To say I planned to exclusively breastfeed my daughter is kind of an understatement. My mind was made up, and I was adamant that she would not receive a single drop of formula. I took breastfeeding classes, read books, scoured the internet, and asked every mom I knew how to set myself up for success. I thought I had done everything I could, but it turns out I missed one important detail that could've made breastfeeding so much easier.
Namely, that breastfeeding didn’t have to be all or nothing. In fact, I now know that supplementing with formula wouldn’t have hurt my baby in any way but, instead, actually could have helped us breastfeed longer. I truly believe it would have made things much easier for this terrified first-time mom to manage.
Because it turns out breastfeeding was completely different than I imagined it would be, and not in a good way. While it's easy to declare that you will exclusively breastfeed, actually giving your baby nothing but breast milk can be difficult, complicated, and for some people even impossible. And to make matters worse, I had been under the mistaken impression that nursing would just come naturally to me, would automatically feel good, and would sufficiently nourish my baby. I thought it would be magical. It wasn't.
My baby's second night of life was hell. She nursed non-stop and would cry when not directly attached to my sore, raw nipples. So, as you can imagine, I cried, too. But even in my sleep-deprived, hormone-addled state, I told my husband we couldn’t give her any formula. I called a lactation consultant who told me that was the right choice, encouraged me to keep nursing, promised me my daughter would get enough breast milk, and assured me that I didn't need to worry.
I was only able to pump a few drops of breast milk at a time; an inescapable reality made more obvious when the NICU nurse asked, “That’s all?” as I brought to bring bottles with mere milliliters of milk to the hospital.
When I took my baby in for a weight check, I found out that I had been on the receiving end of some bad advice. I was new at being a mom, though, and new at breastfeeding, so I thought I was doing the right thing. I mean, "breast is best," right? Every health authority on the planet recommends that babies exclusively breastfeed for at leas the first six months or longer, and those recommendations are there for a reason, right? I did what the lactation consultant told me to do, so everything was going to be OK, right?
Wrong. My baby was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for weight loss, dehydration, and jaundice. She looked so tiny under the blue lights, wearing miniature sunglasses, attached to the monitors and glucose I.V. And I was left stewing in my own guilt, feeling as if I had failed my child. Especially since, after her diagnoses, I was told I would have to supplement with formula.
When my second baby was born, and I experienced undersupply again, I learned that exclusive breastfeeding isn’t the only way to nurse your baby.
I was only able to pump a few drops of breast milk at a time; an inescapable reality made more obvious when the NICU nurse asked, “That’s all?” as I brought bottles with mere milliliters of milk to the hospital. And every single time I gave my baby formula, I cried. It was formula, and the amazing doctors who cared for her, my daughter was eventually able to come home, but I was too dismayed to notice.
Every book, website, and brochure I had read about breastfeeding said that everyone except a small percentage of women are able to breastfeed. So, either I was one of those unlucky few, or more likely, breastfeeding — especially breastfeeding exclusively — is damn near impossible for some of us.
It's not just that making enough milk to sustain another human being is hard. It's that breastfeeding itself is hard. The exhaustion of not getting more than two or three hours of sleep at a time was horrible. The physical pain of breastfeeding, especially in the early days, and the related health issues like plugged ducts, thrush, and mastitis, were excrutiating. The anxiety of not knowing if my baby was getting enough milk, or if I was good enough mom, was completely overwhelming.
When I think abut those painful moments as a new mom, attempting to breastfeed and thinking I was a failure for turning to formula, I get angry at the people who continuously told me using formula was somehow wrong.
When my second baby was born, and I experienced undersupply again, I learned that exclusive breastfeeding isn’t the only way to nurse your baby. Strangely enough, it was actually a lactation consultant who told me about combo-feeding — using both breast milk and formula to feed my baby and help her grow and thrive. Until that moment, I had no idea that this was possible.
Supplementing with formula ended up saving my breastfeeding relationship with my son. It's kind of weird when you think about formula that way — the key to my breastfeeding success story — but it was. Once I came to terms with the fact that I would never be able to breastfeed exclusively, it was like all of the weight and pressure I had put on myself evaporated. For the first time ever, I could actually enjoy the experience. I thrived, my baby thrived, and the entire process was so much easier.
When I think about those painful moments as a new mom, attempting to breastfeed and thinking I was a failure for turning to formula, I get angry at the people who continuously told me using formula was somehow wrong. I thought I was the failure, when it was actually a culture that told me breastfeeding was supposed to be an "all or nothing" experience that failed me and my baby.
I know that if I had felt supported in supplementing with formula from the beginning, I wouldn't have suffered so extensively for so long.
I want other moms to meet their breastfeeding goals. I really do, and I know that everyone's goals look different. But if your health, and the health of your child, is suffering at the expense of your goals... it's time to readjust. If a bottle or two of formula or pumped breast milk can get you through a rough night, help you get some sleep, or allow your nipples to heal so you can continue breastfeeding comfortably, well... at least know that it's a viable, safe, reliable option. And if, like me, you want to use formula alongside breastfeeding in the long-term, that's a viable, safe, reliable option, too. Most importantly, your baby's growth and development is way more important than being exclusively breastfed. Full stop.
Knowing what I know now, I have no doubt that breastfeeding could have been so much easier for both me and my child if I had redefined my breastfeeding goals to make room for formula. I know that if I had felt supported in supplementing with formula from the beginning, I wouldn't have suffered so extensively for so long. So, it's time for us to start talking about the realities of breastfeeding and the safe options made available to all moms. After all, new moms deserve support in safely feeding their babies... and no one should feel bad about wanting to make life a little easier.