Happy World Breastfeeding Week, a time to remember that even though we are relentlessly told that breastfeeding (or not) is the ultimate personal decision, every single living person has an opinion on the matter and will jump at the chance to share it.
I had my first baby in February of this year and, unbelievably, I'm still breastfeeding. I say "unbelievably" because I never saw myself as the “breastfeeding type.” I didn't have super strong feelings one way or another on the subject, but it felt like everyone I spoke to was either vehemently anti-formula and determined to breastfeed at all costs, or convinced that breastfeeding wasn't for them. I had been told in prenatal classes that breastfeeding gives babies “the best start in life,” but I didn't want to put all my eggs in that basket in case it didn't work out that way. Because here's the thing: It often doesn't work out that way.
Once a baby is born, the pressure is ON to start breastfeeding, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. A couple of hours post-labor, I was the most physically and emotionally exhausted I've ever been in my life and my baby soon made it known that she was hungry.
I held her in my arms, imitating the serene picture of the nurturing mother I'd seen on TV. I brought her to my breast, gently guided her to my nipple...aaaand it didn't work. She wildly thrashed around, and the closer I pulled her, the more agitated she became. Cue the panic: I had a hungry baby, I was very tired and emotional, and this sudden feeling of inadequacy right out of the gate was the last thing I needed.
Before long, a kind but businesslike midwife came to my hospital bed to literally milk me. What I didn't understand at the time is that there is no milk at that stage. The milk doesn't show up when the baby does, one of the first cruel lessons of motherhood. And the baby is really mad about this supply-and-demand discrepancy.
So I had a complete stranger wringing out my swollen breasts only to eke out a few teeny tiny droplets of something called colostrum (a pre-milk substance that's like the holy grail of drinkable bodily fluids) which she then scraped into a syringe and dribbled into my screaming baby's mouth. Meanwhile, I sat questioning whether I would ever be able to perform even the simplest maternal tasks, since I had stumbled so spectacularly at the first hurdle. Let’s just say it wasn’t what I had in mind.
If there weren't such intense pressure — such an “all or nothing” attitude toward breastfeeding — so many more women would be open to it.
I spent a total of five days in the hospital, since I live in the U.K., for which I am forever grateful. I was able to ask questions and get advice from the amazing National Health Service midwives and doctors around the clock, but I found myself completely overwhelmed by the incessant chat about breastfeeding. I was having a very hard time doing it, and the constant stream of personnel with conflicting advice, passive-aggressive accusations (“Think baby is hungry!”), and stern looks almost sent me over the edge.
The moment that changed it all, though, happened at around 3 a.m. on my third night in hospital. I was at the end of my rope: my milk still hadn't come in and I constantly worried my baby was going to starve. I was sore, exhausted and disappointed, and positive that I was failing my child. She was crying (I probably was, too), and one of the overnight midwives came in and said “Would you like to give her a bottle of formula?” This sounds silly, but up until that moment, the pressure to breastfeed was so intense that it didn't even occur to me that there was another option. It was as if that midwife handed me a golden ticket, a free pass to a few hours' sleep without the stress of a starving child playing on my mind. In that moment, I would have paid a million dollars for that bottle.
So I gave my baby the formula, we both went to sleep, and, in the weeks that followed, things got easier and I was able to breastfeed. I stuck with it, obviously because I wanted to give my baby “the best start” but also because (truth be told) I was tired and lazy and it eventually became easier to stick her on my boob at 4 a.m. than to sterilize a bottle and mix up a batch of formula. And now I'm part of the 1% of the population in the U.K. still exclusively breastfeeding at six months, all because I made the choice to supplement with formula in the early weeks when I needed it most. (In the U.S. in 2016, 51.6% of infants were still breastfeeding at 6 months of age, though not necessarily exclusively doing so.)
So many women and their babies struggle to participate in this supposedly “beautiful” and “natural” part of the lifecycle, and all the well-meaning information out there actually stacks up to make us feel like failures.
As new mothers, we are sternly warned that formula is inferior to breastmilk and that “topping up” or supplementing with formula will cause a chain reaction that will result in your body ceasing to produce milk. It is different for everyone, but my supplemental formula feeds in the early days gave me a much needed break (mentally and physically), which in turn gave me the energy to keep trying to breastfeed. I couldn't have done it without them.
I can't help but feel that if there weren't such intense pressure — such an “all or nothing” attitude toward breastfeeding — so many more women would be open to it. As an independent working mother, the thought of being completely tethered to a baby for six months with no alternative was terrifying. And the idea that breastfeeding makes it impossible for a partner to pitch in is a tough pill to swallow (though not entirely true! There are always burp cloths to fetch, water bottles to fill for your unending thirst). For me, the flexibility I had even just knowing formula feeds were an option, and that my baby would accept them, totally saved me, especially when my husband offered to administer them.
As you go about your day today, take a look at your friends, colleagues and partners. Can you tell who among us was formula-fed and who was breastfed? Didn't think so. Of course breastfeeding has its amazing benefits. Of course we need to educate people, eliminate stigma, and encourage breastfeeding. But can't we be a little more flexible about it? To all parents out there who are struggling, panicking, or feeling the pressure, I say: Do it your way. Give yourself some space. So little about parenting truly feels within our control — let's let ourselves have this one, shall we?
World Breastfeeding Week is August 1-7 this year, and the entire month of August is devoted to breastfeeding awareness. For more coverage on nursing, pumping, or choosing not to do either, head over to our Mothership page.