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  • Writer's pictureSusan Martin

What You Need to Know When You Can't Breastfeed

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

August can be a tough month for new moms who can’t breastfeed. Social media will be awash in pro-breastfeeding campaigns celebrating and promoting “World Breastfeeding Week.” In fact, the whole month of August focuses on breastfeeding promotion with a highlight on different communities each week - such as breastfeeding as a path to reclamation of indigenous knowledge in the face of colonization.

Focusing on breastfeeding is important because many mothers and babies still find themselves undermined by not only a lack of knowledge but also by many medical practices and cultural constraints that so often derail breastfeeding plans. We really have a long way to go in creating a society where it’s easier to breastfeed. So, yes, we still need months like August to celebrate breastfeeding as well as continued systemic changes because we are not yet a breastfeeding society.

That being said, there are absolutely situations where breastfeeding does not or cannot happen. A desired outcome does not always go as hoped or planned and life can throw us some real curve balls. Mothers who consciously plan from the start not to breastfeed are less likely to feel conflicted about their method of feeding their baby as it was not their goal to breastfeed to begin with. There is not a loss from their perspective and they are taking a different path by choice. For many mothers who wanted to breastfeed and planned to do so, but something came along to derail this desired and expected experience, the outcome of not breastfeeding can be a significant source of negative feelings such as loss, grief and anger.

Sometimes mothers pump exclusively and give their bottled breast milk to their babies. Some mothers find pumping breast milk overwhelming and all consuming deflecting time they would prefer to spend with their baby or they are unable to pump enough milk or pumping just doesn’t work in their situation and these mamas choose to use formula (which I like to think of like medicine and we are so fortunate to have a product that a lot of research is put into). Sometimes there are latching issues with the baby; sometimes there are supply issues with the mother. There are many possible scenarios, but, whatever obstacle arises, it feels intensely personal for each mama. If you can’t breastfeed or choose not to breastfeed, this is what I want you to know:

1) Milk is only half of the equation: Human milk is pretty amazing as a living fluid that is not only food for each baby, but also teaches the baby’s immune system. This is why there is a lot of public health promotion of breastfeeding because it can make a real difference for society when multiplied by millions of people. On the individual level, it’s really important to look at the scenario regarding breastfeeding holistically and understand the focus on breast milk is only a part of the unique contributions the breastfeeding relationship offers.

The other major crucial aspect to note is that nature designed breastfeeding as a way to remind us to keep our babies close with frequent bodily contact. Bodily contact with mama stimulates many protective capacities needed by your baby. Understand that your baby is born par cooked and not done yet and therefore is unable to regulate basic bodily functions without the help of you such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature, glucose levels and cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. Breastfeeding reminds us to keep our babies close with frequent feeds and direct physical contact.

If actual sucking cannot happen at the breast, your baby’s sucking needs can absolutely be met through a bottle and a pacifier. While the sucking need can be met, your baby still has a biological need to be close to you and stay in contact with your body to help them adjust to the big, new world and help them regulate their little body. This is extremely valuable - just as valuable as milk. Keeping your baby close, spending skin-to-skin time or having your baby lay on your body while resting has incredible worth. It has its own inherent value and you can do this for your baby.

2) You are irreplaceable as a mother. When bottles are introduced this opens up possibilities of other people feeding your baby. This can make it seem as if you as a mother are replaceable - that anyone can do this job. When we look at nature, the design of breastfeeding is that the mother is the primary contact person for her baby - not just for milk, but for physical and emotional connection. This contact and bodily warmth is more important than the actual milk.

The importance of touch and contact by the mother was revealed by the psychologist Harry Harlow in 1958 with his Wire Mother Experiment. In his desire to understand the bonding process for primates, Harlow separated newborn Rhesus monkey babies from their mothers (it’s horrible, I know!) offering them two fake “mothers” constructed of wire; one was simply a wire model with milk in a bottle attached to it and the other was wire faux mama structure covered in soft cloth. The monkey babies only spent a short time at the milk one sucking at the bottle, only as long as necessary to get the job done. They spent the majority of their time with the soft, covered one (which they also chose when they were startled or frightened by something). This experiment revealed that primate infants (newsflash: we are primates) have a deep inherent need for touch (tactile stimulation) and contact.

Harlow additionally researched the differences in development between the separated newborn monkeys and another set of baby monkeys who stayed with their real live monkey mamas revealing significant differences in their development further supporting the importance of maternal nurturing for optimal development. This was an inhumane experiment in so many ways, but it laid an important foundation for understanding attachment and development - that babies need contact and benefit from closeness and interaction with their mothers.

You hold a special, unique place in your baby’s heart. Your baby desires to be with you above all else. No one, no thing can replace you. I hope you fill yourself with this profound truth. I think it’s so important to focus on this fact, not that breastfeeding isn’t happening. Breastfeeding can be a helpful mothering tool, but it’s not you. Your baby wants YOU - irreplaceable you.

3 Slow down and be present: Breastfeeding places us in a state of immobility. It requires safety and the ability to slow down. While breastfeeding you can’t go anywhere else (this is what immobility is - you are not able to freely move around) and need to just be there. Modern life with its fast pace and infinite number of distractions, prioritizes a life very different from what a baby needs to develop healthily.

Your baby’s brain waves primarily function in theta and delta waves; these are very slow brain waves similar to when we are in states of hypnosis or trance (theta) or sleep and deep, deep meditation (delta). These are downloading and learning states of a different level than our everyday go, go, go life. Your baby really benefits from a slower natural pace. Going too fast can feel overwhelming and unsafe to babies. Since these brain wave states exist naturally for unconscious programming, understanding your baby’s need for a slow pace is essential for setting a good foundation physically, mentally and emotionally. When feeding with bottles, using paced bottle feeding can be helpful in meeting baby's needs for a slower pace.

Sometimes I see in public spaces babies with pacifiers in their mouths while they are alone in a stroller or even with a bottle propped up with them. Human development takes place in the context of relationships and close bodily proximity. Remember, that being in close contact with mother helps the baby to regulate their systems and the chemistry of their growing body. When I see a baby with a pacifier, I think, “Oh, this baby wants to be held and loved to help them feel good.” Same with a bottle - it might be more efficient for a caregiver to prop a bottle, but that only meets the nutritional aspect of a baby’s needs. A baby also longs to be held, needs to be held. This helps them feel good about themselves.

Breastfeeding takes time. Loads of time just being together. It absolutely requires slowing down. It’s based on millions of years old evolutionary needs, which our babies still retain today. Babies from the modern era really need the same things as a baby from two-hundred thousand years ago. When we are bottle feeding, we can still be there for our baby, because it’s less about the food and more about the slow paced and frequent contact. Remember, your baby needs you.

I like to share a quote with my childbirth class couples on our last day together by the late Dr. Haim Ginott, respected child psychologist and educator, “Efficiency is the enemy of infancy.” Modern life encourages disconnection. It distracts us and pulls us away to sometimes necessary obligations, but oftentimes we are forced or encouraged to disengage from human connection for things that really don’t feed our humanity or souls. Relationships feed our souls. And your baby’s soul. Love is learned through physical and relational interactions. Empathy is learned through physical and relational interactions.

And, in case it hasn’t become clear, you as a mother are more important than your milk to your baby. There are so many aspects of the breastfeeding relationship you can incorporate even if you are “not breastfeeding.” Breastfeeding is the teacher, not the definer.

If for any reason you are feeling grief, sadness or anger at not breastfeeding, these are legitimate feelings. I send you a big hug. You deserve to have a trusted ally to help you process these feelings. And I would love for you to take in the truth of what I have just shared and to understand that breastfeeding is a tool that can help and it is instructive, but it is not all. You are all. All your baby really needs.

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