When my daughter was two weeks old, she broke out in a rash and I rushed her to the doctor. I already felt like I knew the kind male pediatrician, as we had seen him frequently in the fortnight since her birth. As I panicked, he hooked up the baby to an oxygen monitor and tested her blood sugar.
And then he did something really scary: He set her on the scale.
Since her birth, my daughter had stubbornly refused to gain an ounce, and tonight wasn’t any different.
The rash, the doctor assured me, was nothing, but the lack of weight gain was concerning. At this point the doctor was worried about dehydration.
We needed to start supplementing breastfeeding with formula, now.
The nurse brought a bottle and a premixed sample of formula into the exam room, and my daughter guzzled it down hungrily.
In those early days, my life resolved around breastfeeding. Every three hours an alarm would remind me to attach the baby to the boob. After that, instead of cuddling my newborn, I hooked up to the pump, hoping to increase my low supply. Excursions out of the house were also focused on breasts: breastfeeding support group (Thursdays), private meetings with the lactation consultant (twice weekly), and weight checks for the baby (every three days).
All of this to avoid the slippery slope of supplementing with formula, which, everyone assured me, would further tank my supply and end our breastfeeding relationship before it ever really got started.
“I guess it's OK to supplement now,” the lactation consultant told me in an amazing burst of passive-aggressiveness. “The impact on her gut has already been made.”
“Just stop breastfeeding,” a friend said. “We stopped at a month and he’s fine.”
“What you really need to do is nurse, pump, and then supplement,” another new mom offered. “It was hell, but I did it and survived.”
Nowhere amid the voices in person and online did anyone assure me that it was perfectly possible to breastfeed and supplement with formula long-term.
Yet this is exactly what we did. My daughter nursed (and was supplemented with formula, then milk) for 18 months, and when we weaned, it was because we were ready.
My daughter breastfed when it suited us both, and had a bottle when it didn’t. The quiet bonding time came more naturally without my self-imposed pressure, and I finally understood why some women love nursing.
After that first bottle, I should have realized that supplementing was great for both me and my daughter. The baby quickly began gaining weight.
I was no longer sacrificing my mental health toward the arbitrary goal of exclusively breastfeeding.
However, it took much longer than that. For six months, even as my daughter received between one-third and one-half of her nutrition from formula, I could not accept that we would never exclusively breastfeed.
I maintained a tight feeding schedule, and scolded my husband if he gave the baby what I deemed too much formula. When we traveled abroad to visit family abroad, I secured a prescription for a medication that is illegal in the US, but that I was convinced would help boost my milk supply.
I proudly nursed in public, hoping that would counteract the breastfeeding credibility that I had lost by supplementing.
When my daughter started solids, my anxiety around supplementing began to ease. My body was so longer supposed to be sustaining her on its own, an idea that somehow helped me accept her formula feedings.
At nine months, I really had a breakthrough.
I was rocking my daughter in the nursery as she sipped a bottle. I realized that no matter how she was eating at that moment, we were going to make the year mark of breastfeeding, which had been my initial goal.
From that moment forward, my perspective shifted. Many breastfeeding moms say that nursing a toddler is great because you can establish boundaries. For me, nursing a toddler was wonderful because the pressure was removed.
I had met the goal that I worked so hard for.
For the nine months of worry, I was rewarded with nine months of a completely enjoyable nursing relationship. My daughter breastfed when it suited us both, and had a bottle when it didn’t.
The quiet bonding time came more naturally without my self-imposed pressure, and I finally understood why some women love nursing.
Looking back without the emotional stress of being in the moment, I can see that supplementing had many benefits.
I could leave the baby with sitters without worrying about nipple confusion. I could provide her a comfort bottle in the car and in other situations were it would have been tricky to breastfeed. My husband and other family members could enjoy the closeness of feeding the baby.
In the mommy wars we hear from the fearless formula feeders, or choruses proclaiming "breast is best." There are still too few voices talking about the third choice: supplementing and nursing long-term.
That’s a real option, and a perfectly acceptable one.
Next time, I’ll be embracing it from the start.