I’m aware that with my multiple posts on how I plan to give birth at home, in a birth pool using hypnobirthing techniques I may have given the impression that I’m something of an earth mother. A natural mother. A “proper” mother. So allow me to drop the bomb that will shatter that illusion…
I formula fed both my boys, and am planning on feeding this new baby that way too.
Oh shit, have I gone down in your estimation now? Cos I can already see some pursed lips and was that a tut I just heard? I know, right – I’m shortchanging my kids, I’m being selfish, I’m doing it wrong.
Ok, that’s very defensive of me and I’m only (half) joking. I know that most people are not so judgmental, and the majority of folk couldn’t give a crap how I choose to feed my baby. But just as I’ve seen a surge in women opting to breastfeed and in the support for normalising it, I have also seen a rise in bottle-bashing. When it comes to an issue as sensitive and fundamental as how you decide to feed your child, it’s no wonder that emotions can run a little high.
I want to share why I came to the decision to use formula.
I’m going to slap on a huge old caveat to this – no one ever needs to justify their decision to anyone else. Whether one woman’s decision to formula feed comes from a deep rooted tradition in her family or because she doesn’t like the thought of breastfeeding is as irrelevant as whether the woman down the street chose to breastfeed purely for budget reasons or from a passion for the immunity support breast milk provides. A choice is a personal issue and no one owes anyone an explanation.
But I’m going to give mine…mainly because it gives me something to write about as I wait for this baby to arrive.
When breastfeeding just didn’t work for us
Even though I was only 17 when I got pregnant for the first time, it never even occurred to me to do anything but breastfeed. Bottle feeding had never featured on my cultural radar. So it was a shock when my baby and my breasts didn’t get the same memo.
A badly timed jab of diamorphine in labour left me with a sleepy and disinterested baby who was reluctant to feed. When he did show an interest, I found myself looking at my breasts as if for the first time. I kept trying to do everything the leaflet said, but started to despair – how was he supposed to latch on when my nipples didn’t look like the illustration? Instead of nice little buttons for my baby to work with, there was nothing there…just flat, pink circles as if they’d been drawn on to my boobs.
I managed to coax a slight shape to my nipples, but struggled to get my baby to latch on. I buzzed for help throughout that first night, but the midwives would only stay long enough to see him take a few sucks and then left me alone to watch him slide off again. The more I tried, the more upset and frustrated we both became, and I felt like a nuisance both to the midwives and the other women sharing my ward who were trying to sleep.
I wasn’t allowed to take my baby home until he had fed successfully, so after another day and night of struggling and with a blood test showing that my baby’s blood sugars were low I gave in to the suggestion of giving him a bottle. I remember looking at the “breast is best” poster on the wall as I gave him that first feed, and feeling like a total failure. I rang my mum in tears, asking her to rush out and buy bottles, formula and a steriliser before coming to take me and my useless boobs (and of course, my beautiful and now contented baby) home.
Formula feeding worked for us
As it turned out, formula feeding wasn’t the evil I thought it would be. I went back to college when my baby was 3 months old and so it suited us well. I was also a single mother, and so it was nice that my parents could help with feeding to give me some sleep or a break when I needed it.
He’s 15 now and shows a mixed bag of the apparent impact of formula milk. For example, he had horrendous eczema when he was younger which could have been down to how he was fed, but equally could have been because it runs in our family. On the other hand, he’s excelling academically and has never had a weight problem, which goes against common beliefs about formula fed babies.
This is not me using anecdotes to argue scientific research. If the research is there then we’ve just been lucky enough to avoid certain negative outcomes, though in a lot of cases the research isn’t conclusive. This suggests to me that formula is a safe and good feeding option, it just isn’t as good as breast milk. But I do believe that feeding method is but a part in a larger jigsaw of health components. Breast milk may give a baby a head start, but there are a lot of other aspects of diet, upbringing and wellness that parents can influence which all contribute to a child’s health, attainment and quality of life.
Me and my useless boobs
Despite the positives, the guilt I felt about my feeding method stayed with me and I do think it played a contributing part to the postnatal depression I suffered. This depression stayed with me for years and materialised in many different ways, one of which was a deep dislike of my body. To tackle this I went on a diet and lost a lot of weight (which I’ve briefly blogged about before), which left me with a smaller clothes size but also with boobs I couldn’t stand to look at. I’d always had big breasts, having to buy my f-cup bras in specialist shops and dealing with chronic back pain and unwanted comments. But now all I had were saggy, empty sacks which left me looking 80 rather than 20. I hated them – not only had they failed me when it came to feeding my baby but now they failed me every time I looked in the mirror. So when I was 24 I made the decision to have them reduced. I was warned that my ability to breastfeed in the future may be compromised, but at the time I didn’t care – my future fertility was in question (another story for another time), and my boobs had proven themselves to be worthless for feeding anyway.
Growing in confidence with my formula feeding decision
Ten years after my first baby, and against some pretty big odds, my second baby was on his way. I did my research and found evidence to suggest that my breast reduction may not necessarily mean I couldn’t breastfeed. And as a bonus, my surgery had given me some proper nipples. I approached feeding with an open mind – optimistic that time had healed my breasts but realistically purchasing bottles and a steriliser.
When he arrived, my second baby showed all the markings of a breastfeeding champ – he latched on right away and things were looking good. Except my boobs. It became quickly apparent that there was nothing happening on my side of the equation. But unlike this heartbreaking story of a woman who struggled post-reduction to breastfeed her baby, I was confident enough to know when to call it quits.
This time around with baby number 3, we have once again stocked up on formula and feeding equipment. I’ll give my boobs another chance to redeem themselves, but I’m doubtful anything will have changed in the 4.5 years since we last tried to breastfeed. I’ve made my peace with that entirely, and am happy with the prospect of once again exclusively formula feeding
Feed and let feed
I trained as a midwife and am passionate about breastfeeding in most circumstances. But I’m not holding my story up as one of those exceptions to the rule that everyone should breastfeed. I think the most important thing is that a baby is fed by a parent who is happy with their feeding choice and who isn’t made to feel less than or wrong or weird for whatever their method of choice is. Just as I don’t think women should be shamed into breastfeeding in some grotty toilet, I also don’t think any parent should be expected to defend their choice to use formula. Live and let live, feed and let feed. I use formula…so what?