When my first daughter was about two weeks old, I rushed her to the pediatrician because her tiny toes kept turning blue. The pediatrician checked her oxygen levels, while I waited frantically by, and luckily, she was fine—but I was surprised when the pediatrician latched on to a new, different issue.
“She’s dehydrated,” he said. To my surprise, he opened a ready-to-drink bottle of formula right then and there and my daughter gobbled it down.
As we left the pediatrician, I called the lactation consultant I had been working with when my milk never “came in.” She was furious that the doctor had given my daughter a bottle of formula, and urged me not to continue offering a bottle, despite doctor’s orders. “Every ounce of formula you give her is going to take away from your ability to breastfeed,” she warned.
I was devastated. I was a new mom trying to deal with the overwhelming physical, mental, and emotional changes that come during the first two weeks postpartum. I was trying to keep my daughter alive and well, and I felt like the two professionals who should have been helping me do that were on opposite sides of a debate, pulling me and my tiny daughter between them.
Luckily, my mom was with me on that trip to the pediatrician, and after feeding four of her own kids with a combination of breastmilk and formula, she was ready to give me a dose of reality. There are no hard lines when it comes to feeding a baby, she reminded me—fed really is best, however that happens.
A New Nursing Relationship
Thanks to my mom’s sound advice, our story ends well. My daughter nursed for 17 months, and throughout that whole time, she also had bottles of formula and later, regular cow’s milk. Supplementing my daughter with formula didn’t doom our nursing relationship. Instead, it helped her thrive, something I wish any professional had told me during those early weeks.
Still, it took me a long time to accept that combination feeding—which involves feeding both formula and breastmilk—was the solution for our family. No one, at least 6 years ago, was talking openly about how you can nurse and give formula too. I wish I had someone to look up to, because it would have spared me months of trying teas, supplements, extra pumping sessions, and even taking prescription pills hoping to reach the elusive goal of exclusively breastfeeding. It was as if I mistakenly believed there was some kind of reward if I fed my daughter fully from my body, instead of realizing the best “reward” was a happy, healthy baby and mom.
That pressure I felt led combo feeding to be a background stressor for me throughout the first six months of my daughter’s life. I’d get mad when my husband gave her too much formula, until I realized she still happily nursed too. Slowly I began to calm down, dropping my pumping sessions, giving the baby a bottle whenever it was convenient, and just letting our feeding relationship unfold in a way that worked for us, without any formality.
When my baby turned 6 months and started taking food too, it got even easier. But the biggest moment of relief came when my daughter was 11 months: I was giving her a bottle in her nursery, when it struck me that we were clearly going to make it to my goal of one-year of nursing. We’d done it, even with formula in hand along the way.
Realizing That Fed is Best—Finally
Four years later, my second daughter was born. “We’re just going to feed her, right?” my husband would ask periodically throughout my pregnancy. I assured him we could follow the same route we had with our first baby, but I was still thrilled when I was able to exclusively nurse her.
Then, when she was about four months old, her pediatrician became worried. My daughter wasn’t gaining weight, and the doctor believed she would benefit from supplementing. I made the mental transition faster than I had with my first, but I was still disappointed that we weren’t exclusive.
Because of that, I felt a bit smug when my daughter refused formula. Yet, that was quickly replaced with worry—I trusted this new pediatrician and knew my baby needed more milk than I could offer. After a few days of trying, unsuccessfully, to get her to take a bottle of formula, I contacted a local nursing group to see if anyone was looking to donate milk. I met a stranger, who became a lifeline each week when she dropped off bags of breast milk for my baby.
My second daughter was the epitome of combination fed. She received my milk, donor milk and formula, once she stopped being so stubborn. Each time I gave her a bottle I appreciated how amazing it was to keep my baby healthy through modern science and old-school community support.
When my second reached 11 months, I was suddenly mentally done with nursing. My daughter didn’t seem to mind either way, so we quietly let breastfeeding slip away. My donor began giving her milk to another family with younger babies, and my breastfeeding journey was officially over.
Today, my girls are 2 and 6. They demand popsicles for breakfast (nice try, kids) and love an occasional McDonald’s trip, so those days of worrying about how much breast milk they got seem far behind me. And yet, when I think back to the emotional turmoil I put myself through feeding them as babies, my heart breaks for the new mom I was, just trying to do her best, searching for a little support in the middle ground.
And that’s why I think it’s important to share my message of how combo feeding worked for us. Because while breastfeeding is beautiful, so is feeding with formula or donor milk too. I wish someone had helped me see that earlier so I could focus on the most important aspect of new motherhood—enjoying my babies.