Book Review: Bottled Up

English: WPA poster promoting breast feeding a...

English: WPA poster promoting breast feeding and proper child care, showing mother nursing baby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before baby P. was born, I was positive that I was going to exclusively breast-feed him. I had heard rumours that it might be difficult, so I read everything on the subject that I could get my hands on. I silently judged mothers who gave up on breastfeeding, thinking them to be lazy or uncommitted. In my prenatal class, we devoted an entire evening to the subject of breast-feeding. The doula who taught the class told us that the culture of breast-feeding had been lost over the past couple of generations, but that almost every woman could breast-feed if she wanted. I left that class more determined and proud of myself than ever. I was going to be one of a new generation of women bringing natural feeding back into our culture.

I was so fanatic about it that we didn’t even have any bottles in the house when P. was born. I had given my information to Nestlé because they were giving away a free diaper bag and changing mat (along, of course, with a couple of cans of powdered formula). I almost threw the formula away, but decided to keep it in the extremely unlikely event that we would need it.

In my inaugural post on this blog, I detailed my struggle with breast-feeding and eventual transition to exclusively formula-feeding. The guilt and shame that came along with that process is something that is difficult for me to articulate, and painful to remember. I used to avoid feeding my baby in public at all costs. I would feed him immediately before we left the house, then frantically try to get all of my running around done within an hour so that I could get back home in time to feed him again. If I did have to feed him while we were out, I did so in my car. When I got together with other moms and they discussed their breast-feeding woes, I would nod along in agreement-partially because I understood, but also because I wanted them to think that I was breast-feeding too. I felt so ashamed, and so alone.

bookThank goodness we have Suzanne Barston and her book Bottled Up. She, too, is a mom who struggled with breast-feeding and the guilt that came with feeding her baby formula, and she decided to do something about it. Her book is a thorough examination of the current culture in North America that teaches moms that “breast is best” and anything else is at best sub par, and at worst dangerous. She argues that how we feed our babies has become more than just a matter of nutrition, but rather a moral compass and measure of our worth as mothers.

The book starts with a history of infant feeding including the evolution of formula, the sometimes shameful tactics of formula companies, and examples of over-zealous marketing of the pro-breast-feeding agenda. She moves into a discussion on the inability of some women to be able to breast-feed (for a variety of reasons), refuting the argument that “every woman can breast-feed”. There is a significant section of the book devoted to the heart-breaking dilemma faced by mothers with post-partum depression and other mood disorders who must choose between taking medication for their mental health and doing (what they’re told is) the best for their baby.

There is an entire chapter written on the challenge faced by working American mothers who must pump at work in order to meet the recommendation set out by the WHO to exclusively breast-feed for six months. This is obviously less of an issue here in Canada, where we receive one full year of maternity leave, but not all Canadian women are able or want to be out of the work force for a year.

Finally, she takes an in-depth look at the statistics that are commonly touted as proof that breast-feeding is nutritionally superior to formula-feeding. It would seem that in many cases the statistics are shaky or exaggerated, which can lead us to conclude that perhaps breast milk isn’t really the “liquid gold” cure-all that we’ve been lead to believe, or at the very least that more research is needed.

Her book is neither pro-formula nor anti-breast. It is simply an analysis of the messages that new mothers are receiving, at a time when they are at their most vulnerable, that overemphasize the notion that the manner in which we feed our babies is the foremost measure of how good we are as mothers. We’re left asking the same question that I asked myself as a new mom: is breast-feeding really so much better for our babies that it’s worth the stress and guilt and pain that some women put themselves through?

I would strongly recommend that mothers-to-be read this book, along with (obviously) women who hoped to breast-feed but were not able to. I also would like to see this as recommended reading for health-care providers like OB’s, midwives, and doulas.

If you are a woman who is struggling with any of the issues raised in this post, you might want to check out Barston’s website, Fearless Formula Feeder. If there was ever any doubt that a book or website like this is needed, it is put to rest once you see the overwhelming community of women coming together to support each other in their feeding choices.

Evolution of a Formula-Feeding Mom

Becoming a new parent is an adjustment (to say the least). If there is one thing that all new parents quickly learn to deal with, it’s judgement. Any decision that you make regarding your baby will be judged somewhere, by someone. Now that we have online parenting groups, we can be judged by people half way around the world whom we have never even met!

No single choice seems as polarizing, though, as the war between formula-feeding and breast-feeding. The opposing camps on this issue are so divided, and the labels so harsh: breast-feeding moms are self-righteous and smug; formula-feeding moms are uninformed and negligent.

I should preface this post by stating that I am very pro-breast feeding. In spite of the fact that some of the health benefits attributed to breast milk may be inflated, I think it truly is the best nutrition for our babies. I also think that there is a lot about the breast-feeding relationship that we don’t know yet. There may be benefits that we don’t even know exist and can’t measure.

That being said, my son is formula-fed. It was never my plan. Like all first-time expectant moms, I had a vision of how being a mom was going to be. I planned on an intervention-free, peaceful birth followed by a year of exclusive breastfeeding. And, like so many expectant moms, the reality was much different. I had a difficult labour that culminated in a c-section. Instead of getting to cuddle and feed my new son right away, I was whisked off to recovery and had to wait hours to hold him. When I finally got to try feeding him, the nurse helped me position him, and he latched on right away. He knew exactly what he was doing and I thought to myself, “Oh, thank God.” I wasn’t going to have to struggle with this like so many other moms that I knew.

Over the next few feedings, however, something seemed wrong. Even though he was feeding every two hours, he was always hungry. He was dropping weight. And he hadn’t had a wet diaper yet. We had a little diaper on him that had a yellow stripe on the front that would turn blue when the diaper was wet. I checked that diaper constantly, praying that it would be wet, only to see the yellow stripe. That damned yellow stripe. After two days, the nurses got concerned. One night, after weighing him again, one of the nurses gently suggested that we could offer him some formula. Out of exhaustion and worry, I reluctantly agreed.

After bottle feeding him, I looked at my new infant son. He was finally satisfied, his tiny stomach full for the first time. I should have taken comfort in that, but I didn’t. I felt disgusted and angry with myself, and guilty. It was supposed to be my body that fed my baby. Resolved that that would be the one and only time that my baby ate formula, I resumed breast-feeding. But still, my body wasn’t producing the milk that my baby needed. We gave him a few more bottles while he was in the hospital, and soon it became routine. I would breast feed him to try to encourage my supply, and then we would “top up” with formula.

When we got home, the routine continued. Only now it was really painful to breast-feed him as well. From everything that I read, it seemed like he probably wasn’t latched on properly. I had help from my midwife, countless nurses, and lactation experts. They all said that he was latched perfectly and that there shouldn’t be any pain. Only there was.

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Image courtesy of amdavis http://www.sxc.hu/

Feeding time became so stressful. I dreaded the toe-curling pain of my baby latching on, and the inevitable frustration when he drank all of the milk that I had and was still hungry. I started to think, “If he’s just going to need formula anyway, why bother putting myself through this?” It got so bad, that I actually started to delay feeding times because it was so miserable. My poor partner tried to help as much as he could. I would get positioned to feed, with pillows propped up all around me, and he would hand me the baby and then stand by helplessly as I cried while I fed him.

I knew that something had to change. Yes, breast milk was best for my baby. But having a happy and loving mom was important for my baby, too. Being able to bond peacefully over mealtimes was important. So I started to pump.  Things immediately got better. I stopped dreading feeding my son, and started to enjoy cuddling him while giving him a bottle. My supply was never high enough that I could exclusively breast feed him, but the combination of breast milk and formula seemed to be working. Then, when he was about two months old, I got sick. Overnight, my supply completely dried up. I tried to get it back, taking pills and pumping religiously. It never came back. It was then that I had to give up on the idea that I would ever get to exclusively breast feed my baby.

Since then, I wonder if there is something else that I could have done. I look back at milestones along the way and think…if I had just not given him that bottle in the hospital. If I had just met with one more consultant who might have told me what was wrong. If I had just tried a little harder at feeding him. It’s something that I still struggle with day to day. When I see a woman breast-feeding, I feel a jealousy course through my body, the likes of which I have never felt before.  I want that relationship with my baby.

For some women, formula feeding is a choice.  For me and others, it’s a necessity. Regardless, formula-feeding moms love their babies just as much as breast-feeding moms. We are not all ignorant and uninformed. We are not lazy (spending nap times disassembling, washing, sterilizing, and reassembling those damn Dr. Brown’s bottles leaves no room for laziness). It’s not always a matter of us not trying hard enough. My baby is not doomed to a life of allergies, sickness, obesity, and eating processed food just because he got his start on formula. Thank goodness we live in a time where an alternative to breast milk exists.

In the end, I’m not writing this for the approval of all the other moms out there.  The only judgement that I have to live with day to day is what I tell myself.  And so I choose to tell myself that I am a loving and caring mom who is doing her best for her baby…and in a year I’ll have something completely different to obsess about.