As a new mom, 'breast is best' was a repeated reminder I received from practitioners, friends, and family about breastfeeding.
Truth is, ‘breast is best' left me broken, overwhelmed, ashamed and exhausted. Those feelings, echoed by thousands of other women who struggle with nursing, explain the growing backlash against the exclusively-breastfeeding environment.
It was only a few hours after my C-section, and the difficulty to direct latch was something I did not expect. I had imagined that direct latching would be a natural experience, and milk would flow out of me as easy as water flowing out of my Coway machine.
Boy, I was wrong!
My baby was shrieking most of the time, and the anxiety left me in panic whilst shivering in pain from a newly C-section wound. Until I got a better grip of direct latching, the nurse was kind enough to suggest that I rest and substitute breastmilk with formula milk.
The decision to substitute with formula milk seemed like such a heavy decision. I felt the pressure to be secretive about it to my friends and family. There was no mention of using breast pumps to stimulate my breast milk at that time. After several tries and help from a lactation consultant, I was successful in direct latching, but it left my nipples cracked and sore.
Breastfeeding wasn’t as beautiful as they described it to be.
First night home
It was 3am, and we had reached the end of our rope with our perpetually crying newborn. He was becoming increasingly prone to long fits of inconsolable crying, and though I nursed constantly, I was never able to soothe him. I had no clue if I was latching right at that point. At 5am, my husband packed our bags and said, "Pergi balik hospital".
We honestly thought there was something medically wrong with him and I felt like an inadequate mother.
I was doing my confinement at my mom's house, where my grandma lived and as we were leaving, my grandma came out of the room and offered to help us. My grandma, who raised 5 children and 3 grandchildren, instantly knew that my baby was dehydrated, and suggested we use the bottle and formula milk. After some sobbing on my part, I took out the tiny tin of formula milk we had kept for emergencies and a bottle that was meant to be used much later. My son couldn’t drink it fast enough, and he fell into the first deep sleep he’d ever known. It was then that I realised, maybe breast isn’t always best.
I ended up exclusively pumping and using formula at night for better rest. Arwah grandma ended up looking after my little ones until her last breath.
Before we go any further, please know this: I think breastmilk is the ideal food for babies and, in most cases, breast is best. That being said, I also think it’s time to retire the phrase because it crushes every mom who is unable to give her baby what’s “best.”
The positive impact of breastfeeding
While its precise origins aren’t clear—even to the lactation consultants with whom I spoke for this story—the breastfeeding advocacy initiative, as we know it today, can be traced back to at least the 60s and 70s, at a time when many women in all over the world were turning to formula more often than breastfeeding. During my grandmother’s time, formula was the better option as breastfeeding was associated with poverty.
When I was born in 1991, my mother turned to formula when nurses were perplexed by her struggle to get me to latch. By day 2, I was exclusively on formula, and no one judged her for it. In fact, most of my friends were formula fed.
By the mid 90s, several breastfeeding promotion programmes were implemented across the world, and now, we have breastfeeding-friendly hospitals in Malaysia. The healthcare system in Malaysia is focusing on discouraging the use of water or infant formula in the first few months of life. The National Breastfeeding Policy recommends exclusively breastfeeding in the first 6 months of baby's life.
Today, exclusively breastfeeding, and direct latching up to 2 years makes you the 'best' mother. To accommodate to working mothers, the mommy industry has become super innovative with portable breast pumps and nursing & pumping bras for moms-on-go.
The flipside of the movement
For mothers who struggle with pain, low milk supply, injury, fatigue, work demands and illness, the pressure to exclusively breastfeed can have a profound impact on their mental (and physical) health.
For me, the effort it took to grow my milk supply made the first few weeks of motherhood unbearable. On top of that, the pressure to direct latch was overwhelming. and it left me embarrassed whenever I mentioned that I chose to exclusively pump my milk and substitute with formula milk on days where I didn't have enough supply or when I was away for work. After all, I was still feeding my baby my breast milk! I would avoid giving a straight answer whenever I was questioned in fear of judgement.
When my second son was born, I was more confident. I chose to bring my breast pumps to the hospital to make sure I had stimulated my milk supply even before my C-section procedure. When the nurse came in to initiate direct latching, I told her, "No."
I gave the nurse a bottle and some of my milk that I had successfully pumped, and mentioned that if my baby needed more to please use formula. She smiled and told me whatever was best for my mental health. It felt so liberating, and I learned to enjoy feeding my baby my way.
The only thing I did not have at that time, was Boss Mama’s Real-Support Bra! There were no bras in the market that could give me a comfortable handsfree pumping experience. It was a pain-point many women experienced! I remember having conversations with my now co-founder, Shakira, on where can we find size inclusive and good quality pumping bras that was comfortable enough for all-day wear. At that time, the answer was...
"Get your most comfortable sports bra, and cut holes in them to hold your pumps for a handsfree experience."
I ended up exclusively pumping for a good 7 months with my second born. He was bottle-fed from day 1, and I enjoyed breastfeeding and my pumping schedules. I looked forward to my pumping sessions and made my own milk boosters to stock up enough supply while I was at work. After 7 months, despite having told to still breastfeed, and numerous reminders of why I should continue up to 2 years, I chose to switch to formula milk.
In the end, being 'informed was best' worked out for me.
Maternal mental health is nothing to shrug at. It’s important, and I believe its what made breastfeeding a much easier journey for my second born. I wanted to make sure I enjoyed breastfeeding.
The 'breast is best' movement has done what it set out to do: Formula is no longer the default option for new mothers, and most of us understand that breastmilk is the ideal source of food for our babies. Now, it’s time to lower the tone, and instead, focus on better support for new mothers, free of judgement.
Happy World Breastfeeding Week, Mamas! Whether you're direct latching, exclusively pumping, bottle feeding, giving formula milk or doing a mix of everything, know that you are doing the best for you and your baby!