May 18, 2010

Bottles, Breasts, and the Brouhaha

I am, generally, a pretty hippie-dippy kind of person. I went into my experiment of motherhood determined to do a few things that I thought were Very Important.

The first was to have a natural childbirth experience. I've spent 40 hours getting tattooed, I was sure that as many as 40 hours of labor couldn't be much worse than that.

The second was to breastfeed- exclusively- for six months.

Surprise, surprise, neither of those were the case. Having multiples can really throw your plans out of order. But I learned some very interested trivia regarding my failure to have a natural birth.

Most women who carry multiples are not young and healthy. Most commonly, they are over 35 or obese. Both of those conditions carry with them the sorts of hormonal imbalances that tend to lead to multiples. Similarly, most women who undergo assisted fertility treatments that result in multiples are over 35.

Being under the age of 30 makes you significantly less likely to carry multiples to term. Likewise, having a multiple pregnancy as your FIRST pregnancy has the same effect.

What that meant for me was experiencing a sudden placental abruption at 35 weeks pregnant and having an emergency c-section. It was absolutely nothing like what I had tried so hard for, or wished for just as much. If I had my way, I would have been having one baby- probably at home- with no drugs and nobody pushing formula.

But we can't always get what we want, can we? And I DID get what I most wanted, remarkably sweet, cuddly, and healthy babies.

Of course, having premature babies meant that everyone in the hospital was pushing as hard as they could to get us to give the babies formula. They weren't small for twins- they totaled almost ten pounds together- but for a single baby they were just tiny. They didn't nurse well, and they were so easily tired, and so thin... The doctors and nurses, even those who worked tirelessly with me to help get my girls a good latch and plenty of natural booby food, advocated for supplementing with formula as well. And it didn't take much convincing for me to agree. All I wanted, and all most parents want, was to do what it took to make sure my babies would be healthy.

Now, I had and have heard all kinds of horror stories about nipple confusion, about a baby rejecting the breast in favor of formula if they eat it too early on, about the virtues of a virgin gut. And I generally agree. I generally think that breast is best, and that it's what human babies are SUPPOSED to eat. But I also think that formula was invented for a reason.

I've been hearing a lot from my friends in the breastfeeding community about the evil formula corporations and their campaign against nursing. There's a lot of terrifying truth to it, because formula makes money and breast milk doesn't there's plenty of money to be made in convincing mom's to abandon nursing in favor of formula. But honestly? I think a lot of those folk are carrying it too far.

Is formula harmless? No, it's not. It isn't as good for your child, it's more likely to contribute to lactose intolerance later, and your child misses out on all the vital antibodies you could be passing along. But the idea that a "virgin gut" is going to somehow improve your child's life is terribly silly.

As anyone knows who's seen a baby play, they put absolutely everything in their mouths. And this is important- if they don't introduce dirt and boogers and other icky things into their system in nice small doses, they'll never develop their own immune system. Our hyper-sterile environment is contributing to the rising instances of allergies and immunity problems. Formula isn't poison, it's just not as good as breast milk. The breastfeeding advocates who scare parents away from formula are no better than those who scare parents away from nursing- because both of them are breaking one of the cardinal rules of parenting.

Whatever allows you to be a better parent IS better parenting. If you are too stressed out and too exhausted by nursing to care for your child, maybe you want to supplement with formula. Let daddy take over the night feedings and let you sleep for a change. If your let-downs are so painful that nursing reduces you to tears every time, why continue to resent your child for all of that pain?

Breast is best, absolutely, but NOTHING is better than a functional parent. A mommy terrified that she's actively hurting her children by making her life livable is not a functional parent.

I think, in a perfect world, every mother would try to breastfeed exclusively for as long as is possible, and then begin finding the arrangement that works best for their own family.

If that includes formula, then in includes formula. If it doesn't, bully for you! But stop bullying other moms into thinking that they must be failing if they aren't meeting your own standards.

Motherhood is hard. Parenting is hard. There is no instruction manual, and the group-think conventions change constantly.

At nearly eight months old, my girls get a maximum of eight ounces of formula a day, including the formula I frequently mix with their cereal. If they have a lactose intolerance as adults, so what? I'm practically vegan already, I can't imagine it damaging their quality of life. And most importantly, those few ounces of formula allow me to function completely in my daily life- to sleep solid eight hour nights, to eat meals and finish most tasks, to complete my homework and even sew the occasional dress. And those little girls are thriving, virgin guts or no.

As a parent, I offer this advice. Do what works, and ignore anybody who tries to scare you into doing things differently. You're the parent- YOU are the authority now. Maybe not on every child, but at least on your own. There is a phrase you must commit to memory, that you will use a thousand times, and more often than not you will not be directing it at your children. Learn it well, and heed, so when somebody tries to tell you how badly you're screwing up you can say it loud and proud-

"Because I said so."


  1. Your grandparents were as strongly pressured NOT to breast-feed as your generation is to ONLY breast-feed. The fact is, the advice doctors give us -- on almost any subject -- is their best, informed guess, and should be heeded unless there are other factors that differentiate your case from the stereotypical "average" case. Since there are nearly ALWAYS such factors, people shouldn't agonize so much when they conclude they would do best to diverge from the received wisdom of the day.

    Being a parent is tough, but if the odds weren't basically in your baby's favor, the species wouldn't have survived this long. Parents should bear this in mind and try to relax.

  2. I LOVE THIS POST! I wish people would keep in mind, when reading my blog, that I am posting about myself. I have gotten a couple of offended-sounding responses when I talk about natural birth or breastfeeding. I wish people would talk more about what they are doing themselves and less about how other people should do things the exact way that they did. Different things work for different parents and different children.

    you rock.

  3. My baby was born in Germany, where they love breastfeeding. But my baby had to learn it. He would latch and then instantly fall asleep. So he got bottle fed until he picked up on it. Then breastfeeding became easy, but there's so much luck in that. (I also had "a natural birth". But there was SO much luck involved in that it's not funny. There's nothing wrong with getting your baby out and fed in whatever way keeps them and you healthy.)



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