Breastfeeding may be best, but bottle isn’t bad

All the baby books and magazines state the same fact:   every woman can, if she wants, breastfeed.  It might be difficult, it might be painful, it might be inconvenient but there really isn’t any such thing as a woman who can’t breastfeed – only one who won’t.   The message is so strong, so single-minded, that I never even contemplated the possibility of failure.  Yet my son James simply didn’t want to know.  He would not latch on; in fact every time he saw my breast he screamed and screamed.

A seemingly endless stream of midwives tried to solve the problem.  No hospital could have tried harder; no mother could have tried harder but James was becoming jaundiced and listless.  My milk was meagre and, despite expressing around the clock, he needed to be given supplemental formula.  My baby – who was going to be exclusively breastfed for as long as possible, was drinking from a bottle when he was less than a week old. Over the next few weeks, with patient dedicated help from my community midwife, I continued trying to breastfeed but I was fighting a losing battle.  Finally after a day of constant tears – from both James and me – I admitted defeat and decided to stop.  This was not the loving, bonding experience the books spoke of – it was like waging a miserable drawn-out war.

James was totally content with his bottle but my guilt and anxiety and anguish were excruciating. For a new mother, feeding her baby is the most basic and primal urge. Take that away and you are left with a feeling of complete failure – that you have failed your baby; that you have failed as a mother; that you have failed as a woman. The childcare books only compound the anxiety and guilt.  They informed me that my baby was statistically fifty percent more likely to develop diabetes.  His immune system would not be as strong. He would be more prone to ear infections and stomach upsets. The information on the Internet was even more distressing.  One site promised, ‘making the best out of bottle-feeding’.  But, instead of offering comfort and advice, it admonished that, ‘First you need to understand that, no matter how hard you try, bottle feeding is not going to be as good as breastfeeding.’  It went on to tell me that my baby would get more infections and would be at a higher risk for SIDS.  He would be more likely to get cancer, heart disease and rejection of a kidney transplant later in life.  He would be ‘at an intellectual disadvantage compared to a breastfed child.’  I was inconsolable.

It strikes me that breastfeeding advocacy has overstepped the mark. By insisting that ‘breast is best’, the obvious corollary is that bottle feeding is bad. While I fully accept that there has been a legitimate need to encourage women to breastfeed and for society to accept and endorse this most natural of acts, nobody seems to have given any consideration to those women who just can’t do it.  And there are plenty of them: the emphatic insistence that every woman can breastfeed is patently wrong.  I posted a simple query on the Internet, asking if any women had tried but failed to breastfeed.  The response was staggering.

Many mothers reported that were not producing enough milk or that for some reason it was not satisfying enough for their babies – some babies were even admitted to ICUs close to death because breastfeeding counselors insisted that the breast milk would be adequate when it patently wasn’t.  Some could not breastfeed because the medications they were on for serious health conditions would affect the breast milk.  Others, like James, simply refused to feed.  In many cases, the women felt they had been given plenty of encouragement and support – one woman had successfully fed four babies but the fifth simply didn’t want to know.   It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to breastfeed – they simply couldn’t – and they all reported feelings of guilt, despair and deep psychological distress.

‘I was dangerously close to some kind of mental breakdown,’ admits one woman whose baby was diagnosed with severe dehydration as a result of feeding problems.  ‘Nobody understood.  People fell into two categories:  those who did not understand the importance of breastfeeding, whose attitude was pretty much to shrug it off.  Then there were those who think that breastfeeding is 100 percent possible in every single case if you only try hard enough.  I’m still bitter about that.  I wish some of those people had been with me, holding my hand in the hospital when they told me my son was still losing weight or that they had been with me during the many sleepless nights that followed when I was crying and losing my mind.  Then maybe they wouldn’t be so callous, throwing around words like “poison” and “swill” and “crap” when referring to the only nourishment I was able to feed my baby.’

There is absolutely no comfort for the woman who wants to feed her baby – but can’t.  I was stunned to discover that I could find any amount of support if I wanted to talk about my C-section, if I felt I had post-natal depression, if my baby cried too much – yet in a world where a counselor will jump out if you even trip over a paving stone there are no specific groups for failure to breast feed.  One psychologist airily dismissed the issue as a passing irrelevance.

The authors of the National Childbirth Trust’s book Breastfeeding your Baby (Thorsons) do admit that ‘An unsuccessful breastfeeding experience can be a major source of distress.’  They advise that you contact a breastfeeding counselor to talk over what has happened.  But none of the many women I’ve spoken to felt they could do this – generally because of a fear that the counselor would attempt to persuade them to ‘try again’ when they had already tried to the point of exhaustion.  Personally I derived most comfort from on-line support groups (mainly American) in which I was able to ‘talk’ about my feelings with other women who had experienced similar difficulties.  ‘Yes, there should be specific support for women who can’t breastfeed and it’s surprising it isn’t there,’ agrees midwife Zita West, ‘psychologically it’s a huge factor and women can certainly feel they have failed, that they are not giving the best for their babies.’

Meanwhile it’s worth remembering that while breast may be best, in the hands of a loving mother, a bottle certainly isn’t bad.

My view?  Breastfeed if you can but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.


  1. So true Jane. Why are you made to feel so guilty if you can’t breastfeed? I struggled, but managed, but also met enlightened midwives. They gave my first daughter a bottle while we were still in hospital to tide her over while we learned to breastfeed and fully encouraged me combine breast and bottle, which turned out to be the best solution. It sounds as if I was fortunate to encounter them, not the other ‘breast only’ sort.

  2. Wish I had read this 21 years ago, when my NCT breast feeding counsellor made me feel a complete and utter failure at it. After 10 weeks of almost drowning the poor child, (let down reflex was on overdrive) redecorating the front room with Mother’s finest, and generally being totally useless at it, I gave up and stopped answering the phone to all those jolly NCT Mums I had met at Bumps and Babies urging me to try again.

    I tried again with the next one too, but stopped far more quickly, and on the advice of my Health visitor as baby wasn’t thriving as well as she should.

    I beat myself up for months about this, and was made to feel I was denying my children the best.

    Couldn’t agree more with the idea that breast isn’t the only answer, I have 2 healthy intelligent and successful young adults to be proud of despite having failed the test.

  3. Mags: so glad your experience turned out well in the end. My midwife was wonderful, to be fair, and in the end it was she (who was avidly pro-bottle) who persuaded me to give in.

    Zoe: ah, sounds like we had the same thing. As if having a baby isn’t tough enough…..

  4. I am totally pro breastfeeding, but do understand the problems of mothers who find it difficult. I haven’t met one who has found it impossible, but many who have found it nigh on. I know I was fortunate to be able to breastfeed relatively easily, but do think the knowledge that I was breastfed and my elder sisters breastfed their children helped considerably. I breastfed my eldest til one year old, but my youngest was having a bottle at bedtime by the time she was six months old as I was working (as a childminder) every day and by evening there was nothing in my boobs worth having.

  5. I will get my daughter to read this who has been experiencing the most horrific guilt because her baby would not feed at all at first and now her breast milk is not adequate for the baby to grow. Baby 3 months now, just coming out of new-born clothes and weighs just over 9 lb. but enormous pressure put on new Mum’s today to breast feed. My daughter does both now and baby more than happy with forumula but does like the breast for comfort. We are not allowed to use our common sense at all these days, must go by the book all the time.

  6. Hi QC – thanks for commenting. Please reassure your daughter that James (now ten) doesn’t appear (touch wood) to have suffered any ill effects of bottle-feeding. He is an uber-sportsman, sickeningly healthy and in the top sets for all his subjects. Of course, had I breastfeed, he might now be a zillionaire entrepreneur! But seriously, do tell her from me to use her commonsense and fly by her intuition. New mums are put under so much pressure nowadays it sickens me.

  7. Thanks for responding Faith and I’m so glad you were able to breastfeed without any problems – it really is a huge boon for new mothers if it all works out well. I would have LOVED to have breastfed James and do feel it was something I missed out on (even after all these years) but I just don’t think anyone realises just HOW hard it is for some mothers.

  8. How strongly I identify with this! I gave up trying to breastfeed my now adult daughter exhausted by pain and bleeding into the milk and my baby’s difficulty in latching on after about a month. I was utterly desperate and felt searingly guilty and continued to do as she grew older and had asthma (would breastfeeding have prevented it?) I managed to breastfeed my second child with a lot of help from a gentle and totally non-judgmental breast feeding counsellor and that was a happy experience. Both children have grown into healthy, loving, intelligent and capable adults and I love them both to bits. There does need to be some balance in the breast is best camp. New mothers have enough to beat themselves up about.

  9. I’m on medication which could harm a baby if I breastfed, so it kind of ruled it out for me. People make assumptions all the time though, and the holier than thou attitude is irritating to say the least.

  10. Thank you for writing this, Jane. I struggled with my son Harry (now 4) who would fall asleep as soon as he started to feed. Rather than being encouraged by the midwives and breastfeeding counsellors, I felt bullied. I ended up expressing for 6 weeks, which basically made the first 6 weeks of his life a nightmare and I look back with such regret.

    I vowed things would be different second time around. Joe started feeding, by himself, within about ten minutes of being born (I had a section), but for the next two days in hospital I struggled to get him to latch on. Again, the guilt was terrible. I told one midwife that I planned to stop feeding once I was home. She said, brusquely, “You might as well stop now then” and I burst into tears. She apologised and said she meant that if I was struggling I might as well stop then as later. She said it was more important for me to feel relaxed and happy. Oddly, that helped me carry on.

    Home with bleeding nipples, my midwife recommended nipple shields and I’m still using them (Joe is almost 4 months), which makes me wonder if they would have worked with Harry too, had I known about them then.

    I was surprised both times at how emotive I found the whole issue and how obnoxious, self-righteous and intrusive other people can be.

  11. Hi Keris, thank you SO much for responding. Your reply confirms what I felt. I just wish we as a society could stop beating up on new mums!

  12. Well said Jane, because my daughters were premature, I also struggled to breastfeed, I managed about two weeks in total I think (bit of a blur) and that was with the aid of some bloody machine that made me understand how Daisy the cow feels in a milking shed!

    All I had heard in pregnancy was about the benefits of breastfeeding and when I asked about milk was told by the midwives – oh we can’t say anything we aren’t allowed. No wonder I felt a failure!

    Still I surrounded my kids with love and have done the best I can. Hmmn sounds a good strategy – a bit like ‘live and let live’.

    Good day to you. xx

  13. Yes, they do make assumptions and that is what really gets my goat too. Thanks so much for commenting.

  14. Oh heck, don’t remind me of the milking shed machine…..I once fell asleep over it I was so exhausted. Had forgotten that bit about midwives not being able to say anything about formula….. Yup, I figure love is the most important bit…

  15. Linda, the midwife who said I should stop if I wanted to told me not to tell anyone she’d said that because she could get sacked!

    I had the milking machine with Harry too. It got to the point where I resented him drinking the milk because I’d laboured so long and hard to get it out of me… which kind of defeats the object.

  16. Oh Keris, I am so with you. The final insult for me would be when James would drink my pathetic amount of expressed milk – and then immediately sick it up! I felt like scooping it up and refeeding it.

  17. I shouldn’t be laughing at that last reply but some parts of parenting are so tedious you just have to, or you’d cry.

  18. There IS a grim humour in it, Littlemummy…..confess I can -and do – laugh about that bit now (though at the time I could have collapsed into tears)….

  19. I just responded to this over on London Mummy’s but this was my experience and it may help other mums who can’t for some reason breastfeed and are feeling bad about it.

    Due to a horrifically long labour, emergency surgery, and subsequent SCBU admission for my daughter; I breastfed for a whole 10 days. In hindsight I think my body had gone into shock and had shut down.

    My milk never really came in properly and in the end I was so distraught that I was producing so little the SCBU nurses and my midwife said I should express the tiny amount I was producing and they’d top up with formula, so that’s what we did.

    It wasn’t the easy option it’s portrayed. You try making up and sterilising them in your sleep, rather than popping out a nipple! And storing pre-made milk on trips in the summer – well I shudder at the memory!

    But you know what? Despite all my fears that I was being a bad mother who was going to kill my child by not breastfeeding her she’s now six not obese, sickly, asthmatic, allergic or stupid. She’s a smart and sassy little girl, who eats healthily and exercises all the time which is in the end as important as those few months of breastfeeding.

  20. Huge thanks for posting this, Liz…your experience echoes mine and, by the look of it, a heck of a lot of women. No, bottle feeding is NOT an easy option – and trying to express when there is little milk to give, is a whole new field of torture.
    My hope too is that, by sharing our stories, we can reassure a whole new generation of mothers….yes, breastfeed if you can but, if you can’t don’t beat yourself up. Your baby will be fine.

  21. After giving birth to Tom, my eldest, I spent 5 days in hospital desperately trying to breastfeed. They let me go home but within a couple of weeks he had gone from 8lb 3 to under 6lb, mid-wives in mid-glam are not allowed to have scales we had to wait until the health visitor kicked in, after a month we ended up back in hospital where the peadratition told me to bottlefeed.

    Possibly he could have been breastfed as there was a delay in putting him on at birth and after that the hospital miss-managed things. However I don’t feel any guilt about bottlefeeding it was just as good for him as breast. He is remarkably healthy, as am I and my siblings, all bottlefed.

    What does cause guilty moments, especially when I question whether he has slight dyslexia, is whether starving him for the first important month of his life has left a legacy. I can’t even bare to look at any of those early photos because what I couldn’t see then I can now. Thankfully my mother-in-law could see it then and got us back into hospital.

    Alec, my second, breastfed wonderfully but had reflux so at 6 weeks I put him on special thickened formular with no qualms whatsoever.

    3 and 4 were breastfed until a year old. Why? because it is incredibly convenient and free. That is the message we should be getting across to people not that it is any better for your baby than being bottlefed.

  22. Reading these messages is helpful. I’ve not yet resolved whether to stop trying.

    My boy is 12 days old and I’ve had all sorts of well-meaning breastfeeding counsellors round, repeating the same half-baked information I had read up on before the birth. The last lot piped up, “What’s that new technique?! Biological…?”.

    Biological nurturing, I responded. Skin-on-skin. Nose to nipple. As if I haven’t heard it all.

    A lot of them don’t know what they’re talking about. Apparently I’m meant to feed my fractious baby from a cup and he’s meant to patiently lap it up. Hmmm. Anything but give him a bottle. Even of breast milk. What planet are these people on?

    Like Jane, I intend to breastfeed for as long as the boy needs to. Sadly he won’t latch on. On his third day, when the hospital discharged us, his breath was acrid from crying from hunger. They wouldn’t give me anything to feed him. I started expressing at home and feeding him from a bottle. Getting some nourishment inside him felt wonderful. However, at his first weigh in at a 6 days old he’d lost 9% of his body weight. I upped my expressing schedule, and have had to rouse him to feed him up. He’s now regained half he lost.

    Still not resigned to the fact, I called the La Leche League a few days ago and a lady there listened and suggested I call a lactation consultant. I’m pleased I did – she was like a baby whisperer! Why had no one suggested one before? The boy has a posterior tongue tie – now snipped – and a high palate. His tongue wouldn’t protrude to thrum the breast and no nipple would reach up that high into his mouth to be sucked.

    With some tulip shaped nipple shields he actually latches on… so long as I’m lying on the bed like a sow. Now it beats the sterilising but doesn’t match the idyll of breastfeeding whenever, wherever in public. I suppose I wanted something free and convenient as well as the bonding experience of the boy at my breast. I do hope he’ll take to it sitting up. The shields are a minor amount of paraphenalia in comparison to the milking machine. Just a week’s use and I swear it alternated it’s 4 beat chant to me of “grin and bear it” with “gave up try-ing”.

    I think I’m going to persevere. You all did!

  23. Huge thanks for sharing your story. I really hope it works out for you. I think my main message is that I would love mothers not to beat themselves up when and if things don’t work out perfectly… So, take it one day at a time and see how you go. HUGE good luck. jx

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