I was determined to breastfeed my children. I wanted that bonding time, I wanted them to have all the health benefits, I wanted to do what was best. So I read the books, I took the classes, I worked hard on being mentally prepared for this new journey. I went in telling myself that I wanted to “at least try,” understanding that it is not always an easy road. Despite all this, I wanted so badly to be successful. It was natural, it was what my body was designed to do, it should happen if I wanted it to.
When my first son was born, I was told he latched beautifully. As a first time mom with no actual experience with BF, I believed them. When each feed began to hurt more and more, I just thought that was normal. I had heard about the cracked nipples and the pain that occurred in the first few days, I just figured we were right on track. No one told me otherwise. I continued to nurse him in the hospital and the nurses continued to reassure me that we were doing great. We were discharged with a clean bill of health, a smile, and nothing more. Now it was up to us to navigate this parenting thing.
I will never forget that first night home, culminating with my son and I sobbing together in the rocking chair in his nursery. I was in so much pain that thought of him even trying to latch caused me to emotionally collapse. The sounds of his wife and newborn son sobbing over the monitor woke my husband who suggested that we supplement with some formula that night. After much reassurance that it was ok, the baby would be ok, and that I was not failing, we made a couple ounces of formula and my son and I both got some much needed rest. Two days later, we had our first appointment with his pediatrician and all I can remember about that appointment was the nurse that took his vitals and did his preliminary check before the doctor came in. She asked some of the expected questions, including how feeding was going. I shared how challenging our first night home was and that we had given him some formula that night. Based on the look that this nurse, an older woman who clearly needed some tips on bedside manner, gave me, you would think I had told her that we gave my son some whiskey so he’d sleep. Apparently to her, formula was just as bad, maybe worse. She prodded a bit more and was “relieved” when she learned that we were still breastfeeding and had not given him any more formula. After that appointment, I was shaken. I had done something wrong and no one, not even my husband, could convince me otherwise. This was the start of my spiral.
Breastfeeding my son became the primary goal while I got to watch other people enjoy holding him. When I held him, it became about latching. I began to foster resentment toward my husband who was finding ways to bond with him that I wasn’t. Didn’t people say that breastfeeding created this incredible bond between mother and baby? Where was that? Why wasn’t it happening for me? It got to the point where I dreaded holding my own child. Every time I had to nurse him I would cry, tears streaming relentlessly down my cheeks. After almost 3 weeks of trying to nurse and eventually trying to pump, all the while sinking deeper and deeper, my husband stepped in and told me we needed to reevaluate things. Once I was given the space to finally say that I wanted to stop, I felt a weight lifting. Suddenly, I was able to be mommy to my baby and not just his food supply. I later learned that I had all the makings of postpartum depression and my drive to EBF was propelling me deeper into it.
Fast forward to 2016 and we were having our second. My husband wanted us to go straight to formula after our last experience. I told him no, I still wanted to try. So we made a plan. I would start nursing in the hospital and see how things went. I promised my husband that, if he noticed me starting to spiral again, he got to call it. Little did I know, my son would decide things for us this time. He struggled to latch and when he did it was excruciating, like toes curling excruciating. On our second night in the hospital, he was refusing to nurse. After 8 HOURS of trying to get him to latch, we called in the nurse on duty and asked for some formula. Instead of fulfilling our request, she proceeded to grab my breast and attempt to get it into my son’s mouth. When she failed, she said she would come back in about 15 minutes to try again and left the room. My husband chased her down the hall, and demanded that she get formula for our newborn. I still tried to nurse a bit more after that, but after an hour of being home, it was clear that our second born would be formula fed as well.
It took me years to get over the guilt. I felt like I had failed. My body couldn’t do what it was designed to do. I was flawed. Every year, National Breastfeeding Week felt like someone was tearing open those wounds all over again. Why could these women do this and I couldn’t? I have learned since then that there were some physical barriers I had which most likely hindered my success. The most frustrating part of that discovery is knowing that if my nurses and lactation consultants had really paid attention, they could have caught it and helped. Something as simple as nipple shields could have made all the difference.
But that is no longer here nor there at this point. When I reflect on my two experiences now, I think about how hospital policies and pressures of “breast is best” completely messed with my head. My desire to BF began clouding my own self-awareness. It became something I had to do and not something I wanted to do. Many people try to offer support to mom’s who cannot or chose not to breastfeed by saying “fed is best” but I want to offer a new phrase to use, one that truly encapsulates the whole picture, which includes the mom as well as the baby— HEALTH IS BEST. Never let how you feed your baby destroy your own physical OR mental health. At the end of the day, whether you breastfeed or formula feed your baby, the health of BOTH of you need to be the priority!
And by the way, mommy… You’re doing a great job!