Yesterday, this article popped up on my Facebook feed. I clicked on it because I follow the Facebook page associated with it (which is excellent) and because I recently had a discussion with a friend who removes the bottles that come with her daughter's baby dolls because she doesn't want to 'normalise' bottle feeding, so the headline caught my eye. Much of the article is interesting and thought-provoking, but, like an increasing number of breastfeeding articles, it unashamedly belittles those who choose to give their babies formula, calling it 'dangerous' and implying that people who formula feed aren't as educated or intelligent as those who breastfeed.
My favourite picture of LB feeding. You can't see it too clearly, but she's wearing a Superman outfit, complete with cape.
This is a tricky issue because the UK has notoriously low breastfeeding rates: according to WHO, only 12% of mothers are exclusively breastfeeding at 4 months. The figure goes down to 1% at 6 months. Given that there's a huge amount of evidence that breastfeeding is the best way to feed a baby, it makes sense that people are trying to encourage it as much as possible. But, oh, the guilt. The guilt, and the unbelievable pressure these kinds of articles put on mothers.
Little Bear had her first taste of formula when she was about 18 hours old. She had breastfed continuously for almost three hours and both of us were exhausted and crying. My milk hadn't come in yet and LB was hungry, so the midwife gave her formula in a syringe. When we took her home, LB howled with hunger all night, so Papa Bear gave her formula in a cup and then, when we had no dry sheets and clothes left from the mess, a bottle. Each time, I cried as though he was giving her poison. I felt like such a failure. I hadn't even managed 1 day of breastfeeding my beautiful baby. I forgot all about the hours and hours I spent breastfeeding and could only focus on the few ounces of formula LB was consuming.
As the weeks went by, feeding continued to be a struggle. LB was diagnosed with reflux and then with tongue tie, but it also seemed as though she just didn't really like breastfeeding much. Every feed ended with her arching away from me, screaming and clawing at my chest. She fed with her arm locked at the elbow, pushing back against my chest, trying to be as far away from me as possible. She punched and pinched me and unlatched after every suck to cry. I had bruises all over my chest from her efforts to resist being breastfed. It felt as though LB was rejecting me as a person and as her mother. My image of spending hours peacefully nursing her and enjoying the feel of her warm body snuggled against mine as I nourished her seemed suddenly laughable.
This is not what breastfeeding is like for us.
But Breast is Best, so we struggled on and I continued to feel terribly guilty every time formula touched Little Bear's lips. We went to every breastfeeding support group I could find and I scoured Kellymom for solutions. In the meantime, we used formula now and then so that LB wouldn't starve. On one occasion, I gave her a bottle in front of a work colleague who gasped ' I thought you were breastfeeding?!' and I stammered out an excuse about not wanting to breastfeed in school. Why? I had nothing to be ashamed of, and I know that this particular colleague had formula fed 2 of her 3 children, so she wasn't judging me. But shame is exactly the emotion I felt, because Breast is Best and Little Bear deserved the best. Every time I gave her a bottle, I was denying her the holy grail of infant feeding and the guilt was overwhelming.
Eventually, Little Bear's failure to gain enough weight led a Health Visitor to recommend that I give her some formula every day. I suddenly had 'permission' to bottle feed and medical advice that, for us, combination feeding was 'best'. Little Bear now gets one or two bottles a day and has finally hit the 5kg mark at four and a half months old. She is happier and so am I. Papa Bear can help feed her and I get break from having someone attached to my boob. The majority of her feeds are still from me, and they now tend to be a bit less screamy, although I'm not sure if this is due to her being a bit older or her tongue tie being cut or if it's just coincidence. If she does start screaming on the breast, I just take her off and give her a bottle, which is emotionally healthier for us both.
Yes, exclusively breastfeeding for six months reduces a baby's risk of developing diabetes, asthma and food allergies. It promotes a bond between mother and baby (if the baby doesn't react as though you are trying to murder her with your norks) and it boosts the infant's immune system. And all of that is great, if it works for you. For us, exclusively breastfeeding was not Best. Not for Little Bear and not for me. If I'm honest, I still feel bad that LB and I couldn't make breastfeeding work better for us. I still try to resist giving her a bottle. I still feel proud when I breastfeed her. All of this is ridiculous. Why should I be made to feel any emotion about how I feed my child, as long as I do? I should feel proud that LB is fed, clothed, warm and healthy. I should feel proud that we get out of the house every day and both of us are showered and dressed. I should feel proud that my daughter smiles when she sees my face, that she trusts me to care for her, that she knows she is loved. But I shouldn't feel proud, or guilty, for how she is fed. Because Breast is only Best until it isn't. And that's OK.