“Oh, you’re not breastfeeding? That’s a shame!” With two babies who had been formula fed, I got that kind of comment a lot. Yes, I wish I could have breastfed my little ones, but no, I don’t think it’s a shame.
For me and my newborn, after a long hard struggle, shifting to formula came as a relief. Long, agonising nights with an inconsolable baby turned into what seemed like hours upon hours of sleep – for both of us.
Bottle feeding was the right choice for us, but I can see why it raises so many hackles. Feeding our babies is fundamental, and I can see why many people feel like it’s their right – and even responsibility – to step in. The truth is, in this country – and most of the lucky countries like it – formula is an exceptional infant food. It’s saved many, many lives, and for families like ours, it’s been a godsend.
Breast to bottle - my story
On 4 January 2016, after a night of contractions, and 12 minutes of active labour, I finally got to hold my baby boy, Liam.
Settled into our room at Birthcare, we’d been up for a full 24 hours. I was exhausted, and scared I might drop him! This is where I believe my breastfeeding struggle started. My mother had found breastfeeding easy, and I expected to as well. Liam and I sat together, working hard, visited by every midwife in the building, each with a new suggestion for how to feed. Their support was incredible, but still I was totally confused and in terrible pain. Liam had a tongue tie, and my latching technique wasn’t right. After days of lanolin and hydrogel disk pads, I’d pretty much lost a nipple.
And it never came right. Liam would feed, fall asleep, and 20 minutes later he was awake again and howling for food. With no sleep and no time to eat properly myself, my body struggled to produce the milk Liam needed. To help manage his reflux I was also avoiding many foods, which made it even harder to get those calories in. All the delivered lasagnes weren’t on the menu.
Round-the-clock feeding and pumping
I was pumping after every feed, to top Liam up and stimulate my supply. An hour of pumping would net me 10mls. Liam was hungry, I was exhausted. But what could I do? Breast is best, after all.
One morning, seeing me topless, crying on the couch, my husband decided things had gone far enough, and brought five kinds of formula home from the supermarket.
I continued to feed, pump and then top Liam up with formula. That gruelling regime made feeding almost never-ending – 40 minutes at the breast would be followed by 10 minutes giving him a bottle, then 40 minutes of pumping. An hour or so later, the cycle would start again.
My mum and husband were amazing supports, but I just couldn’t keep it up. We all saw the warning signs of post-natal depression rearing its ugly head. By the time Liam was five weeks old I’d switched to full formula feeding and life changed. Liam was visibly happier, he started gaining weight, and I felt like only then did our bond start to grow.
I tried to breastfeed my second child – I had the Birthcare midwives, my sleep consultant and a lactation consultant on my team. While it seemed to take with Amelia at first, I could see her sleep getting shorter and my supply struggling to keep up. Back to the old feed/pump/formula routine. A trusted health professional suggested I might have hypoplastic breasts, which meant I would have struggled to feed, whatever I did. That seemed to fit the bill: even with constant pumping, Amelia’s hunger outstripped my supply really fast. By two weeks I threw in the towel.
Breastfeeding is harder than it looks
As expectant mothers, we’re told breastfeeding is both miraculous and natural; that with little effort, we can deliver the perfect nourishment – and anything else is sub-par for our precious babies. As a mother who couldn’t feed, switching to formula didn’t just feel like I was failing my baby – I was also failing as a woman, unable to do this thing that was supposed to come naturally.
But you know what? It’s hard. And lots of women struggle. In the States, 85% of women want to exclusively breastfeed until six months, but less than a third actually manage it.
Problems latching, a difficult birth, lack of support, poor supply, mental health challenges and societal values can make breastfeeding harder. While it’s right that we do everything we can to support women into breastfeeding, we should face the truth – that it’s hard, that it’s not possible for everyone, and that, at the end of the day, we should thank our lucky stars that we have a safe, nourishing alternative. I know I do.
NB: This is my personal account with struggles I faced while learning to breastfeed. I am not endorsing bottle feeding or suggesting one way is better than the other, at Growbright we are strong believers that Fed is Best.