I fed my newborns formula to keep them alive. Still, I felt guilty about it.

Darlena Cunha
August 5
Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned stay-at-home mom to twin girls. She writes for The Washington Post and TIME.
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Me with my two newborns, just home from the hospital. (Darlena Cunha)

Hello, my name is Darlena Cunha, and I was a formula feeder.

The day I bought my first can marked a parenting low for me. When I was pregnant, I read books and parenting Web sites that extolled the virtue of breast milk. Good mothers, I learned, breastfeed. Lazy mothers don’t.

Yet here I was, giving up.

But my kids were hungry. And no matter what I did, they wouldn’t latch. We’d all end up frustrated, exhausted and crying. They took bottles of pumped milk, but they weren’t getting enough.

At a month, my babies were just six pounds, and they weren’t gaining weight. So we switched to formula. Taking out that bottle in the mall earned me scornful glances from other mothers. One woman confronted me about it, saying my children were so tiny they surely needed the antibodies only my milk could provide.

You know what I did? I lied. “It’s pumped milk.” My tone was too defensive, but I didn’t care. “I exclusively pump.” I figure that had been true not so long ago, but my ears still burned.

That awful, soul-eating shame disappeared once I saw the powder’s results. The babies gained almost a pound in a month. By three and a half months, they had grown out of their preemie gear and were wearing newborn clothes.

And for the first time, they weren’t hungry.

What I thought of as failure was actually success. My beautiful little bags of bones were filling out. They were happy. They were well-fed. And even though I was feeding them formula, they felt well loved. The sky had not fallen down.

* * *

If you’re pregnant, chances are you’ve heard that “breast is best.” In 2004, the nationally funded campaign “Babies Were Born to Be Breastfed” began, running until 2006 with the goal of getting 75 percent of women nurse until their first postpartum period and 50 percent of mothers nurse for at least six months.

But the saturation of breastfeeding ideals has been deep and consuming for mothers for the greater part of the past decade. Check any parenting community, and you’ll find dozens of voices repeating the mantra. There’s some science behind that — Breastfeeding does boost babies’ immune systems and provides them their mother’s anti-bodies before they can make their own.  The World Health Organization recommends mothers breastfeed for at least six months.

But like so many messages these days, the idea that women must breastfeed has gotten a little out of hand.  In a survey conducted by Baby Talk Magazine, in which 36,000 women took part, 66 percent of breast feeders said they felt sorry for formula-fed babies, and 33 percent of them called their formula-feeding counterparts lazy and selfish.

That idea is echoed in the media, with scary articles about stores pulling formula off the shelves after a baby died of a bacterial infection (which was never linked to the formula at all) and entire cities putting formula behind locked doors in perky campaigns like New York City’s “Latch On, NYC.”

This ignores a couple of large issues. Just as important as the baby’s health is the mother’s health, and very often, when breastfeeding, adult medications must be stopped so that the effects don’t reach the infants via the mothers’ milk. With postpartum depression affecting 1 in 7 mothers and many more suffering from anxiety and other mental illness, going off these medications could be disastrous.

Not to mention, for low-weight babies like mine, some formula is fortified with extra calories, giving them the boost they need to maintain their fragile temperatures. In fact, there’s little evidence that there’s any developmental difference in babies who are breast or bottle fed, according to Professor Joan Wolf, author of “Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood.” And a new study that researched families in which one sibling was breastfed and the other formula fed found no differences between the two.

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My daughters, days after they were born. (Darlena Cunha)

So, then, why the hysterics?

My experience is far from unique. When my friend Melanie Greeke delivered her daughter Jacee (a tough birth that ended with two weeks in the NICU), a well-meaning nurse talked Greeke  into nursing. When the baby wouldn’t suckle from the breast, Greeke began pumping exclusively.

“At that point I was a single mom on food stamps living in a really scary part of Syracuse,” she said. “I couldn’t afford an automatic pump because the health care I was provided through public assistance wouldn’t pay for a machine.”

The hand pump was so slow that in order to feed Jacee, Melanie was tied to it, day in and day out. She couldn’t have left the house if she’d wanted to, but her spiking anxiety due to being off vital medications in order to breastfeed meant she didn’t want to anyway. She became agoraphobic. When Melanie finally went to a health professional, three months after the birth of her daughter, she was told to stop breastfeeding.

That’s when the hazing began. “It was like I had decided to feed my daughter straight up poison,” Greeke said. “While mixing formula in public places I would get advice or nasty looks. Once a woman told me that ‘a baby that cute should be breastfed!’”

This kind of thing happens every day, to more women than you’d think.

“I had a nurse corner me, saying if I wanted the best for my son I would breastfeed,” said Sandi Suarez, a mother of five. “She never looked at his chart to see that he had a reaction to what milk I did produce. We had to put him on formula.”

This is a dangerous game. When we view feeding babies as a competition, and we foist blame and judgment upon those who cannot nurse, we eat away at the very goal we’re trying to obtain—a healthy, happy child.

That means accepting women who don’t breastfeed, even if it’s simply because they’re too busy or tired or just don’t feel like it. Unclutch the pearls. It’s okay. It’s not the world’s baby, it’s that mother’s baby. And she gets to choose how she keeps it alive.

“I never even tried,” said Emily Santanella. “I just didn’t want to. I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable with it. And I’ve got three very healthy kids who are attached to me at the hip.”

We need to stop the judgment. Whether women are breastfeeding in public or formula feeding, society feels like it has the right to tell them what they are doing wrong. And that’s the last thing new mothers need. They already feel like they’re doing everything wrong — it is the nature of motherhood. As long as mothers are feeding their babies, whether they breastfeed or bottle feed, why don’t we just let them do it?

 

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