Why I regret breastfeeding my son

31 March 2017
If you're pregnant or a new mother, you can hardly miss the incessant message that "breast is best"; between "baby friendly" hospitals, medical advice and the ubiquitous parent forums and social media, the pressure to breastfeed can be overwhelming. Given how the breastfeeding message is pushed down our throats, what mother would do it for sixteen months - then wish she hadn't? This mother. I breastfed for over a year, and looking back now, I wish didn't bother.

"Just end this charade and give me the formula"

 When I was expecting my long-awaited first child, I was determined that I was going to breastfeed. I followed all the advice, such as not having bottles or even dummies in the house; anything that might impede establishing breastfeeding. I went to classes run by the hospital. I’ve got this, I thought; I’ve followed all the advice, I really want it.

 The first trouble we ran into was when I was eleven days overdue and an attempt at induction failed. After it was decided I would have a caesarean section, I went nil by mouth in preparation for the surgery; unfortunately there was a wait for theatre, and the sixteen hours with nothing to eat or drink hindered milk production.

 When I finally got out of recovery and got to meet my baby, initial attempts to put him on the breast seemed to go well; there are lovely photos of the two of us bonding this way. But he was a big, overdue baby and hungry; as the days passed and my milk stubbornly refused to come in, it became obvious he was dehydrated. The midwife suggested giving him a bit of formula, I initially refused believing it would make getting breastfeeding established even harder and also wanting to be one of the Mums who could say my child was several months old and had never had a drop of formula. Finally, after 20 hours without a wet nappy, I agreed he could have some formula, having at 2am to sign the hospital’s form telling me all the risks of formula - which made me feel even worse. But by then the only option was an IV. How many other babies end up in this situation? And when it was time to go home he had lost 13% of his birth weight.

At home things weren’t much better. My desperately hungry little guy had a bad latch, and I soon ended up with lacerated nipples. It got so bad that every time he woke up and cried for a feed, I would cry too, knowing the pain that was to come. Even with all the laundry and lack of sleep, getting to know your new baby is supposed to be one of the most blissful times of your life; instead for me it was a haze of dread, resenting this little creature causing me so much physical pain. I contemplated giving up but every time I came close to telling my husband “look, just buy the damn formula” I would be wracked with guilt that not breastfeeding meant not giving him the best start in life and I should soak up the pain and do what was best for baby.

 So I did, and eventually I spoke to someone who gave me advice on how to get my baby to latch on properly, and we got into the breastfeeding swing of things. He thrived for a few months, even though I was in the throes of PTSD; I would crave a couple of hours to myself, but I was a lousy pumper. But by his 4 month checkup, he weighed 8 kg, and both our GP and the baby health clinic nurse advised that it was time to start him on solids. No! I’ve got the hang of this breastfeeding thing now, I can’t stop till I get those six months of exclusive breastfeeding everyone says are so crucial. So I powered on, feeding on demand around the clock, no attempt at any sleep training.

 At his six month check up, to my eternal shame, he still weighed 8kg. He was also starting to fall behind on reaching some of his milestones, when previously he’d been ahead. My poor baby! He must have been so hungry, and all because of my stubborn refusal to listen to medical advice and feed him. After determining there was no medical reason for his failure to gain weight apart from lack of nutrition, we started him on solids; within weeks, he was devouring two slices of wholemeal toast and an entire banana for his breakfast. I also, without guilt, started him on complementary feeding; if I was around, great, he got breastfed, if not, formula it was. At 12 months, the formula went out the window, but we kept up with the breastfeeds, after meals and at bed time, until he was 16 months old and decided he didn’t want it anymore, laughing and pulling my bra up if offered the breast.

 Sixteen months is a great run. But if I had my time again, I’d have started supplementing him with formula in the hospital and if that meant proper breastfeeding was never established, fine. I’ve very little memory of the first few months of my baby’s life, just a haze of exhaustion and pain, and I so dearly wish I could have savoured those early moments.

 But my biggest regret is for him, and the months of hunger he went through. I just wasn’t able to produce enough milk for him early and often. We don’t expect the human body to always do anything else perfectly, and breastfeeding is no different; I wasn’t able to give my little guy what he needed, and I’ve had a hard time letting go of my guilt that I caused him pain because of my stubborn determination to be a good breast feeder.

 And I’m certainly a believer that fed is best. If you want and are able to breastfeed, that’s great. If not, don’t stress about it, don’t feel guilty. The constant message women are told is that almost all breastfeeding issues can be resolved with more support. But where is this support supposed to come from? Maybe if I’d had a lactation consultant to advise, things would have been different but money is not infinite in the days with a new baby.

 He’s at school now, and has never had any real illnesses apart from mild asthma (inherited from Dad). Neither the breastfeeding or formula seems to have affected him and looking at his classmates you certainly can’t tell who was a breast or formula fed baby. But gosh I wish I had my time over.


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