I share my own mom guilt associated with breastfeeding failure and discuss the myth that nursing comes naturally to all women.
I’ve watched a lot of women breastfeed. It never looked fun, but it did look relatively easy. My girlfriends would so effortlessly pick their kids up, blindly pop them under their nursing cover, and carelessly prop them up with a single arm, using the other to sip coffee or eat their lunch. I assumed there would be a bit of a learning curve, sure. But breastfeeding is always celebrated as being natural and inherent, both for baby and for mom, it couldn’t possibly take too much effort and mom guilt to figure it out. Until it took everything in me and more.
My Mom Guilt and Breastfeeding Failure Story
Before baby arrived, I was prepared AF. I spent all of my time listening to podcasts, reading books, texting my doula a MILLION questions, and watching YouTube videos on latching. I dreamt about that first latch after baby and my skin to skin (see my story on my birth plan here), and had built it up to be a magical, beautiful moment suspended in time. Baby looking into my eyes, nestled tightly against my breast, solidifying a bond I had built and dreamed about for the past 9 months and beyond (AKA, no mom guilt in the picture). But that’s not really what happened.
Our first “latch” right after delivery wasn’t effortless, at all. Cue the mom guilt. It was awkward, quick and I guess just “good enough” since baby wasn’t expected to need any real nourishment from me right away after birth. And honestly, because I had lost so much blood (and was TOTALLY delirious), I barely remember it at all. What I do remember are all of my (MANY) my attempts at breastfeeding in the days and weeks to come.
After my doula went home, I was basically left to try to figure out breastfeeding myself every time E cried. Let’s just say it didn’t go so well. Poor E screamed the ENTIRE night at the hospital (kudos to my hubby for holding the little bean so mom over here could sleep), probably because he was hangry AF. Every attempt I made to put him on the breast was met with a total meltdown. I ended up having to have the nurse hand-express my breast at 2 AM, meaning she had to forcefully squeeze my nipple for about 40 minutes at a time. FML. All that pain for about a teaspoon of the coveted colostrum for babe (aka. the early thick breast milk). Parents reading this right now can probably relate to this level of mom guilt.
It was already such a struggle, but I had high hopes for my breastfeeding potential. We had a group breastfeeding class the next day and I was an eager student!
Fast forward to the hospital tutorial where we were all told a kitchy story about the boob being a restaurant (the “breastaurant”) and the milk being the waiter and when the waiter takes his sweet ass time, the customer (my baby) gets pissed. Talk about mom guilt! The lactation consultant then came around and attempted to get everyones baby latched but when she got to me, she said, “your baby is too mucus-y to want to eat.” Yes, E did sound like a English bull dog for the first few weeks of life because he was congested to the max. She then gave him a little saline in his nose and moved onto the next kid. So yah, I still didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.
You got this, Abbey, I told myself constantly, he’s just a little congested. This will get easier once that clears up. Until, again, it didn’t.
We went home later that day and after dealing with terrible mom guilt, super bad nipple pain and a very distraught hangry baby, I picked up my phone and called the first lactation consultant on my list. Yes, I had a pre-meditated list. Being super prepared and type A, I had gathered a list of recommended LC’s from my mom Facebook group for these exact types of emergencies. Miraculously, the LC agreed to come out and see me first thing the next morning, even driving through a terrible ice storm (yes, in April – #Canada).
That night, I was up constantly trying (and failing) to breastfeed little E. He just wasn’t latching. He just wouldn’t stop crying. And while the nurse showed me how to hand-express, I just could never get enough.
I gave into the mom guilt and I ended up having to supplement using formula. My heart broke a bit. Okay, so it broke a lot.
Publicly ask me if there’s any shame in formula feeding and I will scream out, “HELL NO, FED IS BEST!” But when I was left feeling like yet again, my body was failing to do what it was designed to do (echoes from my infertility IVF experience), I couldn’t help but feel a wave of mom guilt. But it was just night two, and my milk wasn’t even expected to be “in” quite yet. It was surely just a matter of time. Plus, help was on the way!
My first LC session started with news I truly feared – poor E had a tongue and lip tie, and they were pretty severe. If you’re not familiar with these terms, open your mouth and feel the little frenulum (piece of tissue) that connects the bottom of your tongue to the bottom of your mouth. When you have a tongue tie, this tissue is so tight that it can prevent proper movement of the tongue (something that’s really important during breastfeeding). Ditto for the lip tie except it keeps the lip from flaring out (again, a key element of a good solid breastfeeding latch). I was definitely upset by the news, but not all that surprised. I had a lip tie that had to be cut when I was 13 and about to get braces, so I knew this was something I planned to get checked out even before I was experiencing breastfeeding struggles. After the diagnosis, we then spent about 2 1/2 painful (literally, really fucking painful) hours trying to get E to latch using different holds. After hours of listening to him scream and fuss, we gave up, and just hand expressed. It was completely miserable and totally exhausting, but the worst was yet to come. I told the LC I had had to supplement with formula to get us through the previous night, and I got the response I feared most – “Oh…” Talk about mom guilt!
I felt like the worst mom ever and I was only a day in.
Between the hormones, exhaustion, the pain and the mom guilt of feeling like I was failing at breastfeeding, I literally just cried the whole night. I cried multiple times over the next week as well, all because I just couldn’t seem to do what I believed was supposedly so “natural” for me to do. I couldn’t get the baby to latch, so I was pumping every hour and a half and bottle feeing. But even with all of that effort, I couldn’t even seem to make enough milk. My femininity and role as a woman and mother was in question. My whole sense of self-worth was quickly slipping away.
And while I was busy judging myself, I had additional mom guilt about what people would think. The first time I went out with E and brought his (pumped milk) in a bottle, I was sure I was being judged by every other woman around me. Every time someone would congratulate me on the little one and ask me how I was, the next question in line was always “are you breastfeeding?” It would take everything in me to try not to cry as I had to admit that we were doing our best. Would they think I’m lazy? Vain? Selfish? Unmotherly?
My Personal Challenges with Breastfeeding and Mom Guilt
It turns out that I was set up for challenges with breastfeeding from the start. Not only was baby E’s lip and tongue tie an issue (which still caused issues after their release due to an arched palate formed in utero because of the ties), but having PCOS and a postpartum hemorrhage meant a reduced (and delayed) milk supply.
When I was finally able to pump enough milk for E (with three days where I was even able to bank about 3 oz a shot), he would go through another growth spirt and cluster feed all day long. I found find myself, yet again, drowning (and supplementing) again. My hubby would remind me what an amazing job I was doing and how insignificant that little bit of supplemented formula was, but I felt an overwhelming wave of mom guilt and shame every single time.
Over the course of just three weeks I had spent 8 hours with two different LCs, had taken E for two separate oral surgeries (one to release the tongue, and then another for the lip), and spent 2 more hours with an osteopath in hopes of improving his latch. Yet E wasn’t properly on the breast.
I also was doing everything I possibly could on my end to improve my milk supply. I was taking fenugreek, garlic and Mother’s Milk supplements twice a day, drinking Mother’s Milk tea three times a day, pumping every 1 1/2 hours until my nipples were red and raw, eating all the boob foods (oatmeal, flax, carrots, apricots, almonds, asparagus, brewers yeast and more) and going to weekly acupuncture. Still I couldn’t keep up to my little hungry hippo. It wasn’t until I started taking Domperidone that I started to see some improvements in my supply (and even my dose of that had to be increased to keep up).
When I wrote this blog post, I was still feeling so much mom guilt. I was barely keeping a float on the supply (and still working my ass off every day and night just to stay out of the weeds), and only managing a few minutes per breast before the pain became unbearable and I would have to swap out the bottle for the boob. Some days, it would be a real struggle to not get down on myself, but here’s what I’ve learned in the process.
Learning the Hard Way About Mom Guilt and the Myth That Nursing Comes Naturally to Moms
We spend so much time preparing women for child birth, but what I’ve learned is that is literally the easy part. It’s also just like a few hours to a day worth of work. Breastfeeding, on the other hand, I have learned is CONSTANT work. Days, weeks, maybe months. We need to start investing in our preparation for those potential challenges and it starts with recognizing the myth that breastfeeding comes naturally to all of us parents. That is BS. Here are some things I’ve learned about mom guilt that have helped me and may also help you get through when you feel like your failing at breastfeeding.
Don’t Ask Someone If They Are Breastfeeding Their Child
You never know what their story is, and what their rationale is for how they choose to feed their baby. It’s also none of your damn business.
Fed is Truly Best
There were days when I felt like I was getting behind on my milk and part of me was trying to mom guilt myself into believing that maybe he needed less (so I wouldn’t have to supplement with formula). But had I did that, E wouldn’t have grown as beautifully as he has (our pediatrician was THRILLED with his weight gain), and ultimately, that’s what really matters.
Remember: Happy Healthy Mom, Happy Healthy Baby
What’s “best” for baby is not just about probiotics and the nutrient composition of their diet. It’s also about the parents being in a good place too. There were days that trying to breastfeed and pumping every hour on the hour was NOT what was best for my wellbeing and mental state. It often meant I wouldn’t leave the house out of mom guilt that I wasn’t pumping as much as I “could”. Letting go of the reigns a bit and allowing myself to just do what I comfortably could meant a happier mom who could more effectively take care of her baby.
Remind Yourself How Amazing Science and Technology Is
Much the same way I had to come to terms with the idea that modern science was going to enable me to conceive and carry this child, I had to ignore my mom guilt and remind myself that that same amazing technology was going to help me support the growth of my child. Despite what crunchy granola parents may have you believe on forums and Facebook groups, formula isn’t poison. It saves millions of babies lives and may be the key to helping yours thrive. We are so amazingly lucky to have these options.
Know That Breastfeeding is a Relationship That Takes Time (and Sometimes Just Doesn’t Work Out)
Breastfeeding doesn’t come naturally, even if it is supposedly a natural phenomenon (and pretty amazing once you really know all of the mechanics of it). It may take days, weeks, or even months to find your groove (I’m still trying to keep this in mind myself), and if you don’t, then that is totally okay too. Our relationship with our babe is made up of millions of little tiny relationships, breastfeeding is just one small piece of the pie.
Reframe Your Situation as a Positive
While I definitely had to grieve the loss of my expectation that I would have this special easy “natural” breastfeeding experience with my son, bottle-feeding actually has some SERIOUS perks. It meant that I could leave my child with a caregiver, family member or (shocker!!), my VERY capable husband without the mom guilt that he won’t get fed because he will only take a breast. Honestly, I cannot imagine the anxiety I would have had if I had to be tethered to E all day and night. It also meant my husband not only can split the childcare responsibilities with me 50/50 (and not to brag, but he’s amazing and he does), but it also meant that he got to bond with E just as much as I did in those early months. A lot of dads describe feeling really useless and left out when mom exclusively breastfeeds their babe so I was so happy I could give him that experience.
Be compassionate to yourself and other parents who may be experiencing mom guilt. I will say that one of the beautiful things that came out of my own struggle with breastfeeding is that I was able to recognize my own deep-seeded prejudice against the choices mothers make on how they choose to feed their babies. While I used to see a woman buying a box of formula and unconsciously judge that choice, I now look at her with compassion, comradery and just so much respect. We’re all just doing the best we can for our babies and we do that because we love them.
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I would love to hear your own thoughts about mom guilt and breastfeeding failure. Leave me a comment below and share this with a mom who is struggling with her own breastfeeding and mom guilt journey!
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- Not Losing Weight Breastfeeding? Does Breastfeeding Cause Weight Loss or Weight Gain?
Updated on October 20th, 2022
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.
I’m so sorry you went through all of this! It sounds like such a stressful time. At the end of the day, fed is best and there’s absolutely no reason to feel like a failure. You’re doing your best and that’s all you can do! Stay strong mama — you’re doing amazing!
Abbey Sharp says
Thanks so much love!
Julie @ Running in a Skirt says
I’m so sorry you had this trouble. I’m glad you wrote about it because more women probably need to hear that it isn’t always easy so their expectations are realistic. Fed is best!!!
Abbey Sharp says
Yes totally! Thanks Julie
Alexandra Gray says
I feel like you just told my exact story with breastfeeding. I enjoy reading other woman’s stories like this to know that I am not alone. I’m always telling moms to be to learn more into breastfeeding and that it doesn’t always come naturally because I really wish someone would have told me. Thank you so much for sharing.
Thank you so much for being so real about your breastfeeding experience. I’m finally at a place where I am exclusively pumping for my 4 month old, but I went through hell and back trying to give her breast milk the “natural” way first. She had a batch latch and a tongue tie that was corrected too late, and I had supply issues which have now thankfully improved (thanks Domperidone and More Milk Herbal Supplement). There have been so many tears and feelings that I’ve failed my little one, especially when I was supplementing with formula in the beginning. It’s amazing how much of an impact your feeding journey can have on your mental health when you feel like it isn’t what it *should* be. I hope other mothers (and mothers to be) read this article and know that they are doing the best for their little one. It certainly made me feel better and less alone.
Abbey Sharp says
Yes, I’ve definitely found some comfort hearing what other moms have gone through and are going through. So important we have this conversation even if it’s hard to share. So glad you were able to find a way to make it work for you! Thanks for sharing Amanda
I can totally relate. My first was in the NICU and she failed to latch properly. I tried to supplement by pumping (which I did for 7 months) but I ended up drying up. Even with my second daughter, it didn’t come easy. I did BF her but she cluster fed because I never produced enough all at once. Super frustrating but you just come to realize that there is only so much you can do.
Abbey Sharp says
Yes, exactly. We try everything and that’s all you can do. Thanks for sharing love
This post sounded like I wrote it myself except throw in some jaundice which made my son MORE SLEEPY and you have my story. He was so mucus-y from the birth And to top it off so freaking sleepy that he would just sleep at the boob after he latched and chewed my nipple to pieces. I expressed the small amount of colostrum so much my ginormous breasts were black and blue and he then threw up all the colostrum. I was a mess. I still attempt to nurse but my son just falls asleep still (one month later) and won’t drink. I’m lucky that my milk came in (which I didn’t even know if it would after a breast reduction surgery years ago) but I still feel so guilty that I have to pump and bottle feed which is SO. MUCH. WORK. I have to remind myself not to compare because my sister, who has a baby two months older than my son, makes breastfeeding look soooo easy. Fed is best—however it is done. Thank you so much for the article it made me feel not alone.
Abbey Sharp says
Hey Jessica, so sorry to hear about your challenges and really important not to compare. Thanks so much for sharing love and good luck!
Oh Abbey I’ve been there!! Thank you for sharing your story and for always being so real about it. Breastfeeding is so hard and I totally agree with you that so much attention is given to the birthing part and that is way easier than the obstacles of breast feeding. Each of my three babies had their struggles. The pain, the worry and the stress trying to feed your little one is so difficult. I hope it gets easier for you. It did for me but it took a lot of time. And nothing is wrong with formula! You’re doing an amazing job!!!
Abbey Sharp says
Thanks so much love! Appreciate that 🙂
My pediatrician made me feel so much better when I was ready to throw in the towel. He said, “it doesn’t matter how you feed the baby, just feed the baby.” He didn’t care how and he didn’t make me feel bad for not nursing. He just wanted the baby fed. His words were so reassuring. I felt a huge sigh of relief.
Abbey Sharp says
Totally agree! At the end of the day, they just need food. Love that. Thanks for sharing Rachel
Lynn Siegal says
Great article, Abbey! Little E is lucky to have you for a Mom. Don’t let the bastards get you down. xo
Abbey Sharp says
Haha thanks so much Lynn!
Deborah Brooks says
when I was pregnant I found that so many people felt the need to offer their opinion on nursing when it was not asked for. My first child had colic and reflux and I felt guilty for not having nursed her.
Abbey Sharp says
Yup, everybody’s got an opinion that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing Deborah
I always love reading your candid honest posts. I too have had a long journey to becoming a mother and thankfully will be welcoming baby number 2 in the next few weeks. My first experience with breastfeeding did not go as expected at all. I had a rough delivery and babe was taken to NICU for a brief time right away so the skin to skin and early breastfeeding I had envisioned did not happen. Like baby E he was very “moucosy” and was very sleepy- falling asleep at the breast at every feed. After an exhausting month of trying everything including supplemental feeding systems to feed baby at the breast I resorted to exclusively pumping and bottle feeding. Luckily I did not have supply issues. Babe had exclusively breast milk for almost 5 months before I began supplementing with formula but I still felt like such a failure when others around me made breastfeeding look so easy.
Abbey Sharp says
Yup, other people do make it look easy. It’s such an individual experience. Good luck with your second child and thanks for your comment Stephanie!
Reading this I feel like many of your words came right out of my mouth. I’m a fellow RD and struggled horribly with both my children….and even though I learned many of the lessons that you’ve written when I struggled with my 1st, when I struggled with the 2nd it was still just as hard and the mom guilt was still strong! What I have learned in sharing my own story is that sooooo many moms have similar stories of the struggles and tears of breastfeeding (or not Breastfeeding). I’ve been fortunate to find acceptance and support among other moms and healthcare providers once I did open up with my struggles. You are doing an amazing job however you end up feeding your little boy, and you are so right that your relationship is about SO much more than just breastfeeding. Sending support from a fellow mama!!
Abbey Sharp says
Yes! We need to keep sharing! It’s so important. Thanks so much Beth!
Good article. I did end up breastfeeding, however it did not come without challenges. I remember crying in the middle of the night because of the pain, and every time my daughter swung her arm in a circle it would hit my cracked and bleeding nipple! My relief came after the doctor prescribed me a nipple cream with some steroid in it. Sounds scary but it is safe for baby. You just put it on right after feeding. It helped a ton and provided relief so I could focus on a better latch. Lastly, none of my LC ever mentioned really “hamburgering” my breast before getting my nipple in baby’s mouth. Their little mouths are so small at the beginning. It wasn’t until my girlfriend mentioned it 10 days in that I finally felt I had control. I had already felt the disappoint and bought formula on day nine, but my daughter wouldn’t take the bottle so I had to keep trying.
Anyways, welcome to parenthood. Trying things that work or don’t work daily is fun. Keep finding alternatives. You are getting to know your child’s personality in the process. And, you are right. Fed is best.
Abbey Sharp says
Yes, trying everything in my power! Thanks so much for your comment Lesley
This sounds all too familiar. Being open to working hard and changing your plan just shows you’re a good mom. I had similar issues (You can check it out here if you want https://thefruitfuldietitian.wordpress.com/2017/11/28/breast-feeding-vs-formula-feeding/)
Thanks for sharing!
Abbey Sharp says
Aw thanks love! I’ll be sure to check that out!
Beautiful article ~ well said/written. All those feelings & challenges… So true ~
Abbey Sharp says
Thank you Shelly!
Thank you for sharing your story. I have had issues having my baby girl latching. I tried nipple shields but she would rip them off. I’ve been pumping but not getting enough so we’ve been supplementing with formula as well. She had issues with dairy which was resolved with soy formula. I’m getting more ok with fed is best but the mental game of pumping and not being able to breastfeed definitely wears on you. More people need to talk about this so we can realize fed is best and breastfeeding isn’t just this magical thing that happens when you have a baby, it’s work and sometimes it doesn’t work out.
Kyla Best says
What a incredible story you have shared, Abbey. It is so important that moms not go through this alone, and it’s real, raw and powerful stories like this that help everyone get through the hard times. My boys are both done nursing, but this still hits home as I remember all we went through. It is both so wonderful and difficult to care for a baby. I don’t care what anyone says, EVERY mom experiences challenges feeding their baby. Just know that you are truly doing your best and that your son loves you unconditionally for it. You are everything to him. Thank you for sharing this.
Abbey Sharp says
Thank you so much love! I appreciate that and totally agree 🙂