Bottle feeding shame

Until recently I wouldn’t have been brave enough to share this photo. I hated the thought of being judged because I was bottle feeding. Looking back, I know that most of it was driven from my own paranoia and my own insecurities. But if you’ve ever wanted to breastfeed and not been able to then I’m sure you will know that it can be a bitter pill to swallow.

bottle feeding

I never knew my desire to breastfeed until it didn’t work out for me. I’ve talked in detail about my journey before (see post here if you’re interested) but essentially I had a very hungry baby and for whatever reason I just couldn’t seem to satisfy him with my own milk. And it was seriously taking its toll on my mental health. Despite some unhelpful comments from a few health professionals (and a few fellow mummies in fact), I had an incredibly supportive family around me, including my husband who ultimately made the decision I was too afraid to make. We started to introduce formula (at around 4 weeks) and we combination fed until Archie was about 3 months old, at which point he decided he’d rather just have formula.

So that’s how our bottle feeding journey began. And almost 9 months later, as much as I still feel a sadness that breastfeeding didn’t work out, I know that we 100% made the right decision for us. Archie was a much happier baby, so much more content, and has thrived ever since.

But for a long time I remember feeling ashamed that I was bottle feeding. I dreaded people asking the question as to how I was feeding. My answer always involved a detailed explanation as to why breastfeeding didn’t work out as if to justify my choice. But it never felt like a good enough reason.

If I went out on my own, I remember timing my outings so we were never out of the house for more than 2 hours (which is how often Archie needed feeding) just to avoid having to feed him in public. I would carefully place the bottle I took (for emergencies) at the bottom of my bag so that if I opened it no one would see and hopefully no one would know.

I was nervous about seeing friends that I hadn’t seen in a while because I didn’t want them to judge me. I didn’t want them to assume I’d taken an “easy route”, especially because they hadn’t seen the impact the whole experience had on me.

And what’s crazy is that apart from a handful of people, most had never judged my decision. It was mostly self-inflicted driven from my own paranoia and the feeling that I was a failure.

Of course, the constant endorsement of breastfeeding doesn’t help. I completely understand the need to promote it but sometimes it feels it’s at the detriment of the mothers who can’t or choose not to. Yes encourage those who can and who want to but there doesn’t need to be a counter effect to that. And often the praise handed out to mums that breastfeed can feel like a critique to those who can’t (or don’t want to). It would be great if there was equal support for both. The fact that the NCT can’t cover it as part of its antenatal course says it all.

So for any bottle feeding mums out there that are struggling with this too, I want you to know that bottle feeding doesn’t define your ability to be a good mummy. You never need to explain yourself or worry about your explanation being good enough. As long as your baby is happy and thriving that’s all that matters. Well actually that’s not entirely true, YOU matter too. Your happiness is just as important. So don’t waste time feeling bad/ ashamed/ any other negative feeling. As long as you are making the best decision for you and your family then ultimately you are doing exactly the right thing and should be proud of that. And I, for one, think you’re doing a great job.

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Why “breast is best” didn’t work for us

Whilst pregnant with Archie I knew I wanted to breastfeed but I was quite adamant that I wouldn’t put pressure on myself in case it didn’t work out. Fast forward to 2 weeks after his birth and I felt like I had no other choice.

feeding bottle shallow focus photography
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Breastfeeding a very hungry baby

Following Archie’s birth we stayed in the hospital for 24 hours and during that time I was given an amazing amount of breastfeeding support. I left feeling fairly confident that we had the latch right and that breastfeeding would actually work out for us. I remember feeling relieved as I know there is a lot of research to say that “breast is best” and, like every mum, I wanted the best for my baby.

Unfortunately I was completely naive to the fact that it’s not just about getting the latch right.

A few weeks into exclusively breastfeeding, “cluster feeding” was becoming a daily occurrence. Every night Archie would feed continuously from around 2pm to around 1-2am. In fact my hungry little monkey would scream the house down unless he was attached to my boob or asleep! This was “fine” (I use the word loosely!) until my husband went back to work and did his usual 14 hours a day, meaning he got home and I’d barely had a drink or anything to eat, having been “chained” to the sofa all day.

I found the crying extremely hard to deal with.  I felt like it was a reflection on me. Like he was constantly angry at me because I couldn’t satisfy him. Like I just wasn’t good enough.

Although it was only a few weeks, it felt like a lifetime and I feared this was my new life now. Add in (what felt like) a million hormones and a body which was recovering from an intensive labour and I’ve never been more of an anxious wreck.

But despite all of this, I was convinced I didn’t have a choice. Scared I would be a failure. Not as good as the other breastfeeding mums.

This blurred vision wasn’t helped by several health professionals who urged me to keep going, using phrases like “if you formula feed your baby it’s like giving them McDonalds”, “give your baby a roast dinner, not a Big Mac” (yes this was said by different people not just one).

The road to combination feeding

Luckily for me, I had a family who could see the impact this was having on me. The shell of my former self I had become. And not only that, but the unhappy baby I was trying (unsuccessfully) to satisfy. About 4 weeks in, my husband couldn’t take it anymore – he went into the kitchen, made up a bottle of formula – and ultimately made the decision that I couldn’t bring myself to make.

The transition to combination feeding wasn’t a smooth one. Archie’s tummy struggled with the different consistency of formula and experienced horrific wind and reflux. It was excruciating watching my baby in pain and the guilt I felt “because it was my fault” was unbearable.

A couple of weeks in though and we finally got into the swing of things. That’s when I realised the impact the experience had on my bond with Archie. I was finally starting to “like” my baby which I know sounds so awful but it was hard to like someone who just screamed at you for the majority of the day.  And the change in him was profound – he was so much more content and didn’t spend every minute of his day feeding or screaming for food. Don’t get me wrong he still fed a lot and I spent most of my time breastfeeding or preparing bottles but he was definitely happier and it felt more manageable.

The end of breastfeeding

About 10 weeks in I still had a very hungry baby and I was quickly losing faith in my milk so I was topping up more and more with formula. Shortly after, Archie refused to breastfeed and it was a difficult pill to swallow but it was clear what he was telling me. Initially I felt some resentment. Why didn’t my baby want my milk anymore? Why did he not want that comfort from me at least?

But ironically as we moved to formula feeding I felt the bond between us grow and grow. It no longer felt like a battle – him telling me he was hungry and me not being able to satisfy. I could see his personality developing and it was then I realised that there are so many more ways in which I can provide for and comfort him beyond that of feeding.

The right to choose

I’d be lying if I told you it was a perfectly happy ending and I was at peace with our feeding journey. I look back and I’m disappointed that I wasn’t further supported by the health professionals. I was told that if I moved to formula then my baby might prefer it and refuse my milk which horrified me at the time. But as my mum rightly highlighted, so what if he does, doesn’t that just mean you’ve made the right choice?

And that’s just it isn’t it? We live in a day and age where we’re lucky enough to have a choice. Why isn’t it acceptable for you to choose what’s right for you and your baby? Instead I experienced so much guilt and felt like a failure. Something which, even with the perspective I have now, I still find lingers. Because ultimately does it matter how you fed your baby as long as they’re happy and thriving? And as long as you’re happy and coping?

Personally I think not. As mums we’re the ones that know what’s best for ourselves and our babies. Sometimes we just need some encouragement to embrace that during a time when everything else feels out of our control.