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Why I Didn't Breastfeed My Kids & What I Wish Moms Knew

Last updated on March 16, 2020

Seven years ago when I had my first daughter, I was unable to breastfeed because of the medication I was taking after delivery complications. I felt really guilty and spent a lot of time beating myself up about it. I felt like I had “failed” her, and myself, in some way. Deep down I knew that wasn’t really true, but I still felt that way. I had always assumed I would breastfeed, and, like everyone else, had been well aware of the numerous studies reporting the health and bonding benefits of breastfeeding.

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My experience with formula.

Fast-forward to the present day. I just had another baby, and this time, at age 36, I was a little older and wiser. During those seven years between my pregnancies, I had done a lot more critical research on the benefits of breastfeeding. (I am a neuroscientist with a background in nutrition and wrote the book What To Eat When You’re Pregnant.)

Based on what I found, I decided to take a more relaxed approach to breastfeeding. I told myself we would try it—but I wasn’t going to be upset with myself if it didn’t work out. Plus, I had the reassurance of my beautiful 7-year-old girl, who drank formula as a baby and was exceptionally healthy and happy.

Once the new baby was born, we tried nursing, but it wasn’t working out. I was exhausted from the C-section, my milk wasn’t coming in very well, and we had latching problems that caused me to bleed and be in a lot of pain when I tried to nurse her. On the third day of her life, I decided (with the support of my husband) to stop trying to nurse and give the baby formula instead.

But I was completely shocked by the backlash I got from the doctors, nurses, friends, and family. They pushed breastfeeding really hard, even when I made it clear that we had decided to formula-feed her. “It’s best for the baby!” “You need to give it time," and “You need to suck it up” were just a few of the not-so-encouraging words I received just hours after giving birth. I brushed off these comments because I had made an informed decision and it really wasn’t anyone’s business anyway.

My new daughter is now 6 months old, and I am happy to say that formula-feeding is going well. We are all very happy and healthy, and I have no guilt about my decision to use formula this time around.

But even though formula-feeding was the right choice for me, I find there’s still a lot of unnecessary shaming around this decision.

What the research shows.

People are really quick these days to talk about the advantages of breastfeeding. There are numerous studies proclaiming the superiority of breastfeeding over formula-feeding, leading some to “mommy-shame” others for choosing the latter. I myself experienced that backlash.

However, when one takes a closer look, a lot of these studies don't necessarily prove anything. Many of the benefits of breastfeeding are correlations and therefore do not imply causation. Since it's unethical to randomize groups to breastfeed or not, all of the studies are basically observational. In addition, there are many other variables, such as education level, socioeconomic status, pre-pregnancy weight and smoking status, all of which affect the health of the infant and are also associated with whether or not a woman chooses to breastfeed.

Whether breastfeeding helps prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes and postpartum depression, or has a significant impact on child intelligence, is actually still debatable due to differences in study designs and confounding variables—even though it’s often touted as fact.

Plus, dominating opinions about breastfeeding from friends, family members, media, health care professionals, and other moms can exaggerate the truth, muddying the factual science.

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Why I wish we'd stop shaming mothers.

It's also important not to lose sight of all the other variables that go into raising a baby. A healthy mother-baby relationship relies not just on nutrition but also hinges on love and happiness, support, and a nurturing environment.

And what isn’t studied as frequently, and is oftentimes overlooked, is the impact of the stress a mother experiences because of feeding choice. In other words: What if the health and well-being of the mother might actually be compromised as a result of pushing breastfeeding? In fact, a stressed-out, sleep-deprived mother is arguably more harmful—to both mother and baby—than feeding an infant formula.

Feelings of anxiety and fatigue are already common among new mothers. If breastfeeding only adds more stress, it may further amplify symptoms associated with postpartum depression—and feelings of guilt for choosing to formula-feed don't help the situation. Unfortunately, high parental stress affects bonding between mother and baby and can hinder the mother’s ability to respond correctly to certain infant signals.

In other words, decreasing maternal anxiety, stress, and fatigue as much as possible paves the way for a healthy relationship between the mother and infant. And if formula-feeding can help do that, then a bottle might be the best option for both mama and baby. After all, there is a huge disparity between women who initially breastfeed and those who actually continue doing it, showing that it can be harder and more stressful than most people like to admit.

The bottom line:

Whether a mother chooses to provide formula, breast milk, or both to her baby is a personal choice. This choice should be respected and not come with any baggage of guilt or judgment. My stance isn’t anti-breastfeeding or pro-formula-feeding. It is pro-mom. All moms, regardless of their decisions on what to feed their baby or reasons behind it, need our support. We've become overwhelmed by the mantra “Breast Is Best." But the truth is “Happy and Healthy Mom Is Best” for baby.

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Nicole Avena, Ph.D.
Nicole Avena, Ph.D.

Nicole Avena, Ph.D., is a research neuroscientist, author and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She received a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology from Princeton University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. She has published over 70 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters and a book, on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She also edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (2012), Hedonic Eating (2014) and the popular books Why Diets Fail (2014, Ten Speed Press), co-written with John R. Talbott, and What To Eat When You’re Pregnant (2015, Ten Speed Press).

Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association. She also maintains a blog, Food Junkie, with Psychology Today.