Formula Feeding Cured My Anxiety

One mom shares how switching to formula helped her own mental health after experiencing stress from breastfeeding difficulties.

Baby bottle
Photo: Getty Images/ Jonathan Knowles. ART: ANNA HALKIDIS

When I was pregnant, I cannot tell you how many times I was asked: "Are you planning to breastfeed?"

Each time, I said "Yes," unsure if it was acceptable to respond any other way.

After all, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding infants for the first six months of their lives. Not only that, but every baby course I looked into and every Google search I did about feedings seemed to only provide advice for breastfeeding parents. Why would I plan for anything else?

Soon after my baby was born, I quickly learned the answer to that question wasn't that simple. I had no idea what I was doing, and it was painful whenever I tried to breastfeed. The relentless task of needing to breastfeed on demand and being the sole person who could feed my baby had chaotic energy that I immediately realized I was not equipped to handle.

Perhaps due to the country's nursing shortage, I also didn't receive much help during the five days my child and I spent at the hospital. When I finally saw a lactation specialist on day four, I learned that my milk never actually came in. I was told to start pumping every two to three hours to encourage production. More chaotic energy!

On top of that, my baby had jaundice, and in addition to light therapy, she needed to eat as much as possible. This meant supplementing with formula. This also meant we could put her in the hospital nursery overnight and I could catch up on sleep. Although I felt ashamed to have sent her away for a few hours to be fed formula by someone else during her very first days in the world, I felt so much better after.

I left the hospital with no desire to nurse my newborn. I also left with massive guilt that if I didn't try, it would make me—a new mom who gave birth during a pandemic—look terrible. I knew the benefits breastfeeding could provide to my baby, and I so desperately hoped to pass on COVID-19 antibodies to her through my breast milk.

But I couldn't control the fact my milk supply was lacking, and I couldn't control the fact that my daughter had tasted formula and now needed more food than I could provide her. I could control how often I pumped, but the thought of doing so approximately eight times a day caused me an unnecessary amount of anxiety.

Becoming a parent was enough of a stressful change for me. It was daunting to add pumping to my long list of responsibilities when there was another option that required less maintenance and came with more help. An option that involved feeding my daughter the same way I was fed as a baby. An option that led me to become a perfectly healthy human. I knew there was no problem with formula feeding—but I knew there would be a problem if I attempted to parent my child under this much pressure. So I decided to formula feed, but not fully at first.

For three weeks after arriving home from the hospital, I mostly formula fed and pumped one or two times per day. Why? Our pediatrician said even one to two ounces of breastmilk a day was worth it. Also, I couldn't seem to shake that mom guilt.

I almost immediately started hating interrupting my life to pump. I was having a hard enough time adjusting to bottle feeding every one to three hours, changing my daughter, and playing with her while also trying to calm my anxiety. Planning my life around also needing to be hooked up to a machine every couple of hours—and then cleaning the parts after each use—was simply too much for me.

It was official. Breastfeeding and pumping had proved to be complicated, painful, confusing, relentless, and at times, impossible. So I stopped my quest for breast milk and began exclusively formula feeding. After doing so, life became calm—yes, even with a newborn—and parenting became easier. Yes, even with its never-ending, overflowing to-do lists. My husband and I began splitting tasks, and I had (limited) time for me again. I realized it was much more important to give my daughter my happiness than my breast milk.

I realized it was much more important to give my daughter my happiness than my breast milk.

When I went in for my postpartum appointment, my doctor asked how I was doing. "Great," I told her. Then she asked if I was still breastfeeding.

"No. My milk never really came in. And I was having a hard time getting her to latch. And it was just too stressful. And formula worked better for us." I went on with the excuses, embarrassed that maybe I gave up too quickly.

"Good for you," she said, "I've seen a lot of people who struggle with breastfeeding end up with postpartum depression. You made the right choice."

This observation is true. Studies have found that breastfeeding difficulties can have an impact on one's mental health. A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study of over 2,500 women found that those who had negative experiences with breastfeeding had a higher chance of becoming depressed. Another study by the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children of British mothers found that those who had planned to breastfeed and did not end up doing so were at the highest risk for postpartum depression.

This makes sense, as needing to abandon plans and suddenly veer away from the expected is always tough. It's even harder when medical guidelines suggest you stick with your original plans without recognizing how difficult that might be. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent breastfeeding report card shows that while 84.1 percent of infants started breastfeeding at birth in 2017, only 58.3 percent were still breastfeeding at six months. If switching to formula feeding is so common, why aren't we talking about it more? Saying "fed is best" to help those who are formula feeding feel better about it is simply not enough.

I felt less alone when Olivia Munn recently shared her struggles with breastfeeding on Instagram. In the caption for the video, the 41-year-old actress writes, "I felt like my body was failing. I worried I wouldn't bond with my baby. But then I said f*** it. Breastfeeding is good… And so is formula."

For some people, breastfeeding works. It feels easy and not a source of stress. But for others, it can wreak havoc. As soon as I recognized that this was the case for me, I let go of my plans to breastfeed and watched my life with a newborn become much calmer. Formula feeding has given me the time I need to feel like myself—something I wouldn't have if I was still trying to make breastfeeding work—and that's so important for me to give my daughter, who, by the way, is a thriving, happy, healthy baby. Not to mention, she shares a great bond with both parents.

If you find yourself feeling guilty for struggling with breastfeeding, please take a note from me and Olivia Munn and just say f*** it. Formula is good, too.

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