When you buy a pack of cigarettes, you are confronted with a picture of black lungs or some other graphic depiction of the extreme side effects of smoking, and a reminder in BIG LETTERS that smoking isn’t all that great for your body. In the same manner, the words, ‘breast milk is best for babies’, appears on all tins of baby formula, a warning to parents that by feeding their baby formula, they are not giving them the ‘best’.
As a new mother, I wasn’t particularly in love with breast feeding. My son is an aggressive eater and would suck and pull at me, it was so painful that I got to the point where I began dreading feeding him. But I had been led to believe, by more sources than I could possibly count, that ‘breast is best’, so I persisted.
For no reason that I could understand, I went from having way too much breast milk, to having almost none around the time he was six weeks old. Logical me thought, my body is telling me it is done with breast feeding and I need to put him on a bottle. However, emotional, so-in-love-with-my-baby-that-my-heart-hurts me felt very conflicted at the thought of stopping breast feeding. Whilst the experience wasn’t pleasurable for me, I was haunted by guilt, and couldn’t shake the feeling that I was failing my son because I didn’t love him enough to give him what I had been told again and again was the best thing for him.
I was not prepared to let my baby starve, so I decided that mixed feeding was a good compromise. My son was not interested in formula, and would scream when I tried to feed him with a bottle. However, with my milk just about gone, I had no choice but to introduce more and more formula feeds, and whilst I tried 3 different formulas and at least 5 different bottles and teats, he would arch his back and scream hysterically during and after almost every feed, and make me feel like the worst parent in the world.
Whilst I received nothing but support from my parents and husband, who continuously reassured me that I loved my son and was doing everything I could for him, that was certainly not the message I was getting from other ‘helpful’ friends and relatives. All I would hear about is how he was unhappy and in pain because the formula was so bad for him, and I should just put him back on to the breast (like it was that simple!). Every time he was unsettled, I was told it was because he was on formula. I spent two weeks crying every day, and my son was completely miserable. In the end, I went on medication, bought a breast pump, and managed, through sheer stubbornness, to get my milk supply back up.
The support I received once I was back breast feeding was shocking. Suddenly, I was a success story, one of those women who ‘stuck with it and didn’t give up’. My child, now an exclusively breastfed baby, was sure to be a happy, healthy, smart, successful person by virtue of the fact that he was off that God forsaken evil formula.
The difference in people’s responses towards me was a real eye opener. When I was bottle feeding, people would say to me that they ‘understood’ and ‘they’re sure he will be fine’, and my all-time favourite, ‘now you can go out and leave him to be fed by someone else!’, the subtle implication being that I had purposefully weaned him in order to get some ‘me’ time.
Now that I am back to breastfeeding, I hear ‘good on you’, ‘look how well he is doing’, ‘you should be so proud of yourself!’, as though sticking him on my boob is some big achievement.
Getting my milk back up was hard, yes, but formula feeding is MUCH harder than breast feeding. You may not be able to find time to shower, but you HAVE to find time to clean and sterilise bottles, boil and cool water and prepare the formula in advance, because once your baby is awake and hungry, you BETTER have that bottle ready to go! Then, after all of that hard work, the baby drinks half a bottle, and you get the joy of pouring out the rest because you cannot reheat formula, so all that time spent preparing goes straight down the drain, literally! Then there is the cost, my God formula is expensive! And you go through so much!
Breast feeding, in contrast, requires no preparation, is always the right temperature, never gets wasted because the baby just takes however much he or she wants, and has the added luxury of guilt-free feeding. But good on me for picking breast feeding, like it is the harder option?
I believe that formula didn’t work for my son because he didn’t like the flavour, and he was stubborn and didn’t want to be weaned off breast milk at that point. I also believe, without a shred of doubt, that had I stuck with the formula, he may have continued screaming for another week or two, but he would have gotten used to it, and more importantly, he would have been every bit as happy, healthy, smart and successful as he will be now. Babies cry, they get sick, they get stomach aches, whether they are breast fed or formula fed, babies are little people and people aren’t perfect. Breast feeding a baby doesn’t guarantee you anything other than the ability to feed your child for free for the first six months of their life.
What all babies need, more than anything, is a sane mother. This prejudice against formula needs to stop, breastfeeding isn’t best for babies, what is best for babies is to be in an environment with a mother who isn’t going out of her mind or being made to feel like a failure. Babies need to be fed, warm and loved, that is about it.
Women need to be supported as mothers, and told to feed their baby in the way that works for them and is going to enable them to be the best possible parent they can be.
Did you struggle with breast feeding? How did you overcome it?