Feeding Babies Is Harder Than Ever—Stop Telling People To ‘Just Breastfeed’

Photo: Getty Images / Jose Luis Pelaez Inc
Even before getting pregnant, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I'd bought into the narrative that "breast is best," though intellectually, I know that a well-fed baby is the only priority. Moreover, I wanted to show myself that—after dealing with fibroids, weathering IVF cycles with my husband, and enduring a scheduled C-section—my body could cooperate for once.

But our feeding journey didn't go according to plan. Instead of that oft-hyped "golden hour" immediately following birth, when our daughter and I could enjoy skin-to-skin time, she was whisked away to the NICU because she had trouble breathing. All aspirations for an Instaworthy breastfeeding portrait were dashed.

Our doula helped me collect colostrum—a milky fluid produced right after childbirth—to send to the NICU. But instead of experiencing relief, I worried that the tiny syringes we filled weren't enough. I was also concerned the nurses would give our daughter formula to compensate for any shortage. I thought, somehow, this meant I wasn't enough.

Thanks to several meetings with lactation consultants, we eventually got the hang of breastfeeding. There were ups and downs, but (with the help of my "Twitter moms"), I built a freezer stash of breastmilk to feed the baby when I wasn't home. What I didn't anticipate, however, was blowing through said stash when she started daycare months later.

On a fateful Tuesday afternoon, I completed three 30-minute pumping sessions and only produced four ounces of milk. We were sending our daughter to daycare with three 4-ounce bottles per day, and I naively thought I could pump the equivalent of what she was consuming. (I was wrong.)

"I can set an alarm to pump every two hours overnight," I told my husband. "I can power pump the next day and run the additional bottles to the school."

"Stop," he said lovingly. "You've done enough."

I protested, but he had a point. We'd already discussed how we would approach this situation. Months ago, before the nationwide formula shortage, I spotted a sponsored Instagram ad for Bobbie, an organic infant formula company. I told myself that I would use their formula if it came to it. But the time arrived sooner than I'd hoped.

I was beginning to measure my self-worth in ounces.

I also remembered a mom friend once suggested supplemental feeding, or combination feeding, which involves using formula in addition to breastmilk. While the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby's life, that's not always possible for a variety of reasons such as the baby is underweight, the mom is unable to (or doesn't want to), adoption, surrogacy, etc. And although there's an entire resource center dedicated to breastfeeding on the ACOG website, little to nothing is shared about formula or supplemental feeding—further pushing the false narrative that #BreastIsBest.

Initially, I dismissed my mom friend because I was determined to breastfeed exclusively, but she mentioned the mental health benefits she experienced. I didn't realize it at the time, but I always felt anxiety around breastfeeding: Is my daughter getting enough milk? Am I producing enough? I was beginning to measure my self-worth in ounces.

I tracked down a local boutique pharmacy that carried the formula I saw on Instagram, called to ensure they had it in stock, and drove to the store with enough time to make it back for daycare pickup. It must've been the adrenaline because I didn't burst into tears until later that evening when I asked my husband to prepare the bottles. I couldn't even bring myself to look at the can. I felt like a failure, even though I knew I was doing what was right for our baby and my overall well-being.

Breastfeeding is only "free" because people don't acknowledge the time and money it requires.

We only used a few formula bottles while my breastmilk supply stabilized, but when the formula shortage began, complicated emotions cropped up: In addition to sympathizing with families impacted by the shortage, I was outraged when people "innocuously" suggested breastfeeding as a simple solution—as if it's a no-cost cakewalk.

At one point, I attempted to tally how much breastfeeding cost me, taking into account the price of my pump, meeting with lactation consultants, nursing bras and tops, and lactation cookies (not to mention the hours I spend pumping every day). Breastfeeding is only "free" because people don't acknowledge the time and money it requires.

Throughout this journey, I've felt guilty about being able to breastfeed amidst the shortage, and I worried about what would happen if we experienced another breastmilk issue. I've considered getting an additional can of formula "just in case," but I've resisted the urge to stockpile when other families need it more.

I'm relieved that we embraced supplemental feeding, and I feel lingering shame that my body didn't meet my expectations. I enjoy breastfeeding our daughter, and I'm already sad, knowing the journey will someday end. But, mostly, I'm proud of myself for doing what was necessary to protect my mental health and nourish our daughter.

I wish there were more open conversations, more grace, and less judgment about the paths we take to ensure our children are fed. Since we've tried supplemental feeding, I've unfollowed hardcore "lactavists" on Instagram who tout breastfeeding as the way, the truth, and the light. It's not, and I don't need that kind of shame in my life. After wading through guilt, fear, and disappointment, I've arrived here: There is no one right way to feed your baby, just like there's no one right way to parent. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, especially now when making sure our babies are nourished is more complicated than ever.


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