Why ‘Fed Is Best’ Can Be Such A Misleading Trope

Fed Is Best!
It sounds so right. I mean, which parent would want to starve their baby, right?
Except, it can be so wrong – almost like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing – lulling us into a false sense of complacency, about an issue we need to be more aware about.
These three words are confusing new mothers like nothing before.

Let me make clear at the outset – this post is not about mothers who choose to formula feed. Everyone has the right to their own body and decisions, and every mother has the right to choose her parenting style. This post is for those thousands of women who want to breastfeed, but for reasons beyond their control are pushed towards formula. Who go through 50 degrees of guilt, shame and everything in between as they move from breast to formula. All under the gentle, calming words – Fed Is Best.

Not once have I heard the words, “Yes fed is best, so let us enable you to breastfeed by exploring the problem.” Improper latch, lack of knowledge about letdown and colostrum, cleft lip, improper nursing position – the problems can be numerous. The solution, as readily offered by nurses, relatives, general stranger on the bus, is invariably formula.

It starts with a simple suggestion – why don’t you top up, and then try feeding as and when it works out? Some hospitals in India go as far as to decide to ‘top up’ your baby for you, while you’re sedated or sleeping. No problem with a little topping up is there? It’s just to keep your baby happy and full.
Of course there is a huge problem! A ‘full’ baby will not really suckle enough to trigger your milk production. A few ‘top-ups’ and you’re well on your way to reduced supply and a nervous breakdown. It’s all related, you see.

Most mothers who can’t feed are let down by misinformation.  In those early, bewildering, sleep deprived days and nights, it’s very tough to take informed calls.

Take my own example.

4 years back, ‘A’ came into my life 22 days early and a few hundred grams under the normal weight. I wasn’t really worried. His cry was loud and lustful and I knew we’d be fine. The only time I crumbled was when a lactation counselor came to me the next day and said that A’s weight was falling so rapidly that he might need to be admitted to the NICU. And then she said something that was to define my breastfeeding journey thereon.

I am really sorry about this, but we might need to give him formula to get his weight up. But I am going to teach you how to do it in such a way that it will not affect your breastfeeding plans at all

Not only was she asking for my consent about formula, but was actually apologizing for it. Moreover, she was already preparing us for the exit route. She was my breastfeeding savior no. 1.

The formula was so potent that A gained 200 grams in one day (yes, there’s a reason FF babies look chubbier) and we could leave the hospital the next day. He was 3 days old.
When he was 5 days old, I called my husband at work and told him I was throwing the jar of formula into the bin. I really wanted  to give myself a chance.
When we saw the paediatrician on day 7, I sheepishly admitted to him what I had done. I was expecting a stern telling off. What I got was, “Well, the baby is thriving and putting on weight. So I am not going to force you to do something you clearly don’t want to.” Yup, breastfeeding savior no. 2

The next savior was my mum, who had come to Dubai to help me care for A as I resumed work when he was 2 months old. She saw me struggle through the biggest challenge of all – pumping enough to meet his needs while I was at work.
I call it a struggle because pumping just didn’t work for me. I pumped for hours and still had days when I could only make barely 20 ml. As opposed to feeding the little monkey which was absolutely stress free (something about his magic latch I guess). Luckily, I was working reduced hours and only had to provide for 1 feed in my absence.
Even that one feed was touch and go. But, not once through those precarious days did my mum pressure me to go and get a jar of formula. Not even as backup. What makes this more incredible is that I was formula fed by her as a child because she was told by her doctor then, that it was the healthiest option (yes, the brainwashing had started a generation ago). Not once did my mum try to tell me “Look but you turned out fine, so why can’t we give ‘A’ formula?”

Instead, she was the most reassuring voice around, as she told me, “Go to work, and I’ll see to it that not a drop of pumped milk is wasted. And if we start falling short, I’ll just call you and you rush back from office.”

Simple, kind and practical words that just took away all the stress. Breastfeeding savior no. 3

To cut a long story short, A was exclusively breastfed until 6 months and I eventually went on to feed him until he was 2.

These were three defining moments in those early days as a new mother. Moments that could have gone either way, but with the right kind of support and guidance, helped me stay on to the path I had chosen.

This is not the most remarkable story, and neither did I have any huge challenges to overcome. But it is a story that needed to be told, just to bring to the fore just how many instances new mothers go through where they can be second guessed, confused and made to feel inadequate. Where even the most well-meaning advice can backfire and completely derail your breastfeeding journey. This post is meant to make you, a new mother, read, think, reason and even question. It is to urge you to listen to your instinct. If you are a mother who wants to breastfeed – it is your right to get all the help and support to enable that. Let the only reason that you give formula be that you have chosen to do so.

When not answering the incessant question of her 4-year-old, Priyanka Bhattacharya Dutt is a journalist and co-founder of Tura Turi, an art-inspired children’s merchandise brand

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