Using Formula Helped Me Keep Breastfeeding

What if formula can actually save breastfeeding?

I started breastfeeding my daughter when she was three hours old. She was good at it, I thought. She latched right away and seemed to be satiated quickly. Her lips were never chapped, her mouth was always wet, and she was wetting a sufficient amount of diapers. In other words, all the things you’re supposed to watch for to avoid dehydration were just fine. But then came our first pediatrician’s appointment.

“You’ve facilitated a critical weight loss,” said the pediatrician – who was blunt and a grump and is no longer our pediatrician.

Because I had been exclusively breastfeeding, the news was crushing. I couldn’t help but feel like a failure of a mom, wondering if she had been hungry this whole time.

That said, the doctor was right. In just 72 hours, my girl had lost one whole pound. That’s a lot when you start out at 7 pounds, 12 ounces. It’s a weight loss of 14 percent — anything more than 10 percent at that first newborn appointment sends up red flags. So when supplementing was brought up, I didn’t think twice. There was no question whether or not to supplement. Whatever she needed, I was happy to do.

Admittedly, I hadn’t done much research about breastfeeding and at this point was completely unaware of the culture. In certain circles, formula feeding is taboo — shameful, even. But I didn’t know. My husband and I had even stocked up on formula before our baby was born, in case breastfeeding proved difficult. We brought home cans of the gmo-free, organic stuff.

I’m the first of many of my friends to have a baby, and it wasn’t until I joined mom groups that I realized the despair many women feel when they aren’t able to successfully nurse their baby.

I didn’t know there was this guilt-laden philosophy that anything other than breastfeeding was wrongI didn’t know some moms want so badly to breastfeed that even when their baby refuses, they pump around the clock so to bottle feed their little one that nutrient and anti-body rich supply. I had no idea that other moms endured blisters and cracks on their nipples in order to breastfeed. Or even that some, desperate to nurse, continue trying exclusively, even though they aren’t able to produce.

The tremendous pressure to breastfeed at all costs came to light recently, when Jillian Johnson wrote about the loss of her baby, Landon, at just 19-days-old.

In a post on Fed is Best, Johnson shared how her tiny boy cried nearly nonstop in the hospital. Johnson said he stayed on her breast constantly, nursing for 14-hours in his second day. According to her, medical professionals were not worried. Her lactation consultant told her he had a great latch and was doing fine. A nurse said he was just cluster feeding. By the end of day two, Johnson wrote, Landon’s weight was down nearly 10 percent.

The hospital where Landon was born is a “Baby-Friendly” hospital, which meant that unless there was a medical reason why she couldn’t breastfeed, Landon wouldn’t receive formula without a prescription from his pediatrician.

Twelve hours after getting home from the hospital, Landon went into cardiac arrest from dehydration. He spent the rest of his 19 days on life support.

The Fed is Best Foundation works to prevent infant starvation due to insufficient breastfeeding. The mission of the foundation, as it is named, is to remind parents that being fed is best – however that happens.

How do you know your newborn isn’t getting enough milk? Major warning signs include inconsolable, high-pitched crying, unsatisfied nursing — lasting longer than 30 minutes and more than every two hours — and reduced wet diapers.

My husband and I supplemented our daughter’s feedings for one day, then I felt the pins and needles so many women describe. My milk came in, and our baby regained her birth weight and then some.

There are a lot of reasons some lactation consultants and medical professionals encourage exclusive breastfeeding, especially in the beginning. There’s the ubiquitous fear of nipple confusion and the need to kickstart your production. But those are teeny, tiny, insignificant things in comparison to what’s most important: feeding your baby. By whatever means necessary. No amount of guilt should get in the way of that.

Photography by kelci alane photography.

Hanna Nakano

Hanna Nakano

Hanna Nakano is a journalist and mama-to-be based in Washington, D.C. After years as a television reporter and producer, she now works strictly online -- writing stories from coffee shops and saving lots of money on HD makeup. She's married to a medical doctor with a culinary degree (you can find their recipes and ramblings at Chef Meets Girl). They have a golden retriever named Mochi, and their first baby is due in February.

Comments {13}

  1. Such an important story!

    Gillian
  2. Didn’t know this could happen. Thanks for sharing your story!

    Nneka Jenkins
  3. Love this! And I experienced exactly that with my first, the extreme pressure to exclusively breast feed and heard it all about nipple confusion etc. I was a huge ball of exhausted anxiety. Fast forward to now I have my second child and completely agree that fed is best. We supplement at least once a day. Initially at the suggestion of my pediatrician to help her gain weight but also to give me a little chance and breather between what seems to be cluster feedings. It gives my husband a chance to bond with her as well and help me out. It’s a matter of doing what’s best for you and the baby and everyone else can mind their own. Thank you for sharing this!

    Elaina Hedgepeth
    1. We totally agree, Elaina! So glad you guys have found your feeding groove and yes, fed is best!

      Jessica Pallay
  4. This was my life 4 months ago! My baby would cry for no reason at all – but would feed on me for an hour…then still cry. I started supplementing after talking to her pedi (who said she was gaining weight, so i really didn’t need to). The first day i did, she stopped crying and was happy and looking around when not on my breast. It was the best decision I made with her. I was exhausted and had severe postpaturm, too, so i know she felt that. But with formula, i could actually sleep peacefully because i didn’t have to pump immediately after feeding. I am a firm believer in fed is best – it’s hard being a mom, and you need to just trust your instincts. She is healthy and happy – and most of all, fed. Love this story – thank you for sharing! More moms (esp new moms!) need to know this! XOXO

    Kelly
    1. Thanks for sharing your baby’s story! It helps knowing that we’re not alone!

      Jessica Pallay
  5. It is important to tell this story to new mothers. I am supplementing my almost 4 months old and it has helped her gain weight and be healthy. I had the pressure to exclusively breastfeed my first child, and he struggled to gain weight until I started supplementing after 4 months. This time around I decided to not let that happen. Fed is best is my new mantra.

    Anna
  6. I agree that places like WIF should not tell new moms that they are a failure if they do not breastfeed or that once the baby takes formula they will no longer want to breastfeed. This is an old wives tale and a bald faced lie.
    Regarding the story about the little 19-day-old infant that died, it seems that the nurses at the hospital should have jumped on that and used formula as a supplement. Where my daughter gave birth, when the baby lost 1 pound, they brung in formula right away to ensure the health of the child. The baby ended up taking both the breast and the formula. It was never a problem. New moms should take heart in knowing that the most important thing is that the baby receives nourishment.

    Peggy L Green
  7. Very great article! I too had and still do have low supply. We’re 16weeks in it. We started supplementing at week 3 due to low supply. My baby boy had all the amount of wet/poo diapers even tears but I still wasn’t producing enough for him. Try not to stress (I know easier said than done) but fed is best so pump or by what you can and supplement the rest. So baby gets the best of both worlds 🙂 and has a full belly which makes any mama proud.

    Alexis
  8. It has become such a needless shame point for new parents that your child must be breast fed; as if we don’t have enough to worry about! My 4 month old breast feeds and has 2-3 bottles of formula a day and my best friend pointed out “you don’t need to justify those bottles… you make excuses for why he gets them and there’s no reason”. Without even realizing, I was using the tone and language of failure when talking about supplementation. Although I never judged my friends who formula feed, I was judging myself. My baby is happy, we are bonded, and others can feed him without me always having to pump. Let’s give ourselves a break.

    Marne
  9. We applaud you for feeding your babies, no matter how you do it! Thanks for sharing your stories Marne, Alexis, Peggy and Anna!

    Jessica Pallay
  10. Thank you! My girl is 15 weeks and I just bought a can of formula. My supply fluctuates and sadly my freezer stash is no good thanks to excess lipase production. Such a bummer but now I know what to do to fix it.
    Anyway, just having the formula in my kitchen has been a big relief. Yes, breast feeding is great, but it isn’t the end all be all and it shouldn’t be a point of shame or stress.

    Julia

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