Too Much Pressure to Breastfeed?

We have some sort of Realities of Green Parenting theme going on this week! Check out our earlier posts: Erica Jong’s “Mother Madness”–Is Green Living Imprisoning Mothers and The Truth about Breastfeeding and Survival in Those Early Months.

I don’t write about breastfeeding much on the Green Baby Guide. It’s not that I didn’t breast feed my daughter (I did), or that I don’t think it’s important (I do). It’s just during the early days of motherhood, I felt an enormous pressure to be this perfect breast feeder, and I didn’t want to add to that culture of “breast is best,” which can sometimes translate to “formula is poison.” (A friend of mine was the recipient of that gem.)

The perfect nursing mother

But where does this pressure come from? I’ll admit that for me, it came from my own insecurities. Breast feeding came pretty easily to me; I never had problems with latch or thrush or mastitis. But Audrey was not gaining weight as fast as the pediatrician would like, and she recommended supplementing with formula. This made me feel inadequate and conflicted. Everything I’d read suggested that adding formula might turn my baby off breastfeeding forever! It was all or nothing to me in my mind, and I wanted to be one of those people who could brag about my daughter never having a drop of formula (as annoying as I found that competitive impulse).

The pressure also comes from a certain liberal, eco-minded community. In our book, The Eco-nomical Baby Guide, Joy and I debated about how much pro-breastfeeding content we should include. There are whole books dedicated to breastfeeding, so I didn’t feel we should devote too many pages to the practice. Also, how many times can a pregnant woman read “breast milk is the most perfect food for your baby,” “breastfeeding is the greatest gift you can give your baby” before her eyes begin to glaze over? But Joy pointed out that the message was still important. After all, a large percentage of American women do not breast feed. Some are not physically able to, some may choose to bottle feed, and others may have missed the “breast is best” memo altogether.

Really, I just wish I’d given myself more of a break over breastfeeding. While ideally a new mother will enjoy breastfeeding for the nourishment, comfort, and bonding it can provide, I now realize I have mostly negative associations with nursing. I spent a lot of energy agonizing about it, reading about it, and crying about it. These negative feelings formed a thick gray cloud over the first year of my baby’s life.

What I really wanted during that time was not another article about how great breastfeeding is or how a mother suffered from every breastfeeding problem and triumphantly overcame it, but just honest admissions that while breastfeeding is great, it’s not the barometer by which you or others can gauge your worth as a parent. That there’s more to your baby’s first year than what you feed her or how you feed her. And that, years later, as your baby grows older and experiences so much more of the world, it won’t have the looming importance it did in those early days.


  1. I wish there wasn’t pressure to breastfeed and that it was just the accepted norm! Our society does not value breastfeeding or there would be a lot more support, like home visit nurses, extended maternity leave, on-site daycares at office buildings, etc. Let’s face it, many of the difficulties a breastfeeding mother faces are due to lack of support and understanding.

    I found it relatively easy to nurse in the beginning (exhausting, yes, but not frustrating or physically difficult). I had good support and I was determined to do it. I had read a lot of books about believing in your body- that helped a lot! The hard part for me has been after they start eating solids. It is such a relief to not have to nurse all the time that it is tempting to quit all together. Plus, nursing a sticky faced kiddo who grabs your shirt with his gooey hands- not fun! But I’ve managed to nurse all three of my kids to 13-14 months.

    Raising children is hard enough without feeling pressure to make certain choices. Thanks for the supportive message!

  2. Ditto to Sarah King’s response (response #1). That was precisely my thoughts as I read the post. There is a huge amount of pressure to breastfeed (and for good reasons), but we do not live in a culture that supports breastfeeding. We stigmatize mothers who do not breastfeed, yet mothers breastfeeding in public are also subject to harsh judgements and outright harassment. This is unacceptable.

    Ideally we would support breastfeeding with the resources and understanding that new mothers desperately need. And we would support using formula as a lifesaving alternative for when breastfeeding isn’t working or isn’t an option.

    However, I think that a lot of the “pressure” to breastfeed is actually misguided “education”. We all know that breastmilk is best. What we need to learn is how to get the breastmilk to the baby AND what to do when you can’t give the baby breastmilk. We need REAL education on feeding baby – not slogans.

    My daughter is almost 6 months old and I’m a working mom. Breastfeeding was very difficult for me for the first few months – I had major trauma to my left nipple. However, I was determined to continue breastfeeding because I had done a lot of reading about its benefits and my daughter was gaining weight beautifully. So, despite the pain and inconvenience that it initially was, I persevered. And I’m so glad that I did. Now breastfeeding is a breeze and we both love it. But it was a long road to get here. And I needed the support of my husband, mother, mother-in-law, midwife, online forums and countless books.

    So is there too much pressure? For our current society – yes. But the answer isn’t to decrease the message that breast is best – it is to provide real education for new moms and to make breastfeeding socially acceptable (the norm). Of course, while we are working towards that idealized world, giving new moms a bit of a break would be nice. So, back of world – let mom feed her baby the way she chooses, and let her do it in peace!

  3. Thank you for this post! I am one of those moms who felt that my worth as a mom was tied up in, among other things, successful breastfeeding. I did it with my son for 13 months, and he, yes, never had a drop of formula. I took such pride in that statement and even – I admit – smugly judged formula-feeders.

    With my daughter, I am breastfeeding, but because she has not gained weight adequately (falling sharply off her own growth curve between 4 and 6 months), we are supplementing with formula. I hope to be able to breastfeed her at least as long as I did my son, but it won’t be without long-term supplementation. I have made peace with this, but like you, suffered a lot of guilt over of not being able to provide all of the milk my baby needs. A helpful lactation consultant finally said to me, “Of course, exclusive breastfeeding is best, but it’s not always possible.” Then she shared that she herself had had to supplement with her son long-term. I’ve also realized through supplementation that bottle feeding is sweet, too, and I love looking into my daughter’s eyes as I feed her the food that she needs, even though that food doesn’t always come from my body.

    I agree with others that the breast is best message still needs to be preached, that society and communities and workplaces should make it as easy as possible for moms to breastfeed, but I also agree that we shouldn’t make moms feel like failures (especially in “green” circles) when breastfeeding doesn’t work perfectly.

  4. Just another though – breastfeeding is flagged by my computer as spelled incorrectly…perhaps this is another sign that our culture has a long way to go…(about to feed my daughter lunch while home on my lunch break)

  5. I agree with the first two…there should be no pressure because it should be a societal norm. The pressure people feel is most likely due to our society’s adjustment period as we start to go in that direction. I’m pretty sure that in countries where breastfeeding is accepted and expected this kind of craziness doesn’t exist.

  6. I don’t really understand the idea that if breastfeeding were the societal norm, there would be no pressure. I feel like breastfeeding is the norm in my world–and that’s why I felt like a failure when it didn’t work out exactly as I had planned. I also had a lot of support available to me–Internet resources, doctors, lactation consultants, a green community, no one who ever commented on nursing in public, etc., etc.

  7. Rebecca, I think that a lot of people think that breastfeeding is normal and instinctive. And we know it isn’t. It’s learned. It is difficult and just not really that normal – at least at the beginning. And some babies never get the hang of it. Just because I want breastfeeding to be considered the societal norm doesn’t mean that I want people to think it is easy or natural – that would be false advertising.

    And, I should also point out, some people just don’t want to breastfeed. And that’s ok. You gotta do what works for you.

    But if you wanted to breastfeed and feel like you failed, then, I would argue, society failed you. Not you failing. It could be that breastfeeding was never going to work for you – and that would obviously be a dissapointment, but should never be considered a failure. It would be like saying, I tried to learn how to ride a bike, but I fell off, so I feel like a failure. The fact that women feel they’ve failed shows that there is clearly something wrong with our outlook on breastfeeding.

  8. Hm, yes, I think I get what you’re saying. But I DID breastfeed for 13 months. Maybe I wasn’t clear in the post what my issue was (or maybe I am not clear on it myself!). Seven months in, the pediatrician recommended supplementing with formula + more solid foods because she was in the 5th percentile or something. THIS is what caused a lot of my worry and concern. Instead of just giving her formula, I agonized over it. I called lactation consultants, I took fenugreek, I doubled up on pumping sessions, I made extensive charts on how often she ate, and so on. What I wish now is that I had not stressed out about it. That I’d simply given her the formula.

    I know someone who breastfed for the few months of her maternity leave, but then switched to formula because after she went back to work, her supply went down. It was obvious by the casual way she talked about it that she hadn’t agonized over it one bit; she hadn’t tried to pump or do anything to prevent that dip in supply that is inevitable upon returning to work. I have to say that I admired this point of view. I know that if it were me, I’d have been doing all this heroic pumping and night nursing.

    So maybe THIS is what I’m getting at–we regard mothers who go to extraordinary lengths to nurse as heroic. In retrospect, I wish I’d just had a more relaxed attitude about the whole thing.

  9. p.s. Andrea–I just saw your comment! Our experiences and feelings sound very similar!

  10. Rebecca, I agree with Kristin’s comment that society failed you. If you truly had the proper support you wouldn’t have negative associations when you think about your breastfeeding experience. By proper support I also mean doctors who weren’t making you feel bad for having a small baby (my first was and still is in 5th percentile and was also breastfed for 13 months and eats a ton, she is just small). If you think about it, it is obviously “natural” for humans to breastfeed, we are mammals after all and lactation is one of the things that defines a mammal. It is clearly a learned skill for humans, though, so somewhere along the way our culture has gotten out of the habit of teaching it to each other in a normal, natural way as well as having a relaxed attitude about it, as you put it. Add in things like feeling uncomfortable nursing in public and you have a recipe for disaster for a lot of women.

  11. Jaime – you put that beautifully – thank you!

    I came back to post (again!) because I realize that my metaphor was incomplete and perhaps offensive in its unfinished state (I truly hope not though). The bike riding thing – I meant to say that you were left to figure out how to ride a bike on your own – maybe with a book or a few discussions – and when it didn’t go flawlessly you blamed yourself. And shouldn’t have.

    I love this blog. These issues are so important – SO CRITICAL – and so rarely discussed. Cheers to you and Joy.

  12. Don’t worry–I have not been offended by anything anyone has said here! This conversation is very interesting to me, especially now that I have quite a bit of distance from the topic. (My daughter is over 4.5 years old now and hasn’t breast fed since she was 13 months old.)

    Regarding not getting enough societal support for breastfeeding, you are making some points I hadn’t really considered. My doctor did tell me to supplement my daughter’s diet with formula when she was 7 months old. Was this making me feel bad for having a small baby–or (as I took it) offering serious medical advice? It seems pretty serious to defy doctor’s orders when the consequences could be “failure to thrive.” (Actually, I did defy her orders at first. I wrote about this in my post Fattening Baby, Naturally.) I worked on adding nutrition to my daughter’s solid foods and met with a pediatric nutritionist before I actually did break down and get some formula.

    As I said, when I look back at all this I do not applaud myself for being so dedicated to nursing that I was willing to go to all these measures to avoid formula. (Part of my fear was that adding formula would further reduce the nutrition she got from nursing.) I wish I hadn’t tied my breastfeeding success to my success as a parent overall.

    It is interesting to think of how differently this could have gone with a different pediatrician. . . . I did spend a lot of time questioning her advice and feeling bad every time my baby got weighed.

  13. Thank you so much for this post. My daughter was born a few weeks early and very small, with several congenital issues including a mild facial palsy. Because of all this, she had to stay in the NICU for 5 weeks after she was born and she was never able to breastfeed (like, physically, she couldn’t open her mouth wide enough to latch on). Although I pumped for a few months, I think as a result of her early NICU stay, and being exhausted from going back and forth to the hospital every day, I had serious production issues. I had a really hard time coming to terms with the idea of not being able to breastfeed or even provide her with enough expressed milk. Not only did I feel awful about giving my baby formula, but I also felt like I was missing out on this huge, important part of bonding with my baby. I got the “formula is poison” brainwashing and it made me feel seriously guilty about something I basically had no control over.

    I just want to say to any other moms who might be going through something similar, formula is NOT poison. Really I’m so grateful that we have easy access to it, because if we didn’t, my already tiny daughter wouldn’t have made it past about 6 weeks on the amount of breastmilk I was making. I’m sure breastfeeding can be wonderful and magical, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to do it with my second baby, but ultimately, even moms who can’t do it can bond with their babies, and provide them with the nutrition they need.

  14. This is a tough topic. I love breastfeeding, despite the bumps, and believe it is best for momma and baby, and want to sing its praises and convert the unconverted. . . but I’ve had several close friends who REALLY REALLY REALLY wanted to exclusively breastfeed and couldn’t produce enough, despite all their efforts. I think, for them, it was a big blow. I know it would be for me. And for those in that situation, I hate to hammer it over their heads, y’know? I also know, though, from Our Babies, Ourselves, that low production is UNHEARD OF in other parts of the world. So I’m not sure what to think of that. I wish breastfeeding and motherhood in general were well supported, that people used formula if they had to and we all understood that without judgment (non-ideal, but necessary). I was just reading someone’s experience of breastfeeding in Mongolia, where everyone breastfeeds and supports it — I wonder how breastfeeding problems are perceived/experienced there. I’m guessing that in some places, if you have low production, someone else helps out with nursing (sister, friend, etc.).

  15. Hm, Betsy. I have a vague memory of hearing the opposite: that breastfeeding problems do exist everywhere, and that before formula was invented, the babies who didn’t have access through breast milk died. (This was an article about a mom who was feeling so bad about not being able to breast feed. She asked her doctor or someone, “How would my baby have survived before formula was invented,” and the answer was, “He wouldn’t have.” That comment helped her because she realized that formula wasn’t poison, that it could save her baby’s life when breast feeding wasn’t an option.) I think you make a good point about babies getting breast milk from more than one source if the mother can’t provide all the nourishment. That’s something we don’t see here in the U.S. at all! (Though I guess there is such a thing as breast milk donation, it seems pretty taboo to nurse another mother’s child.)

    Back to my own personal neuroses (because it’s all about me–ha ha!), I know it annoyed me every time I would hear someone bragging about how fat their kid got off of breastfeeding. Even someone saying something like “Oh, my baby just loooooooves nursing! She’s ADDICTED to it” would bother me and make me feel bad about my own experience.

    It is a tricky subject, because on one hand, hearing positive nursing stories can be really encouraging for new moms, and it can normalize breast feeding for those who grew up hearing that it was somehow gross or unnatural. But I know for me, I began to really question those super-positive stories. It made me feel like everyone was just trying to brainwash me in some sort of grand breastfeeding conspiracy.

    I obviously have a lot of issues! Must go to therapy and work this all out. . . . Ha!

  16. Rebecca, the more I read your responses, the more I nod my head. I think our experiences have been very similar, although I’m still in the midst of it. In my case, my daughter was not only in a low percentile, she fell off her own growth curve (i.e., she was in the 7th percentile since birth, then fell off the chart at her six-month well-visit; she also dropped precipitously in length). My extremely pro-breastfeeding pediatrician had never suggested formula before, but rather had offered tips for me to fatten her up through breastfeeding (i.e., block feeding). So when she did suggest formula, I took her seriously.

    I am giving my daughter formula AND going to great lengths to continue nursing (i.e., pumping 4 times a day, taking fenugreek, etc., etc.). I can’t let it go. And I would also say that none of the societal “issues” really plague me. I don’t have a problem nursing in public (although I don’t do it very often), I was taught how to nurse with both of my children by lactation consultants, given tons of support at work and at home, with few exceptions most of my friends breastfeed, etc. My baby just needs formula, too, and I’m very thankful she can get it.

  17. It sounds like part of the problem with the “breast is best” message is that people are interpreting it as “breast is best and the only right way to feed your child.” The message needs to be “Breastfeeding is the best nutrition you can give your baby in whatever quantity you can, but formula is fine too.” Of course that’s not nearly as catchy!

    I am adopted and many friends from my generation were either adopted too or not breastfed for a variety of reasons (mostly that it wasn’t trendy among middle class moms in the 1960s and ’70s, I think), so we all grew up on formula, and you know what? We’re generally healthy, smart, capable adults who survived formula-feeding with no developmental delays or lingering psychological damage.

  18. Andrea, yes, it sounds like our situations are almost identical! I remember now that it wasn’t just that Audrey was in the 5th percentile, but that she dropped into the 3rd. The doctor hadn’t mentioned anything about supplementing until she dropped off her own growth curve. Sounds like the same thing happened to you! I really like how you stated this: “My baby just needs formula, too, and I’m very thankful she can get it.” It really is that simple. Back when I was enmeshed in this whole thing, my reaction was more like, “Oh nooooooo! What do I do? The doctor recommended formula, and if I give my daughter one drop, all of my efforts will be for naught! And she’ll probably quit nursing altogether, and I’ll be a failure!” I think we need to hear that there IS a middle ground sometimes.

    Larisa, you’re right that “Breast is best” can be interpreted as “breast is best and the only right way to feed your child.” But to be honest, once someone (like me) is sensitive about this topic, almost any pro-breastfeeding message could get twisted around to make me feel bad. Like someone could say, “I love breastfeeding,” and I’d get upset. (And I realize this is my own issue; I don’t expect everyone to censor their thoughts because I might be sensitive on this particular topic. It was a strange thing because I don’t think I am overly sensitive in general!)

  19. I am the mom of a 2.5 year old. We adopted him at birth and I formula fed him. We had no issues bonding and he is a big healthy little man now who has rarely been sick (even with colds). My hubby loved being involved, making a batch of formula for me every night before he went to bed so I’d have them the next day while he worked.

    Now, at age 38, being told I’d never be pregnant, am sitting here 23 weeks pregnant! I am so torn what to do because I feel so pressured by family, friends, doctors, even strangers about breastfeeding. I know its best but I also know that formula is more than fine too. My hubby wants to formula feed again and I kinda do too just because that’s all I know and have experience with. When people ask me what we are going to do, I just say “I don’t know yet” because I really don’t. But I even feel judged saying that, like they want me to say “yes, I am definitely breastfeeding”.

    Ultimately, it is my decision & my hubby’s. If we decide to formula feed, I don’t want people to judge me but I know they will because its already starting to happen. 🙁

    Great thread, I’m interested in reading everyone’s thoughts.

  20. Nancy,
    First of all, congratulations!

    I have been pondering how best to respond without adding more pressure to breastfeed. It’s tough because it’s almost like talking to someone who’s on the fence about having a child. Parenting is incredibly difficult–but it’s also so rewarding and connecting. That was my experience with breastfeeding but it isn’t everyone’s and it really does have to be a family choice that works for you and everyone.

    One thing I never knew going in is that in the early weeks, breastfeeding truly is harder. The latch can be tricky and often you may have sore nipples. Exhaustion compounds everything (but we did sleep with our babies until they were about four months old so that I never had to get out of bed to do night feedings.)

    After about the first month, breastfeeding becomes far easier than formula. (and over the first year it’s $1500 cheaper!) You’ll never have to mix up a bottle in the middle of the night or on the go. Forget having to run to the store to feed baby. And you can pump if you want to get away or just have your husband do one of the night feedings. (I did this while working full time with my second baby.)

    Did that sound like pressure? I hope not! It’s just that if you really want to do formula and you try breastfeeding early on, it’ll be really easy just to give up since that’s the most challenging period of time. If you can try to stick with it for at least a month, you might find that you really enjoy it–or not.

    I hope that if you do try breastfeeding you have friends and family who can talk you through it. People who haven’t breastfed wouldn’t have a sense of what the reward can be if you stick with it.

    Also, if you decide to formula feed, just remember that there are millions of intelligent, articulate, and full developed humans walking around who were fed formula as their first food. Your baby will be just fine either way!

  21. Nancy, congratulations! I know what you mean–people ask if you’re going to breast feed as if they expect you to enthusiastically answer, “YES!” In my case, I did answer yes, and I felt like I got a real pat on the back from society from it. That’s the part of the pressure from the world I live in (which I know is not representative of U.S. society as a whole). Just this “good job” vibe if you breast feed and a “formula is poison” vibe if you don’t.

    So Joy, I wouldn’t have taken anything you said in your comment as pressure, necessarily. It’s just that it’s really the only message I heard: “Breast feeding can be hard at first, but it’s so worth it, and it’s actually easier than formula, and you’ll save money!”

    I really haven’t read one so-called “green” mom say something like, “I didn’t even try breastfeeding. With my work schedule, organic formula was worth the price so that I didn’t have to spend an hour every day at work pumping. Also, it was great that I could split feeding duties 50-50 with my partner. And I knew exactly how much formula my baby was drinking and therefore could keep great track of his progress. I LOVE FORMULA, and it was a great choice for me!”

    I think it would be refreshing to hear that. It’s just not presented as a socially respectable choice for an educated, eco-minded woman.

    I guess that’s why I (as a breastfeeding mother!) sort of took a different tack with our book and this green parenting website–I just tried to be Switzerland on the whole topic!

  22. I know! It’s so hard when “encouragement” turns into pressure. The interesting thing is that only 30 percent of American women make it to the six month mark with breastfeeding, which makes me think that somewhere along the way they didn’t get what they needed. I think at least a slice of the women who weren’t able to breastfeed beyond the first few months, probably wanted to but felt they couldn’t.

    Also, pressure goes both ways. There are certainly family and friends in some communities who feel like breastfeeding is a huge waste of time and effort. We have had several readers who had to struggle to breastfeed just because there was so much opposition among their social circles.

    Still, I agree that the medical field and many well-meaning friends come down the side of breastfeeding pressure–and I may be one of those people! I would never look down on a woman who chose to use formula from the beginning, but I would feel like she was missing out on something that could have been really fun. (Again, I think it comes back to the analogy of childless couples wondering if they should have kids. It’s hard to share how hard and wonderful parenting is–and not to foist it upon others.) I hope I haven’t foisted breastfeeding upon you once again!

  23. Yes, and it’s hard, too, because breastfeeding moms NEED that encouragement, or else they might quit. Especially if they’re in those circles who frown upon breastfeeding, as you mention. I guess that’s why a lot of pro-breastfeeders go overboard with the cheerleading–to balance out the negative messages people may have heard.

    It’s interesting that you said that you would never look down at someone who went with formula from the beginning, but that you’d feel sad because they may be missing out. What if someone said they felt sorry for you because you insisted on breastfeeding–because you were missing out on having a 50/50 feeding split with your partner? Or because you added so much stress to your life by spending lunch hours at work pumping? It seems like, couched in all this “encouragement,” is this superior attitude about breast feeding.

    I was also thinking that it would be rare to see a “formula is best!” message coming from a green site because, well, it’s obviously not the greenest option! But it would be interesting to see more viewpoints out there.

  24. I hope it’s not a superior attitude, but objectively speaking, The American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend breastfeeding baby for the first six months–both for the health of the mother and the child. So if we were to list the pros of breastfeeding, there would be dozens of reasons including lower cost, eco-friendliness, lower rate of hospitalization for babies, lower risk of disease for mothers, and many, many more.

    When you’re talking about the pros of formula feeding, there is reduced stress on the mother, (and her breasts) and the value of shared feeding.

    I guess although I’m not trying to coerce people, I hesitate to say they’re equal–because they’re not. Does that mean you should never, ever use formula? Of course not, but it also doesn’t mean that they are totally interchangeable options.

  25. Very good points. Because there ARE so many good reasons to breastfeed, and because there is so much research that says it’s healthier for mother and child, it would be very difficult to argue otherwise. It’s really not analogous to many other acts of parenthood. Most other things can be chalked down to a family quirk or preference. The whole breastfeeding issue is more complicated, since it is tied up with the health of the baby and mother, the economics of the household, and even the I.Q. of the baby!

    Anyway, maybe THAT had something to do with my negative feelings–when it doesn’t work out perfectly, so much seems to be at stake! It can make you feel awful (and conversely, if you are able to nourish nice fat babies with breast milk alone, it can make you feel heroic).

  26. Yes–but I do agree that breastfeeding should never, ever make anyone feel superior. In general, feeling that we’re better than others in our endlessly humbling parenting pursuits is a waste of time–and bad karma. As we say in our book, it should always be “progress, not perfection” and never, ever judgement!

  27. I think it’s just one of those things people can get really sensitive about. It’s not that happy nursing moms act or feel superior. It reminds me of the “smug marrieds” that (the fictional character) Bridget Jones talks about. Bridget is unhappily single and viewing everything through that lens. Some of her married friends probably ARE smug or superior about it–but most are simply oblivious to her sensitivity. They may say something like “My husband works in sales” or “We really liked that movie,” and Bridget would be thinking, “Why are they always rubbing their happy married lives in my face?!”

    It’s the same with the whole breastfeeding thing!

  28. Thanks Ladies! I’ve enjoyed reading the discussion. Honestly, I did not feel pressured by anything that I read nor am I a step closer to our decision.

    I know my situation is unique. I will say what an awesome experience it was for my hubby to be the very first one to EVER feed our son. He was born via c-section. I was in the delivery room alone with the birth mom and was the very first one to hold him (besides the medical professionals). He was taken to the nursery soon after and the hospital gave us his first bottle (we had previously told them we were doing organic formula which they had on hand). I gave the bottle to my husband since I got witness our son’s birth. He was the first to feed him and I will never forget how special that was to him.

    When I read one of the earlier posts when you said “I didn’t even try breastfeeding. With my work schedule, organic formula was worth the price so that I didn’t have to spend an hour every day at work pumping. Also, it was great that I could split feeding duties 50-50 with my partner. And I knew exactly how much formula my baby was drinking and therefore could keep great track of his progress. I LOVE FORMULA, and it was a great choice for me!” … that sounded so familiar to me!!! Though I wasn’t working and I didn’t breastfeed.

    But… it was nice to know exactly how much Noah was eating. I had so much other stuff to worry about (mainly if the birth mom would change her mind because she had 3months to so). It was nice to know my son was getting enough to eat and I could just sit & enjoy feeding him.

    Formula feeding didn’t seem inconvenient to us because that’s all we know. We even went camping 6 times that summer when my hubby was off (he’s a teacher). So we took our own water, formula, bottles, etc. We had to take alot of other baby gear camping (or any other travel) so it was just normal to take feeding stuff.

    I have a feeling, knowing us, I may end up deciding last minute in the hospital. What scares me though is that I’ve had friends who have had trouble breastfeeding with one of their kids but not other kids. They felt terrible and had a lot of self doubt when it didn’t work with one of the kids, especially if they had success first time around.

    Ok, I’m rambling and I gotta go get my son up. Thanks again ladies for the great discussion!

  29. This is such a great conversation. I’m bookmarking it so I can send it to friends in the future when they are thinking about feeding options. Thanks guys!

  30. I also appreciate the honest and informative discussion here. I love the back and forth between Rebecca and Joy! I hope what I comment here won’t offend. Rebecca, I don’t know of any green moms cheerleading formula (usually homemade is greener after all), but I think Hannah Rosin made the argument pretty well from the point of view of the well-education middle-class woman in the Atlantic:

    I don’t agree with much of what she says — I actually liked the video (on the same page) better b/c it shows when the emphasis on breastfeeding really goes overboard and is misplaced and counterproductive to the well-being of mom and baby.

    I would be happy to email you the passage from Our Babies Ourselves about insufficient milk if you are interested. The author Meredith Small (anthropologist) does note that there are women for whom there is a physical cause for low production, it’s just very small. I think it’s worth examining why this issue crops up in western cultures and not others. I would also be interested to know if your doctor’s statement (before formula, babies died from insufficient milk) is his/her own supposition, or based on something more substantial. There are other baby-related issues, like colic, that also don’t seem to be present in other cultures. (And I’ve known people with very colicky babies! This is not a judgment on parenting skills, it is a statement about our modern society and the burdens it imposes on infants).

    That being said, people have always fed their babies other stuff besides breast milk, and the babies survived. My husband was fed sugar water in South America when the family was particularly poor (his mother didn’t breastfeed at all and still associates it with the indigenous peoples who are looked down upon). She also told me she gave her kids’ cow’s milk early on. And we all give our kids foods (chips, cookies, crackers) that are non-ideal, and feel OK about it.

    I do think for all the pro-breastfeeding talk, as a society we still don’t support parents enough for breastfeeding to be a viable and enjoyable option for many women. And that just leaves many feeling conflicted and guilty.

    I love nursing, but try not to rub others’ faces in it. Just as I try to be sensitive around folks who haven’t been able to have children when talking about my own kids. If I had been unable to breastfeed or had had to abruptly stop breastfeeding (medical reason, etc.), I would definitely struggle not to feel sad when someone breastfed or talked about breastfeeding in front of me. At the same time, I want it to be normalized! Thus, the conflict.

  31. Exactly, Betsy. That is the conflict: normalizing it, encouraging it, yet somehow managing to be supportive of everyone’s feeding choices.

    The doctor who made the comment about babies who couldn’t breastfeed dying before the invention of formula was not MY doctor. I just read that in an article someplace–and it was seriously 12-20 years ago at least that I read that. It stuck with me. (Why I was reading breastfeeding articles as a teenager, I cannot say.)

    Now that I reflect on that statement, I can see that it doesn’t make sense. Your husband (and the kids in Angela’s Ashes) were fed sugar water. (Oh–I guess quite a few of the kids in that book didn’t make it. Scratch that as an example of thriving without formula.) My grandma told me she fed my mom formula for two months and then weaned to cow’s milk!

    I am also interested in how things work in other cultures. Allergies are another thing that are almost unheard of in other nations. Babies suffering from malnutrition in Africa are given “Plumpy Nut,” a mixture of peanut butter, sugar, and dried milk. THREE ingredients we’re told not to feed babies here in the U.S. I’d be interested in reading that article you mention–email it to me! (Or write about it on Eco-Novice and we’ll link to it!)

    I did read that Atlantic article when it came out, and I DID agree with a lot of it, particularly the pressure women put on themselves to pump at work. (Pressure I felt myself, and I didn’t even work full time.)

  32. What a great topic! In my limited exp. I found that the support far out weighed the “pressure” in the beginning. I made it known that I planned to breastfeed and that just kind of removed any pressure one way or the other. Maybe people who have not yet decided would feel that pressure more. I think my trouble came when my supply started to dwindle. When you mix well-meaning friends and family with feelings of inadequacy it can become quite toxic after a while. I think when I reached that place of I have tried everything, I’M DONE, I needed affirmation more than other things to try. We so closely tie our feelings of success or failure as a mother to our ideal .(ie nursing) When something doesn’t work the way we think it should, we become our worst critics.
    Being a new mom is hard anyway! I would say affirmation and respecting individual choices is the way to go in this arena.
    p.s. Joy you are the most non-pressure person i know!

  33. It’s a book, not an article. The section on “Insufficient Milk” is 4 pages long. I should do a book review about Our Babies, Ourselves because I love it so much. I’ll email you a link if I ever get around to it. Here are a few quotes:
    “Before bottle-feeding came into vogue, women rarely, if ever, reported a lack of milk. But when breast-feeding went out of fashion in the 1950s, this new syndrome appeared. The real cause of insufficient-milk syndrome appears to be a confluence of social changes. . .
    “[T]here is no such thing as “insufficient milk.” Demographic studies that compare breast-feeding across cultures and within populations attest to this. Even nutritionally deprived women, unless they are nursing during a major famine, have plenty of milk, and the composition of their milk is the same as that of better-nourished women. Oddly enough, the greatest number of women who say they cannot produce enough milk are highly nourished, well-fed Western women. Lack of milk is, in fact, an urban phenomenon — women in rural areas rarely if ever report that they have stopped breast-feeding because of lack of milk.”

    She does also write that in “only about 5 percent of the cases [of insufficient milk syndrome] is there something making it physically impossible for a woman to breastfeed.”

    –Meredith F. Small, Our Babies, Ourselves

    She mentions separation of work and home, interval/scheduled feeding, separation of babies and moms in hospital, feeding newborns sugar water, lack of multigenerational female support, stress and anxiety of urban life, and other factors as possible causes.

    Now that I’ve written all that, maybe I won’t need to post myself about it.

  34. Betsy,
    I think you’ve utterly nailed it. We have both a tremendous pressure to breastfeed and series of huge obstacles since many of us head back to work a few months after giving birth. I’m sure women in many developing countries would find it amusing and bizarre that we hook ourselves up to strange contraptions to pump milk. I hated pumping myself and did struggle with milk supply. Other women I know have had milk supply issues that were also wrapped up in exhaustion and stress.

  35. Yes, she mentions a woman exec having to go on an overnight business trip, taking her breast pump with her through airport security, so she could keep her milk supply up.

    She writes “Western culture has distinctly separated woman as the worker from woman as the mother. The workplace at times, is conducted in such a way that it seems to deny that we are mammals.”

  36. Thanks for transcribing all that, Betsy! That is indeed really fascinating information.

    However, I’ve been thinking about this since last night: How does this information affect me as an “urban woman” who was told by her pediatrician to supplement with formula? After all, if I lived in a tribal culture or something, I wouldn’t have known I had any sort of breastfeeding issue. No one would have been weighing my baby and tracking her progress or lack of progress. But I assume my Western doctor was basing her recommendation on science and statistics. Statistically, babies that weigh less than a certain amount by a certain age fare better than those who weigh more. Babies who fall off their own growth curve have more health problems than those who continue to grow steadily.

    Knowing that, in other cultures, this would never come up doesn’t do much to help the modern woman. If anything, this idea just serves to make me feel inadequate for failing at something that’s supposed to be so natural. (And I didn’t have any of the possible causes cited by Small, except for the fact that I did go to work 2x a week. I also pumped every evening in an attempt to increase my supply.)

    But . . . maybe it goes back to the earlier suggestion that my pediatrician wasn’t supportive enough of my feeding choices. Or perhaps I should have just said, “Forget it, this is the natural way to feed my child, and I refuse to offer formula even though my doctor told me to do it for my baby’s health.” That would have been tough, considering the possible consequences. Best case scenario, my baby does fine even though she has a low weight and is falling off her own growth curve. But worst case scenario is “failure to thrive.”

    After consulting a pediatric nutritionist, talking to lactation consultants, taking fenugreek and other supplements, adding nightly pumping to the routine, fattening up her baby food, etc., and still not seeing a weight gain, I am not sure what else there was to do.

    ETA: cross-posted with Betsy!

  37. Rebecca, I hear what you are saying. I don’t give that quote to everyone b/c I do realize how it could make a low-milk-supply momma feel. But you have to consider, how could the species have survived if so many women truly have insufficient milk? I think there are other possible reasons for low supply besides the ones Small listed. I think chemicals and environmental pollution might be an additional culprit, but I have no evidence for that. Maybe age when we have children. Maybe sedentary work or work stress during pregnancy. Maybe no longer bed sharing. Several people who told me they had insufficient milk also had babies who slept through the night very early on — in my lactation class we learned that the lactation hormone is highest at night and that night-nursing highly affects production. My pediatrician told me that some women’s production becomes insufficient once the baby night weans/ stops night-nursing.

    There are so many changes in the last 100 years for women and infants, it’s hard to isolate what might matter. If you saw the movie Babies, you know how very different our western lives are from, say, the Namibian family, beginning with the fact that they are always outside and seem to have very little stuff! Given how psychosomatic breastfeeding is, I think stress, isolation from family, and less time in contact with baby and all kinds of things may influence milk production.

    So many factors that could affect breastfeeding are outside an individual’s control, and because of that, I think we should be careful not to make people feel guilty about their situation or choices. But since breastfeeding is better, I wish that we better understood the problem. We’ve ignored biology and nature for so long now, I’m not sure we’ll ever figure it out. Having enjoyed breastfeeding a lot myself, I wish it were a given that every woman could enjoy breastfeeding if she wanted to.

    One more quote, which I hope will make Rebecca feel better, not worse.
    “The point is that every since humans could construct feeding vessels out of clay or gourds, ever since milk-secreting animals were domesticated and available for milking, mothers have sought ways to stop or supplement breast-feeding.”

    Supplementing has pretty much always been done (I mean, we all start solid foods eventually, right? and my mom started solid foods with us at 2 weeks, which is what doctors used to say you HAD to do), and could definitely be considered “natural,” but almost always in addition to breastfeeding, not instead of breastfeeding (until breastfeeding dropped out of favor).

    I feel like I’ve maybe exceeded my word count for comments on this post.

  38. Betsy, I am enjoying all your comments!

    You said, “But you have to consider, how could the species have survived if so many women truly have insufficient milk?” I don’t think anyone has said that a large percentage of women have this problem. I’m pretty sure MY situation wasn’t life or death. As I pointed out earlier, if I lived in one of these other cultures, I simply wouldn’t have known there WAS a problem. (Because for all I knew, she was healthy and growing.) And maybe everything would have been just fine–who knows?

    It also seems like breastfeeding isn’t completely necessary for the survival of the species, as your own examples show. (Solid food at two weeks! Sugar water!)

    I did see the movie Babies, and what REALLY struck me about the Namibian mother and child is that there were no men in the village at all–she seemed to be raising her child along with the other mothers. (They even nursed each other’s kids).

    Lack of night nursing is definitely a huge factor! My daughter started sleeping in larger chunks at about four months, and I did see my supply dip then. However, there is no way that I would trade increased milk production for less sleep. I was almost insane with sleep deprivation during the first three months of my daughter’s life. I can chalk some of this up to my Western perspective. If we have business to attend to during the day (such as work), nighttime sleep becomes more important than if we lived in a village with other mothers who could help out with the burden 24 hours a day.

    So I guess I am realizing that while I was willing to go through a lot to avoid formula (the fenugreek, the pumping, blah blah blah), I did have my limits, and I need to acknowledge that and accept that rather than beat myself up about it.

  39. Interestingly, exhaustion is one of the factors that can lead to low milk supply, even though feeding baby every few hours theoretically increases production.

    My sister-in-law also struggled with a sudden drop in supply even though she was home full time with her baby. The more she worried, the less milk she could make, until it just became unbearable and she went to formula. Still, she was able to exclusively breastfeed her baby for six months and felt good about that accomplishment.

    When my milk supply dropped with my first son, I was utterly frantic and suffered as though the fate of the world rested with my ability to lactate. I took fenugreek, slept, and pumped and was able to pull out–but I felt desperate the whole time.

    When the same thing happened with my second, it wasn’t nearly such a big deal because I knew we would be fine. The lack of psychological stress made the transition infinitely easier and my milk supply bumped right back up.

    I suspect that women in breastfeeding cultures have less far less angst over supply issues and the choosing whether or not to breastfeed because it’s such a part of their cultures. It’s like choosing to wear underwear each day. Will you? Won’t you? What if you put in on backwards or forget? None of us feel this pressure! (I know this is an imperfect comparison, but you get the idea).

    So, if we lived in Nambia, Rebecca, you would just let your cousin breastfeed your baby for a day or two while you napped and recuperated, and then you’d be back on the job. (Weird here in America, I know, but totally acceptable and comforting in other places.)

    Also, in other parts of the world I don’t think you’d be shamed for not being able to provide all of baby’s milk. Plus, no regular weighings with descriptions of baby’s percentages and place on the growth curve. What a relief!

    I saw the Babies documentary too and was convinced that new mothers should get to move to Nambia for their first year on the job. (Did you also notice that Nambian mothers were never, ever cooking, grocery shopping, or doing laundry? I wonder if these services are provided by other mothers in the community who remember the intensity of those early months!)

    In short, feel no guilt! And, next time consider moving to

  40. I think it’s interesting that we’re looking at the Namibian moms in Babies for a positive example of the breastfeeding relationship. Joy, you said if I lived in that culture, I probably wouldn’t feel the pressure to breastfeed because it would be such a part of the culture. (And that’s what a lot of the comments upthread said as well.) As we observed, they nurse each other’s kids, so they aren’t examples of moms who provide 100% of the their babies’ nourishment from nursing. They were, in their own way, “supplementing” their nursing sessions with breast milk from other mothers.

    I personally was not wishing I had spent my first year of motherhood like the Namibian women in the film; in fact, I felt lucky that I had a husband around to help out. It wasn’t explained where the men in the village were, but they were noticeably absent.

    I feel like we’re idealizing the women in the movie. Though it’s fascinating to watch how motherhood affects them, it’s difficult to relate it to our lives here. And though our society has moved away from this more organic / natural approach to child-rearing, I don’t know if the goal should be for us to try to emulate another culture’s system.

    It’s important that women in our culture have the right to participate in the workforce and don’t need to rely on men for food and shelter. (I mean, in general, for the society as a whole. Of course there are many women who choose to take time off from the workforce to care for their children.) That means that many women will take part in the workforce during those early years–and that there will be some “unnatural” consequences to that. Nursing all night long and pumping during the day will affect both our breastfeeding ability AND our productivity at work.

  41. Rebecca, I agree with much of what you say, but I wish that babies were more welcome in the workforce– this is what I would see as a real accomplishment for parents in general, but particularly women. For example, in Small’s book she says, what if the women exec who had to take her pump on a business trip to keep her milk supply up, instead could have just brought her baby ON the trip and worn him in a sling during the board meeting? Can you imagine? That’s the kind of work-life balance I’m looking for. Sadly, desk work, which seems like 90% of the jobs these days, is not super conducive to babies (not mine anyway), so I’m not sure it’s even possible. I’ve had friends who had great work situations and could bring the baby and put her in a pack-n-play INSIDE their office for the first 6-7 months. That wouldn’t have worked for my high-energy babies, but it would work for some babies, but how many employers would allow it?

    For all the work-life balance rhetoric that got thrown around a decade ago, I think we have gotten no closer to it. My friends from college who work, male and female, work insane hours (doctors, lawyers, business professionals) in order to advance in their fields. My SAHM-friends, their husbands’ often take only 1-week paternity leave — even if more is legally allowed, they can’t afford it financially or career-wise (meaning that it it would be a career killer). I think that’s really lame. Of course, you don’t have to be at the top of your field to hold a job, but the expectations in our society are clear, and, let me tell you, I despise them.

    I don’t want to speculate too much on where the Namibian men are (or the Mongolian men). I mean, they could have been edited out, and I did hear her talking to a man a few times (at least I thought so). You might be interested to read this interview with the parents of the kids in the movie: I really wish that the movie had had more commentary/anthropological perspective — at least in the extras! I agree that having men more involved in child-rearing is a big plus. I think male involvement has really varied across times and cultures. Although it’s best not to idealize certainly, I love peeks into how other cultures’ raise children, because I am so dissatisfied with the norm in this country and need other models that work better for me.

    I agree with Joy’s comments above. It’s so true that stress and angst about breastfeeding are counterproductive to breastfeeding! Another reason we should not pressure moms too much. On the other hand, if breastfeeding WERE the norm, I think women would stress less and have more confidence in themselves. How to encourage breastfeeding without making others feel guilty about different feeding choices — that’s the million-dollar question.

  42. Betsy, I agree that our work/life balance still needs a lot of tweaking. It sounds like Small has the same ideology as Dr. Sears, who also suggests wearing the baby in a sling to work. I read the Baby Book while pregnant and thought it sounded nice. However, now that I’ve had a baby, I can’t imagine this working for most job situations.

    I went back to work very early–when my daughter was 2 weeks old. This wasn’t so bad because I have a very light teaching schedule, so at the time I just needed to be gone for about six hours a week. We thought it would make sense for my husband to come home and take care of the baby during this time. Meanwhile, he’d still be on the clock, so he’d do his work from home. Did this work? Not at all. It was impossible for him to get anything done. He wasn’t even in an office or around co-workers who might be bothered by a screaming baby, and it was just SIX HOURS A WEEK, and it was a disaster.

    It was such a relief to finally get paid care for our daughter once she was 8 months old. It was at that point that we started liking parenthood a bit more. I know this must sound shocking for people who embrace their new roles right from the start. I have heard a lot of parents talk about how fun those early baby days are and how they go by so quickly, so to love every second. Well, the first year of babyhood was probably the longest year of our lives.

    Now I feel like I’m more on the topic of that Erica Jong essay I wrote about last week. She really seemed mystified that women would “imprison” themselves by wearing their babies, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, etc. I don’t think women who do those things or want to do those things are oppressed–I truly believe that most self-described attachment parents enjoy that lifestyle and find it’s the best way to raise their kids. (Just as I truly enjoyed using cloth diapers and making my own baby food–two other actions Jong finds stifling.)

    Okay, that was somewhat of a digression. Back on topic: The Million Dollar Question you mention above–how to encourage breastfeeding without making others feel guilty about other choices. Well, that is tough. Unfortunately it’s hard to be moderate about breastfeeding. You kind of have to go for it and keep with it to make it work. That was part of my angst about introducing formula at 7 months–wouldn’t that make my supply even worse? What if she developed a preference for the bottle? Etc. I think if you are just casual about it, then go about your life–possibly going back to work and sending formula to daycare–then you’ll probably just end up weaning the baby.

    Well, this comment is getting long and rambly enough, so I will sign off–for now!

  43. Yes, Rebecca, I think that’s the quandary. In our culture, if you supplement, it often means the end of breastfeeding. So when women are convinced in the first few weeks that they have insufficient milk, they supplement with formula and you have a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I don’t have a good answer. I do know that when my friends who felt like they had low supply just accepted it and moved on, they were definitely much happier mothers. Now I’m going to go comment about that Erica Jong article, which I find quite amusing.

  44. Here’s an apt quote from Ms. Jong:

    “Is it even possible to satisfy the needs of both parents and children? In agrarian societies, perhaps wearing your baby was the norm, but today’s corporate culture scarcely makes room for breast-feeding on the job, let alone baby-wearing. So it seems we have devised a new torture for mothers—a set of expectations that makes them feel inadequate no matter how passionately they attend to their children.”

    She thinks we should change parenting. I think we should change corporate culture.

  45. Reading the Jong article, it definitely seems that Jong (like Betty Friedan) valued the corporate working mother, complete with bottle-fed babes in daycare over the stay-at-home one. So her ideal world is a place where women are free to pursue their career ambitions and have a child on the side. The whole notion of attachment parenting throws her for a real loop; it feels like it’s working against this goal of hers.

    What she doesn’t get is that most of these attachment parents have a completely different idyll. And that most women in general don’t have the privilege of either lifestyle.

    I am pretty much in the middle. While the AP lifestyle of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and baby wearing does not necessarily appeal to me, neither does the corporate lifestyle of nannies and business meetings.

    Back to our breastfeeding topic: All this discussion has really helped me sort out where my feelings surrounding nursing come from. Now that I have it all sorted out, I should have a second baby and put my newly found awareness to the test!

  46. Betsy–you said, “She thinks we should change parenting. I think we should change corporate culture.” I think this is a brilliant idea for a post over on Eco-novice!

  47. Rebecca, someday. . . maybe.

    I’m back b/c these two stories reminded me of this discussion:

    Bottle Or Breast: Which Is Best?

    Moms Who Can’t Nurse Find Milk Donors Online

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