It seems like the phrase, "breast is best" is everywhere. I am currently pregnant with my third baby, and I see it at the OB-GYN's office, on my pregnancy app, in magazines, on social media, and even on cans of formula. As a mom, public health professional, and infant-feeding advocate, you'd think that I'd love how ubiquitous this message is, but I honestly hate it. You see, breast wasn't best for me or my babies. In fact, the pressure to breastfeed made me want to die.
On Tuesday, I read a story on Facebook about Florence Leung, a young mother who died last year after she lost her battle with postpartum depression. Two months after her death, her husband, Kim Chen, made a statement on a Facebook page dedicated to her memory and shared more of her story. He encouraged new moms to get help and to not succumb to pressures to breastfeed.
I read his words and started to cry, not just because her story is sad, I am pregnant, and her death was preventable, but because my story could have ended the same way. Not being able to breastfeed made me want to die.
Before my first child was born, I was a breastfeeding advocate. I wanted to breastfeed her exclusively until she was a toddler, and I believed that breastfeeding her was the most important way to be a Good Mom. Then she was born at 40 weeks and five days, after almost 22 hours of labor. She was 6 pounds, 13 ounces of pure joy. She latched on right away and began nursing, just like she was supposed to. The next 24 hours were a blur, but I know she breastfed and we snuggled and then, just like that, it was time to go home.
After another night of no sleep, I finally got a call back from the hospital lactation consultant and made my way back to the hospital. She weighed my daughter, and she'd lost almost 1 pound since birth. Then she watched me feed with a perfect latch and weighed her again. There was practically no change. She'd only eaten a few milliliters of breast milk in 30 minutes of breastfeeding.
Our first night home, she breastfed the entire night. I couldn't put her down or hand her off to my husband without her screaming. As soon as she latched, she'd fall asleep, which was reassuring, but it also made me worry that she wasn't getting enough milk. Did I hear her swallowing? When was her last wet diaper? Should I remove her clothes and try to wake her? The next day, my mom went out and got us a co-sleeper so we could hopefully get some rest. I called the hospital nurses' line and left a message for their lactation consultant. I spoke with a La Leche League Leader on the phone who told me, "Just keep nursing, you are doing the right thing, and she is getting enough. Babies don't need milk until your milk comes in."
After another night of no sleep, I finally got a call back from the hospital lactation consultant and made my way back to the hospital. She weighed my daughter, and she'd lost almost 1 pound since birth. Then she watched me feed with a perfect latch and weighed her again. There was practically no change. She'd only eaten a few milliliters of breast milk in 30 minutes of breastfeeding. The nurse wrote me a prescription for a hospital-grade pump and showed me how to supplement with formula using a supplemental nursing system. She instructed me to feed her every two hours, pump, and then supplement with formula and breast milk. She called this "triple feeding," and it soon became my entire life.
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 wanted to die. I only had one job: breastfeed the baby, and I had failed.
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 wanted to die. I only had one job: breastfeed the baby, and I had failed.
We supplemented with small amounts of formula for a day, but I knew it was not enough. By day five, she became extremely lethargic, jaundiced, and barely able to eat from a bottle. We took her to the ER and learned that she had lost more than 20 percent of her birth weight, had a bilirubin level of 21, and was dehydrated. In the NICU, they gave her formula, put her under phototherapy lights, and gave her IV fluids. She immediately pooped on the table and started to perk up. I never thought hearing my baby cry would sound so good.
I took herbal supplements, ate any food that was reputed to increase supply, got a prescription for an expensive drug that's not FDA approved, pumped 12 times a day, and tried to spend each day focused on feeding her. I'd tell myself, You have one job, damn it, feed the baby. Most days, I barely slept or ate. I cried while I fed her, and hated every moment in between.
She had to stay in the NICU for two days and two nights. During that time, I didn't sleep or eat. I pumped for hours, trying to will my milk to come in. I couldn't believe that I had failed her. I knew this was my fault. After we brought her home again, feeding her became my life. Breastfeed, pump, supplement, repeat.
I met with two hospital lactation consultants, my midwife, and a private lactation consultant. I took herbal supplements, ate any food that was reputed to increase supply, got a prescription for an expensive drug that's not FDA approved, pumped 12 times a day, and tried to spend each day focused on feeding her. I'd tell myself, You have one job, damn it, feed the baby. Most days, I barely slept or ate. I cried while I fed her, and hated every moment in between.
I spent most days thinking about what I had done wrong and reading articles about breastfeeding on the internet. It must have been the Benadryl they gave me at the hospital for a severe allergic reaction, or the epidural I got after 18 hours of back labor, or the fact that I had only pumped for 30 minutes last time instead of an hour.
Then I called the only formula-feeding mom I knew.
My self-esteem was non-existent. Most of my friends were breastfeeding moms. I remember going to a Fourth of July party at a friend's home and hiding in the bathroom to mix formula. I was so ashamed to not be exclusively breastfeeding that I made my husband guard the door and pleaded with him to not tell anyone. At the party my friends gossiped about another mom we knew who let her husband give their baby formula at night so she could sleep. They kept calling her "selfish," and talking about how she was a terrible mom. I sat in silence, not knowing what to say. Were they right? Was she selfish? I guess I was a terrible mom then, too.
When Katelyn was 6 weeks old, my world fell apart. My grandpa died, my husband had been working evenings and nights, and I was alone most of the time. I wanted to die. I started to plan things out and to think about who would care for my daughter when I was gone. But then I called the only formula-feeding mom I knew. I was so embarrassed, but she was so awesome. She told me how she'd weaned her first baby and where to get information about formula feeding. She told me I was a good mom. She me that I wasn't alone. She made me promise to call my midwife and talk to her about postpartum depression. She told me to tell my lactivist friends to f*ck off, and she never swears.
I was lucky. I got help. I switched to formula, I slowly came out of the fog of depression, and I learned to love my baby and myself again. I realized that you can't measure being a good mom in ounces of breast milk. I was a good mom, because I fed my baby. Formula was best for us. Katelyn is now a vibrant, silly, and most importantly, healthy 7 year old. I went on to have a second child, got some answers (I was diagnosed with insufficient glandular tissue), and got help again with postpartum depression. I combo-fed my son both breast milk and formula and loved every minute (well maybe not thrush and mastitis, but you get the idea). I was motivated to share my story and to become an infant-feeding advocate for the Fed is Best Foundation, because I wanted other parents to know that they are not alone. I am here, and I can help.
Most importantly, I don't want any other women like Florence Leung to suffer in silence or die from the pressure to breastfeed, and I don't want more babies to have to grow up without their moms. Being a new mom is hard enough. Breast isn't best for every family or every baby. Fed is best. And for those still wondering, formula is awesome too.