Dear Formula Feeding Mother: I Understand

Thursday, 28 May 2015


So I awoke this morning to the headline in the news ' Mums Feel Intense Pressure to Breastfeed.'

Do you know what my initial reaction was? I braced myself. Because even now, my daughter is only a few months away from turning two, any time breastfeeding makes the news I presume it's because a new study has shown how utterly vital breastfeeding is to developing a healthy child. I brace myself for guilt pangs. Again.

So when I saw this, it encouraged me to remember how it felt when I first stopped breastfeeding Jellybean. Even though I try not to think about it too much, it still sticks with me. In the same way that a negative hospital experience or a horrible health visitor can still hurt years later when you recall it, the moment that you finally give into a bottle can stay with you too. When your emotions are all over the place, and you've just given birth, and you are trying to figure out how best to care for this tiny human and you've realised a bit of your heart now lives in them and can't be totally protected by you forever, it can be difficult to be struggling with breastfeeding and seeing yet another post someone has shared on Facebook about how it makes children more intelligent or taller or whatever.

I just wanted to give you a bit of advice if you are in the middle of that constantly crying, near to the end of your tether stage:

1) Understand where this is coming from.

People want mothers to breastfeed their babies. The truth is, breastmilk is incredibly good for babies. Especially in the first few days.

I feel that breastfeeding mothers are not given enough support, and formula feeding mothers are not at all catered for by the NHS. I have heard stories, again and again, of women left to their own devices (because, after all, all you need is the instructions on the packet, right? You obviously don't need to know about different types of milk or sterilising equipment or combination feeding or anything like that. I actually find it disgraceful that people ask for advice about this from midwives only to be told 'sorry, we can't help you.' This is 2015 - surely women should be allowed to decide whether they want to breastfeed or not and not be treated like dirt because of it?) A woman in my postnatal group was called 'cruel' by a midwife because she gave her baby a bottle in the hospital.

Cruel? Really?

Words hurt, I get that. Some people are more, er, blunt than others.

But all the posters you see, and the information packs you are given, are not out to get you. People want you to understand the benefits of breastfeeding. They want to encourage people who, for cultural reasons, might not give it a go, when actually it could be a really positive experience for mothers and babies. In that respect, it's not personal (even though it feels like it is).

2) Breastfeeding is a tremdendous achievement - but so is bottle feeding

Breastfeeding involves letting go of your body and giving it over, essentially, to someone else for a year or more. Breastfeeding involves struggling through potential infections, pain, cluster feeding, the feeling of isolation that comes with not being able to share the load as much, it involves expressing milk and breast pads and embarrassing milk circles on your top.

Breastfeeding mothers - you have my respect. I was one, briefly. I understand it gets easier, but still. It is a huge achievement.

Bottle feeding involves constant washing and sterilising of equipment, potential baby meltdowns over a bottle that's not quite ready yet, having to lug even more stuff around with you wherever you go, worries over formula brand and type, having questions that can't be answered by official sources ... and so on.

Whatever way you go about it, raising a baby is a challenge and an achievement.

3) Make your own decision

It is not your bottle-feeding friends' decision. It is not your mother's decision. It is not your happily breastfeeding friends decision. It is not the very opinionated person at the baby group's decision. It's not even, at the end of the day, your husband or partners' decision, even though they should obviously have an opinion too (it's not their breasts in question, though, after all).

It's yours.

Please try to avoid asking for opinions unless you really trust that person. At the end of the day, it has to be you that decides. Also ...

4) Don't think it's a life or death decision

It's not.

Let me repeat that: it's really not. 

When your children are ten and playing together, you won't be able to tell which one was breastfed and which one was formula fed. Really.

Also, it's not an all-or-nothing situation. I know people who have successfully combination fed right from the start. Don't presume you have to join one team or the other.

5) Don't always believe the studies

It's easy to think 'oh, a study said this, it must be true.' Not so! Make sure you look at a) who is conducting the study and b) look into the details. I believe some benefits of breastfeeding - the higher intelligence thing, for example - have been somewhat exaggerated. *Awaits flaming*

Also just because a study says if you bottle feed you won't bond with your baby, doesn't mean to say that will happen to you. I bottle fed my daughter after a week and I bonded with her just fine, thank you very much.

6) Beware of trolls

Because midwives and health visitors don't feel they can give you information, it can be all too easy to turn to the internet for advice. Please, please be careful of trolls.

Even on the nicest message boards or Facebook groups, there will always, always be one person that says 'Have you thought about continuing breastfeeding?' or 'Please keep breastfeeding, your baby needs you to do it' or 'Why would you give your baby junk food to eat? Because that's what formula is.'

Honestly. The internet is a nasty place. Skim over the mean messages and concentrate on the helpful ones.

Also beware people's anecdotal information when it comes to preparing milk, sterilising and how long you can keep it for. There is official information about that here and that is the safest advice to take.

7) Don't go the other way

Please don't use terms like 'breastfeeding nazi' or 'breastapo'. It's not cool. It's not funny. It makes light of incredibly serious situations.

And also, it's kind of hurtful to breastfeeding mothers.

Breastfeeding mothers need support and reassurance too. They need to feel comfortable to breastfeed anywhere they like. Feeding your baby is not like signing up to two rival tribes. There's a whole spectrum of different situations. There are mothers who do extended breastfeeding or who breastfeed their toddlers and newborns at the same time and then there are mothers who can't breastfeed from birth or who don't want to.

Please don't feel it's a war. That is a lie perpetuated by the media. It is not a war. It is not a rivalry. It is just people trying to do the best for themselves and their families.

8) Try and keep your perspective

The world isn't going to end if you give your kid formula. Okay? I understand it feels that way. It might sound weird to people who never struggled with this, but the pain, anxiety and stress is real. I understand it. If it wasn't for my lovely midwife - who came to see me at home, took one look at me in floods of tears from pain and said 'you don't have to do this, you know' - I don't know how long I would have struggled on for.

I used to burst into tears randomly about it. I used to feel this intense, incredible shame when I got a bottle of formula out in public. It feels serious.

But it will pass. Your baby will grow and thrive. My daughter, two in September, had breastmilk for four weeks. One week direct, three weeks expressed along with formula, until my supply dried up. She is happy, healthy, and thriving.

I understand how you feel. But it's going to be okay.

Comments here or on Twitter or Facebook appreciated as always. Let's have a discussion :)

3 comments:

  1. Hi, thank you for your post. I couldn't agree more. Being a mother in those first few weeks and months is tremendously hard, however you decide to feed. There is so little support and everyone is so quick to judge. Thank you for such a balanced post.

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    1. Thank you for your comment :) I was surprised how hard those first few weeks were (despite being warned!) I think the lack of support combined with competitiveness and judgement make things much more difficult than they should be x

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  2. Thank you so much for writing this article. I have a 4month old now, and when he was born I tried so hard to breastfeed, but he ended up dehydrated with jaundice because I wasn't producing enough milk. What's worse it that I was made to feel horrible that I was thinking of giving up and giving him formula. My son ended up being fed formula through a drip in his nose in the emergency department it got that bad. So wish someone would have told me on Day 1- its ok to give formula. Now he is happily bottle fed and thriving!! I still have moments where I wish I could have continued breastfeeding, but I'm learning to be ok with how life is now.

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