Why I gave my baby formula.

One of the most empowering things about becoming a mother, is realizing your body can not only make a baby but also the food required to nourish the baby. And it all seems so easy when you sit through that pre-requisite breast feeding class. You watch the instructor hold a fake baby, you watch her cradle it, pretend to get the baby to latch and eventually feed.

“If the baby isn’t latching, try the football hold,” mine said. “If you’re too tired to feed in the middle of the night, just prop yourself up on your elbow and feed your baby.” The instructor gave us so many techniques and resources it felt like there weren’t any excuses not to breastfeed my baby.

But then reality hit.

Three days after he came home from the hospital, my baby was in the NICU because he was rapidly losing body weight. The reason? I wasn’t producing enough milk. The doctors suspected dehydration, but also thought that it could be something far more life threatening so my three-day old baby had to go through an entire workup. They stuck him with a catheter and drew fluid from his spine to test for meningitis. It was rough.

While this was going on, the only objective of the NICU nurses was to keep him fed so they didn’t hesitate for a second to give him formula. And it helped. Not only did all his tests come back negative but he slowly started regaining weight.

When we took him home the second time, I pulled out all the stops to increase my milk supply. I had multiple appointments with a lactation consultant, overdosed on fenugreek seeds, drank all the ‘mothers milk’ teas I could find, I pumped innumerable times a day with rented hospital grade pumps, I even ate milk cookies. Every millimeter of breastmilk I pumped was an achievement and every millimeter I didn’t get was a disappointment.

And despite my efforts, we constantly had to supplement with formula. I felt an enormous amount of guilt that I wasn’t doing the best thing for my baby. I feared my child would fall behind developmentally or that he would always have a weak immune system because he wasn’t getting the benefits of breastmilk.

On top of my self-inflicted anxiety, I got lots of unsolicited advice. Fellow diners at lunch would say, “You should be home breastfeeding your child.” A helpful sales associate would offer, “You should be trying harder”.

For me, this was one of the most humbling things about being a mother. I pulled out all the stops but I couldn’t seem to make it work. So I gave myself a deadline. I was doing what I thought was the best I could at that time and I would persist with all the tools I had at my disposal for six more weeks. If breastfeeding miraculously got better, great! If not, it was time to reassess the situation.

Six weeks later my supply had barely improved. I was pumping 2 oz a day and feeling miserable about my obsession with breastfeeding and my inability to do it properly.

So, I gave myself permission to stop. My pediatrician gave me permission to stop. My friends told me it was ok to stop. I packed up the hospital grade pump and gave my child formula for all his feeds starting that day. And guess what, we all survived. My son is almost three and from what I’ve seen he didn’t get more sick than normal and seems to be ok developmentally. We do have some psychotic moments but I’m just attributing that to the terrible twos!

What I learnt from this experience, is that you know what’s best for you and your family. Yes, breastfeeding and its benefits are incredible and I wish so much that I had been more successful at it. But in the absence of being able to do so, isn’t it better your baby is fed than not? You have to make choices that work for you, not what you’re told to do or what is working for someone else. Our babies’ health is far more precious than a few ounces of pride or a bottle full of breastmilk.

Alex Labriola