The Humanist Dilemma: Dealing with the Pressure to Breastfeed

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Breast Fed Up: A little over a year ago I had my first baby. Beforehand I was gung-ho to breast-feed, for all the familiar reasons. But I ended up having delivery problems and underwent spinal anesthesia, forceps, and ultimately an emergency C-section after two days of pushing. My baby girl then had some minor issues and was in intensive care for a few hours. When I was allowed to attempt breast-feeding she wouldn’t latch on or suck. This went on for days. I felt a lot of pressure to keep trying and was told not to use a bottle or she’d never latch on. I became so afraid she’d starve, I gave her eye droppers of pumped breast milk. Eventually, she got the hang of breast-feeding, but I couldn’t produce enough milk for her and my nipples got infected, so I had to supplement with formula. After a few weeks of this torture (for her and me), I gave up nursing and breast milk entirely, and we were both much happier.

My husband, while being very supportive, clearly was disappointed that I “quit” so soon. And everyone else (relatives and friends and even bare acquaintances) openly or subtly condemned me for depriving my child of the wonders of years of breast-feeding.

I am pregnant again (the kids will be less than two years apart) and my doctor and I have already agreed that I will have a scheduled C-section. I’ve also decided that if the breast-feeding doesn’t go well within a week or so, we’re going directly to a bottle, probably filled with formula.

I’m getting a lot of disapproval from everyone about this. I know it’s my decision and I’m sticking with it, but it’s still very distressing. Any advice?

—Got Milk? It’s Complicated


Dear Complicated,

Oh my, you have no idea how much I sympathize with you. Take my word for it, even if you have one kid who wouldn’t or couldn’t latch on (or breastfeeding otherwise just didn’t work out), you could have another who will be stuck to you like Crazy Glue while your toddler pines for your always-occupied lap. You have my permission to breastfeed as long or as briefly as you wish.

Although there are many factors supporting the advantages of breast-feeding and breast milk, none of them holds up when the mother and/or child are not faring well, despite their best efforts and professional support. My understanding is that the lion’s share of benefits from breastfeeding accrue in the first days or weeks, so even if you just manage to do it for a short time, you’ve reaped a good deal of the goodies for your baby. And if you can’t tolerate breast-feeding for long, or at all—or if your baby is in danger of malnutrition or your other child is being severely deprived of mommy-time—don’t think twice; it’s alright to switch to bottle-feeding and formula.

A huge proportion of the Baby Boomer generation in this country was bottle fed, back when that was considered the emancipated, modern way. And although we may have learned since then about the many benefits of breast-feeding, the pendulum has swung way too far in its favor, ignoring factors that contraindicate it and demonizing women who opt out for any reason (sometimes even if their newborn is not thriving, which is criminal). You are the mom and you call the shots about this. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty or inadequate for doing what your mind and body, and your infant and toddler, tell you is best.

And remember, with bottle-feeding you’re not the only one who can do it. Your husband (and opinionated relatives and friends) can pitch in as well.