It happened again last week: Another mom stopped breastfeeding. She had no implants, hadn’t had a breast reduction, and wasn’t taking any dangerous medications. She had no hormonal disorders or improperly treated thyroid ailments. She wasn’t addicted to drugs. Her son wasn’t weakened by a heart abnormality or other medical condition. He wasn’t premature or in the NICU, and he had no metabolic disorders or physical deformities. He was 10 days old.
She was a healthy, first-time mom with a healthy baby, six weeks of maternity leave, a good breast pump, and a heart set on breastfeeding.
What happened? Let’s go back.
Employed full-time outside the home, she didn’t attend childbirth, infant care, or breastfeeding classes. She assumed her doctor would take care of everything. Excited about pregnancy and birth, she scrolled online before falling asleep with What to Expect When You’re Expecting*, never reading past page 35. Her husband thought it would all be easy. How hard could it be? They didn’t know there was more to it—so. much. more.
Co-workers encouraged prenatal classes, La Leche League meetings, and more to expand her knowledge and support. She half-believed she’d go “tomorrow.” She fully believed she’d get help in the hospital. Tomorrow never came, and she did receive help in the hospital—just not the help she expected.
Her son’s birth was one of six in the hospital on a Thursday night. There were two C-sections, one pitocin induction, one vaginal birth, and hers.
The dimpled baby, birthed after an epidural, was sleepy and wouldn’t latch. Confused and exhausted, she recovered. He went to the nursery.
Throughout the short hospital stay, extended family held the sleepy baby as he passed from shoulder to shoulder, lap to lap, and briefly, back to mom. No one saw the well-meaning relative (or was it a nurse?) give him the pacifier.
The lactation consultant (LC) visited. Too shy to breastfeed among visitors, Mom wouldn’t ask for privacy, and the LC’s hours were brief. Like nursing staff, she was limited by corporate hospital cuts. The LC accomplished little with a sleepy, pacified baby and a vulnerable mom in a crowded room. And, there were other mothers to visit.
Late the third day, Saturday, the baby cried while pushing away from the breast. Mom felt refused and exhausted. The discharge nurse, with four other babies to care for and very little time, said, “You don’t have enough milk. Your baby could get jaundice. Let’s give him a bottle of formula.” Grandma fed him, and Mom readied for discharge.
The LC stopped in again after she’d clocked out, to see the napping baby. She learned about the formula and recommended pumping when not breastfeeding. She strongly encouraged a follow-up Monday morning.
The story goes: this mom went home with a grandma who rocked and fed her new grandchild and an aunt who “didn’t have enough milk” either. “It’s hard to breastfeed,” the aunt said. “Moms in our family don’t make enough milk. Here, I’ll give him the next bottle.”
Her husband noticed she expressed a few drops of colostrum the first and last time she pumped. She wasn’t sure the pump even worked. He wanted formula, along with a happy baby and rested wife.
On Monday morning, the fifth day, her baby cried and pushed away more. Tears streamed down her face. Everywhere she turned pointed to formula. Aunts and Grandma left, and her husband returned to work. How could she pump, bottle-feed, AND do everything? When her coworker called with well-meaning advice, Mama’s brain was full, confused, overwhelmed, and so. much. more.
Her friend called again Friday. Mom said, “We’re giving him formula. He doesn’t want me. I don’t make enough milk—my family can’t breastfeed.” Of course, there was more to the story, more to her week. A mom of few words too embarrassed to reach out, she felt she’d failed. She was a mom in a hurry to get on to the next chapter, because this one was painful. Just like that, it was over. But she and her baby lost so. much. more.
Her friend offered solutions and possibilities, but it didn’t matter. She quit, scared for her baby’s health and sabotaged by others from the beginning.
Will she be a good mom? I don’t know how breastfeeding or formula-feeding makes you a “good” or “bad” mom in the first place. She will be the best mom—the perfect mom—for her son.
Will this child be healthy? smart? attached? Probably so, as attachment is based on so. much. more. We won’t know how different things would’ve been with successful breastfeeding. We do know almost 1,000 babies in the U.S. annually die of causes preventable by breastfeeding.
I won’t mention formula costs—financially, environmentally, etc. This mom? She learned, down to the penny, the cost of a seven-day formula supply.
Do I care if this mama and baby breastfeed? Yes. Caring isn’t judging. We’re still friends. I’ll hold her sweet son, breathe in his nothing-like-it newborn scent from the nape of his baby neck, BUT—you knew there’d be a big “but,” didn’t you?—I wish she’d been able to make informed decision about breastfeeding. I want that for her and all moms.
I want a society that really supports breastfeeding, that makes it easy, that prioritizes breastfeeding like it supports vaccines and car seats, campaigns against drunk driving, and secondhand smoke. I want her to experience the mountaintop before deciding she doesn’t like, want, or need it. I want her to comprehend her body and her baby’s body working together. I want her to see how inexpensive, convenient, and easy breastfeeding can be. I want all this before she quits. I don’t want society sabotaging the trail to the mountaintop. I want her to know it can be so. much. more.
What happened as this mama “decided” to formula-feed? Responsibility falls on all of society, beginning with the institutions that let her down and ending with family and Mom herself. All inadvertently colluded to limit, and finally remove, her choice to breastfeed.
In the beginning, Mom didn’t value childbirth classes enough to attend more than two of a longer class series. Her family and spouse offered little encouragement. It wasn’t a malicious absence of encouragement; it was an ignorant one. Little to no commercials or billboards proclaimed the benefits. No employer allowed her to leave early one day a week to attend classes. Only her coworkers’ voices encouraged her. Sadly, they were drowned out by a middle-aged man (who could’ve easily been a woman) in a white coat with a framed medical degree. “Really, I’ll take care of everything.”
- The knowledge that many things help with labor pain, and some medicines affect newborns’ alertness and breastfeeding ability.
- Relationships with other moms who have breastfed or are dedicated to breastfeeding.
- Good, postpartum resources—from books to hot lines, to professionals in the her area. (See the end of this post for some in our local area.)
- The assurance that asking for and accepting help is not a weakness. It’s a lifeline.
- Encouragement that the early steps to breastfeeding may be difficult but can be overcome.
- Words like “engorgement,” “supply and demand,” and more.
- Fundamental understanding of newborns, breasts, jaundice, and so. much. more.
- Breastfeeding positions, signs of a good latch, and ways to boost milk production.
- The importance of mother-infant bonding and breastfeeding.
- Helpful questions to ask after the baby is born, and cues to understanding intimidating medical jargon.
Childbirth and breastfeeding classes and support groups are not a magic wand. But, they ARE a supportive beginning.
Who else affected this formula outcome? The overworked nursery nurse, who saw a baby spend more time with relatives than his mama. By soothing him with a pacifier, she increased his risk for latch difficulties, denied Mama’s body much-needed stimulation, and put him to sleep without calories.
Is the nurse evil? No. She’s a lot of things: overworked, understaffed, and compassionate. She spends her shift putting out fires with little time left to spend with moms. She’s an unintentional contributor to sabotage by telling Mom she wasn’t making enough milk. On day two, Mom wasn’t supposed to make milk. She made colostrum—you know, the good stuff full of antibodies and more that makes a newborn poop (thus getting rid of the bilirubin affecting newborn jaundice)?
A well-meaning nurse in scrubs with a stethoscope-d neck, planted seeds of danger and fear instead of knowledge and empowerment. She didn’t have enough time to educate a mom (who didn’t make the time early in her pregnancy to be educated). Fear is a big unfair motivator.
It’s easy to see how everything fell into place and sabotaged breastfeeding. Lack of breastfeeding knowledge leads to more vulnerability in an already vulnerable woman. Knowledge really is power.
Taking classes or finding a community group could’ve helped this mom understand her choices and the impact of everything working together. The understanding and comprehension are key.
In my utopia, outside of true medical/physical complications (roughly 1–5% of women), breastfeeding would be a true choice. Moms would know and understand the biology of breastfeeding and how seemingly unrelated choices affect each other. They’d be surrounded by supportive people and systems established for successful breastfeeding, such as well-staffed and well-trained hospitals. The “almost” jaundiced baby wouldn’t go home until he was nursing and his mom understood some physiology of breastfeeding and newborns. Maybe we’d send a visiting nurse, too—free of charge.
Imagine if society supported breastfeeding like it supports the use of car seats…
Note: The mom in this post, inspired by a friend’s experience, is a compilation of women I’ve intimately known through my professional and volunteer LC work. This post is not a judgement of moms who choose formula. It’s a presentation of the ways successful breastfeeding is inadvertently and powerfully sabotaged. Choice is good. Forced choice with inadequate and incomplete information and resources is an oxymoron, not a choice.
*While I’m sure the What to Expect When You’re Expecting books are wonderful, there are other books I prefer.
San Antonio Birth Education and Lactation Support:
The National Breastfeeding Helpline, at (800) 994-9662, connects women to peer counselors who can answer questions in English or Spanish.