One of the first questions most pregnant women get asked is, "Are you planning on breastfeeding?" Nursing is drilled into our heads from the moment we find out we're pregnant: by well-meaning friends who loan us their books on the beauty of nursing, by pamphlets in the doctor's office, and even by the plethora of breastfeeding selfies we see on Instagram. Breastfeeding is natural and easy, we're told, and it's the right thing to do if you want to be close to your baby and give them the best start to life.
As a new mom, I bought into the breastfeeding hype hook, line, and sinker. I was convinced it was the best and healthiest option, and I was fully prepared to do whatever it took to make it work. Before I was even in my third trimester, I'd already read every book and message board, stocked up on Lansinoh pads and nipple cream, taken a two-part breastfeeding class with a lactation consultant, and started researching breast pumps like it was my full-time job. By the time I finally went into labor with my daughter, I felt like I was prepared for any challenge breastfeeding could possibly throw my way. That's why it was so shocking when I started nursing and realized it totally sucked.
From the very first time my newborn daughter latched on to my breast, I knew something wasn't right. The pain was so searing and intense that I sucked in my breath, like I'd just accidentally chopped one of my fingers off with a dull knife. I figured the pain was probably just caused by me making a rookie latching mistake, so I requested a visit from the hospital's lactation consultant. She showed me how to position both the baby and my breast to achieve the correct kind of latch, but even with her careful guidance, the pain was constant.
Every two hours, I spent 30 minutes getting the right latch, then winced and grit my teeth as my daughter suckled and gnawed on my nipples like a hungry puppy with a new rawhide chew toy.
Within the first few days, my nipples were already chapped and raw. One nurse noticed my daughter had a slight tongue-tie, but they determined it wasn't severe enough to need clipping, so I just kept at it. Every two hours, I spent 30 minutes getting the right latch, then winced and grit my teeth as my daughter suckled and gnawed on my nipples like a hungry puppy with a new raw hide chew toy. I started to dread the ticking clock and the little whines that let me know it was time for her to eat again. I desperately wanted to take a break and give my poor, savaged nips a chance to recover, but everything I'd read and everyone I spoke to said I just had to keep at it. Formula and pacifiers, they said, would only confuse my baby.
When my partner and I finally took my daughter home from the hospital, things only got worse. My milk still hadn't come in, so my baby was angry and hungry all the time. My partner had to wake up every night to help me get my baby latched on correctly, and then to comfort me as I panicked that I was either going to either starve my baby to death or eventually just have my nipples fall off from overuse.
I felt a toxic mix of guilt and resentment towards my daughter. Why couldn't I get this right?, I wondered. Why was everyone's advice totally useless? Was I a complete and total failure as a mother?
My lactation consultant told me to keep breastfeeding as often as possible to stimulate milk production, so my nipples were quickly cracking and bleeding. Every single feeding brought me to tears and seemed to last forever. I felt a toxic mix of guilt and resentment toward my daughter. Why couldn't I get this right?, I wondered. Why was everyone's advice totally useless? Was I a complete and total failure as a mother?
Eventually, my milk came in, but I still hated everything about breastfeeding. The holds I'd learned felt awkward, and it hurt no matter how many consultants and specialists I hired to perfect my baby's latch. I never knew if she was getting enough to eat, and I started to feel panicked and angry every time I knew a feeding was approaching.
During pregnancy, I'd pictured breastfeeding my baby and imagined curling up in the rocking chair with her, having a totally blissful, natural, and pain-free bonding moment. Instead, I was a mess of anxiety about how she was latched and how much she was eating. Most disturbingly, I realized breastfeeding was making me wish my daughter's newborn days away. Instead of enjoying this time with her, I couldn't wait for it to be over.
Even though breastfeeding was killing me, I couldn't force myself to give it up. I'd spent so much time preparing to breastfeed and had invested so deeply in the idea that breast was best. I felt like I had to keep breastfeeding for at least a year because, in my mind, quitting breastfeeding was a huge parenting failure. I couldn't bear the thought of failing my baby, and I couldn't cope with the possibility of facing the stigma that so often accompanies formula-feeding by choice.
It was a routine check-up with my daughter's pediatrician that finally changed everything. The doctor asked me how breastfeeding was going, and I completely broke down. I told her how much I hated it and how miserable it was making me. I expected her to tell me what pretty much every other friend and lactation consultant and random mom on a message board had said: "Keep going. It gets better."
She looked at me sympathetically and said: "Breastfeeding is hard, and it's okay to stop if it's not working. You have to do what's right for you."
Instead, she looked at me sympathetically and said, "Breastfeeding is hard, and it's okay to stop if it's not working. You have to do what's right for you."
That night, I gave my baby her very first bottle of formula. My partner and I both cried tears of relief as she gulped it down. For me, the moment was bittersweet: yes, I had just "given up" on a major parenting goal, but my baby was full and content. When she finished her bottle, she looked truly satisfied for the very first time, and I sat there in the rocking chair with her as she slept, studying her tiny hands and pudgy cheeks and long, dark eyelashes. For the first time, I felt truly connected to my baby, and I understood in my gut that I'd just made the right choice for us.
For me, switching to formula was about more than just what my baby was eating. It was also about learning to trust my instincts, to let go of things that don't work for me as a mom, and to be confident in my choices, regardless of what other people may think about them.
In the months following our switch to formula, I was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety and depression. The diagnosis was belated, and it definitely could've contributed to the panic attacks, guilt, and resentment I felt while breastfeeding. My daughter also ended up needing surgery to correct her tongue tie, because it turned out to be pretty severe, after all. It's totally possible that my daughter and I could have had a very different breastfeeding relationship if both or one of our medical issues had been treated sooner, but I still have zero regrets.
For me, switching to formula was about more than just what my baby was eating. It was also about learning to trust my instincts, to let go of things that don't work for me as a mom, and to be confident in my choices, regardless of what other people may think about them. How we feed our babies is highly personal and totally individual, and the only "best" option out there is whatever helps each of us feel safe, comfortable, and at peace.