How I Learned to Support A Mother’s Choice Not To Breastfeed

10 Feb

bottle fed baby

It was a blazing summer evening two years ago and our weekly childbirth class was filled to the brim with parents laughing and talking over their meal. The last session of our six-week birth education course had arrived – it was graduation night (everyone could go have their babies now, we always joked). In celebration we all brought food and shared a meal together before the onset of class.

While all the expectant couples were enjoying their BBQ, lost in conversation and anticipation over how their lives would change, the midwives pulled the other instructor and me aside. They had something they needed to share with us.

There was one expectant mother in our group who was choosing not to breastfeed. The CNMs urged us to keep this mother’s choice in mind as we approached our teaching session on breastfeeding and the nutritional needs of a newborn. We were asked to use the phrase “feeding your baby” when we could instead of “breastfeeding” to help this mother, who already felt guilty and ostracized for her unusual choice in this natural birthing environment, feel included in the conversation.

I bristled at the idea that we were coddling a mother’s poor decision. I thought it was irresponsible of us to not speak openly and directly as we always did on the amazing and overwhelming evidence-based benefits of breastfeeding. Besides, if she’s going to make a choice to deny her newborn the very best nutrients he needs then she should at least face it full-on. My job isn’t to white-wash anything. Breast is best.

But she knew that, I was told, rather sharply. She was well-informed on the benefits of breastfeeding, even so, she had personal reasons not to breastfeed her son. (None of which they shared with me, by the way.) Besides, no one was asking me to shelter her from breastfeeding benefits, only to make room in my conversations for formula use.

I was reminded that my job in that moment was to offer the best education I could to this mother to fit her needs and choices, without judgment. After all, do I support birthing mothers, or do I only support mothers who birth the way I see fit?

After all, do I support birthing mothers, or do I only support mothers who birth the way I see fit?

As we taught our class and covered our material, Sarah (I’ll call her Sarah, but that is not her real name) sat quietly through it all. I tried not to give her eye-contact as I went over warning signs of things that she wouldn’t ever deal with, things like thrush, clogged milk ducts, and mastitis. (Or would she?)

That night, as couples said good-bye and we hugged each round-bellied mother, offering hopeful hearts that the seeds we’d sown would blossom into beautiful birth stories for each family, Sarah stayed behind.

The midwives suggested we spend some personal time after class explaining to Sarah how to dry up her milk and offer further resources to her on bottle-feeding. Sarah and her husband sat in the living room waiting sweetly for us to talk her through it all.

Knowing she could not control birth, knowing she could not control motherhood, but knowing she could control this: the choice to breastfeed.

Hot tea was poured into our mugs and we all sat cross-legged on the floor and began to discuss the best technique for drying up her milk. At some point, after everything had been said, Sarah looked up at us, a circle of women gathered around her, and with an open heart, shared her story.

With brief and sharp details, Sarah explained how she was a survivor of sexual abuse and that it was a dark line that cast a shadow over her body. For this reason, she could not bring herself to breastfeed her baby. The emotional memories connected to certain parts of her body were still all too real.

She loved her son, and she wanted the very best for him, and in her case, she knew the best for him was to allow these memories – which were deeply rooted into her body – to stay quiet. She could do this by keeping (some of) her body to herself.

Knowing she could not control birth, knowing she could not control motherhood, but knowing she could at least control this: the choice to breastfeed. Sarah understood that by making the choice to bottle-feed, she would be in a better place to bond with her son, giving him a love untouched by resentment.

I knew her name, but I did not know her story

I realized something that evening that I feel indebted to always remember in my work with women: after six weeks of classes with Sarah, I knew her name, I knew her due date, I knew the gender of her child, but I did not know her story.

We can never fully know the stories of the mothers we serve. As a doula and a birth educator, I’m privileged only to what a woman shares with me, and often it is simply a picture of her present life, not her past.

And if a woman shares her past with me, it is by comparison, only a tiny glimpse into the story that really occurred – a condensed version that she feels comfortable expressing on that day, at that particular time – there is much left unsaid.

The words left unspoken tell a deeper story than the words that are spoken. And because of this, I must trust that when a woman makes an informed choice not to breastfeed she’s doing so because she knows ultimately what is best for her and her baby.

In return, I must offer the best support I can give without judgement or assumptions – something that every mother is deserving of.

Our birth prejudices get in the way

Too often in the natural childbirth community we reward a woman with our support when she births like we do and breastfeeds like we do. And if she does not birth or breastfeed in ways we feel are best, we turn our back on her with our judgment, proving that we hold our birth ideologies in higher regard than the women we are committed to serving. We allow our birth prejudices to get in the way of our care.

(I hope you’ll read that statement again.)

I understand and support the unequivocal benefits of breastfeeding. I want to see breastfeeding normalized and embraced in our culture. I hope to see access to breastfeeding resources become more readily available. I happily celebrate that milk-banks are becoming slowly more common in the US. I’m a breastfeeding advocate to the core.

But first and foremost, I’m an advocate for women.

When a mother feels fully cared for – equipped with confidence and security in her abilities and choices – she is then enabled to offer better care to her baby.

I see no outcasts. I see no second-class mothers with bottles in hand. I only see mothers with babies who are in need of support and love.

And maybe when I offer her care that is free of judgment or pretense, she’ll tell me her story.

I hope so, because I’m listening.


Something to think about:

How to Give Up Breastfeeding And Not Feel Guilty About It – Porch Philosophy

Links to explore for Bottle-Feeding Support and Education:

Baby-led Bottle Feeding

Bottle Babies

Fearless Formula Feeder

20 Responses to “How I Learned to Support A Mother’s Choice Not To Breastfeed”

  1. sonjaessen February 10, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    I love your post. Kudos to you for trying to make breastfeeding mainstream but also keeping the mother’s needs in mind. Truly awesome. And thanks for linking to my rambling post!

    • Joy February 10, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

      Thanks! Absolutely. I was glued to your blog last night. Thanks for being a fresh voice.

  2. Suzanne Barston February 10, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

    As someone who spends her days working with and defending moms like “Sarah”, I am so grateful for your honesty, self-awareness, and sensitivity. This is a beautifully written homage to what the sisterhood can and should be, and I thank you for it.

    • Joy February 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

      Thank you, Suzanne. Imagine my pleasant surprise at seeing your comment, you’re such a strong (and sometimes shocking) voice of advocacy, that I didn’t expect my little blog to get your attention. Without question, the work you do and the community you provide to help mothers feel steady and confident in their choices is deeply admirable. Thank you. I’m trying hard to lessen the divide in this often heated topic from my small corner of the world. I really can only speak for myself, but the hopeful part of my thinks the NCB community is slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to understand the value of a mother’s choice.

  3. Mummy Em February 10, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

    As a very educated and loving mother who struggled immensely with severe breastfeeding aversion, guilt at weaning at 6 months, and absolute fear of ever having to breastfeed again – I THANK you so so much from the bottom of my heart for this post.

    • Joy February 11, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

      From one mother heart to another, thank you.

  4. Paula February 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    Thank you so much <3

  5. danielle February 12, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    I can only say thank you! I struggled through my “triggers” to breastfeed, but two out of three children were weaned by eight months, and my third before he was two. I have yet to be able to convey these feelings and fears. But, I don’t have to. You did for me. Thank you!

  6. Heather Howard February 12, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    Couldn’t she use a pump or hand express?

    • Joy February 12, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

      By virtue of your question, it tells me you’ve missed the point.

      • Karla December 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

        I am just reading this now. I am glad that you grew from this, Joy, but could you help some of the rest of us who have difficulty with mothers who make a conscious choice to formula feed understand? I don’t understand how sexual abuse (I guess unless it is directly related to the breasts) relates to aversion to having a baby at the breast. And if the mother feels uncomfortable about having others (her own baby) touch her breasts, would touching her own breasts (i.e. in the form of pumping) possibly be therapeutic? I think your reply to the previous poster about pumping or hand expressing is rude and not in the spirit of helping others understand.

  7. Deena Blumenfeld RYT, RPYT, LCCE February 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Joy, this post is beautiful. It reflects my views and how I treat my students as well. (I’m, also an LCCE.) All women deserve our respect and our support. Because we don’t know a woman’s life experience, it is not for us to judge her choices or try to change them. So, thank you for writing this.

  8. elizabeth rb February 21, 2013 at 12:29 am #

    We are all so judgmental on who breast feeds and who does not. How on earth can you say that it is best or not best. Lots of people have grown up beautifully with out the breast. And it is none of your/our business ever to know why a mom makes this choice to nurse or not to nurse. But it is all our business to respect each and every mom and her choices whether we approve or not, as a woman/mom to woman/mom. I nurse, because for me it is easier, cheaper, more fun, no cleaning up and comes very naturally. But I cannot for one moment believe that my breast fed children are better off than children on formula. I see way too many happy and healthy infants and grown adults who have had nothing to do with breast feeding and are flourishing beautifully. Statistically you may say it is for the best, maybe for you, but not for every one. We are not better moms, better people, with smarter, stronger, happier healthier babies because of nursing, a lot goes into creating this positive equation, not just the breast. I feel sad for the poor moms who have made a choice not to nurse, who feel they have to explain why this is best for them…….never explain yourselves for you are still the best mom ever, doing a great job with the toughest experience of your life. Those that judge or question you, should look onto themselves for I bet there is room for improvement….like unconditional compassion and respect for all moms.

  9. Meredith February 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    Thank you very much for this post. I have a pre-existing medical condition affecting my joints, and determined about halfway through my pregnancy that it was going to be impossible for me to stay off my medication after birth to breastfeed if I had any hope of caring for myself and my daughter (I had to be off it for the duration of the pregnancy and it was not a swell time).

    The final class in our otherwise lovely six week birthing series focused almost entirely on breastfeeding. They had a couple come in with their four month old daughter to talk about how superior breastfeeding is to bottle feeding, and when my husband asked about bottle feeding the doula looked at him like he’d started speaking Swahili. We didn’t officially say we were bottle feeding because everyone else was breastfeeding, and when they said, “You mean, if something goes wrong?” I quickly replied, “Yes, in case something goes wrong,” and didn’t push the issue. They said something about everything you needed to know being on the can, and then launched into all the ways you could avoid ever having to use formula, and all the people we could call for support, and all the things we could try if we hid roadblocks like mastitis or latch problems. They were even hesitant to discuss how to dry up milk if things didn’t go well or how to ease pain from engorged breasts after one of the other mothers asked.

    It’s the main reason I haven’t stayed in touch with anyone in the group, which is sad because there was one couple that we really liked who was due the week after we were. But I don’t want to have to explain or defend my decision by talking about how humuliating it is as a 30-something adult to need your husband’s help to get out of the tub, hook your bra, and get dressed and undressed because you’re in too much pain to take care of yourself to people who – though lovely – I really don’t know that well. When I’m on my medication you’d never know I was sick, and I prefer it that way.

  10. Lauren March 17, 2013 at 11:41 pm #

    This was so wonderful to read. Similar to the last comment posted here, I also was on medication prior to my pregnancy. I’m Bipolar. The massive amount of stigma attached to me being pregnant was enough to unnerve me and almost convince me that I didn’t have the right to my own life- one apart from Bipolar Disorder. Wanting the absolute best for my babe-to-be, I went off my medications (with my doctor’s assistance) and am now overjoyed to be 18 weeks pregnant with my first. However, I am completely aware that so much is unknown after birth. I would love to breastfeed for as long as my body and baby will let me- but I know that it may not happen. I may need to go back on my medications, and I would have to turn to formula. Hearing this makes me feel more at ease, and a little misty-eyed. Because we don’t all have the easiest choice to make, and I have to choose what I think is best. I’m hoping I can give breastfeeding a full year- and that would be amazing. But should it not work out, I’m glad to know that there are people like you who are sticking up for choices- even when they are different. It warms my heart. You write beautifully and I cannot wait to read more on your blog. Thank you so very much, from the bottom of my heart.

  11. northmelbournemum April 4, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    What a really great post. From birth to feeding respect for choice is vital. Motherhood is far greater than just the act of feeding.


  1. My Guest Post on Fearless Formula Feeder: Where Does Breastfeeding Guilt Come From? | School of Smock - February 18, 2013

    […] How I Learned to Support A Mother’s Choice Not To Breastfeed […]

  2. What If I Can’t Breastfeed or Choose Not To? | Mommy Moxie - April 1, 2013

    […] My friend Joy, posted a story in her blog recently that really sums up how I feel about protecting a woman’s choice when it comes to feeding her baby. The story she tells I remember well. Please take a moment to read it here. […]

  3. Salt Lake City Doula | Weekly Roundup of Web Links | Andrea Lythgoe Doula Salt Lake City Utah - June 12, 2013

    […] this article on supporting women’s choices. I loved it so much I have to throw out a quote: “We can never fully know the stories of the […]

  4. Joy’s Top Ten Most Read Posts in 2013 | The Joy of This - December 31, 2013

    […] 5. How I Learned to Support A Mother’s Choice Not To Breastfeed: I share a very personal experience that fostered more compassion and respect in my heart towards mothers who choose not to breastfeed. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: