“Breastfeeding or bottle feeding?” I was asked several times during the labor and delivery of my first child.
I had been under the impression that everyone – unless physically incapable – breastfed. Who just bottle feeds for no reason?, I thought. My sister had a double mastectomy and couldn’t breastfeed, but that’s the only reason I thought someone would refuse.
And so, without a thought, I said “breastfeeding” with a slight hint of superiority in my voice. Boy, would that come back to bite me – literally.
“Breast is best” was seared into my brain and I didn’t even know where it first came from.
“Colostrum is liquid gold” someone had told me – and it did indeed almost look that way, flecks of near golden sparkle seeping out in those first few hours of motherhood.
The phrases no one thought to insert into the new mother breastfeeding manual, though, were ones like these:
“Hard as hell.”
Or this one:
“Knives to your nipples.”
I had been slightly terrified of a human baby coming out of a very small opening, but never once considered the burning pain that could ensue when said baby was sucking your nipples dry 24 hours a day.
No amount of Lanolin could soothe away the troubles that were to come.
I cried in his rocking chair, occasionally moaning in pain as that first hot flash of sucking sunk into my nipple like a vampire’s bite.
He wouldn’t latch so out came the permanent nipple shield. I couldn’t get his mouth around my boob (Can you believe how much boob has to go into those tiny little mouths?) I saw the lactation consultant every few days. I endured what felt like the stabbing of my boobs every couple of hours throughout the night. He sucked for an hour and a half, and I had no idea what was even going in.
Turns out, not much. My son lost nearly 2 pounds (taking him down to a little over 5 pounds) in the first two weeks of his life and I was terrified at every turn. He wasn’t taking in enough milk. I wasn’t making enough milk. I was in pain, bleeding, exhausted, and desperate.
I obsessed over his weight, fearful it was dropping overnight without my knowledge. My breastfeeding issues exacerbated a palpable battle with postpartum anxiety, racked up a notch by a husband who was also on edge as a first-time dad.
At a few weeks in, I turned to exclusively pumping, which then became my entire life. Up every few hours to pump and then feed him the bottles (being underweight, we were told to wake him every 3 hours minimum), washing bottle parts, boiling them, having trouble falling asleep in between round after round of boob roulette (would I make 2 oz or 6 oz this time? Would I have to supplement with formula? Was he getting enough?)
My “nice” pump – the Ameda electric double pump – was either malfunctioning or just not doing the job so we rented the hospital grade pump, which cost and arm and a leg, but appeared to suffice.
I heard the voices on the Internet saying breastfeeding is a beautiful bonding experience. I read blog posts from women who were sad to be weaning their one-year-olds. A year on this breast milk purgatory sounded like longer than eternity. What was with this “one year goal” I saw so many people writing about on all the mommy Facebook groups? It made me feel like a failure at only a month in.
I popped Fenugreek like an addict and sipped on Mother’s Milk tea, snacking on lactaction cookies around the clock. Just like the “sea-bands” I tried wearing to rid myself of morning sickness in the first trimester, these “cures” appeared to be total BS.
My lactation consultant encouraged me to keep trying. She recommended supplementing with formula, making every bottle of breast milk feel like a sacred elixir living inside my refrigerator. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t giving my baby what was best when I supplemented with formula.
But then, he started gaining weight. Free from the nipple torture, I began to regain my body and mental sanity back little by little. The supplemental formula was nourishing my baby when I couldn’t. Slowly, I introduced more and backed off from the breast milk. Coincidentally, my mood and enjoyability as mom began to improve.
After about 10 weeks of breastfeeding-turned-pumping discontent and struggle, I switched fully to formula feeding. I never lost a bonding experience (in fact, I felt closer to him when I wasn’t obsessing about that darn milk) and was much happier, as the anxiety decreased and I could focus on being the best mom I could be. Out went the crying or stressing about breastfeeding. I. WAS. FREE.
Two years later, I had my second baby. The pressure was on and I told myself, “I have to try.” Fast forward to 24 hours after her birth, having already experienced the stabbing, a bloody nipple, the nipple shield and a suggestion of “pumping for tonight.”
All I could feel about leaving the hospital was dread. The aftermath of my son’s birth came roaring back to me like I had some maternal sort of PTSD. It made me sick to think of going through it all again – and going directly to exclusively pumping sound like a prison sentence.
I expressed my difficulties to the nurse on duty that night, as she told me she too had a “love-hate relationship with breastfeeding.”
“There’s no love for me, “ I said, “It’s just hate.”
And then she gave me a wonderful gift.
“You know, if you decide you don’t want to do this breastfeeding thing, you just let us know. It’s your baby. You just feed your baby,” she said with kindness in her voice.
I gulped back tears as I seriously considered skipping breastfeeding and giving my baby formula, which is actually a miracle invention that saves the lives of babies around the world every single day. Like we should probably all be drinking formula in ours smoothies because of all the vitamin-y goodness that’s packed into it.
I spent the next few hours on prayer, Google, and texts to friends. My husband encouraged me to formula feed if that’s what I wanted. My closest friends texted me their support, mentioning a friend who was adopting a newborn that would be drinking formula. Another friend reminded me that both her babies for formula fed by choice and they are healthy, happy 9- and 6-year-olds now.
I found a “Formula Feeding Mommies” group on Facebook and joined immediately. Seeing photos of little ones and joining with thousands of other moms who made the choice to formula feed like me made me feel so much less alone.
I called my nurse into the hospital room and told her I wasn’t going to breastfeed. I had a new nurse by this time, who said, “Okay, great, I’ll get some bottles,” and then proceeded to tell me that she had made the same decision with her second baby after having many struggles with her first.
It felt like a sign. Once I had made the decision, it was like a weight was lifted and going home no longer felt like a court-ordered punishment. Our newborn experience suddenly felt full of light and possibility. I didn’t have to torture myself with breastfeeding and my baby wasn’t going to die because of it.
So here we are, 10 days in. My newborn is fed. She’s happy. She’s gaining weight. And I’m actually happy right now. Doctors and nurses do have to ask you “breastfeeding or bottle feeding” in order to assess your baby’s situation, but they ask it without judgment because formula feeding is a perfectly acceptable choice.