When Breast Isn’t Best

I have had grown women apologize to me about what they do with their bodies. “I bought formula today so I can sleep without waking to nurse. Im sorry, that’s so lazy of me.” “I know I’m not supposed to, but I used the nipple shield” “I supplemented. I feel so guilty.”. Why are our breastfeeding choices something to apologize for? When else would we apologize for personal decisions about our bodies, even the controversial ones? I don’t apologize when I skip shaving my legs in the winter. I don’t apologize for the birth control I use. But have I apologized for how I feed my babies? More than once.

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I’ve fed two babies for a combined four years. In that time I spent years breastfeeding. I spent months pumping. I supplemented. I used at-the-breast supplementation, bottles, cups and syringes. Nipple shields. And I exclusively bottle fed.

When my first child was born, I was 18. I had never seen a successful breastfeeding relationship. She couldn’t latch, she was hungry, I felt overwhelmed and clueless. I later found out she had a fourth degree lip tie. But at the time, I left the hospital believing I had failed. I let my milk dry up, I prepared her bottles, and I felt guilt. I apologized all the time. I apologized when she’d get an immunization and the doctor would suggest I nurse her through it. I’d apologize on playdates when other mothers nursed their babies as I prepared bottles. Id apologize to my baby for not giving her “the best start”.

Years later, I have one child who never effectively nursed once, and another who nursed for years. My only regret is the time I wasted wrapped up in guilt with my first. Both my children grew, both were loved. Only one has a mysterious absence of feeding photos from her infancy, because I was too embarrassed to snap the photos.

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Breastfeeding has undeniable benefits. Growing up with a happy, healthy mother has undeniable benefits. When the two are incompatible, something has to give. Clients often ask me “how long am I supposed to breastfeed?”. There’s only one real answer to that. Exactly as long as you and your baby both want to. Full stop. For some that will be three years. Others, three minutes. Breastfeeding at the cost of your mental health and well-being is never the answer.

Of course, some of us struggle. I know I did. My second baby was in the NICU. I remember crying and emailing la leche league with one hand and pumping with the other at 3 am. I remember taking prescription galactologues and experimenting with different tapes to adhere supplementation tubes to my breasts. I was exhausted and frustrated. But I was also parenting my child the only way I could while he was hooked up to wires. I was proud to contribute. So I continued.

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Twice, I made a decision about my body. As a doula, it’s my turn to support your choices. That means unconditional support, period. You have the right to breastfeed when it’s easy, and I’ll stand behind you. You have the right to breastfeed when it’s hard, and I’ll stand behind you. When it’s time to stop, I’ll stand behind you. And when you choose not to start at all, you’ll have my support.

What I can’t support is a culture that implies you need to apologize for what you do with your body. When all things are equal, breast may be best. When things are not all equal, it may not be. Your ownership of your own body, however, that has no caveats. It is ALWAYS your right.

So, I say no more apologies. No more telling survivors that their body is not their own. No more motherhood as martyrdom. No more hearing someone was physically unable to breastfeed and spouting “only 1% are unable, you must be able to do something”. No more expecting new mothers to disclose their medical history and reveal why they make the choices they do about their breasts. No more shaming of our choices.

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Breastfeeding is beautiful. Motherhood is beautiful. How you mother your baby is up to you. Is your child loved? Are they nurtured and fed? Are you looking out for that child’s mother? If you answered yes, then you’re making the right choices. And that’s why fed is best.

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