Bottle-feeding my babies was one of the best parenting decisions I ever made. And while this simple statement will likely enrage men and women across America, I won't be made to feel guilty about it.
Fourteen years ago, when I was pregnant with my oldest child I was fairly certain I did not want to breastfeed. I didn't have a medical problem that prevented lactation, and I wasn't planning to return to an office. It just wasn't right for our family. I didn't like the idea of whipping out my breasts in public, or attaching a milking machine to my nipples, or being the only living source of food on the planet for my child.
I did however like the idea that my husband would be able to participate in the most intimate act of feeding our son from the day he was born. I liked that I might be able to sleep for more than four hours at a stretch. I liked knowing exactly how much my child was eating, down to the very last ounce. And (I admit it) after nine long months of total sobriety, I liked the idea of drinking the occasional glass of wine without worrying that I was getting my newborn hooked on cheap chardonnay.
Despite my confidence in this decision, a caterwauling mob of concerned friends and lactation zealots convinced me that I absolutely had to at least try to breastfeed.
"Oh no," frowned one close friend. "If you don't breastfeed, your child will lose IQ points."
"The baby won't bond with you unless you breastfeed," tsked another.
"He will almost certainly die of typhus, or swine flu, or some dastardly childhood disease that breast milk can absolutely prevent," warned the lactation consultant. "Plus formula is made from nicotine and tequila and mashed up dung beetles."
Okay, she didn't actually say any of that, but she insinuated it. And I gave in.
On the day he was born, despite the fact that I was hopped-up on morphine from the c-section, and that I could barely keep my head up much less support the weight of a newborn child in my arms, I gave it the old college try. It lasted exactly four days.
The first night, I tried to breastfeed him, sliding my swollen nipple into his mouth and attempting different positions to get him to latch on, and I thought I was doing an okay job. Then I woke up two hours later. Max was laying prone across my lap, his head tipped at a dangerous angle into the sheets. I had fallen asleep while feeding him and apparently let him fall. Did I mention I was coming off of morphine?
Finding him that way terrified me. It was my first night alone with the baby and I had already nearly killed him. Sure, he was fine, but it was clear to me that this was a dangerous game to play with an infant's life. What if he had slip off the bed? What if I had smothered him with the blankets?
The next morning, I was nearly ready to give it all up and ask for a bottle, when I was accosted by the local lactation consultant. She had gotten wind of my wavering resolve and was on a mission to get me back on the righteous path of breastfeeders everywhere.
She barged into my room, uninvited and unannounced, a towering menace of a woman with plasticky blond hair, garish lipstick, and a collection of chunky bracelets that jangled and clanked when she moved her arms. This was especially alarming when, with barely a ‘how do you do', she reached across the baby and grabbed hold of my naked breast then proceeded to try and smother my young son with it.
"You're doing it wrong," she barked, and her cheap perfume made my recently stitched up abdomen quiver. "Your tipping your nipple in the wrong direction."
I was, not surprisingly, appalled. How dare she make disparaging remarks about the angle of my nipples? And how dare she saunter into my private hospital quarters with her Dollar Store scent and clackety high heels, and manhandle my breasts while I was trying to spend private time with my brand new baby?
Still, I was medicated, and half-naked, and in no mood to argue. So I latched him on and smiled encouragingly as she lectured me about how if I really loved my son I would breastfeed him, and how I mustn't let him even taste formula from a bottle because then he'll never go back to the breast.
"Of course," I assured her as my beloved husband firmly steered her out of the room. And I did keep breastfeeding, but it didn't get any better. By day three I was exhausted and my nipples were cracked and bleeding.
Let's stop here for a moment. If you've never breastfed a child, pause and try to picture your own nipples cracked and bleeding. Imagine them covered with tiny barely formed scabs and stinging exposed nerves. Then picture a small gummy vice clamping down on those nipples and tugging and gnawing on them until they bleed anew, then having that happen again and again for what feels like the rest of your life. Got the picture?
So there I was, bleeding nipples, aching c-section scar, and voraciously hungry son who expected to be fed several times a day. I was distraught, and ready to throw in the towel, when once again, in marched the lactation bully.
"This can't be right," I implored as I showed her my damaged breasts. "There must be something I can do to make it stop?"
"It's normal," she snarled as she once again took liberties with my bosom. "They'll start to heal in six or eight weeks."
I was certain I'd misheard her, what with all the bracelet-jangling going on. "Six to eight weeks?" I squeaked.
She scowled at me down her overly powdered nose. "Yes," she sneered. "You'll get used to it."
But did I want to get used to it? I'd had this child in my life for three short days, and instead of eagerly waiting for him to open his eye so we could spend precious time together, I was dreading it. Like Pavlov's dogs, I was beginning to equate feeding my baby with nerve jangling pain that made my eyes water and my joints clench. Even in my exhausted state, I knew that this was not the way to begin a great bonding experience. The lactation consultant glared at me accusingly as she watched my eyes well anew with pain-induced tears. It was as if she was daring me to give up.
As soon as we arrived home the following day Max had his first glorious taste of formula and we never looked back. That afternoon, our baby lay curled sleepily in his father's arms. David fed him his first bottle, stroking his tiny cheek and marveling at the miracle of our son – while I lay in bed with icepacks shoved down my shirt.
And that was one of the many great benefits we discovered about bottle-feeding. As any parent knows, babies do precious little for the first eight weeks of their lives, and feeding them is the best part. By choosing to bottle-feed, David got to engage every day with our son – dare I say it allowed them to bond in a way that changing his diaper and laying him in his crib simply couldn't. Because it turns out that holding a child in your arms and feeding him, whether it's from a breast, or a bottle, or a baggie of Cheerios, is an amazing way to bond. It's not about what you feed them, it is the act of feeding that leaves an impression.
David and I tag-team fed him in those first weeks, taking turns getting up at night when it felt like no-one else in the whole world was awake. My mother also came to stay with us when Max was still brand new, and she gave us the sweetest gift of keeping his bassinet beside her bed and getting up to feed him two nights in a row so that we might get a full night's sleep. She still talks about that trip and how lovely it was to have that special time with her newborn grandson.
Max drank formula from bottles for the first year of his life and miraculously survived. In fact, it was such a success that we had no doubts we would also bottle-feed our second child.
Two-and-a-half years later Ella was born, a month premature due to complications I've covered ad nauseum in other forums. She lived her first week on this earth in the NICU, and I remember her doctor asking the first day if I planned to breastfeed her, because he would make sure I had a hospital room nearby.
"No," I answered, older and more confidant then I'd been three years before. "We are bottle-feeding her."
"Ohhh, I see," he harrumphed through vaguely clenched teeth. "Do you know what kind of formula you want to give her? Or do you not care."
Miraculously, I ignored the contempt in his voice and mustered the strength to respond with a smile. "Yes," I said gallantly, "we want her to have Carnation Good Start."
The doctor rolled his eyes and dismissed me, floating off to the next NICU baby as a nurse went to fix a bottle for my daughter. I braced myself for a new wave of scorn upon her return but was pleasantly surprised. "Good for you," she said gently patting my shoulder as she handed me the bottle. Then she placed my newborn daughter in my arms.
While bottle-feeding Max had been a good decision, bottle-feeding Ella was a Godsend. Because she was early, she needed to eat every three hours, and during that first week of her life David and I took turns sitting at her bedside in the NICU. The only time we could hold her was when she ate, and to this day every year on her birthday, David tells her the story of those nights he spent holding her tiny body in his arms, tapping the bottom of the bottle to get her to eat one more ounce before drifting back to sleep, then watching her breathe for three hours till she was ready to eat again. When she finally came home, still tiny and fussy, she ate constantly and without regard for the time of day. Where Max slept through the night at 10 weeks, Ella got up at least once every night for an entire year.
I was so grateful that David and I could share those duties; grateful that I occasionally was able to sleep through the night while my daughter was awake in her father's arms; and grateful that we cared for our daughter as a team, equally responsible for keeping her fed. It made all of our lives sweeter and more rewarding.
And, as for all the dire warnings about the calamities that would befall my babies if we headed down the hedonistic bottle-feeding path? It was all bunk. My children were both healthy happy babies. Except for the occasional runny nose or ear infection, they survived babyhood without a single bout of measles, or croup, or bubonic plague. They are smart. Both of them learned to read before they started kindergarten despite the mind-dumbing consequence of being fed hundreds of bottles of infant formula. And they continue to do well in school to this day. And as for bonding, I may be biased, but I'm pretty sure they love me. Ella writes adoring notes and poems to me that she leaves tucked about the house, and Max, at 13, still shouts "I love you mom" every day when I drop him at school, even if other kids are around. Despite daring to expose these precious defenseless infants to the toxic, life-altering effects of formula, they triumphed. And I have to believe they are not the exception.
You'd think this was just an uncontroversial story about a mother making a parenting choice that was right for her family, but a search of recent news stories and blog coverage on breastfeeding would tell you otherwise. According to the ‘breast is best' fanatics, choosing to bottle-feed my babies was akin to feeding them crack and getting them tattooed. New York is even considering locking up formula in hospitals so new mothers won't be swayed by the evils of this alternative to the breast.
But why? Of all the things society can do to protect it's most vulnerable citizens, is hiding formula and making women feel terrible about how they choose to feed their children really the place to start?
Taking care of an infant is an exhausting, emotional, and draining time, and the last thing new mothers need is their loved ones, local politicians, or random strangers grabbing their breasts while telling them how to raise their babies and live their lives.
Why don't we stop bullying new mothers altogether? Whether they choose to bottle-feed their babies, put them in daycare, or Scotch tape ugly red bows to the top of their bald heads for photos, even if we don't agree with their choices, let's agree to
support their right to make them.
Sarah Fister Gale is a Chicago-based writer whose work has been featured by Salon.com, Chicago Parent, NPR and other media outlets. You can also find her on Twitter.