How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bottle

It’s taken me a while (almost 2 years) to finally feel ready to really talk about my breastfeeding experience on the blog. I wrote a bit about it here when I was in the trenches. Recently I’ve read a few people’s reflections on the tremendous amount of pressure that is put on mothers to have all natural births, breastfeed exclusively for a year or more, co-sleep, use cloth diapers, never put the baby down, make all the baby food from scratch using only organic ingredients, etc. etc. etc. Those posts, and their experiences, made me finally feel ready to talk about mine.

I was blindsided. While pregnant with my now 2 year old daughter, I asked my high risk OB about breastfeeding. I have PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), and had heard that it might make breastfeeding a challenge. When I asked her, she said, “Most likely it won’t be a problem for you, especially since you are on metformin and have had a healthy pregnancy”. I didn’t think too much about it after that.

I had read enough to know that formula was basically evil and that if I gave it to my baby she would become a fat, sick, moron in short order. I had the number for La Leche League on hand, as well as The Nursing Mother’s Companion, which I had flipped through in order to be ready. In addition I had a store-bought hand pump, in case I needed to pump a little “in an emergency”. I knew I would exclusively breastfeed for at least six months, but probably more like a year. Obviously I knew it all.

38 weeks pregnant and completely clueless
38 weeks pregnant and completely clueless

Then I had a baby. A real, live crying baby. One that took 30 hours to be born. One who required three hours of pushing and forceps in order to make it out. She was perfect. Until she tried to nurse.

3 days old
3 days old

Having been born at 5:30 in the evening, the hospital lactation consultant had gone home for the night. She only nursed once that night, tired from the ordeal of being born. It hurt, but I figured that was just the discomfort of getting used to a person attached.

The next day an LC came in, took at look at our latch, and said it looked fine. No problems. I wondered, but didn’t say anything. Fast forward to the next morning, one in which I got no rest at all, had a baby attached painfully all night, and cracked, raw, bloody nipples to show for it. A second, more experienced LC walked in, took one look at my nipples, opened Maggie’s mouth, and said,

“Yep. She’s tongue tied.” She gave me a nipple shield, saying, “it’s the only way you’ll make it until your nipples heal and you get her frenulum clipped.”

It helped a little, but not very much. Then I asked about nursing in bed, and we tried. She frowned at me and said, “Well, the shape of your breasts plus the tongue tie make it very hard to nurse while lying down. The football hold or another sitting up position will be best.”

By the time we left the hospital that night, our “no pacifiers for at least a month” rule was long forgotten, and our baby, who had been crying all afternoon for my non-existent breastmilk was sleeping peacefully in the car on our way home.

I was worried because I noticed that nothing was coming out. I had read enough to know that the “liquid gold” colostrum was supposed to come in by about 2 days. So by day three,  when I didn’t see anything at all after a nursing, combined with the fact that she was wanting to nurse every 45 minutes around the clock, I began to panic. I suspected that she was getting very, very hungry. My mother in law ran out to the store and got some formula in the middle of the night in case we got desperate. We did. Cut to our 4 day old baby, who had actually stopped crying, and was just lying in my arms. She hadn’t had a wet diaper in 8 hours, and wasn’t very responsive. On day 5 I finally saw some of that “liquid gold”.  In the meantime she had formula, which she sucked down quickly, immediately pooped and peed, and then slept for 4 hours. The poor, exhausted, hungry girl.

By the time Maggie was a week old, I suspected that I might have some post-partum depression. I cried at 6 pm every night. I cried because another day had passed, getting closer to the time I’d be alone with this crying pink thing, when all my help would be gone. I cried because breastfeeding hadn’t gotten easier, but was just as painful, stressful, and irritating as it had been the day before. I cried because another night would be going by with maybe 3 hours of sleep if I was lucky. I cried because my 4th degree tear hurt but I didn’t have time to do the healing I needed, because I had a tongue-tied baby who wanted to nurse every hour, for half an hour, and I had to sit upright. I cried because then I had to pump, giving me about 10 minutes to pee, eat, or shower. I cried because I missed my husband and thought my life was over. I cried because I couldn’t stop crying.

Far from being this lovely bonding experience between me and my baby, breastfeeding was a source of stress, and eventually resentment. I resented having to sit half-naked in my house with a baby attached to my sore, battered body, always wanting something I could not give her. By this point any illusion of “exclusively breastfeeding” was out the window. I would nurse her for 20 minutes on each side (because tongue-tied babies with PCOS mothers nurse slow as hell), then finish the feeding with a bottle of formula. After that, I pumped. I pumped for 30 minutes and was lucky if I got 2 or 3 ounces. Some days I didn’t get anything at all.

I woke up one day when she was about 8 weeks old, took a look in the mirror, inhaled deeply and said, “I’m done.”

And that was it.

Instead of nursing her that morning, I held her close and gave her a bottle of formula. And the most amazing thing happened; We were both happy. She drank the formula, wrapped in a pink flannel blanket and snuggled up close to my heart, and when she finished, no crying for the more I couldn’t give her, just contentment and sleep. I smiled for the first time in weeks, and ironically, felt that loving bonded feeling with my baby more strongly than I had before.

I fell in love with motherhood at the end of a bottle.

coming out of the fog
coming out of the fog

I still struggled with depression, though it did significantly lessen when my fertility returned at 10 weeks post-partum. I woke up one morning, 2 weeks after stopping breastfeeding, had started cycling again, and felt like myself for the first time since she was born.

In other words, stopping breastfeeding when I did was the best thing I could have done for my family.

And that’s when I learned one of the fundamental truths of parenting: my experience is not normative, and neither is yours. 

I had a medically nessecary induction, two epidurals, a vaginal birth, and I exclusively formula-fed my baby from 8 weeks on, but we did not follow a strict schedule. We used a combination of cloth and disposable diapers. I wore her in a sling or carrier sometimes, and sometimes she sat in a bouncy seat or swing, both of which she loved. We did not co-sleep, other than a handful of times when she was a newborn. We followed the vaccination schedule of our trusted pediatrician, and she ate pureed baby food, some which I made, some which I bought.

And after that February day when I embraced the bottle, I didn’t feel one minute of guilt about any of it. Because I shouldn’t. You shouldn’t. There isn’t any one right way to be a mother, not when these are the decisions you are wrestling with. Now, I may not have felt any guilt, but I did feel judgement, whether perceived or actual it’s hard to tell this far removed. The judgement I felt particularly because in this Catholic mommy blogosphere, it’s all “crunchy”, all the time. In fact, of the Catholic women I knew at the time who had biological children, I only knew one other woman who had used formula.

What I learned is that it’s not a sin to use formula, a stroller, or decide not to make all your baby food from scratch. The fact that my breasts didn’t work they way they should, and I wasn’t willing to move heaven and earth to try and make them do so, is not a commentary on my ability or love as a mother. It doesn’t make me any less or more of a mother because I made different choices than you did. And it doesn’t make you any less or more of a mother than I am because you made different choices.

Every family, every mother and new baby are a unique constellation of personalities, circumstances, and bodies. That’s why I won’t say that I’ll never breastfeed again. If we’re blessed with another baby, of course I will try again. That baby might not be tongue-tied. I might have better results with a different combination of factors. But if it doesn’t work out, and I choose to use formula again, I won’t make the mistake of tying my identity as a mother up in these choices, which at the end of the day, pale in the shadow of our choice to love our babies, even from the end of a bottle.

If you are reading this today and carrying the heavy burden of judgement (perceived or actual) about your parenting choices, I’m inviting you to lay them down. Be gentle with yourself. Take a look in the mirror, breathe in deeply, and remind yourself, “I am a good mother.”

She still knows and loves us even though she drank formula...imagine that
She still knows and loves us even though she drank formula…imagine that
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33 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bottle

  1. Yes. I was made to feel guilty and I probably made other others feel guilty. I felt so judged I had to validate my choices. No one said to me, “Think of what you want to do, give it a try, and if it doesn’t work then move to the next thing. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means you’re a new mom like every other new mom in the history of the world.”

  2. Yes ~ to it all as a mom whose first baby went to the NICU and became nipple confused and would never nurse but those second (and so far third) nurse well and happily. Each child is an individual and we love and care for them best we can.

    Thank you so much for sharing so beautifully of your mothering journey!

  3. When I read this line: I woke up one day when she was about 8 weeks old, took a look in the mirror, inhaled deeply and said, “I’m done.” I almost said out loud “Go You!” Thanks for sharing your reflections.

  4. I remember how I felt like a failure when we had to give Gabe formula because mastitis caused an abscess and I couldn’t nurse on one side. Several months later I got him back to nursing on both sides, but he never slept well at night (didn’t sleep through the night until he was almost 1, and still regularly wakes up in the middle of the night). Then he refused to wean until we resorted to chocolate milk, which I’m sure could be condemned in some circles.
    I do a lot of work with March for Babies and had someone email me criticizing the use of baby bottle banks to collect spare change because, “If we want to get babies off on the best foot they should exclusively breastfeed.” After kindly pointing out that even moms who breastfeed but work use bottles and being told “They should stay home so they can have time to bond,” it took everything in my power to not get angry.
    Parenthood, and particularly motherhood, isn’t a contest. I think people being honest about their experiences- good and bad- is important, so thanks for sharing. With time perhaps all these stories will help stop the seemingly rampant judgement.

  5. I love the way you wrote about this! It’s so discouraging that our society tends to give us mommy-guilt over every decision we make. There is no one way to best be a mother, other than to make the best decisions you can for your family. You made the best one for yours, and anyone who judges you for it should be ashamed. I was exclusively formula fed by a mother who could not be more self-sacrificing and loving toward her children. Worked out fine for us!
    Oh, and I identified so strongly with the “left alone with this crying pink thing” part. New motherhood was no “babymoon” for me — I was exhausted and frustrated most of the time. And I think it’s that way for many women…it shocks me how often people are unsympathetic to that!

  6. Everyone is judged for something, based on whatever that other person thinks is “right,” and it just sucks. I nursed Virginia till she was about 16 months old, and my MIL would look at me sideways, and ask when we were going to stop. I have another friend whose baby cannot nurse because of a throat defect she was born with, so my friend has been pumping exclusively for an entire year. People all the time tell her she “shouldn’t be a hero” and to just give up already and give her formula. People just need to do what is right for them and not have to worry about other jerks.

  7. I am so glad you shared your experience here, Sarah. First time mothers, especially, need to know that at some point all that matters is doing what is best for baby and mama. And that might not be what everyone else thinks is best.

    With my first baby, I too was induced, which ended in a c-section, and needed to use a nipple shield for about the first week. My milk didn’t come in because my body hadn’t gone into labor on its own. And nothing hurts worse than a baby’s very powerful suck on your very sore nipples when nothing’s coming out! Thankfully, after one very long, emotional, painful week (including the physical and emotional recovery from a c-section, which had only just begun) my body finally did something “right” and our nursing problems were solved. I too remember crying, every day and every night, that I was broken. I thank God for allowing me to breastfeed because it was my first step toward healing that deep emotional wound.

    It took a lot of courage for you to recognize the need to change at 8 weeks and actually do it. I am so glad you did and saved yourself, your baby, and your husband from even more weeks of pain and despair. I hope someone else with a newborn reads your story and can take a deep breath and know that they are a good mother, too. Thank you for sharing so honestly and powerfully, many times in the past week!

  8. Thanks Joy! Yes, it’s important to remember that what worked for one baby might not for another and each child, each family is unique.

  9. “She should just stay home…” Oh that is so frustrating! As though every mom who wants to breastfeed can really make that happen. Or wants to. Being a stay at home mom is great (I’m a mostly SAHM, but I work about 10 hours a week), but it has to be something you choose because you want to do it, not because you are guilted into it! Thanks Kristi!

  10. Louise, it is so frustrating! Mommy-guilt should be reserved for people who are actually not parenting or putting their children in danger.

  11. Yes! On both counts. Just because I wouldn’t have pumped for a year doesn’t mean someone else shouldn’t. It’s amazing how people think these very private things are everyone’s business to comment on.

  12. We did a little bit of everything too. I choose to start with the bottle before Henry was born my depression during pregnancy was so severe that I was very worried that it would continue on post-partum and I knew that I didn’t want my own feelings to get in the way of my sons health as much as possible. I choose formula from the beginning because it made me (super depressed me) feel a little more at peace knowing that if the depression continued someone else could help me care (feed) for my son until I got better.

    Today Henry is bright, a normal healthy weight and about as well behaved as a two year old cutting his molars can be.

    I plan on trying breastfeeding the next time around, but in the end I’m proud of my choice and I’m glad you are too!

  13. Thank you Marie! I’m so glad that things worked out in a way that let you heal from not having the birth experience you desired. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Molly, thanks for commenting. It’s so true that we have to make the best choice we can with where we are. Depression (whether during pregnancy or after birth) is a horrible thing to go through, and anything we can do to help alleivate its grip is a good thing for the whole family! Henry is such a doll.

  15. LOVE this post! So happy that someone is addressing this! I was lucky that breastfeeding has worked out for me. If it wouldn’t have I would have felt even MORE of a failure since I had a c-section.

    I hate that we live in a society where hospitals are locking up formula samples and that women are made to feel like crap if they nourish their babies with formula. I sometimes wonder if women try so so hard to nurse out of pride to say “I breastfeed” or out of fear of judgment instead of the main goal of feeding their child.

    When I was looking up real food information I came across so many things that basically said formula was poison. What the hell? Well, I guess if you can’t breastfeed you better not give your baby this poison and hope they thrive! I mean seriously…

    Sorry, I just get really upset about stuff like this. This post was truly beautiful. When you wrote about the moment you decided to use formula I could just feel your relief.

    I’m sure many women will benefit from reading this post. Thanks for sharing your story!

  16. “My experience is not normative, and neither is yours.” Well if that ain’t parenting truth, I don’t know what is. Wisely put. And it’s only when we share our stories, thicken the definition of what it means to be mother, that we start to realize our lens is not The Lens. This calling has so many variations on a theme, and thank God for that!

  17. You know I love this post! So glad you wrote about your experience, because as you stated…in the Catholic blogosphere, it can be rough for a formula-feeding momma!!! Actually in a traditional Catholic environment, the same could be said.

    As you know, I’m a big believer in “Ya do what ya gotta do!” Of course, it took me years to get to the point and I put myself through the ringer, first. But now I have no qualms about telling new moms that very thing.

    Great post, Sarah! 🙂

  18. Amen. What I wish above everything else in this whole world is that we mothers would applaud and support and encourage and uplift, not judge. I’ve felt the judgement of other mothers for a wide variety of things, and I really struggled through my first few years of motherhood because of it.

    Thankfully, I’m (mostly) over it, now. I don’t really care what people on the outside looking in think about me or my choices.

    You are absolutely right- There isn’t any one right way to be a mother. Thanks for sharing your story!

  19. Maggie, thanks for your comment! I think what drives me the most crazy is when you (rarely, but I have) come across someone who actually thinks that they are a better mother than you are based solely on the fact that her breasts work better than mine. I mean, I don’t really understand how biological capacity correlates to personal holiness. Must have missed that section of the catechism.

  20. Amen, Laura! I am all about the sharing of stories. It’s the way we grow and learn; I’ve always thought that it would be hard to cultivate true moral imagination without reading lots and lots of stories. Thanks for your comment!

  21. Michelle,

    You were my lifesaver! You were the formula-feeding mom I “knew” and your kids were all normal and not axe-murderers. 🙂

    Thanks for your comment and all your support!

  22. Me too Leanne, me too! We are all in this together, raising this next generation of people. Thanks for your comment!

  23. You are so brave. You stuck it out for 8 weeks, even with all that was happening? I hope there’s a trophy waiting for you in heaven. 🙂 Thanks for your honesty and candor. Motherhood is hard enough without feeling judged each time you don’t follow the “rules.”

  24. I am SO thankful for perspectives like these. I breastfeed my daughter, but my sister, whose first baby was born about 4 months after mine, ended up having an experience similar to yours and switched to formula early on. I had really been bombarded with the “formula is poison” nonsense that is out there on the internet during my pregnancy, but because of posts from other women with experiences like yours, I was able to develop a slightly more nuanced approach to the whole breast vs. formula battle. I am REALLY glad that happened, because my sister needed support, not (misguided) criticism in those first weeks and months. My mom, on the other hand, was just awful to my sister about her decision, and it really tore me up to see how terrible it made my sister feel. Choosing how to feed your child is one of the first decisions new moms make, and it is just so darn wrong to cut each other down on the issue. Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m really glad you found what worked best for you. Your daughter is just beautiful!

  25. You should publish your posting somewhere. All moms need to read it. And women who find breastfeeding to be easy need to know that it is not the same for all women.

    Baby formula works– Atticus, who you sometimes read about on this blog, was formula fed after 2 weeks and 4 days. I wish I had started him on formula sooner. I don’t remember my nipples getting sore, but little Atticus just did not sleep very much and wasn’t gaining weight. If my mother had been visiting I am sure that she would have said, ” He is not getting enough to eat.” But I thought I would know everything I needed to know “all by myself”, and so I told her to visit when Atticus was about 2 months old. My mother did not have enough milk to satisfy my older sister and so way back in 1946 that doctor told her, “Mother’s milk is the best, but when there isn’t enough, then you feed cows milk.” Back then my older sister was fed canned evaporated milk mixed with water and Karo syrup (corn syrup). My older sister is a wonderful person. Not damaged at all. She had plenty of breastmilk for her two kids. I assume this hereditary. I have the same body type that my mother had. She did not produce enough milk. Neither did I. Nothing could be done about it. This older sister is built just like our paternal grandma. She breastfed 7 boys.
    Sarah– You are so right that moms should not feel any guilt or judgment. What is important is the relationship. Not the diapers, not how the child is fed.
    I think all mothers should try breastfeeding, but should continue only if it seems right for her.

  26. With my first child, I had a very difficult time breast feeding, and I was up all night pumping, and cleaning pump parts and bottles and then being up to feed again. Finally, I let go, and it was a much better experience for us both.

    My second child breast fed very easily for six months, and I stopped when all he wanted was food! This was also a bonding experience.

    They are both healthy kids now. Their spiritual and physical health today has little to do with breast feeding.

  27. I just found this post today in a roundabout way. My heart just goes out to you and I think it’s great you wrote this. My first-time postpartum experience was a lot like yours–I was so exhausted and miserable and resentful of sitting around half-naked all the time. I didn’t have the supply/tongue-tied issue, so I breastfed my first for 18 months. All the same I was miserable. With #2 I switched to formula at 8 months when she started teething on me all the time, plus I was down to just one “working” breast after an early bout of mastitis. I still felt guilty, tho, but thank God it was my second and I had some perspective. With the first I don’t know how I would have dealt with it. So all of this is just a long-winded way of saying my heart goes out to you and I can imagine how hard it must have been those first few weeks. ALSO (almost done here), I had the same noticeable shift in mood both times once my cycle returned. I’m considering whether and how long I want to breastfeed next time because those breastfeeding hormones are really really crazy-making for me.

  28. Thank you so much for this post! My mom went to the store and bought formula when my DD was 9 weeks because she would scream and scream and scream, refuse to latch, stay awake all day and all night and nothing could make her happy. My mom had spent the entire day with me trying to help her latch, using warm compresses and hand expression to try to get some milk out, comforting me as I cried, rubbing my back, holding my baby so I could close my eyes for just a few moments. When she brought the formula back, I made one 3 ounce bottle that promptly disappeared in about 4 minutes and baby proceeded to eat every 2 hours after that for days. Her diapers were finally wet, she was content and happy, no longer losing weight, and I was finally getting sleep that I so desperately needed. It took having a second baby to find out that I have IGT and YES it IS a real, diagnosed condition that can prevent breastfeeding successfully. Today my daughter is a very happy 3 1/2 year old and my son is 2 this week and both are happy, healthy and have perfect growth curves at their check ups. The only problems we’ve encountered are some stomach issues with DD, and given that she basically starved for 9 weeks, I don’t blame the formula for her issues, I blame myself for BELIEVING the people around me (some who didn’t even have kids of their own, but telling me formula was bad and nursing just happened) and refusing to use formula for so long.

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