The Other F Word

I don’t know how it is where you are, but around here “breast is best” is tattooed on our bosoms. And it’s true that breast milk is amazing for babies.

But you know what else is amazing for babies? Formula.

I said it. The F word.

(Before I continue, I want to remind you that this entire post is watermarked with Do Whatever Works Best For You. Only you can decide that for yourself and your children. And in case no one has told you lately, you are a really really good mom.)

Let’s continue.

Breastfeeding the first time.

The logistics worked out for me to breastfed my firstborn for seven months. I’m not going to get into nipply details (I elaborate a little more here), but it was tough for both of us.  Many women are teary and nostalgic during their last breastfeeding session, but I wanted to sing Jon Secada’s Hallelujah Chorus from the rooftops once my baby was fully weaned.  I felt free…but I also felt like a quitter for not making it to the one-year mark and guilty for not loving it every step of the way.  In retrospect I realize that I was wishing away precious moments of my baby’s infancy ticking away at an arbitrary deadline (I set for myself) for when I would stop breastfeeding. I wanted things to be different the second go round. I wanted to silence the shoulds swirling around my head and not let them dictate my feeding choices or my feelings surrounding them.

Second time around.

So approaching the birth of my second child, I took the pressure off myself and my boobs and I held the whole experience loosely. I didn’t want that pressure to breastfeed to rob me of any of the joy of parenting. Here was my plan: If breastfeeding was making me and my baby happy and working out well for the other members of our family, then I would stick with it. If it wasn’t, then I would give myself permission to stop.

Things were going okay at first, but it wasn’t long before I started dreading every feeding. I was also dizzying myself with juggling the timing and logistics of nursing the baby while availing myself to lovingly parent the three-year-old. Before or after carpool? At the park? Leave now for the pool, or nurse now and tell big sis she will miss out on swimming with her friends?  How much should I let what is “best” for one child dictate the program for the entire family? The struggle was real.

I knew our nursing days were numbered when I said the real F-word three times before 7am while that sweet baby and I both sobbed topless in her nursery. That day I ditched the all-or-nothing mentality. From then on, my daughter got a mix of breast milk straight from the source, pumped bottles, and bottles of formula. By month three, my sweet baby was getting all bottles all the time and all of them were filled with formula. She was thriving and so was I.

Formula isn’t poison.

It turns out that the alternative to breastfeeding is not poison. And you know what else I discovered? Formula is not made of tiny shards of glass and arsenic! It is actually full of good things that babies need. Feeling the freedom to feed baby #2 formula has made her first year downright damn near delightful for our whole family. I am a happier, more present, more joyful parent to both my children (and a more pleasant wife and human) because I stopped breastfeeding when I did. And I would argue that giving my girls the gift of a happy and available mother has far greater benefits than any amount of breast milk.

If breastfeeding is working for you, then stick with it! You are an awesome mom.

BUT if it isn’t working for whatever reason, or just plain isn’t an option, you are still an awesome mom.

Maybe you are going to great lengths to try to make it work when it just isn’t. Maybe you dread feedings because each one is excruciatingly painful and time-consuming. Maybe you aren’t producing enough milk. Maybe you have had to make extreme modifications to your own diet because your child has an allergy. Maybe you have to head back to work.  Maybe you are feeling guilty for quitting breastfeeding when there was more you could have done. Maybe the sacrifices you are making to breastfeed outweigh the supposed benefits of breast milk. Maybe breastfeeding just wasn’t an option because you are an adoptive parent. Maybe you are the mother of quadruplets and breastfeeding is logistically impossible. Or maybe you just plain don’t like it.

If and if any of the “maybes” mentioned above sound familiar, give yourself some grace – and the permission to try something else.

Pop Quiz!

Question 1: Can you tell which of these adorable children received the most breast milk?

Answer: Me neither. And no IQ test, blood test, juggling contest, spelling bee, regatta or footrace would tell us either.

Question 2: Can you tell which well-adjusted adult in the picture below was breastfed?

Answer: Neither. That’s me on the right and my younger sister on the left. My sister and I didn’t get a drop of breast milk and we both grew into happy healthy adults who enjoy an extremely close relationship with our amazing mother (who still buys us matching clothes). I turned out OK, but my sister turned out great. She is a gorgeous, drug-free, non-obese, valedictorian, marathon running gourmet cook, mother, and all-around gentle, generous, M.D.  She is a shining star—and a walking endorsement demonstrating that formula fed babies experience zero long-term side effects.

The decision to breastfeed is personal to every mother. We all have hopes and expectations going into motherhood about how it will go. We all have histories and convictions that make us more or less determined to make it work. And we all want to give our children the very best. But what if the “best” means different things to each of us?

There are so many choices we make as mothers—and I am here to say that breast or bottle is not the most important one. Not even close. It is so hard to remember that during the throes infancy. As mothers we have to make a lot of decisions regarding our children, decisions with actual long-term impact, and I know the stakes will only get higher as our children grow. So let’s take the pressure off of ourselves and each other about this one. Okay?

I’m awesome. You’re awesome. We’re awesome.

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  • For me, the decision to stop breastfeeding was an easy one. On day 6 of her life. the state of California informed me that my baby’s newborn screen was positive for galactosemia, and my breast milk was toxic to her. At the time, she was throwing up after every feeding and had lost so much weight that she was in the NICU. Soy formula literally saved her life and enabled her to thrive. It kind of put the whole formula/breast feeding debate into perspective.

  • As i sit here pumping for the umpteenth time today, I so needed this right now….my baby was born 4 weeks ago 6 weeks early. He has never latched well and I am struggling with supply. I pump around the clock to get 3 two ounce bottles a day for him. I feel like i dont get a thing done around the house and most days I don’t get a shower. Forget trying to leave the house for groceries or a walk. I’m struggling with wanting to quit. I really badly want to quit. The feelings of guilt have kept me at it. I’m not saying I’m going to quit tonight or tomorrow, but when I do this helps a little.

  • [email protected] says:

    Thank you so much for this. Reading this has really helped me. My 4 month old is now mainly on formula and I’ve been crying about it since I gave him his first bottle at 9 weeks old. Its been a slow but necessary transition to formula as I wasn’t producing enough milk for him, we were both miserable and I was not being a very good mum to my 3 y/o. Although I know in my head the switch to formula is for the best I have experienced terrible breastfeeding grief the last couple months that it has not gone the way I hoped. I went through a similar situation with my first born but I had more milk to start off with so managed to exclusively feed her much longer. I felt so sad this time round that breastfeeding was a struggle from day 1 and I couldn’t give my son as long as I gave my daughter. Reading your post helps me to acknowledge, accept and come to terms with formula feeding. Thank you. x

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I wish I could have read this three months ago but reading it now still makes me feel so much better. The guilt that so many of us feel is crushing, and there are so many who judge.

  • Amen. My children, now 27 and 31, have grown to be healthy, happy adults, and were fed formula. I try to tell my daughter who has struggled with nursing that whatever choice she makes is ok, but it has to work for the whole family. And don’t forget, whatever you do now will be wrong in ten years because the "experts" will have changed everything by then.

  • Such a disappointing article. I get the sentiment, and every mother’s choice is their own. But in an overwhelming number of situations, there is a breastfeeding solution to a breastfeeding problem. If a mother wants to stop breastfeeding, of course she can. But if she wants to continue, she needs support, encouragement, assistance from people qualified and educated to help her. She does not need formula, this will end the breastfeeding experience she wanted.

  • You are amazing. I had to make the decision when both of us where miserable and I read a blog from years ago that said "if you’re not enjoying your baby your doing it wrong"… Same lesson but a different view was refreshing!

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