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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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.