What Not to Say to a Mother Who Isn’t Breastfeeding
There is a lot to be said for giving helpful support and wise words to a mom who is trying or struggling to breastfeed. The truth is, learning to nurse a baby often doesn’t come as naturally as we hope and believe it might. And the help of other women who have been through their own breastfeeding battles can be a valuable asset.
That said, the choice to breastfeed or not to breastfeed is a highly personal one. A mother who has decided not to breastfeed or can’t for medical reasons, like the inability to produce breast milk, has likely already heard all of the reasons why she should. Too often, women feel a lack of support when they don’t breastfeed. But all new mothers need support, kind words and less judgment. What formula-feeding moms likely don’t hear enough of is that her choice is her own to make, and that her thoughts and feelings about how to feed her baby are valuable.
And on that note, here are things you should avoid saying to a mother who isn’t breastfeeding, with personal stories from moms who've personally experienced the negativity around the topic.
Nutritionally speaking, breastfeeding is usually the optimal choice for a baby. What’s also true is that while breast milk has nutritional benefits that beat out formula, breastfeeding may not actually be what’s best for the whole family.
New moms who are headed back to work quickly, are encountering postpartum mental health issues, or have other reasons for wanting or needing to discontinue nursing (or not start it to begin with) likely feel that breast isn’t actually best for a variety of other reasons that have little or nothing to do with the chemical makeup of breast milk. New moms everywhere are constantly beat over the head with how and why breast milk is better than formula. But simply put, fed is always best.
None of Your Business
If you know that a mom isn’t breastfeeding but don’t know the reason, don’t ask. And if you do, don’t expect an answer. Asking to know the personal details of why a mom is feeding her baby formula should never be done.
Unless a mom decides to offer that information up on her own, why she is feeding her baby the way she is is really none of your business. It is incredibly rude to assume that any mother owes you an explanation for why she isn’t nursing. She doesn’t.
Heading Back to Work
There are plenty of reasons that women choose not to breastfeed. Heading back to work in just a few short weeks after giving birth is a big reason, especially in a society that doesn’t always provide moms with adequate maternity leave.
While some women continue pumping at work, not all jobs provide the time and opportunity for women to pump (even though, of course they should). Even still, many women have a difficult time letting down or getting out enough milk with a breast pump. And some women simply don’t want to be tied to a pump for half the day either. Comparisons about what other people have done aren’t relevant to one working mom’s experience versus another.
Tough It Out
Postpartum moms should never be told to “just tough it out.” With soaring high rates of postpartum mental illness, we should be telling moms the opposite — to just take care of themselves in whatever way that they can.
For some moms, especially those who feel that nursing is contributing to their mental unwellness, they should absolutely feel justified in choosing not to breastfeed. Christina Myers, mother of two from Vancouver, Canada, says she was shamed countless times by friends and family for formula feeding, and even publically by strangers, despite the fact that her mental health was suffering.
“A grocery store clerk held up my tin of formula as she was scanning it and said ‘no one can make something as good as nature, you know,’” Myers says. “I had postpartum depression and had struggled through three months of trying to breastfeed … It was a devastating time for me.”
Debates about formula being “toxic” or “unhealthy” are unfounded. While breast milk is the perfect first food, formula provides everything a baby needs to thrive. No one should tell a formula-feeding mother that her baby will be sick or unhealthy from drinking formula.
Kathy Radigan, mom of three in East Northport, N.Y., says, “I nursed my first two and decided not to nurse my third. My mother kept telling me that I was doing damage to my third, not because she was against bottle feeding, but because she felt that since I did it with the first two, it wasn’t fair to the youngest. He’s now 13 and perfectly fine.”
The Love Claim
It should go without saying that a mother who chooses to formula feed doesn’t love her baby any less than a mother who breastfeeds. As parents, we all have to make choices that are right for us and none of those choices are wrong or imply that we aren’t as loving parents as the next.
Why Question Bonding?
Breastfeeding is one natural way to feel close to and bond with your baby. But it’s not the only way. For new moms who aren’t breastfeeding, hearing that their baby won’t feel as close to them as a result can be devastating. Holding a baby close, practicing skin-to-skin contact and generally making your baby feel loved and nurtured are all wonderful bonding experiences, too.
Suggesting that a mom and baby won’t be bonded for life because of a mother’s feeding choice is cruel and misinformed.
Not a Privilege
The suggestion that moms who aren’t breastfeeding are lucky or more privileged than nursing moms can seriously sting, especially for moms who didn’t have the option of nursing in the first place.
“Hey, at least you can drink all the coffee you want because you’re not, ya know … ” is something mom Sarah Netter of New Orleans heard a lot. “I’m an adoptive mom, and at that time, my child had just gotten home from nearly three months in the NICU. In hindsight, not the worst thing ever, but insensitive, and it made me cry.”
Avoiding "Should Haves"
For mothers who aren’t breastfeeding, whether out of necessity or want, they don’t need to be told to try lactation cookies, teas, herbs or specialists. If the choice has already been made, telling moms all the “should haves” is simply unkind and unhelpful.
Not to mention, some mothers don’t have the intense desire to go to the ends of the earth to make breastfeeding work. Even if they do, for some, it simply doesn’t, and implying that the fix was as simply as a cup of tea undermines her entire experience.
A Matter of "Working"
Not every mother can or desires to breastfeed her children. Many moms who don’t breastfeed one child already know they aren’t planning to breastfeed any subsequent children.
It isn’t always a matter of “making it work.” For plenty of parents, bottle feeding works just fine.
A Question of Caring
Many moms are told, despite various challenging circumstances surrounding feeding their baby, that if they just cared a bit more, they could make it work.
Alyssa Royse, mother of two from Seattle, says this was the case for her. “My appendix burst when my daughter was five weeks old … I was in the hospital for five days, literally fighting for my life. Needless to say, my breast milk dried up. When I came-to, I wanted desperately to breastfeed, tried everything, nope.
“In desperation, I called a La Leche League hotline, mostly seeking comfort and was scolded. I was told I just didn't care enough. That, and I quote, ‘There are medications that will make men lactate, if you really care.’ Needless to say, I am now that lady who tells new parents that they get to listen to their bodies, their babies and their belly voices, and make the call that feels best for their family.”
Forget About Timing
How to feed your baby is a highly personal choice — so much that moms often feel sadness or judgment just by being asked about how they are choosing to feed their babies. Caryn Smith of San Francisco says being asked why or even if she was still nursing could be hurtful, given her vulnerable state after not being able to nurse.
“I struggled with low milk supply and cried and cried over not being able to exclusively breastfeed,” she says. “People asking something as simple as, ‘Are you still nursing?’ suddenly felt really, really personal and made me a little weepy. No fault of theirs, it's just a harder topic than people who haven’t struggled may realize.”
While no ill will may be meant, we should all realize before asking questions about how someone is feeding their baby that it can feel like opening a wound, especially if mom has been struggling with the decision.
The IQ Debate
Moms are often told that their formula-fed infants won’t turn out as smart as breastfed babies. While it seems cruel to make such a suggestion, some mothers say it’s not an uncommon criticism.
Naomi Tomky, of Seattle, says, “When I was holding my second child at a conference, a woman was speaking to me and asked if I was breastfeeding her. I said, ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘Good, breastfed children score eight points higher on IQ tests than formula fed.’ I answered, ‘I guess my older daughter will be stupid then.’ She walked away.”
To Each Their Own
Mothers who dote on their babies day and night don’t need to be told they are selfish for using formula. For most, motherhood on its own is one of the most selfless acts in the world.
Our personal choices about how we choose to mother, whether it be how we feed, sleep, whether we stay home or go back to work, do not make us better or worse mothers, or any more or less selfish. If there is one thing we need to say and believe more, it is “to each their own” when it comes to how we feed our babies.