I’ve mentioned on here a few times that I couldn’t give Nathan and Alexander my breast milk because of their allergies. I’ve decided to share more about why that happened and the emotional effects that linger with me because of it.
Nathan and Alex spent two months in the NICU because of their stomachs. They were premature, but their hearts, lungs, and brains were perfect. At first, the doctors told us that they were just there until they could grow enough to go home. Soon, though, things took a turn for the worse. One of the goals for NICU babies is to “tolerate feedings,” AKA eat without their bodies going haywire. Since a preemie’s digestive system isn’t fully mature, they often have trouble digesting food like a full-term baby would. The way the nurses put it to me was that they weren’t supposed to be eating food yet. They were still supposed to be in my stomach, getting their nutrients from the placenta while they grew. Since they came early, their bodies were tasked with an order they weren’t quite ready for. The boys started off on pumped breast milk and got that for a long time, but they had extreme difficulty tolerating feedings. They would do fine for a while, then their stomachs would swell and bloat and they would go days without a bowel movement, or they would poop blood. It was scary. The NICU staff kept mentioning a disease called “NEC” and saying how they wanted to make absolutely sure the babies didn’t have it, because it could be fatal. Until doctors could figure out what was wrong, they were put on an extremely gentle hypoallergenic formula. There were periods where they could not eat at all and survived only on IV fluids (those days were the absolute worst ones.) The boys had so much difficulty digesting milk that Alex was airlifted to a larger hospital to have a biopsy done to test for a rare intestinal disease found in infants. The biopsy results were negative and they started doing better, so the boys were put back on breast milk and sent home.
A few days after getting them home, their stomachs became distended again and their poops were almost entirely water. Instead of being satisfied after they ate, they got fussier. I took them to their pediatrician, who determined that they were severely allergic to milk proteins. To continue breastfeeding, I would have to adopt an extremely restrictive diet and I couldn’t give them any of the boxes and boxes of milk I had stored. Their doctor finally said that giving them breast milk would be too risky and advised that they become exclusively formula fed. She gave me a list of a few hypoallergenic formulas we could give them and wrote a prescription to take to our local WIC office so that I could get them for free instead of paying $50 a can. They ended up on a formula called Elecare.
Not being able to breastfeed my babies was disappointing, and it made me sad for a lot of reasons – and not just that I wanted the calorie-burning, fat-blasting power of breastfeeding to get back to my pre-baby size. First, I had wanted that initial bond of nursing my babies right when they were born. With the boys being so early, of course, I couldn’t do that. Even when the doctors deemed them ready to nurse, they were so small, they struggled with it much more than a full term baby would. It didn’t feel smooth or natural like it felt like it should have. It felt forced, like something I was having to teach my babies how to do. And even when I was able to nurse them, I was overcome with worry. Would we ever get it right? Did they get anything from my breast at all? We’d do “weighted feeds” in the NICU, where they weighed the babies before and after feeding to see how much milk they’d ingested. They’d sit at my breast for what felt like forever, only for the nurse to tell me they’d eaten next to nothing. It was discouraging. This did not feel how I thought nursing my baby would feel.
Second, the constant reminder that breastfeeding is superior to formula feeding is overwhelming. It seemed that I couldn’t look anywhere without being reminded that breastfeeding is best and that formula feeding was secondary, and that formula fed babies are more susceptible to virtually every affliction there is. I’d see an ad for a new formula-mixing gadget on Facebook, click the comments out of curiosity about the product, and be bombarded with comments about how all babies should be breastfed anyway. I asked friends for advice on how to get my babies sleeping better at night, only to be advised again and again that the secret to getting baby to sleep was nursing them until they fell asleep at the breast. I had an old college classmate discuss her parenting style of choice, attachment parenting, only to research and find that one of the key tenets is – you guessed it – breastfeeding only. Was I that bad of a mother because I didn’t breastfeed my children? I felt left out and sad, like I was missing out on a core part of mothering two little babies by not nursing them. I found myself jealous when friends talked about nursing their babies and felt a twinge of envy when my friend whipped out her boob and started feeding her son during our play date. Every time something goes wrong with the twins – like their recent bout of bronchiolitis – I wonder if I could’ve prevented it by breastfeeding them. I wish I didn’t feel guilty, but I do.
The truth is, I’m still dealing with these feelings every day, and I have to constantly remind myself that I’m doing the best I can for my babies, and they’re okay. I hate that such a stigma comes along with formula feeding, but I can’t do anything to change that. I just have to remember that in spite of our circumstances, I am a good mother, and the “best” a baby can be is fed – not breast fed, not formula fed, just fed, by whatever means necessary. Connecting with other formula feeding moms has helped. I think of moms that can’t breastfeed for whatever reason – low supply, food allergies, whatever – I don’t view them as less capable mothers because they formula feed, so why should I hold myself to a different standard? Plus, talking to other moms whose babies have allergies makes me feel less alone. Our circumstances are unfortunate, but they aren’t unique. In the end, my babies are fat, happy, healthy, and thriving. They are a far cry from the tiny, sickly things that lay in hospital beds just a few short months ago. And that alone is a testament to the fact that, whether breastfeeding or formula feeding, we’re doing something right.