Formula Guilt: When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Work Out As Planned

Spilled Milk

Today most women know the many wonderful  and almost magical benefits of breastfeeding. I was all for it and planned to exclusively breastfeed my baby until she was ready for solids. No formula would ever touch my perfect little baby. The pro-breastfeeding books and websites that I read told me that formula was for unhealthy women, lazy women, women who didn’t care much about their children. Breastmilk was liquid gold, and formula was basically poison – filled with corn syrup, chemicals, and who knows what else. So when I had to start supplementing my baby with formula at four months, I was heartbroken and felt like a failure.

No woman should ever feel like that for doing the best she can for her baby.

My baby had trouble gaining weight soon after we went home from the hospital. She was always on the very low end of the percentile graph and needed to go the pediatrician’s office for many, many weight checks. She’d start to make progress, and then she’d be low again at the next visit. My pediatrician supported my goal of exclusive breastfeeding and suggested I meet with a lactation consultant after ruling out other possible causes for the slow weight gain.

The lactation consultant concluded that my milk supply was low and gave me the option of supplementing with formula or trying a number of things to get my supply up. I tried everything: pumping six times a day in addition to breastfeeding every three hours, going off birth control pills, stuffing my face with lactation cookies and oatmeal, dialing back my exercise routine, purposely gaining weight, and spending a small fortune on lactation teas and fenugreek. I spent too many hours pumping when I should have been using that time to hold and play with my baby. I felt heavy, gross, and cranky. But I kept at it because I wanted so badly to avoid giving her formula.

Eventually, the lactation consultant told me I needed to start supplementing with formula because my baby simply wasn’t getting enough milk from me, no matter how hard I tried. After that appointment,  I drove home with tears in my eyes. I dreaded having to tell my family and friends that I had to use formula. I was so disappointed in myself that I could not provide my baby with something that should be so natural and others seemed to have no problems doing. I was used to working hard and seeing results, and that wasn’t the case here.

To lessen my guilt a little bit, I picked up the most expensive organic formula I could find at the grocery store, and that did make me feel slightly better. But I hid the canister underneath other items in my cart so that no one would see I was buying formula. Back home, I cried and felt terrible about myself when I gave my baby that first bottle of formula.

I still felt guilty and sad the first few times I gave her formula. But then I didn’t! She started gaining weight wonderfully. She developed these delightful little rolls of fat on her thighs and started smiling a lot. I was able to pump when I felt like it, not constantly. Breastfeeding became enjoyable and not stressful when I wasn’t tracking the minutes and estimating ounces. I went back to eating lighter and exercising more, which gave me back my confidence. I finally felt like myself again and not a defective milk machine.

In the coming months, almost all of my other mom friends had to either switch to or supplement with formula for various reasons. I was certainly not the only one. I was bothered even less by the fact that I was using formula once my daughter started eating solids. I came to the realization then that I can’t always ensure she will only eat pure, wholesome foods. I try hard to make sure she eats and drinks healthily most of the time, but as she gets older she’s going to eat candy, fried foods, and other “bad” foods on occasion, and that’s ok. And formula is certainly not the equivalent of candy, let alone the poison I originally considered it.

Now that I am at peace with the fact that my baby gets both formula and breast milk, I want to share my experience with other moms and moms-to-be. Breastfeeding is fantastic, and if you can do it exclusively that is wonderful! If you have to supplement or even completely switch to formula – don’t beat yourself up. Everyone knows that breast milk is best, but formula is good too! As mothers, we have to do what is best for our babies and ourselves, even if things don’t go as we originally envisioned. There is absolutely no need to feel guilty for that.

Elizabeth is currently a first-time stay at home mother to a one year old daughter. Additionally, she serves various volunteer leadership roles in the community and is in the midst of a 200hr yoga teacher training program. In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys writing, running, and exploring the many wonderful parts of Virginia with her husband, baby, and Shiba Inu mix dog.