Breast-feeding Is A Mother’s Choice…Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Otherwise!

My first day really back on Twitter (I decided to finally try to get back in the swing of things), and I saw all these tweets about an article on Psychology Today about breastfeeding[WARNING:  I realize that there are moms out there suffering from postpartum depression (PPD) and/or having a difficult time breast-feeding that should not be reading articles that will only cause them further distress and feelings of guilt and inadequacy.  So, if you are currently suffering from a postpartum mood disorder, you should probably wait until you are feeling more strong before reading what I call crap that is being shoveled out in a feeble attempt to remind people that breast-feeding is best, no exceptions…which is what this article is trying to lead people to believe, which is dead WRONG.]

As I read the article by Dr. Darcia Narvaez, my mouth dropped farther and farther til it felt like it was going to hit the floor, it was that unbelievable.  It’s unbelievable that Psychology Today would allow such an unbalanced piece to be written, let alone be published for all the world to see.  The irony is that she’s posting this under the heading of “Moral Landscapes.”  I think it’s absolutely immoral what she’s doing in pulling such bullying tactics, trying to guilt mothers into breastfeeding irregardless of circumstances that they may find themselves in.  This Dr. Narvaez needs to walk the shoes of a mother who has suffered from childbirth complications and PPD.  It is obvious she has no experience or knowledge whatsoever of maternal mental health issues, PPD being a serious one, with one out of eight new mothers suffering from it.

Practically every single point she makes is filled with inaccuracies and lack of research to back them up due to a pure bias toward breast-feeding.  It’s almost like she deliberately set out to target mothers and try to bully them into following her preachings, but with no research/statistics to back any of her assertions up. Well, this preachy article should be pulled, in my honest opinion.  Thankfully, many comments opposing this article immediately started to appear on the site, and Karen Kleiman wrote a post on Psychology Today, which I applaud wholeheartedly.   Please check it out.  I wasn’t going to post a comment because what I would’ve wanted to say has been said in the numerous comments and this Dr. Narvaez wasn’t going to listen anyway.  Usually, I love to pull out my favorite lines to criticize here in my blog, but with this article, I would’ve had to quote the ENTIRE thing, it was THAT BAD.   I would like to take her first eight points and throw them out with tomorrow’s trash, especially the one where she tries to have you believe that “99% of moms can breastfeed successfully.”  Yeah, right.  Most women rarely succeed on the first try. Many don’t succeed until several days later. Some never succeed at all. Not succeeding at breast-feeding does not automatically make you a failure at being a mom.

But isn’t breast-feeding as easy as putting a baby’s mouth to your breast and having it suck? Aren’t we like other mammals that possess mammalian glands that produce milk for our offspring? We’ve all seen new piglets, puppies, and kittens lined up in a row doing their thing, all naturally knowing how to suckle after birth.  No, for HUMANS breast-feeding is no more instinctive than all other aspects of baby care that are learned from doing or learned by the in-person guidance of experienced individuals.  If breast-feeding were instinctive, why would there even be the need for lactation consultants? Why would one of the minimum qualifications of doulas be experience with breast-feeding? For every woman who feels that breast-feeding is natural, fulfilling, a source of contentment, and a great way to bond with the baby, there is a mother who feels that breast-feeding is difficult, painful and physically and mentally exhausting. Getting the baby to latch isn’t as easy as you’d think, and one would never know that a tiny little mouth can cause so much pain while sucking, especially if your nipples are already sore and cracking. And that’s in addition to the round-the-clock feeding schedule (e.g., one hour at a time, every two hours), sleep deprivation, and possibly even mastitis.

There’s this whole to-do about breast-feeding nowadays and how breast is best. Consequently, all too many moms choose to breast-feed with the best of intentions—knowing the benefits to the baby—but with very little concept of what it really entails, faced with a steep learning curve, and not expecting to have to learn or get help from anyone else for something as seemingly simple as putting the baby to breast to let the baby do its thing. As a result, all too many moms end up setting themselves up for a big letdown when they have difficulty breastfeeding and are unable to breastfeed for as many months as they were hoping to be able to do.

What new moms should keep in mind is that breast-feeding is a matter of personal preference. It is not for everyone. It is not a prerequisite to being a good mother. It’s a personal decision that must be made and should not be influenced by what other people say, think, or do. A mother who breast-feeds doesn’t mean she’s a better mother or loves her baby more than a mother who does not breast-feed. Breast-feeding is one method of feeding your baby. Your baby will grow up just fine with one of the formulas available today. There are plenty of people who were fed formula that are healthy and extremely successful in their careers.

A common misconception out there is that you must nurse your baby if you expect to bond properly. Let’s think about this for a moment. What about everyone who’s been bottle-fed? I doubt everyone who’s ever been bottle-fed failed to bond properly with his or her mother. You don’t have to breast-feed to bond. If you do breast-feed without any problems, that’s great. But you can also bond while formula feeding. Not everyone chooses to and/or is able to breast-feed. Dads and adoptive parents can’t breast-feed and are still able to bond successfully with their babies.

If you want to breast-feed, giving it your best shot is all you can ask of yourself.   Don’t let anyone else influence you into believing you must breast-feed. You and your significant other are the only ones who should have any say in the manner in which you feed your baby. It’s no one else’s business. You will be making the decision based on what you feel comfortable with and what you think is best for your baby. Feeding your baby formula doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom.

Don’t feel guilty or deficient about not being able to breast-feed, and don’t feel guilty for having to stop breast-feeding if you need to take medication to recover from your PPD. The priority is for you to be well again so you can care for and establish a warm and loving relationship with your baby.

If you haven’t already done so, go on over to these blog posts that have also been written in response to the Dr. Narvaez’s article:   My Postpartum Voice’s “My Breasts, My Sanity, My Choice” and Fearless Formula Feeder’s “Good versus ‘Evil’: How ignorance can bring out the best in the breastfeeding/formula debate.”

PPD and Baby’s First Year

Research has shown that the first year is critical to a baby’s emotional, psychological and cognitive development.  Studies have also shown that if a mother is depressed for as much as the first six months after childbirth, her baby will likely experience and show signs of motor development delays, emotional difficulties, social problems and depression by their first birthdays.  Your pediatrician typically asks a slew of questions at each check-up to ascertain if your child is reaching his/her developmental milestones and to see if there are any emotional, psychological, cognitive and physical delays or issues to be wary of, like a lack of positive facial expressions and less interest in activities and/or other people.

A great fear I had was that my depression would negatively impact my daughter’s development.  I had read in baby books and magazines that interaction such as talking, laughing and singing are important and positive contributors to a baby’s emotional and psychological development.  So I willed myself to stay as strong as I could in her presence, trying as hard as I could to not show any signs of sadness or worry, and playing with and talking and singing to her as much as I could. 

The amount of information in books, magazines and the Internet simply cannot be compared with what was available to the previous generation.  Floor time, attachment parenting, and infant massage were not terms used in the 1960s and 1970s.  As far as I can remember, there were no mommy and me classes back then either.  With the 1990s came the birth of such terms and a curious focus on, and subsequently societal peer pressure for, ways to enhance children’s social and cognitive development.

I know what it’s like to have no energy at all, to be weak with exhaustion, to feel as if trapped in a thick fog, and how hard it is while depressed to summon up the energy to even smile, let alone play.  But I realized I have a baby who is completely helpless and dependent on me.  I recalled all the years of trying to conceive and the difficulty getting through the IVF cycles only to succeed (thank God) in having a healthy baby.  I wasn’t about to let depression ruin my chances to love and care for her.  Despite the physical exhaustion and lack of sleep that all new parents experience upon returning from the hospital (but my husband and I were already worse off than the average parents from our week of hell in the hospital), I did do the following (before my PPD started 6 weeks postpartum and once my Paxil kicked in) with my daughter: 

  1. I kissed her a lot.  As she grew a bit older, starting at, say, 8 months or so, I hugged her a lot as well.   
  2. I talked to her a lot….or at least I tried to (I’m not, after all, the most talkative person as my friends and family know).  Per “Postpartum Depression Demystified” by Joyce Venis, RNC and Suzanne McCloskey: “One of the best ways you can interact with your baby and keep her stimulated is to talk to her.  It doesn’t really matter what you say, just as long as you’re making an effort to connect with her.”  In short, simple sentences, referring to her by name as much as possible, I’d tell her what I was feeling or I’d describe to her what I was in the process of doing, from changing diapers to feeding to giving her a bath.  For example:  “Time to change your diap-ee cuz it’s wet and I know it’s uncomfortable.  Okay, you have a new diap-ee and all is better now.”  I didn’t know this until I read Postpartum Depression Demystified—which is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy Start, Grow Smart, Your Two-Month-Old, Washington, D.C., 2002—that you should refer to yourself as “Mommy” when you’re talking about yourself, like “Mommy’s going to change your diap-ee now.”
  3. I sang to her a lot.  Her favorite tunes, even at 1-1/2 yrs, is the alphabet song and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star—both of which incidentally are the same tune, which I hadn’t realized until I did them one after another each and every day.  Sometimes I made up tunes.  Don’t forget the tried and true Mary Had a Little Lamb, as well as Itsy Bitsy Spider.  I also liked to sing some songs from Sound of Music, since I knew practically every word to every song.  This was to ensure she wouldn’t be tone deaf and will develop an early appreciation for music.  I sang the alphabet song so frequently, she was humming it by the time she was two and singing the whole thing herself by the time she turned three.
  4. I read to her a lot.  Again per “Postpartum Depression Demystified” by Joyce Venis, RNC and Suzanne McCloskey: “It’s never too early to start reading to your baby…..[Babies] like the sound of your voice and having you close…..Babies enjoy looking at the pictures and listening to the rhythm of your voice long before they can understand the words.  Reading to your baby encourages the development of a range of important skills, such as talking and understanding language, imagination, concentration, creativity, listening, and problem solving.  Children whose parents read books to them when they are young often learn to speak, read, and write more easily…..Reading to your baby….will…instill in her a love of books that will last a lifetime.”  Even before I read about this, I started a collection of baby board books early on.  My daughter’s first collection of books was a collection of little (3×3) nursery rhyme board books.  Babies cannot tear the pages and can even chew and drool on them.  When you read, try not to read in a dull, flat, two dimensional way—or quite literally (and quite boringly) as mere words on pages. Rather, try to read in what I refer to as 3-D.  In other words, try to bring the story to life and make it interesting.  Vary your intonation, pitch and volume.  Facial expressions are a plus.  I distinctly remember my pediatrician recommending reading nursery rhymes to my daughter.  She explained that babies are drawn to sing-song-y phrases that rhyme.  When your baby becomes a toddler, a great way to boost imagination and interest in the stories you read to them is to pick ones that will allow them to fill in the blanks or tell you what happens next.  A great example is the When You Give A Mouse A Cookie series of stories.  Today, she loves her books.  She asks us to read to her at bedtime every night.
  5. I played with her a lot.  Play is an essential part in the development of motor/visual and cognitive skills, learning how to accomplish tasks and learning about cause and effect.  Play is also an important means for bonding with your baby. Getting down on the floor so you can be at the “same level” as her – for example, having tummy time together and looking at each other eye-to-eye – is important in bonding.  Peek-a-boo is the ever reliable way to amuse and make your baby smile.  It’s always fun and rewarding to get your baby to smile. 
  6. I danced with her in my arms a lot to music from the television, radio or CDs.  This was to ensure that she grows up with rhythm.   Today, at nearly 5 years of age, she loves to dance and enjoys her dance class in school (just awaiting the time she’s ready for real ballet class).  You can see the joy when she moves to music she likes.  Fortunately, she has my taste in music (not her dad’s taste in death/heavy metal).  🙂  More on dance as a means of PPD therapy and bonding with baby over at a recent Postpartum Progress post.  Check it out.
  7. I did a little bit of infant massaging but not a whole lot.  I didn’t go as far as applying oil on her skin or anything.  Now that I think about it, I probably should’ve done more.  I was surprised by the amount of literature in childcare class, websites, flyers and brochures on infant massage.  Other than a friend of mine who years ago told me she had heard it was very beneficial to the baby, I’d never heard anyone else talk about it until I became pregnant.  Now I can understand how it benefits both the mother and baby.  For the baby, not only does it help with bonding, it can help reduce a colicky/fussy/irritable baby’s stress level, reduce teething pain, move gas along, and promote relaxation and drowsiness. For the mother, especially a depressed mother, knowing that touch and massage feels good and can provide such benefits to the baby is  a good, rewarding feeling indeed.

Then, when the PPD kicked in at around 6 weeks after our return from the hospital, I was barely able to keep the same level of interaction going.  During that time, I was aware that I had to keep up the interaction but I felt like a robot just going through the motions.  I no longer felt the joy I thought I should feel as a new mother.  I knew I had to keep it up so down the road I wouldn’t look back with any regret that I didn’t do my best.  I didn’t want to ruin my one shot at being a mother. 

It’s bad enough I can’t remember the sound of the baby’s cry during those first few months…everything was a blur to me.  It wasn’t until my head poked through the PPD fog about 4 weeks after I started taking the Paxil that I was able to continue where I had left off in terms of consistent and meaningful interactions with my daughter.

BOTTOM LINE:   A happy mom means a happy baby.  Bonding and interaction is very important to baby’s development.  PPD in the first year can get in the way of proper bonding and interaction, and hence have a negative impact on baby’s emotional, psychological and cognitive development.  It’s important for the mom with PPD to seek help to try to recover as quickly as possible so she can enjoy baby and motherhood.

The Myth That All Mothers Bond Instantly and at First Sight

All mothers fall instantly in love and bond with their babies.  If bonding isn’t automatic and doesn’t happen right away or it’s not intense, then that must mean you’re a bad mother.  Wrong!  This is yet another societal myth that serves to screw with the minds of new mothers. 

Be Realistic, Not Idealistic

Before I proceed any further with this post, I want to be clear that I didn’t know and understand enough about bonding to worry about this much in the weeks following the birth of my daughter.  One of my ongoing themes is to caution people against setting high expectations.  The higher your expectations, the more there is at stake; thus, the greater your worries and stress are, the greater the chances you fill fall short of them, and the greater the chances are that disappointment  will be the outcome.  As through much of life and on the job, you need to learn how to manage expectations.  Actually, you need to maintain a realistic attitude.  It’s not really “Hope for the best, and expect the worst.”  It’s realizing that hardly anything in this world and throughout life works out 100% the way you would like. 

Expectations of having a natural, vaginal birth without pain relief; of immediate bonding with your baby; of immediate success with breastfeeding—if you set such high expectations, when things don’t turn out the way you envisioned, the feelings of disappointment at a time when you are both emotionally and physically vulnerable can lead to postpartum depression (PPD).  Why do we set ourselves up to have such letdowns?  Again, if you go in with certain expectations, you’re at greater risk for disappointment if your experience doesn’t match your expectations.  It’s to your advantage not to have any expectations at all, but instead take things one step at a time.  That way, there will be less chances of setting yourself up for disappointment if your experience doesn’t match that of others around you. 

The Myth That All Mothers Have to Bond Instantly and at First Sight

Something else that society has you believe is that all mothers feel an immediately overwhelming sensation of love and joy—an immediate connection—with the baby at first sight.  Does feeling anything other than that make you a bad mother?   No. Does feeling unmoved, unemotional or disappointed at the baby’s appearance when they first see their newborns signify detachment and lack of maternal behavior and signs of depression?  No.  A woman may have certain expectations of how her baby would look at birth, or of how she would feel looking at her baby for the first time.  She may have certain expectations of how she should feel at birth due to what they hear from other mothers and/or seeing photos of blissfully happy mothers holding their newborns immediately after delivery.  It’s not unusual or bad to feel exhausted and numb after having gone through X hours of intense and painful labor.  I remember feeling disappointed that I didn’t feel ecstatic the way some of my friends—not to mention women on television—felt after they saw their babies for the first time.  She is merely setting herself up for a letdown if she doesn’t feel exactly the way she’d imagined she would feel upon seeing her baby for the first time.  She might even be a little disconcerted about the baby’s scrawny, bloody appearance or head that might be a bit misshapen from being squeezed for the last X hours through her narrow birth canal or maybe a “stork bite” on the face. 

Speaking of stork bites, they are a fairly common occurrence.  In fact, per Medline Plus, they occur in up to one third of all newborns.  A stork bite is a temporary birthmark that a baby is either born with or develops within the first months.  Stork bites are usually pink, since they are due to the stretching (dilation) of certain blood vessels.  Stork bites are usually located on the back of the neck, eyelids, forehead, nose, or upper lip.  My daughter had one on one of her eyelids as well as on the back of her neck—hence the term “stork bite.” 

You prepare and long for the moment, picturing it all in your mind in the months leading up to your baby’s birth, in which you will fall instantly in love with your baby the moment she is placed in your arms.  Don’t let the one mother you know or delivery scene on television convince you into thinking that that is a given occurrence with every childbirth.  Not all mothers fall instantly in love and bond with their babies.  Not instantly falling in love with and bonding with your baby doesn’t mean you are a bad mother. Per “Postpartum Depression Demystified” by Joyce Venis, RNC and Suzanne McCloskey (pg 47) “[It] takes time for that special bond to develop.  You and your baby need to get to know each other a bit in order for those strong feelings of attachment to take root.”  If after a few weeks you still feel detached from your baby, you should review my previous post on the symptoms of PPD to determine whether you are experiencing any other symptoms of PPD.  

Without a doubt, there is greater likelihood for a woman to experience “instant maternal rapture” if her childbirth experience goes well (in her opinion), but Susan Maushart (pg 87) in her book The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It states:  “A woman who has been ravaged by hours or even days of excruciating pain and anxiety, or one who has been so thoroughly anesthetized that (depending on the drug of choice) either her body or her mind is numb, is hardly a likely candidate for ecstasy.”   Maushaurt continues (pg 86) as follows: “[Recent] studies suggest that bonding with one’s newborn is a good deal more complex than achieving a magic postpartum moment.  The fabled surge of maternal feeling which women have learned to expect in the immediate postpartum period is highly variable, even among women who have experienced the most ‘natural’ of natural births….[and] there is no evidence that an immediate bonding experience is a precondition for the growth of maternal feeling over time.”  Since magazines and books seem to focus so much on bonding, it’s no wonder there is such disappointment when what you read is not what you get—when you don’t experience that same “surge of maternal feeling” that other mothers have reported experiencing. 

Let’s take a step back now to ask the question “What is bonding, really?”  Does bonding occur only with breastfeeding?  No! If this were true, then does it mean that everyone who doesn’t breastfeed doesn’t successfully bond with their babies?  No!  Does bonding immediately occur upon first sight of the baby, and as you take him/her into your arms after delivery?  No!  Then what is it?  Bonding is close interaction with your baby which includes holding, infant massage, singing/reading/talking to and playing with him/her.  All these important types of interaction stimulate the baby’s cognitive/emotional/social development. 

I can’t say it any better than Shoshana Bennett in her book “Beyond the Blues: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression” (pg 53):  “There is no one magic moment of opportunity when bonding must happen….Even if your depression or anxiety has made it difficult for you to care for your baby, it’s never too late.  Bonding is a process of familiarity, closeness, and comfort that continues for years.”  It’s this connection that you have to focus on, not whether or not you breastfeed or were not yourself when you had PPD for several weeks.  Don’t let books, magazines or other moms tell you that your baby will bond better if breastfed.  Keep in mind that there are plenty of children all over the world who drink formula and are perfectly happy and develop close and loving bonds with their mothers.  Bottom line is, if you love your child and show affection to that child, you will bond.   If you are like me and missed a period of bonding opportunity while depressed, once you are out of that PPD fog, let go of what’s already past and make the most of your time with your baby going forward. 

Missing out on the opportunity to bond with—in other words, responding to the baby’s cry through comforting, holding, feeding and communicating—your baby immediately after birth for whatever reason, due to complications from birth for the mother (as with happened to me) and/or baby (jaundice, physical defect), does not mean you will fail to bond properly.  Don’t let the image of bonding at birth become an obsessive thought.  I mean, think about it…what about adopted children?  They don’t stand a chance with bonding with their adoptive parents? 

I’d like to end with this.  PPD that is not treated can prevent attachment and bonding, which can only reinforce feelings of failure—a vicious cycle, of which there are many when it comes to PPD!