"Breast is best" has gone far beyond a general guideline about infant nutrition. To many, it's become a source of great shame, hurt, and just plain harmful.
When chestfeeding doesn't work why do we feel so guilty?
“Breast is best” - this was the resounding message of a chestfeeding course I took once. I was pregnant with my first child, planning to chest feed (aka breastfeed). And I had signed up and paid for a class to learn how to do it successfully. So then why was over half the class covering why human milk was superior, citing studies linking chestfeeding to intelligence, achievement, and general health. Why did it feel more like an anti-formula session than a class on the practical how-to’s. As an example, why didn’t they mention a nipple-shield (which saved my life) and the various types of soothing remedies for nipple soreness? Why was so much time devoted to convincing me to feed my baby with human milk when clearly that’s why I was there?
Something didn’t seem right about that, but I had too much going on at the time to really see it, and when my son came we didn’t face any feeding nor weight gain issues. So I totally forgot about the whole lecture on why “breast is best” and just continued on my way.
My experience with chest-feeding and bottle
A few weeks into our new lives together, and my son was feeding every 90 minutes for 40 minutes at a time. Like any sleep-deprived human solely responsible for keeping another human alive, I was struggling (to put it mildly).Heartbroken, yet calmly, I told my pediatrician that my son (who had gained plenty of weight and was in perfect health) was dying. I just knew it - he hated me and cried when I tried to feed him and he must be dying.
In her saintly way, she weighed him before and after I fed, checked all the things and assured me that he seemed fine. And then asked how my sleep was and how we could improve it. My partner asked if he could take on a night feeding with a bottle, but I was too spent to try to pump in between any of the feedings. Enter…formula!…dun dun dun!…I immediately hated myself and I wasn’t quite sure why. No! We can’t! He’s too young! I have to give him this!
The pediatrician observed that his latch was well-established and agreed that one formula bottle at night would be “best”. Clearly, he was fine and I was not.
After some adjustments with positioning, he stopped being flooded by my let-down. And after many nights of longer stretches of sleep, we were doing better.
Witnessing myself from the outside
Years later, seasoned and chestfeeding my daughter, I attended a support group for chestfeeding parents. She was completely different from my son in every way and either way - community is a blessing.I saw her there - a more desperate version of my earlier self:
Setting alarms every 2 hours to pump to increase supply
Partner feeling helpless, no extra breastmilk for bottles
Baby not gaining weight
Terrified, but wanting so badly to give the best to her baby - “breast is best”.
She was well past the heaving sobs; her tears were a silent, constant stream.
We all held space for her, offered her comfort and solidarity. And I also shared that we’ve always supplemented with formula—BUT!
I was cut off. The lactation consultant interrupted “We don’t EVER recommend formula except in extreme cases. There’s more we can do.”
I was stunned. And suddenly I remembered that class from years ago.
Fed is best
Breast is not best. I believe the science that shows that human milk is the optimal nutrition for infants. And I also believe this strict adherence is part of the insanity that contributes to the over-burdening of mothers and parents.The woman in that group wasn’t “an extreme case” by lactation standards. While it’s true that the baby wasn’t in danger of dying, that mother was not okay. Fed is best.
While it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so well, here is an alternative:
Chestfeeding offers superb nutrition for newborns. And optimal nutrition is not the only factor to consider; especially when formula is also very nutritious for infants. Parents’ mental health, baby’s tempermant, formula availability, and so many other factors must be considered to come up with a plan that’s best for YOUR family.
Where do we go from here?
Platitudes and sweeping generalizations are (almost 😉) never true. but they are very powerful at sowing seeds of shame.These types of critical, guilt-inducing messages extend far beyond newborn feeding:
Screen time is categorically bad!
Why risk it?
Live in the best school district!
Non-organic is basically poison.
Let’s use science and knowledge to inform our intention and choices - not to inspire sham when it doesn’t work best for us or for others.
There could be a million reasons why chestfeeding isn’t right for you. And ALL of those reasons are valid.
"Some parents may choose to chest-feed. Some may long to have that choice, and others may choose not to. Whatever your choice and whatever your reason, you are enough!
We can hold space for each other and say ""you matter!"" Parents' wellbeing is a huge factor in all choices with babies and children - we have to consider all the factors, not shame parents that have different circumstances and choices."