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Breast Is Best but Fed Is Better

breast is best but fed is better

Dear Mamas,

This is a weighty topic. Breast or bottle. Bottle or Breast. You are somewhere on your journey and whether you are pregnant and planning for how you will feed your baby, in the middle of your baby feeding journey or have that part of your mothering behind you, please know that you are not alone. Few child-rearing topics cause as much angst as this one. We all have thoughts and opinions but as a mama who has fed her three babies in both ways, I can tell you that you will/are/have done the best for your baby because it’s what has worked for your family.

Breast milk (in most cases, except for when baby is truly allergic) is the best food for our babies. There is no debate about that. Our bodies miraculously make this perfect food which changes based on their development, growth needs, and immune system. It’s amazing antimicrobial gold! However, before you think I’m shouting from my high horse, think again. While it is an indisputable fact that breast is best, fed (dare I say) is even better. 

Many women for a host of reasons are unable to breastfeed. Whether their milk simply never comes in, they have adopted or had their child through a surrogate, their anatomy doesn’t allow for it, or perhaps they have had an illness or surgery which means that they are unable. This happens and it can be a very upsetting experience, especially if they tried but were unsuccessful. Then there are mamas who for their own very personal reasons, prefer to formula feed. Formula is there for a reason and for mamas who need it, it is a miraculous option. 

There is real pressure out there to breastfeed but little support for mamas trying to make that happen. Yes, there are lactation consultants and facilities that can help but in my experience, the opinions vary from consultant to consultant. We are often told conflicting things by doctors and nurses.

I’ve been that mom, so sleep deprived that I’m wondering if it’s safe for me to drive, going to the lactation office with my screaming baby and wondering how I’m going to make it through the day. We need to do better for women postpartum. We need to have visiting nurses or lactation specialists in our homes. Many women simply do not have the resources or ability to simply sit and nurse all day (and night) and do little else. Single moms, moms living in poverty, moms with multiple children and partners who work, etc… We need to take care of mothers once baby is out; not just during pregnancy. 

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I knew that I was going to breastfeed. I knew it would be hard but I was committed. My daughter was tiny and her early growth was slow. I met with a lactation consultant in the hospital (this was a lifesaver since I had no clue what I was doing) and then in the community. Due to her slow growth, they had me pump after every feeding to build up my supply and also to contribute to a bottle for my husband to give her at night when she was cluster feeding like a monster. This was EXHAUSTING. I put so much pressure on myself to exclusively breastfeed that I lost sight of what was important; a healthy, happy mama and a fed baby.

Looking back, I was definitely experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety. During one after-hours phone call with the lactation specialist on call, I cried hysterically about how overwhelmed I felt breastfeeding and pumping around the clock and barely sleeping. During the call she said, “Look, if you need to give her formula in order to get some rest, do it. Formula is not the end of the world!” In that moment, she gave me what I needed to get through. Perspective. And permission to use this substance that had been so demonized in a perfect Breast is Best, mommy had a water birth and only uses cloth diapers, and organic everything world. I could feed her a bottle of formula and she might survive it!

As it turned out, baby number one started gaining weight and breastfeeding got much easier so I didn’t need to use formula until she was in daycare and eating more than I could pump away from her just a couple of times a week. I breastfed her until she was 19 months old when I became pregnant with my son.

He nursed like a champ from the second he was put on my chest. So well in fact that he refused any and all bottles. This made life difficult as I could never leave him for very long. At 8 months he had a health crisis and I needed to stop nursing overnight and pump so that we could measure what he was drinking. From then on I exclusively pumped until he was a year old. He did finally settle on a bottle when he had no other choice but it was a very heartbreaking process.

Now with baby number three, feeding her has been a crazy ride. She was born at only 5lbs 13oz, but she nursed well from the beginning. However, she was not gaining well at all by the third week. I was crazed, sleep deprived, and completely overwhelmed with a new baby and two big kids during the holidays. I was pumping, nursing, and formula feeding for months. The good thing was that I didn’t have to stop nursing all together but for some reason, she just never transferred milk well from the breast. Eventually I stopped pumping and within the last few weeks, she stopped nursing. She just decided that she wanted the bottle instead. We made it 9 months.

The point of sharing my very personal baby feeding experiences is to say that despite having the same mother, my babies have had very different needs/preferences. I wish I could say that I ended this last nursing experience guilt free, but the thing with mom guilt is that it is stubborn and sticks around, sometimes even when we know better. 

So dear mamas, what I’ve learned is that we need to do what is best for our babies but maybe more importantly, what is best for ourselves! If we want to breastfeed topless in a corn field for three years, we should be able to do that. If we want (or need) to bottle feed formula or pump exclusively or do a combination of all three, we need to trust that as long as baby is fed, that is what is best. You are doing great!

How did you feed your babies or how do you plan to feed them? What preconceived notions did you have about feeding before you became a mother and what surprised you? What pressures did you experience from doctors, friends or family?

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