My Turn: In Defense of Formula-Fed Babies

If I loved my 6-month-old daughter any more than I do now, I would probably be unable to function. Just staring at her while she sleeps can make me so giddy that I do a silent-cheerleader routine beside her crib. I'd wager that I am as bonded and love-stricken as any mother, even though I've been feeding her formula since she was 4 weeks old. Go ahead, gasp.

If you've given birth lately, you've heard the adage "breast is best" a hundred times. You are well versed in the vast benefits for you and your baby of nursing exclusively for as long as you can; everyone from your Ob-Gyn to the woman in line at the bank has told you as much. It is, indeed, excellent advice. You'll bond, she'll bond, you'll lose weight, she'll gain weight, you'll save money, her vision will be better, her IQ higher, both of you will be healthier for it, and, oh, nursing will be the most peaceful time of the day and night.

The campaign has excellent intentions: to educate women about the benefits of breast-feeding and do away with any stigma leftover from a bygone era. But the "breast is best" campaign has had an unintended result. There is now a very desperate sense of guilt and failure attached to bottle-feeding, which for many women is the only option.

When I was pregnant I had glorious dreams about breast-feeding. I simply couldn't wait! Then Avery came along, and from the first time she "latched on" minutes after she was born I knew we weren't doing it right. Despite my best efforts to improve our latch, within days her aggressive and misaligned sucking had produced blood blisters and severely traumatized my nipples. She even besmirched her tiny, perfect arms with several self-inflicted, bruise-like hickies.

When my milk came in, I found the pain to be worse than childbirth. I cried through every feeding for two weeks—as did my precious newborn, whose nursing style we had by then identified as "The Barracuda." Nursing was an ordeal not just for me, but for my husband and mother, too, both of whom lovingly tolerated a very demonic version of me. Why, I screamed, hadn't anyone told me that "the most natural thing in the world" was going to be so hard? (Actually, one of my friends did tell me, but I just figured she had sensitive skin and ignored her.)

By the time I finally permitted myself to throw in the ol' burp cloth, I had endured two cases of mastitis (an infection of the breast) caused by an antibiotic-resistant bug, emergency surgery, seven days in the hospital, endless hours attached to a breast pump, three weeks with a wound vacuum attached to my breast, a half-dozen consultations with lactation consultants from two hospitals and the La Leche League, and over a month of serious, agonizing pain. My intention is not to scare new moms out there, as my case was extremely unusual and most of my friends who have tried breast-feeding love it. The point I'm trying to get at is that even with all I endured, there were still experts who thought I should keep trying.

Notwithstanding the fact that it was physically impossible for me to breast-feed, there were moments when I felt like an utter failure as a mother. For weeks I was guilt-stricken, anxious about my baby's health, and worst of all, jealous. Everywhere I went I saw women who had absolutely no trouble breast-feeding. And yes, some of them seemed to have no trouble glaring at me with what I perceived to be utter disapproval when I bottle-fed my baby. The worst feeling of all was the silent resentment I had for my own friends' successes with breast-feeding.

At my most bitter stage of bottle-feeding grief I fantasized about the witty comeback I'd give the next well-intentioned stranger who told me with a smug tone: "Don't you know how much your baby would benefit from breast milk?" Perhaps I'd even give her the shock of a lifetime by flashing my breast-feeding battle scars right there in the church social hall. I even debated starting my own campaign: FORMULA IS FINE.

Now that I'm over my bottled guilt, I know that I don't need to explain myself to anyone. The proof that I'm not a total failure as a mother is clear to see. Please allow me to introduce my healthy, happy, brilliant (and, might I add, adorable) baby.