Breastual consent: refusing to breastfeed does not make you a bad mother

Lactivists are quick to list the benefits of breastfeeding. But what about the emotional wellbeing of a mother who wants her body back?

“Breast is best.” This is the motto of breastfeeding mothers everywhere. Unfortunately, there is also a strong opinion that comes with the above motto, “Breastfeeding mothers are the best moms,” giving moms who don’t breastfeed a burden of guilt that is absolutely unfair.

While I am all about breastfeeding and will always choose that for my own babies (biological and adopted), I don’t agree with the mentality that I’m a better mom than my formula feeding friends. I’m not better, I just chose differently. It’s that simple.

Those of us that tout breastfeeding have plenty of data to back up our decision. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics issues this statement about breastfeeding:

“From its inception, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been a staunch advocate of breastfeeding as the optimal form of nutrition for infants. Although economic, cultural, and political pressures often confound decisions about infant feeding, the AAP firmly adheres to the position that breastfeeding ensures the best possible health as well as developmental and psychosocial outcomes for the infant.”

The benefits of breastfeeding are many. From helping mom lose pregnancy weight quicker, lowering the risk of  breast and ovarian cancer, and being something that is readily available at a moment’s notice, to health benefits for the baby such as lower incidence of colic and respiratory illnesses, one can argue that breastfeeding has a lot of positives. Breast milk is amazing in it’s uniqueness, giving the exact nutrients that a baby needs, something that even the best formula can’t mimic.

Medically and physically, the benefits of breastfeeding can’t be beat. However, breastfeeding moms need to be very careful when it comes to strong statements such as, “Breastfeeding moms are more sensitive and aware of their babies’ needs than formula feeding moms are,” or, “The mother-baby bond is stronger in breastfed babies.” Having watched some of my friends formula feed, I see a bond that is just as strong and a sensitivity that is as keen in them as I ever had for my daughter.

Those friends of mine that chose formula feeding over breastfeeding always had a good reason for doing so. This wasn’t a selfish choice that came about because they were “bad mothers.” Situations such as adoption, health issues, or not producing enough milk brought about this choice. In almost all of these cases, I watched these women struggle through the choice, carrying a guilt that if they chose formula over breast milk, they were somehow failing their child, as if feeding formula was an indication of a mom that was less committed and lacking in love for her baby.

Who can fault an adoptive mom for not wanting to take the risk of producing lactation for her adopted infant in the event the birth mother changed her mind? As someone being faced with that very situation, I certainly can’t. I’m choosing to induce lactation once the possible adoption draws closer but it isn’t without a lot of fear on my end that I will walk away with empty arms but full breasts.

When it comes to adoption, the choice to take that journey is one that needs courage and sacrifice every step of the way, and choosing to breastfeed — or not — is absolutely no indicator of the parent’s commitment or love!

Some of my friends started out breastfeeding, but no matter what they did they couldn’t produce enough milk. I watched the devastation first-hand. I watched the devastation be made even worse as they received comments such as, “You’re just not trying hard enough,” or, “Nursing takes time, you can’t give up so easily.” In each of the cases I observed, these moms tried all they could but breastfeeding just did not work.

To say they lacked motherly love because they didn’t breastfeed is a statement full of irony. It was their love that caused them to try as long as they did! It was love and commitment that pushed them beyond their limits and it was a sacrificial love that allowed them to let go of their dream of breastfeeding and choose what their baby needed the most — nourishment, however they could get it.

I recently spoke with a friend of mine who is expecting her second baby. She was committed to breastfeeding her first baby and did so, but the entire time she did it, it was a process that drained her mentally and emotionally. For reasons unknown, her baby didn’t seem to be able to tolerate breast milk, or at least this is what doctors were telling her.  Feedings could last up to hours  at a time and resulted in screams and cries every single time. At one point, this woman wasn’t eating hardly anything, just to rule out anything that might be making the baby react to her milk, but nothing seemed to help.

My friend commented the other day that she just wasn’t sure she could go through that again, if the problem was truly an allergy to breast milk as the doctors thought. It wasn’t even a thought process I had to go through to tell her without hesitation, “Dear,  no one would fault you for not breastfeeding this little one when she comes. It takes too much out of you and the baby. In the end, it might be the best thing to formula feed if it can result in emotional peace of mind for you and lack of physical discomfort for the baby.”

Lactivists may disagree with that statement and insist this woman attempt to breastfeed no matter the cost. But is “breast really best” when each session takes hours and only results in baby and Mama crying their hearts out each time? This would be one of those times that formula feeding turns out to be the better choice for both mom and baby.

What about moms that choose to formula feed for the simple reason that breastfeeding doesn’t appeal to them? For them, the thought of making their breast readily available for the next 6- 12 months makes them feel stressed out beyond words. They could breastfeed, they just choose not to. Are they “bad mothers” as breastfeeding advocates would insinuate they are?

No. They are women who understand their personality and makeup and recognize their limitations. They know that to be the best mom they can be, they need to make decisions that coincide with their thoughts and feelings, not one that will make them resentful and stressed out.

A formula feeding mom can be just as bonded with her child and sensitive to their needs as a breastfeeding mom can. Times of feeding their baby from a bottle can still result in eye contact and emotional attachment as nursing a baby at the breast can result in. Can I, personally, imagine that kind of bonding and attachment as a result of bottle feeding? No. Do I believe it can happen? Yes! I’ve seen in it lived out in some of my friends’ lives.

Being a mom takes work no matter what choice you make when it comes to nourishing your baby. Some women can’t imagine having to breastfeed at every single feeding, while others can’t imagine having to mix formula for every single feeding. Formula feeding moms wonder how breastfeeding moms don’t mind not having their “body back” for an additional year, while breastfeeding moms wonder why someone wouldn’t choose to continue nourishing their child with their body.

In the end, it’s not about how we feed our babies. In the end it’s about being the best mom we know to be. For some, that is by breastfeeding. For others, it involves formula feeding. At the end of the day, when we put our baby to sleep, whether by bottle or by breast, it’s not a question of who is the better mom — it’s a fact that we’re all moms who love our babies and choose every day what we feel is best for them.