I walked up the snow-covered steps of a quaint bungalow, excited to meet a two-month-old little boy and his mama. She had sent me an email a few days prior; all it said was, “I need help with my baby, he’s crying all the time. Can you do anything?” This is common story in my inbox. I replied I could be there Wednesday.
I knocked on her door, and a beautiful thirty-something woman answered, bouncing a bundle. We sat down on her couch and started to chat. She said he’d been born on his due date, a beautiful delivery, and she was back at home 24 hours later. Breastfeeding hurt in the hospital, but she was told that was “normal” and it would get better. A week later, still trying to “push through”, she couldn’t take it any longer, and went to her local breastfeeding clinic. Her little man had a tongue tie, they said, a common reason for breastfeeding pain. The physician clipped the tongue tie in the office and sent her home with instructions on how to move forward. She continued “pushing on” and did feel some relief, but continued to struggle with supply and latch issues. She was back and forth between clinics and private consultants, as she was desperate to breastfeed. She had dreamed of nursing her baby, like many moms, and the journey had consumed their household. She could not get a comfortable latch no matter what she tried or whose help she enlisted. She was consumed with trying and not giving up. I watched this woman become more teary and shaky as her story progressed. She told me he was gaining weight, but was very fussy and cried at the breast and throughout most of the day and night. Her husband had taken the day off work to be home for our appointment and he sat quietly with his arm around his wife and babe.
I first told her she was doing a beautiful job with her son. I told her the best part of my morning so far was getting to witness the way she looked at him and that I could hear the efforts she had been putting in to try to establish pain-free breastfeeding and an ample supply. I acknowledged that her path sounded full of challenges and I asked her simply, “How are you feeling?”
She broke down. Sobbing in her living room, she told me that breastfeeding was a number one priority for her, and she had read all the books and had sought out so much help and support, but that she just couldn’t do it anymore. She went on to tell me that the stress of nursing had taken all the joy out of becoming parents and it was all both her and her husband could think about. I could see that this woman was full of anxiety and had some real red flags of depression. She shared that she cried alongside her baby throughout most of the day, and was starting to wonder how she was going to keep going. She wasn’t leaving the house and spent all day feeding and pumping.
“Do you want to keep breastfeeding?” I asked her. Both her and her husband looked at me in silence. I realized in this moment what this woman needed from me, a registered nurse and lactation consultant. She needed permission. I told her that the most important thing was that her baby felt loved and that as a mom she had the ability to nurture and care for her baby. I told her flat out, “It is okay to stop and give him a bottle of formula.”
She and her husband hugged and both started to cry. Minutes later, they said, “Thank you, we needed to hear that.”
This is such a controversial topic. #Fedisbest is flooding the internet, and there are so many varying opinions. As a lactation consultant, I am an advocate for breastfeeding, and will go the distance with any family to ensure it happens. But it is not up to anyone but that mother to decide when she has reached her limit. A mama’s mental health trumps breastfeeding. Every time. Breastmilk does not care for, nurture and bond with the baby. A mother does. I am not arguing the health benefits of breastfeeding. Those are known facts. I am talking about the part that just isn’t talked about enough: a mom’s mental health.
Last year, for a few days anyway, the whole country was talking about it. Suffering from postpartum depression, Vancouver mother Florence Leung ended her life two months after her baby was born. On her memorial Facebook page, her husband recently wrote the following:
“To all the new moms experiencing low mood or anxiety, please seek help and talk about your feelings. You are not alone. You are not a bad mother. Do not EVER feel bad or guilty about not being able to exclusively breastfeed.”
As you can guess, despite being an advocate for breastfeeding, I agree completely. Somewhere along the way, our well intentioned, health-benefit focused campaigns on breastfeeding have fueled the message of guilt, shame and pressure on moms that are struggling and it is time for that to change.
I recently received a card and photo in the mail from the mom who gave up breastfeeding after our visit. It was her guy’s one-year birthday. In the picture, I saw a healthy, thriving family. The note said that the day I gave her permission to stop breastfeeding was the day she felt a shift. The tears stopped. She started enjoying the little moments with her boy and their bond grew. She said she still has moments when she feels sad that she and her son missed out on the nursing experience, but she knows that stopping is what her family needed.
We need to stop arguing about what is better. Breastfeeding, formula, bottles, pumping. It isn’t something that is up to “us.” It is not social media’s business, your neighbour’s, your mother’s, or the business of that mom group you belong to. It is yours exclusively.
As much as I like #fedisbest, I think it should evolve into new movement: #momsmentalhealthmatters. A healthy mom is necessary for a healthy, thriving baby—and that is what matters.
Carrie Bruno is a registered nurse, lactation consultant and sleep coach who runs The Mama Coach in Calgary, Alberta. Some details of this story have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.