You know how we feel about breastfeeding here at Gimme the Good Stuff. Our president, Maia James, breastfeeds her kids until they are pushing three. She has written about why she thinks the benefits of breastfeeding have not been overstated, despite headlines to that effect last year. And whenever we talk about the best formulas out there, it’s always with the caveat that no formula comes close to being as good for your baby as breastmilk. On the other hand, we know that our readers include a lot of wonderful formula-feeding moms, and we also recognize the challenges of exclusive breastfeeding for a whole host of valid reasons. More importantly, we dislike the inevitable guilt that we all feel as parents every single day (whether it’s about how much TV we let our kids watch today or the lack of green veggies in their diet). We always welcome open and nonjudgemental discourse on this website, and in that spirit we invited our friend, Alison, to submit a guest post sharing her perspectives on breastfeeding, and specifically on the idea that formula should be kept away from new mothers in maternity wards. Please comment with your own opinions!
I have a challenge for you, and I urge the breastfeeding preachers out there to take the same challenge: Next time you go to a cocktail party, look around at the people in the room. Look closely. Study their faces, hair, and skin. Think about what you know about the ones who are already acquaintances. What do they do professionally? Where did they go to college? Are they healthy? Are they happy? So far, the challenge is not very interesting. Now, without asking any further questions, try to break them up into two groups based on your evaluations: The Breastfed and the Formula Fed.
There is an enormous amount of pressure placed on mothers to breastfeed in today’s world, and while the intentions are probably good, the outcomes are mixed. I am not questioning whether or not it benefits an infant’s or a mother’s health to try to breastfeed. What is concerning is the extent to which mothers are criticized and made to feel guilty if for any reason this is not the right choice for them, or if challenges cause them to alter their plan once their newborn arrives. This guilt leads some mothers to go to extreme measures, spend a lot of money, and waste a good portion of their time with their newborn to find “success” in breastfeeding. In the big picture, there are options. A healthy, happy mother is a usually a better mother than a sleep-deprived, anxious mother. Women need to decide what works for them, and follow their own instincts and the advice of professionals whom they trust.
In today’s world, with so much attention on parenting issues and health issues, and with personal boundaries breaking down on the web and Facebook, it is difficult to even identify one’s own goals and priorities without considering the opinions of others. Women who feed their child formula, either as their primary food source or to supplement, are not sinners and they are not breaking the law, despite recent attempts to keep formula under lock and key at hospitals, essentially making it the infant equivalent of a cigarette or prescription drug. These are mothers who have just brought a new life into the world and who will be making many decisions for their child in the future.
I understand that some of the rationale for locking up formula is to create a paper trail and encourage hospitals to follow protocol, preventing nurses from giving formula without a mother’s consent. When my son was born at Manhattan’s St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital in 2008, he was fed formula once during the night despite my request to be woken up to feed. I was disappointed. Friends of mine at many local hospitals have had similar experiences. It did not ruin my breastfeeding career, but I do hope that hospital employees are more careful now that there is greater scrutiny. With my daughter, two years later, I did not have any issues. There must be a way to monitor hospitals without increasing the already intense pressure on new mothers.
Most mothers have done a lot of reading. Most know that breastfeeding their baby is recommended. Ultimately, it is the woman’s body and her choice how to feed her child, and the hospital’s responsibility to provide resources and support that choice. A friend of mine decided before giving birth that she did not want to breastfeed her child. On the hospital tour at NYU, a great deal of time was spent in a Q&A with a lactation consultant and all of the other expecting moms and dads asked their questions. When my friend’s husband started to raise his hand to ask whether or not they should bring their own formula, she kicked him and whispered, “Not now!” Even among her friends and colleagues, she had been asked if she would breastfeed and had to defend her decision to confused expressions. What kind of response would she get from these new parents, complete strangers, and a lactation consultant? The formula question was not worth the judging glares.
We have all, as new mothers, heard the preaching about breastfeeding from other mothers. Sometimes it is well-intended. Sometimes it is aimed at making the mother feel less adequate than the preacher. And sometimes it is just cruel. When my son was a few weeks old, I attended a lactation support group at St. Vincent’s hospital with a friend who also had a newborn. At this point, my breastfeeding was pretty much underway, but I still had some concerns and questions. Nursing with other moms was okay, I guess. What I did not expect was the tears and the responses. Questions like, “I have to go back to work because I am a hairdresser and am not getting paid for the six weeks I am off. I want to nurse when I am home but don’t think I can take breaks to pump.” The lactation consultant’s response? “You should do everything you can to continue. Do they have a lactation room at the salon where you work?” Another woman described having supplemented her feeds with formula because the baby had been crying uncontrollably and this seemed to soothe him. Another was supplementing because her baby had lost a lot of weight at birth and was slow in gaining. She was extremely anxious about it – visibly anxious to those of us in the room. The consultant’s response to both of them was, “Whatever you do, you need to cut out the yucky stuff.” I was confused. A comforted baby and a baby on a steady weight gain were bad outcomes? All my years of school combined with common sense and logic led me to question this woman’s expertise. Luckily, in my early days of breastfeeding, I had a sensible lactation consultant who helped me develop a plan to supplement with small amounts until I could breastfeed exclusively.
For me, it worked. I am a success story where things evened out around six weeks and it became easy and, the word that perplexes many new mothers when it feels anything but, natural. Among my friends, however, the outcomes varied. There were friends who suffered from a typical amount of pain, anxiety, latching issues or infant weight loss, but some that went well beyond this. Conversations with friends who are recent new mothers often involve them confessing their failure as a breastfeeder for various reasons. I try to reassure them that once the baby is older, they will see that it is just one of many things we do as parents and not a huge deal, but when you are in those early months and everyone is judging you, you need to confess. I get it. I did it, too. Reasons for quitting range from recurring bouts of mastitis and thrush to a baby who was hospitalized with RSV at two months and needed to be fed through an IV at times. I know of women who have not been able to breastfeed because of pre-existing medical conditions, including a mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer during pregnancy and had to undergo chemotherapy during pregnancy and after delivering her son. Should she have to sign a waiver explaining why she is feeding her son formula? Should she have gone to greater lengths, asking friends to donate their extra milk or changing her own treatment to nurse? La Leche League might say yes. Her doctor said no.
One major problem with breastfeeding is that currently, despite our individual goals and situations, we live in a country that does not support new mothers adequately. We all know formula costs money and breastfeeding is free. It is one of the many compelling arguments laid out by breastfeeding advocates. Breastfeeding is only free if our time is worth nothing. Many working mothers do not receive any paid maternity leave and can only take the minimum amount allowed. They do not have lactation rooms at work and to pump in closets and bathrooms would add hours to their day, precious time away from their newborns. For the people who hire baby nurses and nannies to ensure that they can nurse, sleep, and make it to their morning Soul Cycle class between feeds, sure, breastfeeding seems great. Nursing bras, special pillows, herbal supplements and a myriad of other purchases are made without blinking an eye. My $350 breastpump was not reimbursed by my employer’s flex spend account, and neither was my session with a private lactation consultant. I even submitted receipts for the storage containers and other accessories, thinking it would all be covered as a necessary health expense, but it was not. Will healthcare laws ever reimburse for post-partum support groups or extended maternity leave, during which mothers will have continued support for their breastfeeding efforts? If people took a few minutes to consider the socio-economic and class issues imbedded in this debate, it should be enough to give them pause before they preach.
The women who frown at a bottle of formula are the same ones who give a sympathetic, almost pitiful look if someone mentions having had a C-section. I have even heard one person tell an acquaintance who had a recent c-section that she is lucky they can do V-BACS these days so she’ll have a chance to have that bonding experience, as if she won’t be able to bond adequately with this child. It seems so strange to me that people feel sorry for women who have given birth to a healthy baby surgically, when in generations past, they or the baby might have not survived childbirth. Babies with feeding difficulties may have suffered Failure to Thrive in the 1800s, or may have been sent to a wetnurse every time they needed to eat. Where’s the bonding in that? In today’s world, for mothers who pump because of feeding difficulties or because they have returned to work, bonding with a Medela breastpump, no matter how “in style” it may be, is usually the low point of that first year. For many of us, it is a reminder that we are not with our child because life entails decisions and compromises. But we must not compromise on breastfeeding, because good mothers breastfeed. We want to be good mothers. It is an endless cycle.
Prenatal and postnatal care have improved significantly over the last few generations, and we have much more knowledge and expertise to help us make good decisions for ourselves and our children. We have options. Other people besides mothers can feed and bond with our babies, a great joy for fathers and grandparents everywhere. My mother did not breastfeed any of her four children and we are all very bonded with her, perhaps resulting in more frequent phonecalls than she would deem necessary for four married individuals in their thirties and forties. The greatest strain my sister and I suffered with our mother was probably during the early days with our first born children, when she came to stay in our respective cities to offer us maternal support and get to know her grandchildren. As a non-breastfeeder, she struggled to understand how her educated, responsible and loving daughters could feel so strongly about something that was causing them immense stress during an otherwise precious and joyful time in their lives. It reminded her of high school peer pressure revisited; hearing our stories of why we have to do it because everyone else is doing it. We overcame it, but I am grateful she was there to give me some perspective. A college friend of mine had twins and she had difficulty breastfeeding both children and getting any sleep. Her father, a pediatrician, removed the myths and gave her advice based on actual research, not the dramatic claims touted by preachy playground mothers. His advice? One potential IQ point and one extra cold does not make or break a child’s future. Calm, rested, relaxed parenting, on the other hand, can have a huge positive impact.
We have a lot to worry about as new parents, but we also have a lot to celebrate. Smiles, sleeping through the night, visits with family and friends, and most importantly, embarking on a new journey that will change our lives forever. We have decisions to make, and we don’t all make the same ones. Trust yourself. Get advice from close friends when you need it. Respect the decisions of others. If you feel the need to preach about something, preach about sunscreen.
About the Author
My name is Alison Cupp Relyea and I’m a 38-year-old, mother, teacher and former marketing professional now trying my hand at writing. I live with my three children and my husband in Rye, New York. After sixteen years in Manhattan, we left the city for the suburbs. I am currently taking a break from teaching elementary school to be home with my kids and explore some of my other interests. Writing has always been a passion of mine and part of my professional life, and now use it as a creative outlet to share my stories and connect with people. Writing helps me stay engaged, think critically, and find humor in the everyday moments life brings us. I hope you enjoy this piece and please check out my other work at alicupp.wordpress.com.