I Didn’t Breastfeed Because I Didn’t Want To – And I Don’t Feel Guilty

Etta Rodgers with her daughters
Etta Rodgers with her daughters
Etta Rodgers didn't breastfeed either of her babies. Here she explains why this is not something she's going to lose sleep over...

Some mothers are unable to breastfeed because they do not produce enough milk. Others have babies that have trouble latching or are tongue-tied. There are those that end up with mastitis and can’t carry on breastfeeding, and those that have no choice but to use bottles, having adopted their babies or undergone mastectomies.

I was none of those things when I gave birth two years ago. I didn’t breastfeed my daughter because I didn’t want to.

The moment I found out I was pregnant, I knew I wouldn’t even bother trying. I’ve never felt guilty or any “judgement” about it, and I strongly believe that you shouldn’t either.

The moment I found out I was pregnant, I knew I wouldn’t even bother trying.

I can understand why women do feel guilty if they want to breastfeed and it doesn’t work out. Sadly, pressure to breastfeed with its unhelpful “breast is best” slogan is felt by some women from that first antenatal appointment.

I was fortunate enough not to encounter any hostile health professionals telling me how to feed my own child. Maybe this is because I am an informed, privileged mother, with all the facts at my disposal or maybe it was because they knew I was a second time mother. Maybe I was just lucky.

Although I never felt I had to justify my decision, I do remember nervously saying to a midwife in an antenatal appointment “Please don’t judge me, but I’m not going to breastfeed” and she said “You really don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do! Let me write that on your notes so that nobody pesters you about it”.

And she did. And nobody in hospital said a word – I was only ever asked whether I wanted some hot water to warm the formula.

Released from hospital, none of the health visitors even blinked during the weigh-ins. They just wanted to make sure she was gaining weight and thriving, which thankfully she was. I wonder if, given how stretched the services are, they were grateful not to have to deal with any problems that can occur as a result of breastfeeding.

I was a straightforward appointment; I knew how much my baby was eating; I knew when she was full; she slept well as a result; she didn’t have jaundice; I wasn’t on the verge of a nervous breakdown every time I came to feed her.

It was such a different story compared to my first daughter. I won’t go into detail because this piece is supposed to be about not having to justify a feeding decision, but I feel it’s important to state that I DO know how it feels to want to breastfeed and be physically unable to do so.

I have first hand experience of the complete lack of resources and support for those women who want to make it work. If you’ve got the money, you can pay for a lactation consultant or maternity nurse to come to your rescue; but if not, you’re in for weeks on end of anxiety with a screaming baby, agonising nipples and a desperate state of mind, all of which are the last things you need following pregnancy, childbirth and the overall shock of caring for another tiny human, whether it’s your first or your fifth baby.

The whole first time round experience was so distressing and traumatic that the guilt I felt when doctors eventually told me I should give up trying to breastfeed came not from the fact that I was a “failure” and that my baby would get fat, asthma and cancer from the formula she now required, but from the fact that I felt so utterly relieved I had an official sick note and could STOP.

What prevailed,  however, was a desperate urge to explain myself. I spent six months telling anyone who would listen that I’d nearly died and didn’t have any milk and please feel sorry for me and my chubby baby and so on.

Amy Smyth Photography
Amy Smyth Photography

You could have asked me how the weather was in London and I’d have told you that the day my daughter was admitted to hospital at five days old to be fed formula through a nasal-gastro tube because she was failing to thrive on zero breast milk it was quite cloudy.

Breastfed babies can suffer from allergies, get norovirus and be stupid.

But eventually, thanks to life’s greatest healer – the passage of time – I started to realise that my daughter was just as bright-eyed and bushytailed as her breastfed peers, albeit with a few more delicious thigh and arm rolls, and I cared less and less that I hadn’t been able to breastfeed. I started to see that even breastfed babies can suffer from allergies, get norovirus and be stupid.

Next time, I wasn’t even going to try.

We are led to believe that breast milk is some sort of magic elixir; that it has actual healing powers. But if you are struggling with any guilt or the pressure to breastfeed it’s so important to remember that there is no consistent science about breastfeeding. Studies are being carried out constantly and the conclusion of one year’s report will be discredited by another study the following year.

It is very difficult to compile data accurately for this subject because it is unethical to tell women how to feed their babies. Any data that is recorded is often done so retrospectively and is therefore not as reliable.

All those sensationalist headlines you see in the newspapers and online should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt.

There is also very little conclusive evidence about the health risks of formula feeding a full term infant in an industrialised country, other than a couple more episodes of diarrhoea or ear infection in a very small percentage of babies.

In a developing country, this is obviously a vital consideration, because babies without access to clean water and good medical services can be at risk of death from something like a bad gastrointestinal infection.

But here in the UK, this is fortunately not the case, and despite the rate of breastfeeding being as low as 0.5% at 12 months, the latest infant mortality rate (3.6 out of 1000) is one of the lowest ever recorded.

I think it’s probably safe to say, therefore, that formula is not actively poisoning babies in this country, contrary to what some “lactivist” bloggers might have you think.

I’ve found the breastfeeding support groups in this country to be distinctly anti-choice and therefore anti-feminist. Take La Leche League, for example, which is one of the largest breastfeeding promotion groups in the world.

It was founded in the 1950s by a group of devout Catholics and, although they have done exemplary work in supporting breastfeeding over the decades, much of their original objective was to halt the increasing numbers of women who were going out to work.

Their aim was to “bring mother and baby together again”.

By 1981, the LLL manifesto stated: “Our plea to any woman who is thinking about taking an outside job is, ‘if at all possible, don’t’”.

All you MPs breastfeeding your babies in parliament… this is great to see but it isn’t “normalising” breastfeeding.

If you commit to breastfeeding for six or 12 months, paid work is going to be quite difficult. All you MPs breastfeeding your babies in parliament… this is great to see but it isn’t “normalising” breastfeeding.

It’s taking a privilege at work that is denied to most of the rest of us because we need to be focused in our meetings!

I didn’t return to work because I never earned enough money to cover childcare and have thus filled the brief La Leche League set out in their manifesto all those years ago by staying at home with my children.

But I haven’t breastfed either of them.

Breastfeeding in all its many forms works for countless others but formula feeding is what worked for me and my family.

Shouldn’t modern day parenthood just be all about doing what works for each of us as individuals within our own families, without having to justify those choices?

I remember a super hot A & E paediatrician asking me how I was feeding my 8-week-old daughter. I launched into my usual spiel: entire gynaecological history, baby’s medical history, probably told him the story about how they once ran out of sanitary towels on the gynaecology ward: “So we’re having to formula feed, I’m afraid…”

And he looked at me and said, “Oh, actually I just wondered if she was due a feed and if you were breastfeeding whether you’d prefer some privacy before I examine her. You don’t need to justify anything. As a doctor, I only care that you’re feeding her with love”.

Love. Now, that is what really counts.

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