Last week, mom Annie Muscato was buying infant formula for her daughter at her local Target when someone felt the need to inform her of the inferiority of her choice. Like most of us, the first-time mom only came up with the perfect response to the rude comment after the fact. But instead of dwelling on what she could have said, she took to Facebook, explaining her reasons for choosing formula (breastfeeding problems from the beginning; a baby who reacted terribly to pumped breastmilk).
“Dear Stranger in Target, You didn’t need to tell me, ‘breast is best’ as I was buying a can of baby formula, because I already know…” she begins, writing a heartfelt, brave plea for tolerance and understanding in the infant feeding debate.
Her post inspired a huge social media conversation (it went insanely viral, with over 48,000 shares to date) about judging other moms when you don’t know the full story. Other formula feeding moms responded with similar stories about the prejudice they experienced from friends and healthcare providers alike.
I not only loved the post, I lived it. My breastfeeding experience with my first child eerily parallels Muscato’s; it was what provoked me to start The Fearless Formula Feeder community back in 2009. Since then, I’ve heard countless stories of women “failing” to meet breastfeeding recommendations, and suffering significant emotional consequences because of it.
Breastmilk is a pretty miraculous thing, and when nursing works, it can be an incredibly empowering experience. But that does not make it the best choice for every family, and for some, it’s barely a choice at all.
But here’s what concerns me: Muscato (like me) gets a “pass” from many, because she went to great lengths before throwing in the nursing cover. But what about the mom who had latching issues and switched to formula after a few days? Or the adoptive mom who decides not to induce lactation or accept donor milk, for her own personal reasons? And what about the mother who chooses formula because breastfeeding triggers memories of sexual abuse—does she have to explain her reasons? What about the mother who simply does not want to breastfeed?
That’s why it’s so encouraging to hear major medical associations starting to reflect this reality. For example, in the States, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently changed the wording of its breastfeeding recommendation to health care providers, suggesting that they “support” breastfeeding rather than “promoting” it. In other words, they are encouraging doctors to support women in their breastfeeding efforts, but not present it like something they have to do in order to ensure a healthy, loved, well-attached child. Considering studies have suggested that breastfeeding difficulties are linked to a higher risk of postpartum depression, this is a huge step in the right direction.
As Muscato’s experience demonstrates, society (and certainly strangers at Target) shouldn’t shame moms for formula feeding, because we don’t know their backstory. But perhaps more importantly, let’s not forgot that we aren’t owed those stories. A mom shouldn’t have to defend—or even explain—her choices. It’s about not judging, period. You don’t have to assess and approve of a woman’s reasons for not breastfeeding any more than a woman needs to explain her reasons for breastfeeding. Until we can accept that as truth, mothers will still feel judged, not only in the aisles of Target, but online, in the maternity ward, and—most importantly—in their own hearts.
Suzanne Barston is the author of Bottled Up (“How the way we feed babies has come to define motherhood, and why it shouldn’t”) and will be answering reader questions about bottle-feeding on our Facebook page on Tuesday, May 3 at 8 pm EST.
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