When I first found out I was pregnant, all my anxiety dreams were about the birth -- it was going to hurt like hell. It was going to ruin my vag forever. There was going to be blood everywhere. I was going to poop myself.
No one really talked about the pain in the ass that is breastfeeding, though, except to say that “some women” have trouble with it, that it’s OK if it doesn’t work right off the bat, and that there are tons of people like nurses and lactation consultants who can help.
I have five other friends who all had babies around the same time as me. For one of them it was a second child, and breastfeeding was easy peasy. For the other four there were challenges. Three had to start supplementing with formula at some point and they talked about this fact as though they were utter failures in life and motherhood. All three put themselves, their babies, and everyone around them through hell before finally giving in and supplementing with formula.
In one friend’s case, her pediatrician -- who also happens to be an infant nutrition specialist -- suggested starting to introduce her baby to pureed foods at four months. This is not actually uncommon. Although the World Health Organization recommends six months, if a baby has doubled their birth weight, can sit up reasonably well, can make the up-down chewing motion, and is eyeing regular food, they could be ready to begin on solid foods as early as four months. One reason doctors sometimes recommend this is that babies don’t get much iron from breast milk and some recent research is suggesting that it might be a good idea to get them additional iron through the introduction of some pureed foods.
This friend went on to a Facebook mothers’ group she belongs to and asked for suggestions for good starter purees. Instead, she mostly got people asking her how old her daughter was and, when they found out she was four months, lecturing her about introducing food too soon. “Breast is best!” Wrote one. “The WHO recommends breastfeeding for at least the first six months. Don’t let your pediatrician talk you into introducing foods too early.” Yes, those sneaky pediatricians and their secret plot against breast milk.
In fact, it’s completely the opposite. The standard refrain from nurses, doctors, and lactation consultants when a woman says she doesn’t feel like she’s producing enough milk to satisfy her always-hungry infant is: “Just keep at it. You will make enough. Women can produce enough to feed ten babies if they need to.”
None of which is any consolation at all when you’ve got a baby screaming at you and your nipples are cracking from constant breastfeeding. Especially since that “encouragement” is typically followed by a list of all the ways in which it’s probably your fault that you’re having trouble: you aren’t holding the baby correctly, you have flat nipples, you aren’t eating enough, or enough of the right foods.
For the record, I lucked out and got a baby that was a breastfeeding champ. Also, according to my 60-some-year-old Taiwanese midwife, I have perfect nipples for breastfeeding. In her words, my baby is “so lucky.” And me too! Weee!!
Even with all that going right for me, though, I found breastfeeding difficult. First there was the whole waiting period for my milk to “come in,” which sucked because my baby was hungry and I couldn’t do much about it. Then the milk showed up and my boobs hurt like hell AND guess what? My baby couldn’t get the milk out because there was too much. Thanks nature!
Then it all started to work as it should, but was still just sort of a pain -— I felt like I was feeding all day every day, like my baby was even more dependent on me than I ever thought he would be, and then between the grunting and the farting and the looking around, mine wasn’t the sort of baby I could quietly feed in a crowd without anybody noticing.
But one of the worst parts was how fucking weird other women were about breastfeeding. Other moms wanted to know whether I was doing it. If I was, was I exclusively breastfeeding or supplementing with formula? How many ounces does he eat? How much does he weigh? Do you pump? Will he take a bottle? How long are you planning to breastfeed? Did your baby latch right away or did it take awhile?
It’s basically the maternal version of dick measuring. And even though I have the equivalent of a huge cock in this arena, I hated the lady competition around it. I hated that my friends who were so into the idea of breastfeeding and then couldn’t do it had to deal with an additional layer of shame and guilt piled on by their mom groups, which are supposed to be a place to go for support.
As something that only women do, and given all the hoopla around public breastfeeding, I had sorta assumed that breastfeeding was going to be an area of deep female compassion. That women could basically choose to feed their babies however they wanted to and that other women would be 100% supportive of whatever choice they made, because, you know, dealing with a newborn is tough enough without feeling like your body is failing you, your infant, and women everywhere. It was disappointing to see how very wrong I was.
It’s true that studies show that there are antibodies and nutrients in breast milk that babies need and that you just can’t get from formula. But there have also been studies showing that supplementing with formula might not only be okay, it might actually be a good idea for some mothers. One study published in the journal Pediatrics a couple months ago found that occasionally supplementing breastfeeding with formula feeding did not harm—and in some cases might improve—babies’ health. In short order, mom groups everywhere went nuts. A short blog post about the study on The New York Times' website garnered 88 comments in the first day, most of them vehemently against formula feeding.
The pro-breastfeeding push began with good intentions, of course, but even some proponents of breastfeeding are now saying that maybe we need to give women a break. That maybe instead of a hard and fast rule against any formula, ever, we should help women figure out the solution that works best for them and their children.
Toning down the rhetoric might even be what helps encourage more women to give breastfeeding a shot. The CDC has long reported a drop-off in breastfeeding rates when women return to work, and lower income communities consistently post low breastfeeding rates, despite the cost of formula. While its recommendations suggest that mothers simply request things like pumping rooms and breaks to either pump or go home and breastfeed, that is a solution with a distinct class bias. If you’re the marketing manager at a tech company, by all means, request a pumping room and more breaks. If you’re a waitress? Demanding such things might just win you fewer shifts. How about we respect women enough to make up their own minds about what works for them?
"I don’t think it’s necessary to treat formula like it’s a poison that’s killing our kids," Dr. Scott Krugman, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, told me recently. “We tend to go to extremes over things and you’re just setting yourself up because there are moms for whom breastfeeding doesn’t work for one reason or another and it’s not worth the anguish and stress. It’s not just about the nutrition a baby is getting, it’s about the health of their whole environment, and having a happy, sane mother is an important part of that.”