I fully intended on breastfeeding my first baby. But after trying hard for six weeks, we had to give up. We had 3 lactation specialists, moms, friends, and my doctor helping. But my baby was not gaining weight and crying all the time. I just never made more than a half-ounce of milk at a time, despite pumping and nursing all day (and night). But the specialists all told me to keep trying. That eventually, I would make more milk. I never did, and I could not stand to know that she was hungry. I had to feed her!
Feeding my baby formula felt like a failure as a mom. But she is developing into a wonderful and healthy little girl. Now that I am expecting my second baby, I still think back to that time and I worry about it. It makes me so depressed that I still get teary-eyed every time I think of trying to nurse again. All my friends and my sister were able to nurse. Why not me? People are urging me to try it, but I just can’t go through that again. I was so stressed out at a time I wanted to be enjoying my new baby. Now I will have a toddler to care for as well.
How do I handle this? Any thoughts are appreciated.
Anonymous in Atlanta
Dear, Dear Anonymous Mom,
I asked you if I could post this letter because so many moms out there are experiencing this same thing right now. Terrible guilt and angst because of being unable (or unwilling, for what can be excellent reasons) to breastfeed their babies. Let me say this immediately: as a psychologist, I want you to be as happy and stress-free as possible during the early months with your baby. Your baby’s development and happiness depends very much on YOUR emotional state at that crucial time. If breastfeeding is causing you too much strain and guilt…it’s just not worth it.
OK, I said it! Let the breastfeeding police come and take me away. But it has to be said.
Some of you are about to get angry at me. So before that happens, let me state a few things as fact:
Breastmilk has absolute advantages, nutritionally, over formula
Nursing has been shown to be beneficial in many ways, to both mother and baby
I support the ability of Moms to nurse their kids anywhere at any time
I nursed our four kids
But the pressure to breastfeed can be harmful to many Moms. It’s hurting some of you (and by extension, your babies). While I accept the fact that some Moms simply may not understand the benefits and simplicity of breastfeeding, and I do wish more Moms would at least try it out, I don’t accept the patronizing (matronizing?) attitude that often goes along with judging Moms for their choice not to nurse…or their physical inability to do so.
As a licensed psychologist, I also see many Moms who feel inadequate, uncertain, and self-critical because of society’s pressure to breastfeed. They in turn transmit those feelings to their babies.
Although we are told that virtually all mothers can (and should) nurse their babies, consider the following real-life examples of Moms who simply can’t breastfeed: The Moms who, like Anonymous above, went through several lactation specialists, medications, and weeks of stress, only to find her breasts simply won’t produce milk (and her baby wasn’t gaining weight)
The Moms who need to take medicine for postpartum depression (or other life-threatening illness) and want to protect their babies from the medication
The Moms who have no breasts, or inadequate breast tissue, either because of an accident, illness, surgery or congenital condition
These are cases where Moms CANNOT breastfeed. Yet in each case, these Moms are criticized and judged by others who have the nerve to ask them, “Why aren’t you breastfeeding?”
But I must maintain that there are also situations where Moms CHOOSE NOT to breastfeed, and that choice must be respected. Who are we to judge the choices other parents make about feeding their babies? Who are we to impose our decisions on them?
I would rather see a happy mom and baby with a bottle of formula than a stressed out mom (and baby) struggling through nursing. To me, the most important thing is that Mom feels comfortable in her decisions as a parent. If Mom is happy, everyone’s happy. I actually stole the term "Good Enough Mother" from one of my shrink heroes, Dr. Donald Winnicott. He was the first to say, "back in the day", that you should not strive to be a perfect parent....just a good enough parent. If you want to get the scoop on him, read more here. (It's a little technical, but if you're into psychology, Winnicott is a classic.)
And it extends to the “I’m a better parent than you” kind of competitiveness that continues beyond the baby stage. Who’s toddler is smarter/cuter/faster/going to the “better” preschool? Who is watching the least TV? Who has the better diet?
Our expectations of being “Good Enough” mothers have gotten completely out of whack. And the very strong pressure to breastfeed our babies does not help.
Again, this is all about expectations. It’s important for parents to have realistic expectations of their parenting. Parenting decisions have to be made with the best interests of both parent and child in mind. Breast or bottle? Your choice is best.
If you're struggling with this issue and want to talk personally with me about it, I'd love to help you. Hit the "Parent Coaching" button, or email me at BabyShrink@gmail.com to arrange a Skype, phone, or in-person appointment.
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert