration and helplessness as they face yet another feed.
The pressures of breastfeeding:
We live in a culture where breastfeeding is encouraged and subtly (or sometimes, not so subtly) pushed as the best option for our baby. New mothers face an onslaught of judgemental messages about breastfeeding, and these comments are made in permanent and absolute terms: “breastfed babies have higher IQs”, “breastfeeding will prevent illness, infections and chronic conditions,” “breast is best,” “you won’t have a good bond if you formula feed,” etc, etc.
I agree that there are a lot of values to breastfeeding. However, I also work with parents who are driven to the point of exhaustion and anxiety in trying to produce enough supply for their baby. These parents are so angry at their bodies for failing them and not doing enough to support their baby’s growth. If the option of working with a lactation consultant or consuming fenugreek daily is working, then please keep it up! In fact, I encourage you to start here if you truly want to breastfeed. However, if your baby is losing weight, you are feeling stressed out, or are experiencing any number of production difficulties, I want you to take a moment and consider why you are trying to keep up with this expectation.
The “Mommy Wars”
New parents would love to have the ideal postpartum experience. We see images of celebrities looking beach-wear ready a few days after delivery. We see influencers posting feeds of their babes sleeping through the night. There are endless tweets and posts about the “right ways to parent”.
With all of these messages of ideal parenthood, it makes sense that we are self-conscious about our own parenting. The Times wrote a beautiful article in reference to the Goddess Myth: “Like millions of other American moms, [mothers have] been bombarded by a powerful message: that she is built to build a human, that she will feel all the more empowered for doing so as nature supposedly intended and that the baby’s future depends on it. ” With this constant push for doing things “naturally”, moms carry the stress of parenting a certain way. There is a need to delivery vaginally, breastfeed on command, only feed your body the “right” foods, and of course, look stunning throughout the process. Of course, mothers then bear the burden of immense guilt when they are unable to meet these pressures.
This push to parent in a specific way also comes from mom-shaming experiences. These experiences can include rude comments and glances from others as a new mother orders a second cup of coffee, buys a drink, and of course, pulls out some formula. It’s as if there is a moral obligation that has been violated by not following the rules others deem best for our children. It’s no wonder that new parents are surrounded by a sense of failure and dread as they step into parenting.
Know that you’re not alone
The American Pediatric Society encourages breastfeeding for the first six months of your baby’s life. While 80% of mothers start off with this intention, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention state that only about 58% make it to the six months.
Why is this? Breastfeeding is described as natural and easy; however, any parent who struggles with breastfeeding can vouch that this is not the case. From poor latches, supply issues, mastitis, and other complications, many women start to experience a sense of dread when it comes closer to feeding times. These parents may undergo a period of grief as they cope with the disappointment of needing to put aside their hopes for breastfeeding.
Other parents prefer to not breastfeed. This decision could be based on a variety of reasons: struggles with hormonal shifts while breastfeeding, managing the demands of other children, returning to work, wanting support with nighttime feeds, sexual abuse histories, or simply not wanting to feed in this way. These are not selfish or bad parents. They care deeply for their children while also respecting their own boundaries. At the end of the day, a happy parent is better able to support their baby. If formula feeds provide a calmer structure for the parent, then this is the right decision for this family.
Worries about attachment
Sometimes we push ourselves because we think it’s what’s best for the baby. Sure there are physical benefits to breastmilk, but there are significant benefits to having a grounded and calm parent. If you are overwhelmed everytime you start nursing, that bond is going to feel so much more difficult. You have years to build and nurture the relationship with your child. It does not have to be perfect from day one. Listening to your mental, emotional and physical limits will set you up for success.
For those who feel that nursing creates a better attachment, I encourage you to consider your attachment with your own parents. Are you truly better connected with your mother because she chose to breastfeed versus formula feed? Is your IQ significantly higher than a peer who was formula-fed? Who even asks these questions today of other adults?
You are doing your best for your child
A hungry baby is a cantankerous baby. A guilty mother is an unhappy mother. Pressures that come from strangers, the internet, and sometimes our own friends and family are perhaps meant with good intentions. However, you are this child’s parent. And if you are feeling stressed and guilty about breastfeeding, you are allowed to stop. You will always be this child’s caregiver, and your bond can be secure irrespective of how you feed this little one. Your baby will grow up and eventually eat food, and this pressure to breastfeed will no longer be the central focus of conversations. So for now, go and enjoy your child. Focus on getting those baby snuggles. Spend time playing, singing, talking, and teaching him or her. And when your little one gets hungry, feed them in whatever way is feasible for you.
All the best,