I always planned to breastfeed. I took classes, bought nursing bras and nipple cream, read breastfeeding books, and told the nurses at the hospital to refrain from even mentioning formula. Nobody told me how hard it would be, though, or that I might not be able to breastfeed. So when things didn't go as planned I felt so much guilt. That guilt was intense, overwhelming, and made me feel like dying. I was eventually able to get past the culpability (for the most part), but I want pregnant women to know about breastfeeding guilt before they start nursing. I don't want them to feel alone, scared, or ashamed, because now I know you don't have to feel any of those things in order to "prove" you're a "good mom."
The overwhelming pressure to breastfeed, and the palpable disgrace I was made to feel when I couldn't, had me refusing to supplement with formula, even when my baby got really sick. I wanted the best for her and, well, "breast is best," right? When she had to be admitted to the NICU for dehydration, jaundice, and weight-loss, I felt guilty about that, too. I felt guilty for sleeping when I could have been pumping, so I fed her and pumped every two hours around the clock. I took every supplement and ate every food reputed to increase breast milk supply, even when I couldn't afford them, because I had to.
The truth is, not everyone can breastfeed, and even if you can breastfeed you might not be able to breastfeed exclusively and things might not be as picture perfect as they are in your mind. That's OK. When things get hard (and they will), or if breastfeeding doesn't end up being healthy for you or your baby, it's OK to supplement or to switch to formula and you shouldn't feel guilty about it. You don't even have to breastfeed at all, and your baby will be just fine. The most important part of feeding babies is not whether you choose breast or bottle, it's that you feed your babies, period.
Now that I have had three babies, I know that feeling guilty is an inevitable part of motherhood, and breastfeeding guilt is just the beginning. Pretty soon you'll feel guilty about working, screen time, feeding your kids french fries, swearing in front of your kids, and so many other things. Our culture is hard on new moms, and we are even harder on ourselves. It's about time we get over the guilt. Our babies need us to.
Guilt almost always is the result of reality not matching expectations, or feeling like you could do more to change that reality. But, when it comes to breastfeeding, life doesn't always work out as you planned. If your breastfeeding expectations don't match reality, know you aren't alone. Some experts estimate that 10 to 15 percent of women suffer from overt lactation failure, and as many as 40 to 60 percent of moms experience undersupply. I had no freaking idea that many women knew what I was going through, firsthand.
Even when you can breastfeed, other things can throw a wrench in your plans, too. Between thrush, bleeding nipples, undersupply, mastitis, pumping at work, and nursing strikes, breastfeeding was nothing like I imagined it would be.
It feels like everyone — from your doctor and other moms to the freaking can of formula — tells you "breast is best," everywhere you turn. So, when you can't breastfeed or when you have to supplement with formula, or even if you choose to use formula, it can make you feel so guilty. The worst part? You have to face that guilt over and over again and every single time you make a bottle. It sucks so much.
The pressure to breastfeed is intense, and when plans don't work out breastfeeding guilt can seriously impact your mental health. It makes you feel like you have failed at the most important thing about being a mom. That's not true, though, and you need to know it. You are enough, with or without nursing. Depression is a lying b*tch, my friends. Do not believe her.
When my daughter lost 20 percent of her birth weight and needed formula, I was devastated. I'd read that supplementing with formula would hurt my breast milk supply and that "just one bottle will ruin your ability to breastfeed," and I believed it. I told my husband I wanted to wait it out and see if my milk came in. That decision, and despite everything I thought I knew about supplementing, was the wrong choice.
Sometimes guilt doesn't make an ounce of sense. It seriously defies logic. So, even when I knew my babies needed formula, I felt guilty supplementing, embarrassed to tell anyone, and hid in the bathroom to feed them. I have no pictures of me bottle-feeding my first two babies, because I felt so guilty. That's so messed up.
I've experienced all kinds of shaming for supplementing, combo-feeding, and formula-feeding, mostly from other moms. The shaming ranges in severity and frequency, from subtle comments about "breast is best" or that I need more "education" or "support," to saying I don't love my babies enough. How do you even respond to that? It makes the guilt so much worse. I'd like to tell you to ignore them or tell them to back off when it happens, but I know how hard that is. Remember, no one should be taken on a guilt trip for how they feed their babies. I wish the so-called mommy wars would freaking stop.
Eventually, breastfeeding guilt will fade. Well, at least it did for me. It helped to see my kids thrive and grow on formula. Besides, pretty soon you won't be able to pick the breastfed kids out of a crowd, and all they will want to eat is fruit snacks.
Breastfeeding so small in the grand scheme of things, even if it feels like the biggest choice and ability imaginable when you are a new mom. As much as I loved breastfeeding my kids, I now know it's not worth dying over. I encourage all moms-to-be to manage their expectations, be realistic, set reasonable goals, and adjust (again and again). The best way to get past breastfeeding guilt is to avoid it in the first place, even though that is easier said than done.
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