The Problem with ‘Fed is Best’

Let me start by saying that I hold mothers who formula feed in the highest esteem. They are often the mothers who have been through the most, who have had to channel the most motherly strength, perseverance and love to raise their babies. They are breast cancer survivors; they are people with chronic health conditions; they are mothers to preemies; they are mothers to children with disabilities; they are mothers struggling with mental illness; they are mothers who simply do not produce enough milk. They are mothers who are faced with these obstacles and still find it in them to fight for their babies and nourish them with a little help from science.

The mother who has made it through any one of these challenges and is feeding their baby with formula should be able to expect absolute respect. The fact that they still face judgement from others because they are not breastfeeding is heartbreaking, rooted in ignorance, and it needs to stop. Mothers who formula feed need to be supported.

That said, the discourse to normalise formula feeding has, in my mind, actually ended up acting as a justification for a lack of support at a society level for some of these mothers.

The fact is that, while there are cases where formula truly was the only option, oftentimes mothers who end up formula feeding would have liked to breastfeed, and would have been able to, if only they had access to better postnatal care.

I know from my own experience that breastfeeding can be the most difficult part of the newborn period, both physically and psychologically.

I was sent home 12 hours after an emergency C-section, with essentially no information about what was going to happen when my milk came in, or how to establish a breastfeeding relationship with my baby.

When my milk did come in three days later, I was painfully engorged. The pressure was so intense and my breasts were so swollen there was no way a baby could have latched on, even if I’d known what I was supposed to do.

After looking online and calling the breastfeeding helpline, I applied cold compresses and hand expressed to alleviate some of the pressure, but even then my breasts were so swollen that breastfeeding was hopeless. The stress of trying, and not managing, to breastfeed my baby while he cried from hunger was totally overwhelming. All mothers know that, especially in those first weeks, our babies’ cries are almost impossible to endure, and I would always end up running to get a bottle, just to give him the milk he needed and make the crying stop.

My baby was bottle fed with pumped milk for six weeks, and I felt so disappointed. The postpartum period was not how I had imagined or hoped in a lot of ways, but my inability to breastfeed was one of the most painful.

Not to mention, with all the extra work that goes into pumping — cleaning and assembling the equipment every two hours, day and night — I got even less sleep, and my mental health was appalling. I don’t know how I survived. I remember calling my grandma one day and genuinely asking her how I would know if I were about to die from exhaustion, so that if it was about to happen, I could make sure I’d put my baby down somewhere safe. I had been pushed to the edge of sanity by the stress of it all.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I was able to afford to hire a lactation consultant. It was expensive, but I was so devastated that I couldn’t breastfeed that we were willing to pay for it. She informed me that I had oversupply and fast flow, and so my breasts were engorged and difficult for my baby to latch on, and when he did he was choking on the milk. She was able to teach me different positions to help him latch and slow the flow, and tell me how to space out pumping and breastfeeding sessions to gradually lower my supply to just what we needed.

Thanks to her intervention, after a few weeks, I was breastfeeding my baby. We still don’t have it totally mastered, even at 10 months, and when I see my friends breastfeeding, I do still get a pang in my heart that their babies seems to feed more naturally than mine. But I am under no illusions as to how lucky I am that I have been able to feed my baby how I had always wanted.

My point is, I was very close to giving up and moving to formula. And I wouldn’t have been a bad mother for doing that. My struggle with breastfeeding was costing me, my family, and my baby dearly in my mental health, and it was getting in the way of me being the mother I needed to be. But if I had done that, and people had simply said “fed is best”, I feel it would have been missing an important point.

Yes, babies who are fed formula will be just fine. But what about the mothers? For me, and for a lot of mothers, we’ve dreamed and looked forward to the wondrous experience of breastfeeding and when it doesn’t work out, it is truly a loss. Even if my baby is fine with formula, and even if I’m grateful for the safety net, I may still wish I could breastfeed for my own fulfilment.

It’s a bit like how we no longer tells mothers who have had traumatic births that’s everything is fine because the baby is healthy. We now recognise that the mother matters just as much as the baby. Instead of ‘fed is best’, how about ‘supported is best’?

Breastfeeding is hard. It may be natural but it certainly didn’t come naturally to me, and I needed help to be able to do it. And in the past, in a less atomised society, every mother would have had more help with it. Older women would have shown us how to do it, and our sisters and cousins with babies would even have fed our babies from their own breast while we waited for our milk to come in.

It really does take a village to raise a child.

Too many of us are expected to do it alone.

When we say “fed is best”, it feels like we’re letting society off the hook for not doing what it needed to support mothers to breastfeed.

Formula is a perfect fit for some mothers. But if it’s important to a mother to breastfeed, and despite that she feels like she may give up because she hasn’t had the support she needed, don’t just tell her “fed is best”.

We need to offer lactation advice when women give birth and for weeks after as follow up — or months after, if that’s how long it takes to crack it. We need to give mothers sufficient time off work to be able to establish a breastfeeding relationship. We need to be honest about how challenging breastfeeding can be, and then actually have services in place to support us through it.

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