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In the Guardian today, Jessica Valenti wrote an excellent piece about breastfeeding, bottlefeeding and judgement.  It was a lovely article, making making points well.  But it’s central point – namely that all parents are making the best choices for their families – is flawed.  Hang on, before you grit your teeth to prepare to read a bottle-feeding smear article, hear me out.

Choice in infant feeding is a myth

Valenti asks why we clamour to celebrate breastfeeding and why we don’t show the same adoration for bottle feeding.  The fact is, breastfeeding is still the underdog.  If you doubt that, simply look at the numbers – in Canada only one quarter of infants are exclusively breastfed for the recommended six months.  In the United States that number is below one in five.  Feeding artificial milk is thus the normalized, if simultaneously derided, ‘choice’ simply by virtue of the numbers.

The real question though, is whether or not bottle-feeding is a choice.  Do we think that nearly 70 percent of the mothers who first ‘chose’ breastfeeding simply switch their choice to artificial milk a few weeks later?

In her article, Valenti gives us this beautifully personal and detailed account of how her feeding decisions were made”

In my case, when my daughter Layla was born, nearly three months early and weighing just 2lbs, breastfeeding wasn’t on the table. Instead, she was first fed intravenously and then later by feeding tube with milk I had religiously pumped. But the stress of having a very sick child does not do wonders for milk production and, by the time she came home two months later, I had to supplement breastfeeding with formula to make sure Layla got all the nutrition she needed. I felt like a failure and a terrible mother.

I enlisted the help of a lactation consultant and started pumping 15 minutes every hour (six hours a day!). Even as I cried in pain and was thrown into a horrible depression, I kept it up because I fully believed not only that “breast was best” but that formula was ruinous. It was only when I stopped – in part, because of the legitimate concerns raised by, among others, my extremely worried husband – that I truly bonded with my daughter. I had to give myself permission to be okay with bottle-feeding for nutrition and still breastfed Layla for comfort, for both our sakes.

Valenti sandwiches her story in sentences about her supposed choices, but her words make it incredibly clear that although she certainly made decisions, the circumstances were entirely too constrained to call those decisions choices.  When your traumatic premature birth leaves you unable to produce enough food for your baby, you are not ‘choosing’ artificial milk, it’s simply the only feasible option available to you.

A friend and I once co-wrote a blog post about our nearly identical early feeding journeys and their very different ends.  Ultimately we both made different feeding decisions, she bottle-fed her beautiful daughter and I’ve gone on to breastfeed both of my children.  Did either of us ‘choose’ the diverging routes we took?  No.  I got adequate professional support for my challenges and Kelly did not, that’s it.  In the early days of parenthood, when our bodies are recovering from the intense, and often traumatic, exertion of birth; when we are on a hormonal roller-coaster; when we’re abruptly left without a primary health care provider for either us or our babies; when the care providers we do seek out dole out bad advice on a topic they have absolutely no training in, are we really at liberty to make choices?

Going forward, our feeding decisions continue to face constraint.  In Canada, if we are conventionally employed, we enjoy 50 weeks of paid parental leave.  But in the US, the number is as low as six weeks and without any financial support.  I am as determined a breastfeeder as anyone, but I’ll be the first to admit that I wouldn’t have spent two weeks struggling to get breastfeeding to work if I knew that it would probably go out the window four weeks later anyway.  I would have bottle fed and enjoyed my meagre time at home, then left for work free of the stress of finding the time, physical space and bodily ability to eject milk into a whirring machine.  It would have been my reality, but certainly not my choice.

Then there is the social treatment of the two feeding methods.  It sickens me to hear of bottle-feeding mothers being scorned.  It shouldn’t happen, yet we live in a world where we think we can know a person, their history and thoughts from 140 characters or a sepia-toned snapshot.  We’re ready to not only form an opinion in an Instagram, but are desperate to voice it.  But here again, breastfeeding women are still at a disadvantage.  Not only is their feeding method critiqued, those critiques are often encased in an additional and disgusting layer of sexualized commentary.  Anywhere from comments about the size, shape or desirability of the breasts, to accusing the woman of an act akin to public masturbation.  I have often heard women name anxiety about such harassment among their reasons for bottle feeding and if their inner sphere of family and friends isn’t supportive enough to counter this, it becomes a serious factor.  If fear of sex-based harassment is a motivator for a decision, that decision cannot truly be called a choice.

The myth of choice leaves us with no one to blame but each other

The crux of Valenti’s article is to beg us all to accept each other and the choices we make.  Her final sentence is one of support for parents “making the choices that are right for them and their children”.  I fully support the sentiment, but I firmly believe that the real solution is in repositioning the discussion.  We do need to fully support every parent for the decisions that are necessary for them and their children, but we need to stop masking the external influences on those decisions under the guise of choice.  Those of us who ‘succeed’ at breastfeeding need to admit that it was help and luck more than choice that created that success.  Those who wanted to breastfeed but switched to bottlefeeding need to feel able to say that it was not their choice, it was the necessary route and that sometimes we do what we must instead of what we wish.

It’s complicated and messy to say in the same breath that artificial milk is not optimal but that it’s certainly preferable to starving and that using it gratefully doesn’t preclude us from using it with a degree of sorrow.  It’s hard to say that babies who are fed formula are going to be OK but we need to fight for good and accessible breastfeeding supports so that fewer of them need to be given formula.  It’s a lot easier to say “This was my choice so back off!”.  But that conversation keeps the focus on our internal debate about who is a better mother, and stops us from working together for the things that all mothers need.  After all who wants to talk honestly about the risks inherent in using artificial milk if we’re asserting that those who use it are doing so by choice?  The theme of choice is what leads us to deny the fact that affiliations between healthcare providers and formula manufacturers creates an obscene conflict of interest that lowers breastfeeding rates.

If we don’t start having the messy complicated discussion, then we’ll keep writing articles asking why Olivia Wilde gets more praise than a bottle feeding mother, when we should be asking why some women get paid to breastfeed their babies in couture when other women are too busy worrying about how they’ll stretch their minimum wage to pay back the exorbitant hospital bill from the birth, especially after missing six weeks of pay, to have much time or energy left for worrying about making the feeding ‘choices’ that are right for them.  If we don’t start having that discussion and writing those articles, then we’ll keep having this blame war instead of lining up collectively to make a better reality for us and our babies.  And choice will continue to be a myth, rather than becoming a reality.

 

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So last week, I attended my first birth as a doula.  An incredible, difficult, tiring, miraculous, and wonderful birth that took a total of 32 hours, 22 of which I was there for.  This week, I’m back on call for my next client and next month – over the holidays, as a matter of fact – there will be yet another.

I left my house at 1 am last Wednesday morning, and didn’t get home until 11 pm, meaning I didn’t see my son from the time he went to bed Tuesday night until he woke up Thursday morning.  My daughter, meanwhile, had a dream feed about an hour before I left, and another right after I crawled back into bed with her.  The hours in between were spent having (more or less) the first bottled meals of her 7 month long life.

I was nervous, obviously, about how all of this would go down for her, but it worked well and I can sum up the reason why in just two simple words: Attachment Parenting.

Thanks to the attachment practice of cosleeping, I didn’t unnecessarily lengthen our separation.  As I said, I didn’t set eyes on my son for 36 hours, but he’s two and a half and not only sleeps in his own room (with Dad joining him as needed), he’s already spent several happy weekends with his grandparents.  But Lady Fair is only 7 months old.  Frankly, even 22 hours felt too long to be away.  Thirty-six hours is just inconceivable.  If we didn’t share sleep, it could have been 36 and the additional hours would have been completely unnecessary.  If we didn’t share sleep because we were trying to follow a book-prescribed sleep program, then an already difficult situation would have been rendered more difficult by a person who has never met me or my child, and who has no actual knowledge of our situation or needs.

Thanks to attachment parenting, I was able to leave at a moment’s notice without worrying that a messed up ‘routine’ would throw the kids into some kind of coping tailspin.  You see, aside from the major time markers of breakfast, lunch and dinner, our daily routine is this: child has need, child expresses need, caregiver meets need to best of caregiver’s ability.  That’s a pretty easy one to follow, and it depends only on a loving caregiver.  Mr Fair, as co-parent, certainly fits the description of loving caregiver and, when armed with a freezer full of booby juice, has every tool he needs to parent solo without trauma for anyone.  The kids obviously felt my absence, but not to the same degree as if a missed snack of 1/4 cup rice gruel at 10:17 am led them to a missed nap at 10:36 am which then made them too tired to focus on their Baby Einstein flashcards from 11:46:30 to 11:59:59.  Their day remained exactly the same as normal, just with a hairier chest to snuggle on.

As an extension to the above, taking an attachment-based approach with my kids meant it was much easier to come home again.  I’m not under the illusion that a human being will have the exact same needs at the exact same time of day, every single day, so when Lady Fair expressed a need to reconnect after my absence, it was no big deal.  She spent the next two days almost constantly in-arms (yay ring sling!), sleeping only at the breast.  And that was lucky for me because, guess what?  I was exhausted!  I couldn’t have spent the day trying to stay awake to reestablish a schedule even if I wanted to.  Instead, I just enjoyed the snuggles without worrying that it was the oft-feared ‘bad habit’, a harbinger of chronic dependence that is sure to persist into adulthood.  And of course, it wasn’t a habit at all, just a need.  One that passed away once it had been filled (she’s upstairs asleep in bed as I type this), and one which I was able to fill thanks to attachment parenting.

It’s not easy transitioning back to work when you have little ones.  The logistics and emotions can be complex and unpredictable.  But for the good of our family as a whole, and my mental health specifically, reestablishing a career is something I have to do.  I’m just grateful that we have so many tools on our parenting workbench that I can do it with few side-effects.

How does attachment parenting help you cope with life’s challenges?

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A friend and I were talking the other day about the struggles of getting our babes to take bottles so we can get out of the house some times.  This particular friend was actually the second person to ever give Little Man a bottle, when we needed to go to Mr Fair’s office holiday party and Little Man was about 6 months old.  And that was only the third bottle he’d ever had.  Yes, you read that right – three bottles in six months. Lady Fair, as it happens, has only been offered a bottle once in her 5 months skin  side.

Advice for new moms about bottles is confusing.  On the one hand if we choose to breastfeed we know to avoid them for about the first 6 weeks in order to establish a good relationship of feeding at the breast, as well as a good supply.  Of course, we all know that by then our babies know better than to accept a boob imposter.  But since we’re made to so firmly believe that a baby should or even must take a bottle from time to time, we go through a lot of stress getting baby to accept a bottle.

I decided not to.

The first, and pretty much last time Mr Fair fed Little Man a bottle.

 

Here’s the deal: I HATE pumping.  It’s not so bad now that I have mega supply from tandem nursing, but when Little Man was new my pumping efforts would produce meager results at best.  It made me doubt my supply, leading to a week of anxious feedings counting swallows and constant head rubs to determine if his fontanelle was sunken from dehydration.  Needless to say, there is no spa treatment rejuvenating enough to warrant all of that.  And of course all of this is before the stress of stalling a hungry baby while we heated milk, which seemed especially silly since I was in the next room literally full of the fresh, preheated version.  And even once we got it going, he was so not impressed.  Cue more crying and the eventual unhooking of the nursing bra to solve the problem.

But I still needed and wanted some time to do grown up stuff, so I had to find some ways to make it work without bottles.  Here’s how I did it.

1) Mark the calendar

The first thing I did was remind myself that the season of my baby’s constant need for me was short.  By the time I really started to feel the need for some time away he was already halfway to starting solids.  (I know everyone’s threshold is different though).  The solid food stage is great for two reasons:

First, it’s a whole new opportunity to introduce mommy-milk in a cup or bottle.  So if your little one didn’t drink the Koolaid (in the non merderous-cult sense of course) the first time, don’t worry you get another chance.

The other thing that’s great about it is, even if they don’t eat much at a time, it’s still probably enough to prevent gnawing hunger pangs in the absence of your boobs, so you don’t need to worry so much about bottle acceptance.

2) Max out those intervals

When you think about it, there’s actually a lot you can do in the 2 hour window between feeds.  You can get a hair cut, read a couple of chapters of a book, or sit in a bath until your toes prune and the water turns cold.  There are lots of options.  So really, the key is to max out those intervals.  To assist this, my doula gave me a great piece of advice: “top up”.  Even though you (hopefully!) feed on cue, you can always offer a breast just before you go out.  If they don’t want it, they won’t latch.  If they latch, you just bought yourself a longer interval so go max it out!

3) Attach and go

This may not be true for every woman, but I really never craved the absence of my babies, rather what I wanted was the addition of adult-oriented activities into my day.  Attachment parenting tools and practices really facilitated that.  Thanks to babywearing, I’ve been able to go to movies, pubs, weddings and conferences without having to leave baby home with a bottle and babysitter or sit alone in the corner guarding a car seat.  Since we parent our kids to sleep, we also know that we can have an unusually late night, or go on vacation without spending a week afterwards getting back onto a book-prescribed evening regimen.  I’ve had my doses of intelligent conversation (or not, depending on the adult I’m speaking with!) and adventure without having to do the bottle thing.

That’s me, at a wedding, on the dance floor, IN 4″ HEELS last weekend. Oh yeah, and I’m wearing a sleeping baby too.

4) Make it a family affair

When all of the above tactics failed what we did was have Mr Fair (or an alternate caregiver) come along for the “mommy’s time” ride.  The instances that are springing to mind here are the postpartum clothes shopping trips.  Believe me, that’s a task no woman can accomplish in under 2 hours and if you figure out how to try on tops with a sleeping baby strapped to you please let me know.  I could have put it off, but who wants to look like a deflated balloon in too-big clothes for the better part of a year?  So we packed up the fam and hit to the mall together.  Dad took charge of the baby, and I got to peruse the racks in peace, looking for clothes to fit my new rack.  When feeding time hit, we’d grab a bench and I’d do my booby duty, then go back to my shopping time.
So if your kid isn’t into the bottle thing, try not to sweat it.  There are ways to still have an adult life, you just need to get a bit creative.

Veteran mammas, what were your tricks for fitting in me time?

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