Is Breast Always Best?

A few days ago I was watching Packed to the Rafters (an Australian soap on Star world about family and probably closer to Indian sensibilities than our Indian soaps will EVER be) and the episode’s plot involved the protagonist, mother to a newborn baby struggling with breastfeeding issues.

Is Breast Always Best?

It was heartening to see her cope with a baby who was refusing to latch, her inability to let the issue go and supplement her feeds with formula and generally take it easy. Mind you this was no spring chicken mom but a seasoned mom with three grown-up kids under her wings.

The episode really hit home because I could relate with the angst the mom was feeling as she thought of herself as being unable to satisfy her baby’s basic need – hunger. I went through a similar phase when my daughter was born and refused to latch for the first three weeks. I nearly went into postpartum depression because I thought if I can’t feed my baby then what hope is there for me as a mom. The words of the well-meaning breast-feeding coach who was counselling me for my first week as mom kept ringing in my ears – “Breast is best”.

I went through hell and back during those early days, combined with a new mom’s exhaustion and healing from a c-section delivery, was the guilt of not being the “perfect mom”. Each session became a crying marathon with the daughter crying with hunger and me crying with shame. I refused to supplement my feeds with formula and pumped till I couldn’t do it anymore. Mastitis and sore nipple notwithstanding I kept pushing my mind and body just because I wanted to live up to the “ideal mother” picture I had created for myself.

Every time a relative or friend visited to see the baby I was crossing my fingers that daughter would not want a feed during their visiting time and they did not witness my “handicap”. My husband’s sensitivity and my practical to the core Mom got me back from the brink of crazy and helped me get rid of my insecurities. I decided to just focus on my baby and let everything else go. As was destined to happen, in a few weeks the baby and I both got the hang of it and things fell into place.

Don’t get me wrong, I am ALL for breastfeeding. Breast milk has some benefits that formula can never mimic. Influential organisations like the WHO recommend that you exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of your baby’s life.

What I do resent though is the feeling that breastfeeding has to be treated as some kind of competition. I resent when the “breast-brigade” will make you feel that you are not mom-enough just because you could not breastfeed like an angel, did not continue breastfeeding till your child was in preschool, because you could not pump enough to last in the freezer for the next six months or you weaned too early.

Books, magazines and even web forums will have you believe that unless you can breast feed you are not Mom enough. What if a Mom just can’t? What if she just doesn’t get the nitty-gritty of it even after trying really hard? What if she doesn’t want to breastfeed? Should she be judged as a bad mom because of this one fact?

There is medical research which states both sides of the coin, some which irrefutably claim that breast milk is the holy grail and formula is poison and others which show that there is hardly any perceptible difference between the health and weight gain of breast vs. bottle fed babies over a period of time.

What I want you think about is, whether in the light of the fact that mother’s mental state and the stress she undertakes definitely affects a child well-being, is breastfeeding still an unwavering choice when the mom is not doing it purely out of love but just to prove that she is good enough?

I think moms face a lot of bullying from other moms (sadly) in various aspects of parenting and breastfeeding is probably the first issue on which new moms tend to be judged mere moments after giving birth. An uncertain, vulnerable and fearful mom who is made to feel less of a mom because of whether she can breast feed or not, can easily be pushed to the realm of depression.

I feel we need to relax and lower the expectations from moms to be “perfect” all the time. And who defines perfect anyways? Parenting is all about doing what’s best for your child and sometimes that can mean doing what’s best for YOU.

Swapna Thomas is a Work at Home Mom and a professional blogger who left the corporate rat race to raise her daughter. She loves shopping, writing, black coffee and DIY decor, in no particular order. You can catch her parenting blog and join her on Twitter @themomviews.

  • A very thoughtful, valid post, Swapna! Its so strange when moms gang up like that. I remember the time my baby would wail and wail, and everyone (read that as random aunts, grannies and the like) would look at me with a disapproving gaze and say, ‘The poor baby isn’t getting enough…..’ and I would go into fits of self driven guilt rides….

    • Thanks Meena! That is one thing I can’t ever understand. Do these aunties and the likes have a scanner fit inside them? The moment a child cries they know it must be cos he is not getting enough milk from the mom. Heavens forbid if he is just crying of a wet diaper. But I am glad that new moms are being more supportive of each other now. 🙂

  • Priti

    Superb article! loved it and each word of it is true and happens with all the new moms. Thanks for sharing it to the world. Hope some of the bully women, auties, grannies and relatives read this and get some piece of mind and manners to not do it again.

    • Thanks Priti! I really hope some of the people who behave this way really read this post and understand how the moms feel when they are judged.

  • I totally agree with you Swapna. I had a terrible, terrible start at breast feeding myself and I was all twisted and left in pain. V went on a day long strike and I kicked me so hard that I had a case of abscess. Even pumping didn’t work! As I cried and fussed over breast feeding, I also reminded myself that stress reduced milk production. I soon realised and taught myself that it’s important for V to have a full tummy than have to deal with a guilt-ridden mom hyperventilating over his feed! I alternated breast milk with top feed and discovered that V was very happy.

    Yes, breast feeding is made to be a big deal. And most women bring it on themselves. As long as your baby’s tummy is full, she / he is happy and playful, there’s nothing to worry. I didn’t have mother’s milk. My mother tells me that I refused to latch on and the doctor said, “she’s too lazy!”

    • I think there are very few moms who get a dreamy, easy start to breastfeeding. But the inherent competitiveness among women would never let them admit to each other that yes they too had it difficult! It just puts even more pressure on the new moms to live up to the expectations set up by the previous generations. I am glad that you didn’t let the stress get to you and chose what was best for V. 🙂

  • Saranya

    Im a mom that breastfed my son till for three years. He turned three yesterday n we said our farewell to breastmilk just last week.Initially, just like most new moms, I didn’t have any clue as to what breastfeeding was. But we got along with breastfeeding just fine n my baby refused to take a bottle of expressed breastmilk. It had to be straight from the breast.So, I breastfed him exclusively for the first six months and started him on solids but continued to breastfeed my son even past the first year. I would get all kinds of reactions from people for continuing to breastfeed. I even felt guilty about not giving formula. Thankfully my Pediatrician was very supportive and that helped me get through all the weird look and comments that I got for breastfeeding a toddler. Well I think moms should do whats best for their babies and themselves. I did what my son wanted. To each her own. No one has a right to judge a mother for breastfeeding or formula feeding her baby.

  • Fab

    You have echoed my heart, Swapna!! The hospital where I delivered had these huge certificates displaying ‘Baby Friendly Hospital’ all over the place. As a result, they completely prohibited formula, even though both mother and baby would be in tears. I had such a traumatic experience breastfeeding to the point that I don’t think I even want to try should I have another child. My baby was howling, his urine output began to decrease and the horrible nurses just forced me to breast feed even though there wasn’t any milk till after about 5 days. Finally, my Mom sneaked in formula when she thought that the newborn getting dehydrated was the bigger risk at that point. And then came the barrage of relatives with ‘She doesn’t have any milk?’ Oh my God – it was an ordeal to say the least!! I’m so glad you’ve put into words the feelings of mothers like me 🙂

  • Swapna, you are absolutely right! It is a mom’s prerogative to do what she can best manage. I hate this judging attitude that the society inflicts on the mom. I breastfed both my kids, first one till he was 9 months and the second one till he was 15 months. But, it was not easy. The initial coming to grips was frustrating. Then the overall sore breasts and engorgement etc. were painful issues. Once we went past the initial hurdles. the kids could latch on in a jiffy. I only stopped once their teeth started popping out :). You did great, dear!

  • Pingback: Parenting Decoded: Breastfeeding A-Z - Parentous()