I know the story all too well — before your baby was born, you planned on breastfeeding. In fact, you hadn't really given it much more thought than that. It was the natural thing to do, and you believed it was best for your baby. You then enter my or another doctor's office, with a gorgeous 1-week-old baby, in tears because it just isn't working. You feel like a bad mother. A failure. You expect me, as a doctor, to bombard you with the health benefits of breastfeeding and how you are making the wrong decision to switch to formula. Instead, I give you a tissue, a smile and tell you this: I support your decision, whatever you choose. Here's why.
There are so many medical, social and situational reasons a woman can't breastfeed. From breast cancer to poor milk supply to a difficulty with latch to early return to work, breastfeeding is not always the easiest or even best solution. In cases such as breast cancer, oftentimes not only is it recommended that a mom formula feed, but it can be extremely dangerous for both mom and baby to breastfeed, depending on the type of cancer and the medication the mom is on.
But most of the time it's not that straightforward. Most of the time the problem isn't an official deal breaker — at least not right away. This can make it an even harder pill for a mom to swallow because of the guilt associated with "giving up." What if I tried harder? What if I pumped more often? Or supplemented less? What if I'm doing something wrong? Isn't breastfeeding supposed to be natural? Why is this so hard? Am I a bad mother? But it's not that simple. And you are a good mother because you care and want the best for your baby. That's what matters. I was lucky enough to breastfeed my daughter for 11 months because I didn't have any breastfeeding issues. Even then, I wanted to give up sometimes because it was hard, both emotionally and physically. I can't imagine if I were dealing with another issue like a poor milk supply or difficulty getting baby to latch.
If you're still coping and your baby is not suffering, then as a physician I will do what I can to help you continue breastfeeding. From information on lactation consultants, to supplements and medication to bring your milk in, to tips and advice — whatever you need. But if you're looking for my blessing to switch to formula, you already have it. I know you haven't taken this decision lightly. I know it's important to you.
So when is it time to "give up," you may ask? It's time to switch to formula when it's occupying your thoughts, your schedule and overwhelming your emotions. If you're crying every day because you've tried everything, your baby is losing weight and your milk still isn't coming in, consider formula. If you're going back to work in a couple of weeks and trying to pump but all you can produce with the pump is a couple of drops at a time and you're feeling overwhelmed and teary, consider formula. If your baby won't latch properly, your nipples are raw and bleeding and you cry at the thought of trying again, consider formula. If it's just too hard, consider formula.
Keep this in mind: It is better for you to be happy and formula feeding so that you can properly care for your infant than to be sad and breastfeeding. Your mood can affect your child from an early age. If you're sad and stressed all the time, chances are you don't feel like holding them when they want it or giving them the kisses they deserve or the attention they need. Take a step back, and look at the big picture — your child's health and your family's happiness. Why are you fighting so hard?
Although I can't argue that breastfeeding is beneficial for immunity and nutrition, especially in the first three months, the data is looking as if it is not as advantageous as we once may have thought. A fairly recent study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine studied siblings, of which one was breastfed and one was formula fed. This study found no statistical difference in 10 of the 11 different outcomes, including (but not limited to) BMI, hyperactivity, math skills, reading recognition, intelligence and parental attachment later on in childhood. In fact, the 11th outcome found there may be more asthma in breastfed babies, although this is not clear. There had never been a study like this one before, because previous studies compared children from different families. Taking the social and economical factors out of the equation produces more accurate results. So give yourself a break, Mom! Your baby will be just fine.
By continuing to breed the lie that a woman must breastfeed for at least six months, we are stigmatizing the women who can't. It's time to support one another and focus on what really matters — the love we give to our children, not the type of milk.
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