I have a confession to make: I feed Maggie, my nine-month-old daughter, formula. When we go to our mom and baby yoga class, I’m the one in the back, fumbling in my diaper bag for a bottle and trying to mask the sound of the can opening with a strategically timed cough.
Then, I hunch my back and curve protectively around the two of us, trying to hide the bottle in my daughter’s mouth from the eyes of breastfeeding moms around me. Although no one has ever frowned at me, or told me outright that I’m a bad mother, I know many of them are thinking it. I know it for a fact—because I used to think it, back in the days when I was one of those breastfeeding moms with my first child. I was always careful not to stare or show any outward signs of disapproval, but I admit that seeing someone else bottle-feeding made me feel slightly superior. And, yes, I sometimes thought, “maybe she didn’t try hard enough.”
Ah, karma. So now I know what it’s like to be the only mother in the room who isn’t nursing her baby. I worry that perhaps I’ve already failed my daughter in some way and that my son, Charlie, will be healthier, stronger and smarter—according to books I’ve read—because I breastfed him. Whenever anyone asks if I “tried” breastfeeding, I launch into my well-rehearsed explanation. It goes something like this:
I start by telling people that I have breastfed before, (thereby proving that I’m not all bad). Although I struggled for the first few weeks with breast pumps, syringes and cup feeding, I did successfully breastfeed my son until he was about eight months old.
Then, when he was almost two, I got pregnant again and vowed that this time, breastfeeding was going to be a breeze. I lined up a post-partum doula, printed pages of tips on latching techniques, which I reviewed during labour, and attended the hospital breastfeeding clinic just hours after Maggie was born.
But breastfeeding was, once again, an ordeal. Despite the help of my doula, two lactation consultants and a handful of well-intentioned nurses, I left the hospital with deep cracks in my nipples and a diagnosis of Candida—a yeast infection in both of my breasts.
Breastfeeding was excruciatingly painful. I cried through every feeding with my toes curled, my teeth gritted and my husband periodically wiping my nose. In between feedings, my options were to go topless, or wear plastic shields over my nipples so that I could get dressed without the risk of fabric brushing my skin. Showering was almost unbearable.
We went to a breastfeeding clinic for help, where I was prescribed one drug to clear up the infection and another to increase my milk supply. I also had several lotions and potions to apply, part of a seven-step treatment regimen, but things didn’t improve. I held out for two weeks. Then, one night at 2 a.m., my husband brought Maggie to me to be fed. The stabbing pain in my breasts hadn’t subsided since the last feeding and just the sight of my hungry daughter made me burst into tears. I fed her as best I could, then I sent my husband to the nearest drugstore to pick up a can of formula — I simply couldn’t bear the thought of having to nurse her again.
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life because “breast milk is the optimal food for infants.” When my husband and I took the prenatal classes at the hospital where I delivered, we were told that every woman can breastfeed. And that every woman should breastfeed, period. The posters that papered the hospital walls showed pictures of smiling, nursing women with captions that read “Breastfeeding: as nature intended.” There were no posters of women holding bottles.
It bothered me at the time, even though I fully intended to breastfeed. I hadn’t even given birth, yet I felt that the pressure was already on. Everywhere I went, the message was clear: breastfeeding is the only option for moms who want what’s best for their babies.
Personally, I think if women are to breastfeed successfully, there needs to be more support—right from the beginning. Breastfeeding is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Compared to it, labour and delivery were a dream, and yet that’s what my prenatal classes focused on: breathing techniques I never used and birthing positions I couldn’t try because I was hooked up to an IV. But there was little said about the fact that breastfeeding a baby is not easy, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally and that there are resources for moms, yet they’re not always easy to find.
There should also be an acknowledgement that some women may not be able to, or simply choose not to, nurse their babies—and that that’s okay. I’m grateful for the very existence of the breastfeeding clinic I went to, and yet the pressure they put on me to keep at it was intense. When I asked about giving my breasts a break with the occasional bottle, I was met with disapproval and dire warnings of nipple confusion. On my last visit, I sat topless in a room while four women (three lactation consultants and one pediatrician) poked at my breasts and tried to help me feed my daughter without pain. None of them told me it was okay if it didn’t work out, or that I’d done my best but maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, I was told it was fine that my daughter was spitting up blood from nursing on my damaged nipples, and that the main thing was that she was getting breast milk.
The only reassurance I received was from my own pediatrician (who wanted me to supplement with formula from the beginning when it was clear that I was in agony and my daughter wasn’t gaining weight), and from my favourite parenting book: The New Basics: A-to-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent (William Morrow) by Dr. Michel Cohen. It was there that I read, for the first time that “formula is not poison.”
Yet it’s only when I share my story with (most) other mothers that I feel like less of a failure. At least half of the moms I’ve met in the past few years ended up at the very same breastfeeding clinic I did. Some persevered, and some didn’t. But of those who switched to formula, only one mom that I know of did it without looking back, secure in the knowledge that she was doing what was best for her and her baby.
I do realize now that switching to formula was necessary — both for me, and for my daughter. When I gave Maggie that first bottle, it was the first time the two of us didn’t cry our way through the feeding and it was the first time I actually relaxed and felt the way a mother is supposed to feel when holding her newborn. My experience taught me that it should be up to a mother to decide what is best for her body — and for her baby.
Now when I see other mothers breastfeeding and feel a pang of guilt, I try to remember that no matter what anyone else says or thinks, I am a good mom. I did everything I could to make it work but, for us, breast just was not best. And I am thankful to report that both my breastfed and formula-fed children are thriving. In fact, you can’t even tell by looking at them which one is which.
Sydney Loney is a Toronto writer who, as her mother likes to point out, was formula- fed and turned out just fine.
This story is part of our New Baby Guide. Check it out for more info on bringing home, planning for and surviving having a new baby.