Thanks to the high pedestal on which breastfeeding sits, far too many women are forced to feel guilt or shame if they cannot, or choose not, to breastfeed. Touting one form of feeding a baby over another is arguably why so many new moms feel anxious and stressed, and why there's always the underlying worry as to what people will think if a new mom struggled to breastfeed, decided to switch to a different method of feeding, or never started nursing in the first place. There are many reasons people need to stop romanticizing breastfeeding and many of them are couched in the simple fact that new moms just don't need anything making their lives more complicated.
I was recently at the apartment of a dear friend who had just had a baby, and we were troubleshooting some breastfeeding issues she was having. I put on my "been-there-done-that" mom hat and proceeded to pretend I was essentially a doula. She explained to me that her milk production was low and that her baby was refusing to nurse on one breast. I changed the baby's nursing position, massaged her breast, and angled her nipple — basically all the things I would have done to myself when I had my newborns. Alas, nothing seemed to be working. It was so frustrating and we honestly couldn't figure out what was "wrong." She was drinking all the water in the world, she was eating, and she was doing everything she could possibly be doing. Why wasn't nursing working out?
She told me, in a confessional tone, that she was also supplementing with formula because her son was underweight and they were worried he wasn't getting enough milk from her alone. The ole me, who used to subscribe to the "breast is best" way of thinking, may have said, "Just keep trying with the breast! Forget formula. It will happen! He's getting everything he needs from you!" However, now that I know what I know about infants getting dehydrated from nursing when there isn't enough milk, and with the wisdom of getting older, I feel very differently and said, "Go with the formula! Feed your baby! That's what's most important. Breastfeeding is not the be all end all!"
My friend pointed out that I nursed both my babies, which is true. However, did I breastfeed because I thought nursing was some kind of magic elixir? No. If I'm being honest, I mainly did it because it was easy for me and because it grossed out my mother so much. Also, the weight loss benefit was pretty cool.
On that day in my friend's living room, I tried to help her feel OK about the possibility of breastfeeding not being in the cards for her right now. It was too early to know for sure, and in those early days with a newborn, everything can change on a dime. What I do know is that romanticizing breastfeeding has the potential to set up moms up for varying degrees of shame, disappointment, and failure.
Because It Shames Moms
If breastfeeding is held up as the highest echelon you could climb in being "the best mom in the world," then how is a mom who desires to breastfeed supposed to feel when she simply can't do it? Or what about the moms who know that, for whatever reason, breastfeeding just won't be possible? Breastfeeding is often portrayed in the media as a pure expression of maternal love and sacrifice, but that can be a dangerous message. If breastmilk is pure, then infant formula is, what? Toxic? And if breastfeeding equals love and sacrifice, then are other methods of infant feeding lazy and indulgent?
Because It Can Put Babies In Danger
Insufficient milk intake has lead to complications with newborns within the first days of life (the website fedisbest.com is a great resource on this topic). However, in hospitals and in the media, women are given the message ad nauseam that exclusive breastfeeding is the ideal way to go.
The insistence that your body will make everything your baby needs is something that pervades hospital culture. In both of my pregnancies, any time I voiced a worry about my milk supply I was reassured by all the nurses and lactation specialists in the hospital, saying, "Your body knows just what to produce for your baby." But what about the times when it doesn't?
Because It Makes Moms Think There's Only One Way To Bond With Their Babies
Yes, breastfeeding my babies was a beautiful and intense experience. However, I don't think it had any bearing on our current bond. My bond with my boys doesn't seem to be any better or worse than those that my friends who did not breastfeed their children. Bonds are about the experiences you share with a person, not whether you fed them with your nipple, a plastic nipple, a dropper, or whatever.
Because There's No "Easy" Way To Feed A Baby
Some people honestly believe those who don't breastfeed have it "easier." To these people I say, "Please, explain."
In my mind, preparing formula is a whole thing. You have to have water accessible or on your person, you have to have remembered to bring the actual formula, and you have to have a clean bottle and nipple. In my opinion and in my experience, breastfeeding is much easier. All you need is your own body. Oh, and the baby.
Because Breastfeeding Isn't A Cure-All...
According to recent studies and literature, many of the perceived health benefits of breastmilk (i.e. reduced rates of obesity and asthma, ability to ward off disease, ability to increase child's IQ) are overstated if not false. I used to tell myself that I was breastfeeding to help protect my babies from illnesses, like my milk contained some kind of magic potion that would create a forcefield around my children. Yes, there are some truly incredible properties in breast milk, but of course my children got colds, ear infections, and stomach bugs. Ditto for the kids of all my friends who breastfed.
All I got is this neck pain that will never go away and a pair of concave breasts.
...And Can't Protect Your Kid From Future Harm
Some advocates for breastfeeding tout the long-term positive psychological effects on children, claiming that breastfed babies tend to have less cases of mental health problems and addictions. Statements like these were the kind that filtered constantly around my mom group when I had my first baby, and were likely one of the big drives behind why almost every one of us breastfed our babies.
Think of that pressure, though. If you were told that if you do this one thing, you could protect your child from future trauma and stress, you would do anything to achieve it, right? Now, almost six years later, a few of the moms from that original group have expressed that they may have done it differently now. The stress to breastfeed was so high, because the stakes felt so high.
Because Breastfeeding Can't Eradicate Postpartum Depression
When breastfeeding is going well, like when your baby is nursing for a good period of time without much fuss (and assuming you don't have any duct problems) it feels good. The science behind it says that you're releasing hormones that also tell your body that you feel good.
However, sometimes breastfeeding is a huge drag. For example, like when you have to pee but the nursing session is taking forever, or when you're feeling "touched out," or when you're battling postpartum depression. While studies indicate that breastfeeding can cut a new mom's risk of suffering from postpartum depression in half, according to the BBC, it doesn't eradicate postpartum depression entirely, and it certainly isn't a "cure."