The hospital pediatrician who told me my 2 day old baby had higher than normal, but not critical, bilirubin levels and was approaching jaundice, was also hesitant to recommend us formula feeding to help him along. “No more than 1 or 2 ounces,” he said. “But continue breastfeeding. You don’t want him to think it’s too easy.” Meaning it’s easier to suck on a bottle than it is a human nipple, so don’t let him get into the habit early. But all along there had been no nurses encouraging me to breastfeed, no doctors monitoring us, just a daily check-up for the little one to find out of he’s thriving or not. And he wasn’t, so of course I had to breastfeed more. A nurse gave me lanolin lotion for my cracking nipples and I waited hours for a lactation consultant to tell me if I had milk. She poked the top of my breast and said, “Oh yes, your milk is coming in.” Then she discreetly rolled in a breast pump and walked away.
I’m telling you this story because as well prepared as I was for pregnancy and labor, I felt horribly underprepared for parenthood, especially what to do in the 72 hours or so following birth. It doesn’t help that they pump you full of narcotics (the nurse had to get special permission to give me a half dose because I didn’t want the whole thing) to help you cope with the pain. And there were so many decisions that had to be made I never really thought to prepare myself for. Like how best to feed the baby. I was going to breastfeed, right? Sure. That’s what they say to do. “Breast is best” is the message on posters in every OB/GYN office. If it’s so natural how hard could it be? Surely I didn’t need a class for that. Yet at the same time I had registered for bottles, because that’s what everybody does and eventually I knew I’d be returning to work, so the little one would have to get fed somehow, right? Right.
Turns out breastfeeding is hard – very hard, in a physically taxing kind of way, not in an intellectual way – and I should have taken that class. The popular media, from magazines to websites, tout how healthy it is for you and for the baby. You’ll burn extra calories and lose your pregnancy weight that much quicker. You’ll pass along valuable immunity to your baby, reduce his chances of ear infections, allergies, and other illnesses. You’ll bond with your baby that much sooner. Breast is best.
Tell that to someone who’s been a mom for 48 hours with a screaming infant lying skin-to-skin on her chest, red-faced and screaming, his mouth so dry from dehydration his lips are chapped, lips which in turn chap the mother’s skin on her breast, making breastfeeding a horrifying experience. While you don’t have milk the first few days after labor, you do make something called colostrum, and your baby will extract about a teaspoonful of that stuff, because that’s all he needs and can digest. I guess most babies are happy with a teaspoon. I either didn’t have a teaspoon or my LO’s metabolism needed more than what I was giving him. Which led to the whole formula supplementing thing. Except I didn’t know anything about what to do with formula, either – I just had a shelf full of samples of different brands that had been arriving for the last few months. I knew my labor coaches would have wanted me to throw those “artificial baby milk” products out.
Throughout the first month of my son’s life, every doctor seemed to have a different theory or approach to adding in formula. The nurses at the peditrician didn’t judge, and sent me home with boxes full of samples. One pediatrician asked that I nurse regularly before every feeding; another said to nurse exclusively and only give formula “if things get hairy.” Which they did. My OB asked if I was breastfeeding, and when I said I was supplementing she said, “That’s okay, it’s not for everyone.” (Her acceptance/non judgmental attitude is one of the main reasons I chose her to deliver my son). Does that mean breastfeeding is not for me?
I looked for validation of my choices where everyone else does – on the internet. Was it okay to be doing what I was doing? Was I a failure, or had I given up too soon on breastfeeding? Would my son suffer long-term ill-effects for it? There are plenty of haters out there who say yes, I’m a failure; I’ve given up; I’m selfish for not breastfeeding. And sure, there are people who say it’s okay to formula feed – of course, it seems like there’s always a medical condition that excuses that woman from breastfeeding.
Choosing formula versus breastfeeding, as with dealing with infertility, is something that women tend to beat ourselves up for, and judge each other harshly for. We should be more supportive of each other, not tearing each other down. And from my discussions with other moms, the number of women who choose to use formula with or instead of breastfeeding seems to be much much greater than the media would have me believe – so why doesn’t it feel that way? Are they too embarrassed or ashamed to speak up? Remember when women had to fight to be taken seriously in the workplace? (Some would argue we still do). Women who fought for you to get 6 weeks away from your job to recover and take care of an infant, without penalty to you? Women who protested in order to make it a choice for you to be a stay at home mom, not the expectation? What would they say to a petty bickering over how a woman chooses to feed her child? As I read in one article helping to defend women who choose formula in any capacity over breastfeeding, there are worse ways to parent a child than to choose to keep him or her well-nourished with formula.