Sometimes Defying 'Lactivists' on Breastfeeding Is the Thing Your Baby Needs Most

“You are a voluptuous goddess,” she said, grabbing my breast and squeezing. “This is what you were made for.”

Perhaps being fondled by an elderly, bespectacled woman while sitting in a hospital bed is what some women are made for, but I am not one of them. I was, however, less than twelve hours postpartum and eager to begin feeding my son.

From the moment I became pregnant the mantra of “breast is best” was drummed into me. Parenting books outlined the benefits of breastfeeding. The hospital where I would deliver offered a complimentary breastfeeding class the day after delivery, a free “breastfeeding cafe” where I could go weekly once my son was born, and a breastfeeding hotline that I could call day or night. Friends asked, “Are you planning to breastfeed?” And our new pediatrician boasted an on-call lactation consultant.

Breast milk, I was told, boosted immunity, eased digestion and amped up IQ. Breastfeeding promoted bonding between mother and baby and released hormones in the mother that triggered euphoria. Formula, on the other hand, caused colic, allergies and other digestive woes. Bottle feeding led to “nipple confusion” and hampered a mother’s ability to bond with her baby. I didn’t want my son to be a sickly, gassy idiot. I would exclusively breastfeed until he was one.

But he wouldn’t latch. They brought in the hospital grade breast pump. Every hour this torture device whirred to life, stretching my breasts out of proportion and then snapping them back again, over and over, all so that colostrum, otherwise known as “liquid gold,” could trickle down into the collection bottles attached to my breasts.

This was not to feed the baby. This was to stimulate my breasts to produce milk even though the baby wouldn’t latch. But, because the baby wouldn’t latch, he began to lose weight. Pretty soon he had lost so much weight that the nurses decided he needed to have some formula.

I burst into tears. They were suggesting that we feed my baby so that he didn’t become dangerously malnourished and I was sobbing. Why? Because formula is poison. Because bottle-fed babies don’t bond with their mothers. Because he will get an ear infection and won’t get into college.

They fed him the formula from a cup so that he wouldn’t get nipple confusion. This was messy and complicated but at least no nipple but my own had passed my son’s lips. He got healthy and we went home.

My son did eventually latch and I diligently plugged him in every two hours day and night. I was exhausted and struggling to recover from my C-section. Allowing my husband to feed him a bottle every now and then would have given me a few precious hours of sleep. But I remembered my training. The lactation consultant who had taught my breastfeeding class had warned us that, if we let the baby drink from a bottle before he was six weeks old, he would never truly learn to breastfeed. This, of course, would mean that he would become obese, fail in school, and be incarcerated by the age of two. The implication was clear: only a terrible mother would take the easy way out.

And then I got sick. One month after my baby was born I was hospitalized with a serious C-section related infection. My son had to stay home with my husband and, in order for him to eat, he had to have formula. From a bottle. I knew there was nothing I could do about that but I was determined not to lose my milk supply. I hooked myself up to the breast pump every three hours, day and night, for the week that I was there. To some, this may seem like a valiant effort to do what was best for my son. But to me, in retrospect, it seems reckless. My health was in serious peril and I was giving up precious rest that might have helped me get better quicker in order to maintain a lifestyle choice.

It didn’t take long for the lactation consultants to find me. They rushed from the maternity ward to remind me not to lose hope, that I could still breastfeed if I just kept pumping, and nursing my son when he came to visit. They counseled me on how long and how often to pump and brought me hot packs to put on my breasts when they became engorged because my son wasn’t there to nurse. When a doctor cautioned me not to breastfeed for 48 hours after being injected with dye, one lactation consultant popped up out of nowhere to tell me to breastfeed anyway. The message here, clearly, was that breast milk, even breast milk tainted with toxic chemicals, was somehow necessary for my son’s survival.

Meanwhile, my son was at home happily sucking down his formula and doing just fine. While I obsessed over maintaining my milk supply instead of focusing on getting better, my son was well-fed and as happy as a one-month-old cared for by only one parent could be.

Back at home, I put away the bottles and returned to breastfeeding exclusively. But, despite the constant pumping, my milk supply was compromised. At my son’s two month check-up he was dangerously underweight. The doctor told us he needed some formula to get his weight back on track but that I absolutely could, and should, keep breastfeeding. All I had to do was breastfeed him, then give him a bottle with some formula, then pump. At every feeding. This would leave me with approximately ten minutes between feedings.

Two weeks later he hadn’t gained any weight. He was registering at below the first percentile on the doctor’s weight charts.

“Should I just stop breastfeeding?” I asked the pediatrician.

Certainly not! All I had to do was let my son nurse longer at each feeding, pump for longer at each session and add a little bit more formula to each bottle.

On the way home, something snapped. My son was starving! There was a way to feed him and I was choosing not to. Many successful, competent adults had been formula-fed as children. These doctors and consultants, in their breastfeeding fervor, had made me believe that the possibility of breast milk was somehow more important than actually feeding my child in the here and now.

I went right home and mixed up a bottle of formula. I took my son in my arms and I fed him the bottle. Over the next month, we transitioned to exclusively bottle feeding and I never looked back.

My son is now a very healthy one-year-old who measures at the 95th percentile for height and weight. He has never had an ear infection, has been meeting his developmental milestones early or on track, and there is no one who sees us who could possibly say that we aren’t bonded.

Upon telling the story of our switch to formula to an acquaintance she nodded knowingly.

“The lactivists got to you,” she said.

Boy had they.