If you read through enough of our blog posts or website content you’ll see that we often use the word “caregiver” to describe the various people who formula feed their babies.
We intentionally use this inclusive term instead of the exclusive term “mom,” as formula feeding provides the beautiful opportunity for various people present in a baby’s life to partake in the awesome act of feeding. Formula feeding families, and the people formula feeding babies, are vastly diverse and we celebrate that fact!
But alas, dads are very common co-feeders alongside moms, and with this past weekend commemorating Father’s Day here in the United States, I wanted to use this blog post to discuss a topic that we all-too-often find ourselves consulting for – dads who are watching on as their wives or partners are struggling with needing to use formula.
We have consultation requests on behalf of dads and other partners more often than you’d think; however, an unfortunately resounding theme is this one.
What do I mean?
Well, it goes a little something like this —
Mom spends the better part of nine months hell-bent on exclusively formula feeding her baby when it’s born. You attend birth and breastfeeding classes with her and the necessary gear is bought.
You’re cool with this; it’s a reasonable enough plan. The benefits of breast feeding are well-preached and you know (of) enough women who have done it. Cool. Good stuff. You’ll do what you can to support her and maybe even evade some of those dreaded middle-of-the-night feedings as you’re not the one with the breasts 😉
Then baby is born and there are some pretty immediate and apparent struggles. Baby isn’t gaining weight as he should; he cries entirely too much; he’s struggling to latch. Your wife is in immense pain. She’s growing increasingly exhausted and you’re growing worried.
But everyone tells you that if she tries hard enough, and if you support her enough, it’ll happen. After all, early hiccups are to be expected, because while this is a natural body function, it still must be learned.
In all those classes you took, books you read, pamphlets your browsed, and online mommy groups your wife frequents – nobody told you that breastfeeding has a natural failure rate of roughly 15%.
Just as nature’s infertility rate is around 12% and miscarriage rate around 20%, this other part of human reproduction – lactation – is (not shockingly) also prone to significant error. And no amount support, education, determination, or wishful thinking is going to solve it.
However, wherein we’re quick and enthusiastic to use science and technology to help women get pregnant (medications, IVF, IUI, surrogacy) and stay pregnant (progesterone, cerclage, pessary), we hesitate and even demonize women for this other NORMAL biological failure instead of happily employing the science and technology of infant formula.
But back to your struggle.
Things are getting tense. Hostile.
Your wife is growing agitated. Agitated with her body, the line she’s been sold, the baby’s inability to comply, and even – you.
She’s now beyond exhausted. She’s slept so little that you’re worried about her health. She’s starting to refuse visits from friends and family and is becoming increasingly reclusive.
You offer to do some feedings, wake up during the night with the baby, let her nap or get out of the house – she more often than not refuses you and persists with her self-inflicted suffering.
You watch her make special oatmeal, cookies, order supplements off of the internet, hire lactation consultants, phone friends, post to mommy groups, drink 100 ounces of water, brew teas, initiate a rigorous pumping schedule in between feedings, and have the baby checked for lip and tongue ties.
You watch her obsessively quantify and track the amount of milk she’s producing.
This woman you love is becoming unrecognizable. She’s emotional, unstable, unpredictable, and above all – profoundly unhappy.
You knew what you signed up for.
You knew that things were going to change drastically when this baby came.
You were down with becoming more of a homebody, more responsible and selfless. You knew you’d be wrist-deep in poop and would inevitably be pee’d and puked on.
All of that.
But you NEVER expected to lose ALL sense of identity. Not to this extent. You didn’t think that your relationship with your partner would literally fly out the window in one fell swoop.
You’re trying so hard to be genuinely supportive of her, but you’re worried about this baby too.
You’re worried about the measly 3 ounces that he’s put on in a week when he should be putting on half a pound or more. He should be plumping up by now, even fat and chubby. He should be sleeping more than an hour at a time. You want to support her, but how far can this reasonably go?
You hint towards using formula. You know plenty of formula fed babies who are A-OK. You and/or your wife were even formula fed! The goal to breastfeed exclusively was cool and all, but c’mon.
She responds with hostility and betrayal to your suggestions.
You’re not on her side and you’re not being truly supportive, she accuses. If she just tries “A, B, C” it will come together and work.
With her continued efforts to refuse your help, you begin to shut down and withdraw from the relationship.
Communication breaks down.
You can’t fully support what she’s doing – especially to herself – and you feel that if you’ve already offered 1,000+ ways to help take some pressure off of her, and she’s turned you down each time – screw it. She can deal with her own mess. You’re out.
You start sleeping on the couch or in a guestroom so that she can get up with the baby 10+ times a night. You slow down or stop offering your help altogether.
You feel alienated, unimportant, and distant.
People at work ask how the new baby is and you smile and nod with a, “Good!”.
But you’re miserable; she’s miserable; and your baby is miserable. You’re wasting away these precious days and weeks that you will never get back in a hostile daze that you didn’t go asking for.
WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?! Seriously, what happened?
**This point right here is when we tend to have dads and other partners reach out to us.**
Well, what happened could be a lot of things but mostly it’s that, as women, we have been told for a very long time that if we work hard and stay determined, we can do what we want to do, and be what we want to be. Many of us are very goal-oriented and we’ve been told to reach for the stars since we were little girls.
Your wife is simply applying this logic: If I want it, I can earn it. I just have to work and work harder.
But this isn’t university or the corporate ladder. This is biology.
The unfortunate reality is that the natural breastfeeding failure rate is NOT readily disclosed. Women actually believe that “only like 1% of women can’t breastfeed” wherein this couldn’t be further from the truth.
And if your wife is older at her first birth or has certain medical conditions or other risk factors, her likelihood of not being able to produce enough milk goes up even more.
She wouldn’t beat herself up for nearsightedness or insulin resistance; she would seek treatment and move on with life. But she’s going to beat herself up for this even though it makes no sense to do so.
Part of this is because on the other hand you have an entire culture (including health care) that has ridiculously overstated benefits of breastfeeding, making her feel as if any “good mother” would choose to breastfeed, and dammit she’s a good mom.
The reality is that the benefits are vastly overstated and terribly confounded by factors such as socioeconomic status (wealthier moms are more likely to breastfeed, but the children of wealthier moms are more likely to do better on all measures anyway), and the studies that have been able to best control for these confounders show a couple less colds and episodes of mild diarrhea during the first year of life across the entire population. That’s it.
In the developing world mild diarrhea can be very dangerous, but in the developed world it’s nothing to bat an eye at, and certainly not worth suffering over.
Breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS but only as much as a pacifier does.
Breastfed babies have no significant IQ advantages, despite popular belief.
Breastfeeding doesn’t benefit bonding either, which is why dads, other caregivers, and adoptive parents can all fully bond with a baby just fine.
Lessened incidences of cancers in women who breastfeed are related to suppressed ovulation while nursing. Using hormonal birth control for a period of time can achieve the same thing.
And babies supplemented with some formula actually go on to breastfeed longer than those who are not.
But she doesn’t know any of this.
She just believes that her baby will be worse off in every way if he isn’t breast fed, because it’s what every health professional, poster, pamphlet, and web page has told her.
You can imagine how much she loves her baby and how much she has invested in him. For this reason, her breastfeeding goal is worth protecting fiercely, even if it has no basis in reality.
So, here’s what I suggest.
You are a partner but you’re also the dad of this baby, tasked with protecting him.
Sometimes using the baby’s pediatrician as a mediator can help in these situations. This person is not part of your personal relationship, is objective, and is tasked with the keeping of your baby’s health. Meeting with the pediatrician separately, which you’re allowed to do as a guardian to the patient (baby), to share with him/her the problems your wife is facing and devise a feeding plan moving forward, can be helpful.
Let your wife know that you support her fully. That you know where she’s coming from and why. Don’t attack her and don’t tell her she’s acting irrationally, even if she is.
Sometimes using a counselor or therapist for such a discussion is helpful. You judge the situation.
Tell her how much you admire her as a mother but also value her has a partner and woman.
Tell her that her health and happiness matter, too. And that your baby needs a present, happy, and engaged mom more than anything else in the world.
Tell her there are 1 million right ways to mother and very few ways to mess it up. Formula feeding, or supplementing with some formula, is not one of those ways.
Share with her the facts to help counter her fears.
Tell her that neither of you will ever get this time back; this is precious time meant to be enjoyed together not suffered through.
Ask her to make a plan with you.
Maybe it means backing down on pumping sessions and supplements, and letting her supply just be what it will be. Maybe it means topping off after breastfeeding with formula, which is something you can do. Maybe it means transitioning fully to formula but making a timeline to slowly get there.
Maybe it means giving her a private, serene place to bottle feed the baby using skin-to-skin.
In it all, tell her she’s enough. Tell her she’s a great mom (she is). Tell her that you will do this together but be appropriately firm that, for the sake of the baby, some changes need to happen.
Be ready to be direct but gently compromise and move from there.
Remember that she is “giving up” on an ideal, which can be a very hard thing for a person to do. And even though it shouldn’t be this way, it is. Society has constructed it as such. It can make no sense to you, but it’s very real to her. Remember that.
If you feel you need support for yourself, or want help with supporting your wife or partner, contact us today!