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  • Dr. Shari-ann H. James

Giving Our Best, by Breast or Formula

A mother has just given birth and is getting ready to leave the hospital with her newborn baby. Since giving birth, nursing has been difficult. The mother’s milk has not come in as yet and her baby is having trouble urinating. She is becoming dehydrated. On the day of the mother’s discharge from the hospital, her two-day-old baby has to be given a bottle of formula to prevent further dehydration. The mother feels dejected that she has failed in her first role as a mother. She is disappointed that she couldn’t provide the immediate nourishment her baby needed. I was that mother.

My milk came in later that night after being discharged. Although I was able to breastfeed my daughter for over a year, that initial experience as a mother continues to serve as an important reminder. It illustrates the pressure that some mothers feel to breastfeed -- to breastfeed immediately and breastfeed happily. When our reality does not match our vision of postpartum breastfeeding bliss, we are left disappointed and even seen by others (and ourselves) as failing mothers. While attending a breastfeeding class for expectant mothers, a lactation consultant conveyed her optimistic message that every woman can and should be able to breastfeed, and if we were not able to breastfeed then we were simply doing it wrong. Whether or not these claims are correct is beside the point. Yes, breastfeeding advocacy may encourage women to breastfeed who may not have otherwise done so. But it can also create an artificial standard of motherhood, where enormous pressures are placed on mothers to breastfeed at a time when they are already dealing with so many other postpartum and emotional factors.

One cannot dispute all the benefits of breast milk. However, it is also important that infants are being fed. Whether it is breast milk or formula, babies need to be nourished without delay. That babies are fed should be our most important goal, and the means by which they are fed should be secondary. My hope is that as women and mothers, we filter the external pressures and societal noise and arrive at a place of satisfaction in knowing we are doing the best we can, whether our best is by breast or formula.

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