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Why Breast Isn't Always Best: Stop Mommy Shaming

Updated: Dec 19, 2018

*This piece is based on my opinion, supported by facts. I have done no field work on this subject and am not a lactation specialist or professional. Please read with an open mind.*

Our world today has become very focused on what is right and wrong for raising children. A phenomenon called "Mommy Shaming" has been sweeping the United States and can be defined as "a tactic used to determine where we as moms stand on a hypothetical scale from the ideal mother to the most despicable mother" (source). Breastfeeding has become a hot topic in the world of parenting as more research continues to surface of the benefits of breast milk. It's nearly impossible to argue against breast milk being the best source of nutrition and immune defense. Sadly, mommy shamers use this against women who don't breast feed or who feed formula instead of breast milk, often without knowing the circumstances.

As a doula, I am trained in the basics of breastfeeding in order to support mom and baby at the beginning of life. Most babies come out of the womb ready to nurse and have natural instincts to help them find mom's breast (called rooting). I am trained to help initiate breastfeeding and support its continuation during the first few weeks postpartum.

With that being said, I support moms in whatever decision they make about labor, delivery, or their baby. If I am uncomfortable with a mother's choice, I won't take her on as a client. Never will I try and change a mother's mind about a choice she has made. I truly believe that breastfeeding is a healthy, inexpensive, rewarding, safe, and loving way to feed your new baby. I will always be a supporter of breastfeeding and breast milk, but I will never force it on someone who does not feel the same.

There are more reasons than I can count as to why a family chooses the feeding method that they do. And, more often than not, families who do not breastfeed wish that they could. Breastfeeding is not for everyone. Sometimes it's a choice to use formula and other times all other options have been exhausted.

I recently finished a book off of DONA International's reading list for certification entitled, "The Nursing Mother's Companion," by Kathleen Huggins, R.N., M.S. It was during the reading of the introduction that I knew I wanted to address the issue of breastfeeding versus formula feeding. I was immediately frustrated that the book was on the certification reading list as it seemed to blatantly attack formula. Now, having completed the book, I realize that the author was only trying to stress the importance of breast milk by pointing out the major differences in nutrition, protection, and ingredients.

While I would encourage all my clients to read this book when pursuing breastfeeding, I would also encourage parents who are "on edge" about breastfeeding to skip the introduction until they are sure they would like to breastfeed. Simply from the reaction I had to the explanation of breast versus formula milk, I fear that the introduction alone would scare many first time parents into feeling as if breast milk is the only safe option for their child. It's not. While formula is not yet made to perfectly mimic breast milk, your child will not suffer if she drinks formula.

I am a strong supporter of "Fed is Best." I would so much rather see a baby fed, growing, and happy on formula than losing weight or in pain on breast milk. Here are a few reasons a baby may be formula fed.

Mom does not produce enough milk One of a mother's biggest fears may be a reality. This is often caused by a congenital abnormality that causes there to be 'insufficient milk-making tissue" (Huggins 116). This affects a minority of women and those who are affected can still nurse while supplementing formula. There are techniques to increase a mother's milk supply for those who don't produce enough milk caused by other factors, such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (Huggins 119). However, some women choose to simply feed their baby formula after discovering this instead of supplementing as it can be difficult, time consuming, and potentially ineffective to attempt increasing milk supply.

Mom is sick A mother with tuberculosis should not breastfeed (Huggins 114), nor should a mother with HIV, human T-cell leukemia virus type 1, or chicken pox (Huggins 114-115). Mothers with herpes, cytomegalovirus, Lyme disease, epilepsy, thyroid conditions should be cautious and consult with a doctor while breastfeeding (Huggins 115, 132). Women who have had surgery, primarily those that affected the breast tissue, may have a difficult time lactating and breastfeeding as well (Olds et al 21).

Baby is adopted While there are now ways for women who have never been pregnant, gone through menopause, or who are currently not lactating to begin lactation for milk donation or adoption, it is rare, time consuming, difficult, and often ineffective at providing a full milk supply (Huggins 121-122). Many women may try the Newman-Goldfarb protocols, but it is typical for an adopted baby to be fed formula.

Mom was abused If a woman has been sexually abused in her past, "she may be so uncomfortable with her body that she shrinks from breastfeeding" (Olds et al 23). Memories of abuse, as well as old feelings of guilt and/or shame, may resurface during childbirth and breastfeeding (Huggins 133). Not all women who have been abused will avoid breastfeeding, but it can be a touchy subject and may cause more modest practices.

Baby is sick A baby may be born with conditions, such as galactosemia and phenylketonuria, that cause the baby to be fully or partially unable to digest breast milk (Huggins 135). A baby may also be allergic to certain proteins in moms diet. The most common is an allergy to cow's milk. Often, taking allergens out of mom's diet may clear up the reaction, but sometimes, mom does not want (or cannot) take them out of her diet and switches to formula (source).

Mom goes back to work Going back to work while breastfeeding may be a daunting but doable task. Mothers may not "want to start something they think they can't finish" (Olds et al 22) and opt for formula from the get go. They may have a job that makes it difficult to go home and nurse or to pump. While it is possible to find a way, even when the task is not made easy (Pryor and Huggins 135-136), many mothers simply choose to use formula.

While writing this, it was difficult not to put all the "however, a mother can....to fix the situation and continue breastfeeding." That was not the point of the article, however, so I made an effort to keep those statements out. My goal was to show that there are numerous reasons why a family may use formula and it is no one's business but the parents. My goal is to create a world where we are informed enough to make proper decisions for our own families. My goal is to live in a world where we do not put down others for believing and living their lives in ways that are different from us.

I left off 'personal choice' from my list because it's the reason most people are criticized. Instead of taking into account any one of the reasons I listed above, it is common to simply assume a formula fed baby is done so out of personal choice. And if it is, that is not something other's should be allowed to comment on.

As a doula, I want everyone to feel comfortable, and I hope I've made that clear thus far. If you choose to formula feed, I will not question you. If you choose to breastfeed, I will support you. I encourage all of my readers to support all of their new parent friends instead of judging their choices. Being a parent is hard enough, let's not make it harder.

Comments are of course welcome, but please remember to be kind!

Books sourced in this post:

"Nursing Mother, Working Mother" by Gale Pryor and Kathleen Huggins, R.N., M.S.

"The Complete Book of Breastfeeding" by Sally Wendkos Olds, Laura Marks, MD, and Marvin S. Eiger, MD

"The Nursing Mother's Companion" by Kathleen Huggins, R.N., M.S.

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