Exclusively breastfeed or formula feed. Those are essentially the two options you’re faced with as an expectant mother deciding on how to best nourish your unborn child. For me, the decision to exclusively breastfeed my son was easy. It was something that felt natural and was familiar to me as I was surrounded by friends and family members who had successfully breastfed. I read books about breastfeeding and even took a class to prepare. I learned that exclusively breastfeeding your newborn for the first six months was the absolute best thing possible. Not only would it be the optimal nourishment for my son, it would protect him from illness, reduce my risk of ovarian cancer, increase my son’s IQ and even protect the environment. It sounded like perfection.
But the reality was that once my son was born—although he had a perfect latch and I had normal breasts—I could not nourish him properly with my milk alone. He was ravenous by day 4 and after a trip to the ER and home visits from a lactation consultant it was recommended that I supplement our nursing with formula. Looking back, I am so grateful for the support I received at the ER and from my lactation consultant. Nowhere in the process was I made to feel guilty for feeding my son formula. Instead, I was taught how to feed him formula from a small tube taped to my breast so he could suckle to stimulate my milk while still receiving the nourishment he needed from the formula. I learned how to use compression to fully empty my breasts and I pumped vigilantly after each feeding to encourage milk production. I took herbs, used hot compresses and kept my son active at the breast.
I worked hard as hell in those early postpartum months to breastfeed my son. But was I proud? No. I was devastated. Devastated that I couldn’t exclusively breastfeed my son. That I was already out of the elite club I had so badly wanted to be in. I felt like a failure. A defective product that was fixed with duct tape and super glue. And maybe worst of all, I felt like a bad mother because my son was hungry and I alone couldn’t provide him with what he needed. Even when my supply increased enough that I was able to breastfeed my son without supplementing formula, I still mourned the fact that I had not been able to exclusively breastfeed him. I would never be part of that special group of women.
The breastfeeding movement taking place in the United States is a powerful one, and it’s undeniable that breastfeeding advocates have had a tremendous positive impact. But there can also be a negative side to breastfeeding activism—the outdated notion that there are only two ways to feed your baby in the first six months of life: exclusively breastfeed or formula feed. Feeding your newborn is not a one-size-fits-all deal. And for many of us it’s not an all or nothing deal either.
Mothers need to know that combination feeding options exist. That not all women fall neatly into the camps of exclusive breastfeeder or formula feeder. They should be educated in prenatal classes on these combination feeding options in the same way they are educated on breastfeeding. They should be introduced to things like supplemental nursing systems that help to increase supply. And if a mother does face supply issues once her baby is born, she should be encouraged to breastfeed as much or as little as her body is able and to work with experts to help achieve a healthy breastfeeding relationship.
Instead of focusing on being in that elite club of exclusive breastfeeders, I’d encourage moms who intend to breastfeed to educate themselves on the feeding options available and to consider establishing a support team should issues arise. After breastfeeding my son for over 25 months, I couldn’t agree more that we need to work together to normalize breastfeeding, but let’s also work to normalize the fact that every breastfeeding relationship doesn’t always go as planned and certainly doesn’t always have to be exclusive.