In Defense of Bottle-Feeding

I was raised that “breast is best.” I think my mom was on the “breast is best” kick even before it was a thing. I knew I really wanted to breastfeed for altruistic (good for baby) and selfish (help me lose the baby weight) reasons. But my breastfeeding journey – much like a lot of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting has been for me – did not live up to any of my expectations. Here’s why:

After SC1 was born, she was in the NICU, because she was not breathing well. She also developed jaundice. Because I was induced 3 weeks early, my milk did not come in right away. And SC1 had a poor latch. After 3 days of trying to nurse, SC1 was still jaundiced and not passing the meconium, which they said she had to do before she could go home. With no advice or direction from the hospital staff, who only told me that if I wanted to nurse, I should avoid giving her a bottle, but if I wanted her to poop and get off her I.V., then I might want to consider supplementing with formula, I finally decided to supplement. Once I made my decision, a nurse said: “You did the right thing.” I just wish someone has come right out and told me the right thing to do while I waited impatiently and anxiously for my baby to thrive.

SC1 never did figure out how to latch and suck, and she loved the bottle. I pumped for 6 months until my milk ran out (which it often does when pumping rather than breastfeeding). I loved it when strangers would tell me: “You know, it’s better to breastfeed than give them a bottle.”

After my “failed”  breastfeeding experience with SC1, I was determined to breastfeed SC2 (as if I had total control over these things). Despite a second C-section (preeclampsia + dysfunctional cervix = C-section), this time my milk came in faster. SC2 knew how to suck and latch and did an extremely good job of basically SUCKING MY NIPPLES OFF MY BODY. Without getting graphic, it was awful.

After that, it was all about clogged ducts. I’d experienced clogged ducts with SC1, and I knew and did all the tricks to try to unclog them. And finally, around two months, things stopped clogging and hurting and I was breastfeeding! Woohoo! Victory! I was also pumping and storing breastmilk. And SC2 was both breastfeeding and bottlefeeding! Ha! What do the experts know about nipple confusion?!

And then, something truly mysterious happened: SC2 stopped bottle-feeding. She just decided that she liked breastfeeding best and completely stopped taking the bottle.

That was the end of my sanity and freedom.

In addition to stopping taking the bottle, SC2 also decided that the only way she liked to, and would, breastfeed, was while lying down. There are numerous positions for breastfeeding, which they teach you, and I knew every one of the them. And I tried every one of the them. Numerous times. And guess what? Wasn’t gonna happen. SC2 (who remains an incredibly strong-willed child to this day) WAS. NOT. GONNA. HAVE. IT.

There is a moral to these stories (though, I am by no means done with my tales of breastfeeding woes): But the short of it is: 1. There is no such thing as nipple confusion. 2. Your kids are gonna do what they are gonna do. 3. Your body is gonna do what it’s gonna do. 4. You might be able to breastfeed, or you might not. and it will likely depend on what your kid and your body decide to do. And 5. Whatever happens, it’s not your fault and you did your best, and it’s ALL OKAY.

After 4 months, my clogged ducts came back, and I was never able to unclog them, so that breastfeeding for the remainder of 12.5 months that SC2 nursed was painful every single day. Each time she would latch, it felt like someone was threading needles through my breasts. You can imagine my exasperation when SC2 was nearly impossible to wean. And I tried often and as early as I could. She wasted all of the 100 ounces of pumped breastmilk I had frozen. She would chuck sippy cups filled with chocolate milk (tried vanilla and strawberry flavored, too) across the room when I would give them to her.

I don’t make this stuff up.

So, you can understand my appreciation for articles, like this one from the Atlantic, that talk about the challenges and costs of breastfeeding. My personal favorite line from this piece that stuck with me (though, I paraphrase): “Breastfeeding is only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.”  Yes!

As my experiences illustrate: To breastfeed or not to breastfeed sometimes is NOT a choice: It’s the inevitable consequence of how your child’s genetics and your body’s response to those genetics align. And, as this pediatrician notes: “The experience [of breastfeeding] made me deeply aware of how much this advice I give is asking of women, and how hard it would have been to do this if my own life were less privileged and less well supported.” (emphasis mine).

For some women, breastfeeding might be like falling off a log. (These tend to be the women who have large families, I find.) But for others, it can be a huge challenge. However, for whatever reason a woman chooses not to, or just can’t, breastfeed, the response should be one of support and understanding, not judgment and shaming. There’s a reason we invented formula, and I, for one, am super grateful for its existence.

Econ-mom: Oy, breastfeeding.  I’m sure we could go on all day about this.  My first thought is, “UGH, THE SHAMING. MAKE IT STOP!”  I wish I could say I was shocked that strangers commented on you bottle-feeding your baby.  But once you’re pregnant or have a child in tow, it’s open season on judgey comments. I once read an article by a mom who had had BREAST CANCER and got comments from strangers about how she should breastfeed!  And P.S. some kids are adopted! Sheesh, people.

As for myself, I fell into the extended breastfeeding camp (both kids breastfed until 3) which gets its own judgment. (I consider myself fortunate that I experienced relatively little of this living in Seattle – I talked to a women from eastern Washington who said she was asked to leave a restaurant because she was nursing a toddler!) Basically if you breastfeed too little or too much you’re WRONG.

This is such a complex and loaded subject, but I will try to distill my opinion on breastfeeding into a couple paragraphs. I think that breastfeeding is (often) a lot of work. It can be painful. It can not go well for a variety of reasons. It’s time consuming. However, I think it is great that people are making an effort to breastfeed more, because there are probably some health benefits (though some sibling studies indicate that some of these effects are much smaller than previously thought) and it can be a very special (not perfect! but special) experience for both mother and child. Workplaces should support it, because the option to breastfeed your child is a human right. (Note: clearly they don’t, given that women who choose to breastfeed for six months or longer suffer large earnings losses.) Personally, I had a fairly positive experience with breastfeeding (and happened to be very lucky in terms of keeping my supply up while pumping at school.) That being said, I sometimes wish I had pushed harder to get my babies to take a bottle from dad. (It seemed impossible and yet when push came to shove they both were able to transition to taking bottles at daycare. It just involved a lot of crying for a day or two.)

As far as health care providers, I think historically many places have pushed supplementing when it’s not really necessary, but nowadays more places probably push too hard the other way. The bottom line is that those decisions can be tough, and nurses/doctors should try to give information without pushing values. In a way it’s analogous to a birth plan, and I think the best nurses/doctors/midwives do try to figure out what the patient’s priorities are and tailor their advice accordingly, while also gently reminding moms that some things are out of their control.  And as for anyone who is not your nurse/doctor/lactation consultant?