I Felt Guilty For Giving My Baby Formula Instead Of Breast Milk

For My Baby, My Breast Was Definitely Not Best

November 24, 2020 Updated January 5, 2021

Mommy feeding her newborn baby
Scary Mommy and AleksandarNakic/Getty

“I had an easy newborn.” I’ve heard women say this many times. Mystified, I’m almost six years into motherhood and I’m not really sure what it means to have an easy day. When my second son was about a month old, I went to a coffee shop to sit and cry. I opened an empty journal and dusted it off. The exposed brick across the room was sharp and clear. My mind was wet and foggy. I begged the wall to share some of its clarity with a tired and defeated mother. I stared and conjured images of what I thought the early days of motherhood would be. A small baby, feeding at my breast and sleeping sweetly in my arms. Feeling far from this magic, I looked down at my half consumed coffee and searched for meaning in my cold, unwritten words.

My first son came out into our arms on a wet January day in 2015 and for two straight weeks we never put him down. We took turns sleeping horizontally and in between dozed vertically, the tiny bundle in our arms. Squashed visions of itty bitty babies snug as a burrito sleeping through newborn photo shoots, easily positioned to be owls and mermaids and other ridiculous things, floated through my mind. My newborn was relentless. When we set him down he would cry, angry, tearless sobs, red faced and determined. Armed and mitted his little punches threw me for every loop. Only soothed when fed or held, we offered both round the clock with a building sense of anger and injustice.

I fed him with a latch that every nurse had sealed with approval, over and over again. I fed him as much as he wanted and sometimes that meant two or three hours at a time, my nipples cracked, raw and bleeding. I now see the insanity of this scene. Something was obviously wrong. But we were in a mode of survival that overcame mental soundness. Clouded and lost, we didn’t even notice how skinny he’d become.

We chose a Family Practice that would allow all of us to be cared for by the same hands, foregoing the bells and whistles that came with pediatrics. No play areas in the waiting room or decals on the walls. But our physician was a kind, capable, compassionate mother of two. We were the first newborn patient in a while, christening their unused baby scale. We would later know, not properly calibrated, it gave us a false sense of weight gain and breastfeeding success. Regular wet diapers and daily bowel movement also nudged us onward. It would be two full weeks before we would know that he was two pounds under his birth weight. This oversight or mistake or failure or lapse in sane judgment or whatever else you want to call it still sits like a brick in my stomach.

Finally, referred to the lactation consultant, I walked into a basement office in the hospital, lights harsh and fluorescent. The carrier in hand, I felt ragged and terrified. We put his tiny, angry body on the scale and weighed him together. I held my breath not knowing exactly what number I was hoping for. The digits blinked rapidly on the screen, finally coming to stillness. And then my heart broke my heart into a million pieces. I don’t recall the exact pounds and ounces although they were shocking. I read “shameful; inadequate; failure.” I finally saw the whole picture. I was horrified, embarrassed and broken. How could I have let this happen?

Mary, the consultant, looked straight into the tears and torment in my eyes and I’ll never forget the compassion on her face when she said “You are a wonderful mother, and we’re going to get your baby fed.” She didn’t want to admit us to the hospital, although we were on the line of needing intervention, fast. We got formula into his helpless little tummy with a tiny syringe and my pinky finger. I watched his eyes widen and succumb to that thing he’d desperately needed. Nourishment. The nourishment, I wasn’t providing. Nourishment that in my best efforts I had deprived him of. He ate and then for the first time in 14 days slept like the newborns I’d been hearing everyone talk about.

For My Baby, My Breast Wasn't Best
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Over the next couple of weeks I met with Mary to work on the breast feeding while we supplemented whatever he needed with formula. We learned that he was only transferring .3 ounces of milk from each breast in a 30-minute session. I pumped relentlessly for four and a half months, looking for any way I could dissolve myself of this failure. It was vaguely determined that my child had some version of a tongue tie that would require us to go to a city three hours away for a procedure that wasn’t a sure fix. It wasn’t for us. So I channeled the shame of my shortcoming into the next best solution.

By this time my supply had diminished, and no amount of sweet syrupy smelling fenugreek would touch my problem. It’s a supply and demand process after all, and as demanding as he was, we were a mismatched plug and socket. I would give him the gold standard first, feeling pride in every ounce he got that day and supplement the rest. For a while it was mostly breast milk with formula to catch him up. Soon it was more like half and half. And then it was my breast milk supplementing his formula feeds. I’d sit attached to that pump focused on my mission and saddened by my inability to give him more. I could feel the tug-of-war happening inside me during his feeds. I relaxed easily while he gulped down my milk. And I tensed as he drank formula, a replacement for my provisions.

I know now that formula saved my child. I know now that my logic was flawed. But the shame I felt took deep and irrational turns. You can tell yourself there are good reasons why your problem came to be. You can place blame on systems that failed you and people that let you down. You can search for validation, love and support. But you can’t fool the shame inside. The shame knows you. It leaves you lonely. It tells you that no one other person has failed this badly. You dive into a sea of mothers searching for someone who has made this exact same horrible mistake. But you don’t find her. You’ll hear similar stories, but nothing that rids you of the shame you feel for letting your child be hungry for so long, even if completely by accident.

On that contemplative afternoon in the coffee shop I saw my second chance. My second son was displaying many of the same patterns. This time within days we were in the care of consultants. He had his various ties nipped and clipped. Still his transfer of milk was negligible and we were back to the pump. I didn’t want to play this shame game again. I didn’t have to redeem myself. I packed up the pump later that day to make room for the confidence to feed my baby in a way that brought us all ease and nourishment. I shed my tears of grief as I let go of nursing and the provisions of my body. It made me wonder where my deep desire to breastfeed came from anyway.

I sat on the bed with my youngest that summer, enjoying the quiet and his adorable face. He was about four months old. I would nurse him for about 10 minutes, an act mostly for me to savor a small piece of my desire. I leaned against the pillow on the bed holding his round, warm, soft cheek against my breast, bottle at the ready. The light pouring in from outside the window was peaceful and inviting. I could hear the laughter of my son and husband playing outside. I felt cozy, alone with my last baby.

He latched on, looking up at me with that sparkle in his eyes, too distracted by my attention to eat. His lips unfurled into a gummy, breathtaking smile. My grief melted with the weight of our embrace into the soft folds of the mattress and in that moment I knew I’d never breast feed again.