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Yes, breastfeeding has benefits, but formula moms aren’t failures

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Whether you breastfeed your baby or need to use formula, it doesn't determine how great a mom you are.

I have a vivid memory of my first ever breastfeeding class. I was pregnant with my first child, sitting in a room of other mommies-to-be, and a lactation consultant, who ardently spoke to us all about the benefits of breastfeeding. She told us how much smarter, healthier and happier our babies would be than if we’d chosen formula for them. While there may have been some scientific truth to her words, I recall feeling a little uneasy. It wasn’t really that cut and dry was it? Good and bad? I felt a pang of sympathy for the many mothers out there who are unable to breastfeed their babies for all sorts of reasons.

Maybe this notion sounds preposterous if nursing a child came easily to you, as natural and necessary a process as eating or drinking.But for mothers who have faced the painful struggle of making breastfeeding work; who experienced frustration over their bodies not making enough milk to properly nourish their babies; or whose medical conditions require medication that cannot safely be passed to an infant through their milk; for those mothers, the inability to breastfeed is very real and worthy of far more compassion and understanding than it receives.

Over the past several decades, the advocacy of breastfeeding has progressed dramatically throughout our culture. While during the middle of the 20th century 80 percent of American mothers bottle fed formula to their infants, a remarkable 75 percent now embark on the motherhood journey with a baby at their breast. This is a phenomenal change in society’s pace, since the benefits of breastfeeding, both for mom and baby, cannot be overstated. Doctors, nurses, and midwives will inevitably sing the praises of breast milk to their expectant patients, and rightfully so.

But what these authorities don’t often tell new moms is that breastfeeding isn’t always the walk in the park that the media portrays it to be. In fact, very, very few women are able to just immediately latch, and have breezy breastfeeding right off the bat. As lactation consultant Carol Smith acknowledged, “The truth is that everyone struggles in the early days. Maybe in different ways.” But it can be a beautiful, beneficial bond that’s worth struggling for.

Breastfeeding often takes weeks or even months for both mom and baby to get the hang of. For many mothers, particularly those who experience painful breast conditions brought on by nursing or who are in the throes of postpartum depression, the stress is too much to bear. A lactation consultant at breastfeedingsupport.ie, Nicola O’Byrne, told independent.ie, “If a mother has postnatal depression and she really wants to stop, that’s absolutely the right thing to do.” Ultimately, as O’Byrne explains, a mother needs to do what’s best for her, which will also be what’s best for her child. “Interaction with her baby is the most important thing for long term health,” O’Byrne says.

Furthermore, as Joan Wolf, author of Is Breast Best?, points out, it’s still unclear whether it is breast milk itself that is so physiologically advantageous to babies or simply the healthful parenting behaviors practiced by nursing mothers. “The better health of breastfed babies could well be due … to other things that breastfeeding moms are doing, not to the breast milk itself.” For example, the skin-to-skin contact that comes with nursing carries tremendous benefits for mom and baby. Many parents who formula-feed simply prop the bottle up for their little one to suckle from as opposed to providing the physical interaction that babies thrive on.

I feel blessed to have been able to breastfeed my daughter for the first year of her life, but for many women I know, formula has been their blessing. As Wolf put it, “Some women find breastfeeding deeply rewarding, and for them, breastfeeding is the right choice. Others find that formula-feeding works much better, and for them, breastfeeding is the wrong choice.” Despite what works best for us personally, we must bear in mind that we have no idea what circumstances other women are dealing with and it’s not up to us to declare what method of feeding is most fitting for their child.

“Breastfeeding does not make you a better mother,” Dr. Courtney Manser, an Ontario family physician, reminds us. “You are a good mother because you care and want the best for your baby.”

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