Friday, December 2, 2011

The Choice to Formula Feed

As we prepared for our baby to come into the world, my tendencies to plan and prepare went into overdrive. I quickly discovered that I tended toward more of the "natural" parenting methods. Unmedicated childbirth, cloth diapering, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and, of course, breastfeeding were all key components in my parenting plan.

My husband and friends repeatedly warned me not to be discouraged if something didn't work out the way I'd hoped. In particular, several people gave me this heartfelt speech: "Don't feel bad if breastfeeding isn't for you. It's just not for everyone." I smiled and nodded while thinking, "I don't understand why anyone would not breastfeed. It is the perfect food for the baby, promotes bonding, and it's free!"

The idea that anyone would choose to spend money on synthetic food for their baby baffled me. Anyone who had given up breastfeeding must just not have stuck it out long enough, or they must not have known what they were doing. My husband and I had taken a breastfeeding class at our hospital, so I felt prepared to be a nursing pro. I'd heard lots of stories of painful or difficult nursing, but for some reason I just figured it would be easy for me.

Hungry from Birth

Much to my delight, my daughter came out of the womb rooting. Before I'd even left the delivery room, I told the nurses I'd like to try breastfeeding her. I recalled what I'd learned in the breastfeeding class and got her to latch on fairly quickly. But it did not feel good. It was a terrible pinching feeling that curled my toes and didn't go away after the initial latch. But I could hear the baby gulping and see her lips flanged out and most of my areola in her mouth, so I figured it was just that my nipples were tender and sensitive and they would toughen up.

My nipples did not toughen up. In fact, they ended up bruised and looking like an overly zealous teenage boy had been trying to give me hickies all night. Every time I tried to nurse my voracious little eater, my toes would curl and I'd have to bite my lip in pain. "It's not supposed to hurt!" I'd say. "It means I'm doing something wrong!" But my baby's latch looked just fine to any nurse or lactation consultant who examined it in the hospital.

Unfortunately, it seemed that my baby kept getting hungrier and nursing kept getting harder. One evening in the hospital, we sat down to nurse and she was basically hyperventilating, hungrily trying to devour my boob but failing to get the quick, easy meal she was looking for. Out of desperation, I finally gave in to my mom and husband's urging to give her a bottle of formula. I felt like a failure as I put the artificial nipple in her mouth, but then I began to cry happy tears as my child wolfed down an ounce and leaned back, contented, satiated - nourished.

I continued to stick out the battle. When I got home, I was hit with a bad case of baby blues. Everything was overwhelming and produced anxiety, and the part of parenting that caused me the most grief was nursing. It still really hurt, and now my nipples were bleeding and beginning to scab over.

As luck would have it, the nipple that was most traumatized was the one that was easier for the baby to nurse from (the other nipple is a bit inverted and even pumping a little first did not make it easier to latch on). One day, I tried pumping from the more traumatized nipple and allowing her to nurse on the other nipple. Unfortunately, this was also right after my milk had come in. My breasts were huge and the baby could then not even find her way to the nipple.

At the end of a 25-minute battle to get my 4-day-old daughter to stay latched on as she cried in frustration and I sat feeling like a failure as a mother and having absolutely no energy to keep fighting, while my empathetic mom and husband watched us struggle, I decided to switch to bottle feeding. I gave her a bottle of formula and again watched as she hungrily devoured it and gave a sweet baby smile of content when she was finished. "This is what mothering is supposed to feel like," I said. I had fed my baby. That was my job, and I had done it. To my poor hormone-ravaged, sleep-deprived, anxious and depressed body, that was a rare moment of bliss.

The Problematic Solution

I began pumping and supplementing my fairly low supply with formula. Seeing how much the baby was able to eat in each sitting gave a sense of predictability, control, and structure to my life that I'd desperately craved. Still, I couldn't shake my intense feeling of guilt. Everything I read - even the formula packaging - reminded me that "breast is best." I felt like a terrible mother for giving my baby bottles. I hated that I was costing my family an extra grand or more this year when I was producing free, perfect food myself.

I feared telling anyone about my decision because I was sure I would be encouraged to give nursing another try, and worst of all, I didn't want to. I liked bottle-feeding. I liked that I could give my husband the joy of participating in feeding our baby. I liked that the weight of being the sole person who could feed her - and I couldn't even do that well - was lifted from my shoulders. But when I realized I liked bottle-feeding and didn't want to return to nursing, I felt even more guilty.

Even though I was pumping and getting some breast milk into my daughter every day for the antibodies, I foresaw an end to that coming, as well. I dreaded sitting down to pump. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because I wasn't getting a lot of milk out in any one session (the most I ever got out of both breasts was a total of 2.75 ounces when I was pumping most often and regularly). Maybe it was because pumping was a time when I could literally do nothing but sit there and hold the flanges to my breasts, which made me feel even more tied down. Maybe I just wanted to make an exclusive choice and stick to it. Maybe I had a weird reaction to the hormones released during breastfeeding. Maybe I was just lazy. I don't know, but in any case, even the pumping caused me anxiety (and I did end up stopping as of yesterday when my daughter was 19 days old).

I spent hours and hours surfing the internet, trying to find support for my decision. It seemed that everywhere I turned, bloggers and article-writers touted breastfeeding and condemned formula-feeding moms as lazy and selfish. Even if I found an article that lent support to moms who chose formula, the comments from breastfeeding advocates would send me back to tears. All the other women who had made the decision to switch seemed to have given breastfeeding so much more of a try than I did. I felt so guilty, despite the support from my hospital nurse, pediatrician's nurse, mom, and husband - and, come to think of it, the support of my happy, healthy daughter who gladly sucked down the bottles at each feeding and reacted perfectly to the formula.

Coming to Terms

In the end, stewing over this decision that was clearly working for us was only holding me longer in my baby blues. I finally faced the fact that the only thing I could do was to embrace the choice I'd made and just let it be what it was. As the scabs on my breasts healed, slowly but surely, so did my conscience. I reasoned that I was fed formula and ended up being the valedictorian of my high school class and best friends with my mom. My husband was formula-fed and has an immune system that rivals any I've ever seen. All the arguments that formula-fed babies are less intelligent, less healthy, and less bonded to their moms seemed ludicrous when I looked at my anecdotal evidence.

As it turns out, my baby is just a really hard sucker. She sucks like crazy on her pacifier, vacuums down her bottles, and when my husband and I have given her our clean fingers to suck, we can feel it first-hand (pun intended). Several people have commented on her Hoover effect, verifying that what I was feeling on my breasts was not something she was necessarily doing wrong or something I was doing wrong - she just sucks hard!

My job is to nourish and care for my child, and this is the way I've chosen to do it. Yes, breast milk might be the best food for a baby, but formula is a very, very close second. I am able to bond so much better with my daughter and be a happier, more mentally healthy mother because I am not nursing, which in my opinion makes it the best choice. And what matters most is that my baby is content, alert, healthy, and gaining weight like a champ on formula. In fact, part of me believes that if I'd continued breastfeeding, it would have been more for me than for her.

I know that the moms who would encourage me to continue nursing have my best interests and those of my daughter at heart, but in the end, those people who had given me warnings were correct. It really isn't for everyone. I truly believe that giving up nursing was one of the keys to kicking my baby blues. Some families may have more severe reasons than mine to stop nursing, but I don't think that makes my choice any less legitimate or mean I took it any more lightly. In fact, it was a choice I made out of love.

I pray that I will not have to apologize to my baby one day for not feeding her breast milk, but I was tired of having to apologize to her for not being able to give her the love, attention, and affection she so deserved while I was breastfeeding. And I pray that one day I will be able to completely let go of the feeling that I have to apologize to the world for not nursing.

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