The Breast versus Bottle Debate

I will start by stating the general assumption that every mother wants the best for their child. I think this is a safe assumption to make, regardless of the philosophy or style of parenting that each parent chooses to follow. But the breast versus bottle debate rages, with bottle feeding mothers being portrayed as less caring mothers who are not interested in providing their child with the best start in life.  I realise that by writing this, I am opening myself up to criticism, but please hear me out.

The ‘breast feeding at all costs’ brigade might try to remember that life doesn’t always go according to plan. I had every intention to breast feed my baby. Our baby was the result of my third pregnancy after two miscarriages. With the current barrage of information extolling the virtues of ‘breast is best,’ mothers are under immense pressure to give breast feeding their best shot. However, my baby spent the first two days of her life in the special care unit of the hospital, and was given a bottle during this time as well as fluids via IV. All of this created what I believe to be a serious case of nipple confusion. As soon as my baby was allowed, we tried breast feeding with guidance from the hospital. This was fraught with difficulty and we only successfully managed to feed for a few seconds at a time. These sessions were characterised by a hungry screaming baby being forced to try to take my nipple into her mouth, and my baby only knew that she was hungry and that her food was not coming as quickly or in the manner that she was used to. At less than 72 hours old, I imagine this was quite difficult to understand. So I began expressing milk for my baby, every two to three hours around the clock to keep her healthy and fed and to maintain my milk supply, whilst still striving for the ever elusive goal of the purported closeness of a successful breast feeding relationship.

This pattern continued for much of the first three weeks of her life. Each time, I offered my daughter my breast, each time, she refused.  Every time, one or both of us ended up in tears. Every time, resorting to the bottle of expressed milk so that I didn’t feel as if I was starving my newborn baby. There are different schools of thought on this, I was urged by some to just offer breast for a period of twenty four hours as she would have no choice but to accept me rather than the bottle, but this didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps I gave in too soon, who can say. I was reassured by some people that a baby wouldn’t starve themselves, but I found it too stressful to watch my baby cry for food, knowing she would take a bottle, and refusing to give it to her.

So after three weeks of trying this seven or eight times a day, I stopped offering my breast. It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision; I was not coping with the constant stress of rejection. My husband and family hated seeing me spend a large proportion of the day in tears and missing out on the joy of our new baby. My dogged desire to bond through breast feeding was putting an unnecessary amount of stress on our family. We stuck to bottle feeding expressed milk, and this worked for a week until I ended up in accident and emergency with a temperature of nearly 40 degrees, an inflamed breast, vomiting, chills and blurred vision brought about by a case of mastitis.

Unfortunately, the only way to overcome mastitis is to continue expressing. So I continued to express through the pain of swollen and inflamed breasts, every two hours, day and night, the limited amounts my blocked ducts would allow. The blocked ducts meant that I wasn’t able to express enough milk to keep up with my baby’s demands. So we started supplementing with formula. Stating it in this matter of fact way makes the decision to supplement sound easy, but the hysterical reaction that I had and the feeling of complete failure I felt at having to give that first formula bottle was unexpected and highly distressing. The guilt I felt at not being able to feed my baby was palpable, and not made any easier to deal with while recovering from the affects of the blurred vision, nausea and fever. The advice from the doctors to rest seemed wholly incompatible with their prescribed treatment of expressing every two hours. If it took me half an hour to express, I could get maximum of one and a half hours rest between expressing, without adding in time needed to fall asleep, wash, eat, do chores, let alone play with and enjoy my baby as I kept being urged to do by worried health professionals. So in reality, I was not getting more than forty minutes sleep at any one time. This was unsustainable.

The mastitis took a week to clear up, and the effects remain. My milk supply seems to have been affected as the amount of milk I was producing was erratic, and lumps kept reappearing in my breasts. And so the formula supplementation carried on and increased so that my baby didn’t go hungry. Now I am continuing to express milk at longer intervals in the hope that milk production may slow down and enable me to transfer fully to formula.  I am not finding this an easy process, as sometimes painful lumps appear in my breasts and the longer I leave it to express, the more chance there is of the mastitis returning. It seems to be a no win situation; if I do not empty my breasts fully, the risk of mastitis increases, but if I do empty them each time, my body will respond by increasing my milk production and I will not be able to wean my baby to formula now.

My decision to move my baby to formula was not an easy one. In fact, it was barely mine to make and I still have not fully committed to this, in no small part down to the overwhelming judgement and criticism I feel on a daily basis from society as a whole. The decision to move to formula  is being advocated primarily by those closest to me, who have witnessed my trauma and stress during the three pregnancies my body has coped with in the last eighteen months, and who are witnessing my struggle with emotional and physical pain trying to do what is being advocated as best for my baby. After all, what mother would not want to do what’s best?

Formula is a viable alternative, and is it really best for baby to have a highly stressed and physically sick mother? Perhaps you would have carried on and persevered if you were in my shoes. Perhaps you would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. Who knows? So militant breastfeeding brigade, hear my plea, and please remember, options are not always as simple as they seem.

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