Before my daughter was born, there was no question in my mind that she would be exclusively breast-fed. Chalk it up to a combination of growing up with a pro-breastfeeding mother who was no longer alive but whom I was still desperate to please (she was rarely judgmental, but this was the one thing she was very opinionated about). Or perhaps it was just my own eager new-mom naïveté. I assumed I’d pop my boob into my baby’s waiting mouth, my milk would flow on command, and my kid would guzzle away, happily. Sure, I’d read in parenting books and heard from other moms that breastfeeding could be difficult, but I never considered those challenges for myself, nor did I imagine that I may not produce much milk. I would be overflowing with milk, spouting it like a whale! Breastfeeding would be intuitive and “natural”! I had nothing to worry about.
Plus, the message I was getting over and over again was “breast is best.” Every article I read, every parenting workshop and prenatal yoga class I attended, touted the advantages of breastfeeding, and portrayed breast milk as this magical, cure-all potion. “It’s literally liquid gold,” my doula said knowingly. When my daughter was born, nurses trained as lactation consultants visited me numerous times during my hospital stay to ensure that breastfeeding was a breeze.
But nothing about breastfeeding came easy to me. It took me weeks to get my daughter’s latch right, and during that time it felt like the world’s sharpest, tiniest knives were stabbing my nipples on repeat. When we finally got settled into it, I started pumping, but the jugs of milk I assumed I’d produce never materialized. Most of the time I’d barely get one bottle’s worth from a 30-minute pumping session. I did not do enough research on how much to have stockpiled before I went back to work, and when the time came, I was unprepared for how quickly we’d blast through my milk stash. (Here’s a great guide to determine how much you need.)
When I reentered the workforce full-time, things only got tougher. Despite working in a supportive corporate environment with dedicated pumping rooms, it was still a struggle. Just getting to and from the room was a five-minute journey that involved traveling 30 floors via two elevator banks. I had to discreetly wash pump parts in a sink as colleagues ate lunch nearby, and often found the room double-booked or the key missing. From the second I got to work at 9 a.m. to the minute I raced out the door at 5 p.m. to pick up my kid at daycare, I was in a constant rush of work, pump, repeat. And at home, I was pumping whenever I could - first thing in the morning, after she went to bed, occasionally in the middle of the night - and obsessing over my dwindling stash.
Soon there was no frozen milk left, and I was pumping all day and then sending that milk to daycare the following morning. It felt impossible to keep it up, and one day, when she was around 4 1/2 months, it finally was. I got a call from her daycare around lunchtime. “She’s finished all the milk you’ve left us for the day,” they said. “What would you like us to do?” I raced out of my office to the subway, on my way to nurse her and figure out Plan F(ormula). As the train car jerked along, I shame-spiraled. Not only was my body “failing” to produce food for my child, but I hadn’t even given her enough to survive the day. I shuddered with embarrassment that my body couldn’t engage in this one “simple” act of feeding my own child. I was also, frankly, exhausted and worn down by the entire months-long experience.
I called my pediatrician that afternoon, who offered some formula suggestions and supplementing tips, and that night I mixed my first formula bottle, while fretting about all the things you’d expect: Would our bond suffer? Would she be receiving all the nutrients she needs? Would formula somehow “hurt” her? But she took that first bottle happily, and dear reader, I never looked back. Because for my family, formula changed everything for the better.
Let me say this as plainly as possible: Formula is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine. It’s a healthy, sensible alternative to breast milk, and a great choice for moms who can’t breastfeed, or choose not to.
Almost immediately this switch to formula feeding - while still also breastfeeding and pumping - alleviated my stress and panic. My child was satiated and thriving, and I was released from my endless anxiety over how little milk I produced while pumping. By the time she was 8 months, she was exclusively formula fed, a decision I have yet to regret. Our bond remained close and affectionate, even if we weren’t connected by milk and breasts.
I reached out to my trusty mom Facebook group to ask other women about their decisions to use formula, and most described experiences similar to mine.
“I cried in the pediatrician’s office when I asked if she thought it was OK [to use formula],” Amie, a marketing consultant, told me. “She laughed. She said, ‘It's all OK.’ I still felt profound guilt and shame – both to strangers and my partner. I felt breastfeeding was 'the least I could do' to take care of my child.”
Amie’s schedule as a freelancer changes day to day, and she struggled to find times and places to pump. She exclusively breastfed her son, now 2.5 years, until he was 6 months, and her daughter, now 5 months, until 4 months. She then supplemented both with formula. “Both of my children are thriving. And my anxiety and stress at work is much more manageable. Reducing the amount of pumping I do at work has greatly improved my days.”
Dana, a former TV producer, tried to exclusively breastfeed but was not producing enough milk. She started her son, now 2 years old, on formula when he was 6 days old. “I felt like a complete failure as a mother when I had to start supplementing with formula,” she said. “I thought I couldn't provide what was best to nourish my child and I was devastated."
Now she describes herself as a huge formula advocate. “Formula literally saved my son's life,” she told me. “I continued to breastfeed for six months, but formula was the mainstay of my son's diet. Supplementing with formula also meant my husband could feed our son, which was a huge bonus.”
The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months and breastfeeding combined with complementary foods after that. But according to Dr. Stephen Abrams, chairperson of the AAP Committee on Nutrition and Chair of Pediatrics at University of Texas’s Dell Medical School, “No mother should ever feel guilty for making the choice in her life to formula feed her baby, whether or not it’s by choice or circumstance. There’s a lot of things that work against exclusive breastfeeding in our society, including lack of support, educational material, support with lactation, and of course going back to work, and short parental leave. So moms will have to do what’s right for their babies, and themselves, and if that choice is to formula feed or partially formula feed, that’s a choice they shouldn’t feel guilty about.”
He recommends finding a pediatrician you trust and discussing your decision to supplement or switch to formula. “There is significant evidence there’s some benefits to breastfeeding, there’s some evidence that some breastfeeding is better than no breastfeeding,” he explains, “but none of that evidence rises to the point where a mother who needs to formula feed, or chooses to formula feed, should feel that they’re significantly harming their child. That’s not a reasonable conclusion from the science, in my opinion.”
Dr Leena Nathan, an assistant clinical professor in UCLA’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, offers a variation on the “breast is best” motto. “I tell mothers (and fathers!) that ‘fed is best,'” she told me over email. "There are stories now about how mothers have been so focused on exclusive breastfeeding that the newborn has been underfed and has even died in a few cases. A little formula supplementation can go a long way."
And while your child’s health is of the utmost importance, she also warns women not to neglect their own well-being. “It is so important to not only focus on the baby's well being but also the mother's psychological and physical well being,” Dr. Nathan wrote. “Sometimes the push to exclusively breastfeed is harmful to the mother. In these cases, formula supplementation is very important.”
My firstborn is now 6 years old, and a loving and sassy first grader who reads chapter books and worships Tegan & Sara. We hug a lot. Formula didn’t just nourish her – it allowed me to grow and relax as a mother, to feel confident and self-assured in my ability to care for my kid. So when my second daughter was born and I found myself with a low milk supply once more, I quickly knew I’d need to supplement with formula again. This time, however, I did it without the guilt.
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