Tonight I was standing at the sink, washing my daughter’s bottles, and I had the sudden realisation that this small and menial chore isn’t going to last forever. In a couple of months, she won’t be using a bottle any more. In a couple of weeks, she’ll be drinking milk or water from a cup during the day, and she will only have a bottle of milk at night. At some point in the near future, nobody will need to know that she was ever fed with a bottle and formula.
This isn’t easy to write. No-one likes to feel like a failure. Milk is such a sensitive subject for first time mums. I wanted to breastfeed. I really did, and I really tried. I suspect some people would say I didn’t try hard enough, but that’s not their call to make. We fought an uphill battle with tongue tie, and at a couple days post-partum had some truly devastating family news. After a nervous pregnancy following an early miscarriage, I felt overwhelmed and lost confidence in my own abilities, and the right support wasn’t available in those critical few days when I needed it most. I found myself staring down a tunnel that I wasn’t sure I could see light at the end of, and it was after that our relationship with breastfeeding ended.
Paternity leave was over so swiftly that I was still in an exhausted daze after having given birth. I can remember my husband standing over me, patiently showing me for the fourth or fifth time how to prepare the bottle. At first, I lacked confidence even with that, and it took me a good few days and a switch in bottles and formula to be sure I was doing things right. It was never just a case of sticking the bottle into her mouth and waiting until she greedily drank the lot. E fed on cue right from the off, a few sucks here and there, and we tried to mimic a breastfeeding pattern as closely as we could.
It troubles me that there isn’t more support given to parents using formula. Bearing in mind the importance of sterilising, and the terrifying array of formula, bottles and teats available, combined with the intense emotions that can come with switching from breast to bottle, the worry, the guilt, the implications that you are somehow a lesser mother and your baby deserves to be pitied, this needs to change. As a believer in attachment parenting, I remember feeling very isolated. It wasn’t until I met other attachment parents who had also struggled with breastfeeding that I began to feel more confident. I remember taking photographs and writing step by step instructions of how to make up a formula bottle for one of them when she eventually stopped expressing at almost six months and decided it was time to make the switch to formula. We formed our own small support group, and relied on each other a great deal.
It’s strange. I’ve seen those pictures on Facebook. They used to make me angry, but they don’t any more. On the one side, the stressed out formula feeding mother, tied to the clock, mixing up formula in the middle of the night, baby screaming in the background. Compare it with the serene infant and mother curled up in bed together in a symbiotic relationship. The implications are clear. Bottle feeding stinks. It’s bad for baby and bad for mummy, and you’re too busy stressing about feeding to truly bond with your child because it’s such a hassle, and the only real winners are the formula companies. Only it’s not like that at all. While I wholeheartedly support and respect the right to breastfeed, I don’t regret my decision to use formula with E. It was the right thing for me and my family. Feeding sometimes wasn’t easy, but to me, those bottles symbolised something I could do for my baby, and every time I touched them or sterilised or washed them, or prepared a feed was a tiny act of love to me. I prided myself on reading E’s cues, and pre-empting her hunger cries, just as I would have tried to do if I had been breastfeeding. I talked to her and sang to her at feeding times, and I held her close and looked into her eyes. And her daddy came home and did the same. Feeding bonded us together. From the very first moment we decided to use formula, my husband and I agreed that we would share the feeds. And after a while, E refused to be fed by anyone except us, or occasionally granny. And watching E give her bottle to her favourite mummy friend (who had only ever breastfed her own daughter) expecting to be fed, and seeing them both bond over experiencing something new together was truly beautiful.
I don’t mean in any way to deprecate or dismiss breastfeeding. I wholeheartedly believe that feeding your baby naturally must be a totally different and unique experience, and that it is what nature intended women to do. Formula can never replace breast milk, I get that. And yet I don’t believe feeding should be a divisive issue. I don’t believe that mothers with tiny newborn babies should feel inadequate or guilty for choosing to bottle feed. I don’t feel we should have to justify ourselves, and I don’t believe that it’s for others to judge. Most of E’s friends were breastfed, and I know that she views mummy milk the same way as bottle milk. If I am fortunate enough to have another successful pregnancy then I truly hope to breastfeed, and I’m confident that she will accept that decision. She already pulls down my top and says “BOOBS!” She knows what they are for.
It took a long time for E to see the bottle as something she could hold or even touch. Bottles materialised as if by magic when she was hungry, and I think she saw them as a part of mummy and daddy. Out of all the words and signs she knows, interestingly, “milk” is a recent development. I think she just never felt the need to use it before. It’s been difficult, painful even, to begin to separate myself from the feeding process, and allow her to take control, but I know that I’ve followed E’s cues, and that she is emotionally ready to have control. We’re almost at the point where bottles are a thing of the past during the day, although at night E still needs the security of a feed and cuddle before sleep. She’s not ready to give that up, and neither are we.
Jenny Smith – The Supply Teacher