After struggling to breastfeed, Amanda switched to formula with great trepidation. “I had a huge issue with going to the bottle,” she admits. “I spent months talking myself in and out of breastfeeding as Zavia wasn’t thriving, but was determined to do it and felt guilty I couldn’t make enough milk. I felt it was my job as a mother to breastfeed and if I couldn’t, I was useless,” she says.

Amanda felt there was an expectation for her to breastfeed from other mums who could do it just fine. “And from the older generation there were a lot of comments like, ‘The poor child is starving,’ or, ‘So and so is still breastfeeding, are you?’,” she says.

“When we went to the bottle I told my husband to lie to people that it was ‘just because we were out’. When we had
guests, I’d sneak the bottle to the nursery so they’d think I was breastfeeding. It’s depressing to think you can’t provide for your child, let alone to have people make you doubt yourself even more.”

Other mums, like Stella, were fine with their decision but found the criticism staggering. “After having my son, Sam, I got an epidural headache so hubby had to step in and do as much as he could. I expressed for six weeks before my milk stopped coming. I also had postnatal depression. For me the bottle was a godsend, as others got to help me and my baby seemed content and happy.”

But this didn’t silence the critics. “Especially upsetting were the strict, ‘breastfeed-only’ mums who were quick to judge, and some of the midwives at my hospital who really tried to push me to breastfeed despite the obvious stress it was causing. I eventually had to ‘crack it’ and tell them it was what I wanted to do. They made me sign a consent form so they could get Sam a bottle. I do not regret the way I dealt with his feeding. He was the best baby and is now four and very smart, healthy and energetic.”

Hitting the bottle

Amanda and Stella aren’t alone. While the World Health Organization recommends babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months, it doesn’t work out that way for many mums. According to a 2004 study, while most Aussie mothers start off breastfeeding, by the time their babies are one month old, one in four no longer exclusively breastfeed. By the age of three months, only 56 per cent of bubs are fully breastfed and by six months this drops down to 14 per cent.

The most common reasons for turning to the bottle are problems associated with breastfeeding (not producing enough milk, cracked nipples etc.), a feeling that it’s simply time to stop, or the need to head back to work. Medical issues, lifestyle and a desire to include the baby’s dad also often play a part.

Critical matters

While the reasons for doing it may be varied, the condemnation many bottlefeeding mums feel seems to be universal, and today an increasingly vocal breastfeeding lobby leaves many bottlefeeding mums cringing with guilt.

This horrifies Dr Heather Wittenberg, a parenting psychologist who runs the website BabyShrink. “For some reason, people – especially other mums – feel entitled to criticise other families’ feeding choices,” she says. “But often they’re not choices, they’re decisions driven by necessity. I can’t tell you how many mums I hear from who, despite the best efforts of midwives and lactation specialists, simply can’t breastfeed. Why should these mums feel like a failure? What a terrible disservice to mums and families, and what a difficult way to start out a baby’s life!”

Breastfeeding advocates may have good intentions, says psychologist Vera Auerbach, but there are deeper issues at stake. “It’s good we’re looking out for babies, but we need to respect that most women have thought it through and be respectful of their choices,” she says.

“The first months are really about the mother and the baby establishing a relationship. So if Mum flinches every time bub gets put on her breast and she starts to resent the baby, that’s not going to help the bonding. It’s not such a simple choice and women are in such a vulnerable state after giving birth that we don’t need to add to that or criticise.”

How to deal with criticism

So how to stand up for yourself? Here are some ways to deal with four typical critics:

1. Yourself
You’re often your own harshest critic. “You have to get to a peaceful resolution within yourself that you tried all you could and it’s the right decision for you and your baby. Then it’s easier to deal with the criticisms from others and you can get on with mothering,” says psychologist Vera Auerbach. Understand that you are entitled to feed your baby as you see fit.

2. Strangers
If someone does question your choice while out, try to respond, not react, says Vera. “I’d say, ‘Thank you for your concern for my baby but you don’t know our whole story.’ Immediately you’re disempowering them.” Just try not to take it to heart, she says. “In the first 12 weeks baby and mother are so fragmented that you may be more sensitive to things that aren’t meant as a criticism.”

3. Friends and family
It can be trickier taking flak from those you love, but at least you can share more. “You might say, ‘Look, I’ve tried everything and this is the story...’ Tell them this is the best solution for you and your baby and that you need their support,” Vera says. If extended family or friends continue to criticise, you may need to temporarily distance yourself from them during this vulnerable time.

4. Other mums
Often the most vocal critics are other mums. Perhaps they breastfed easily or persisted through cracked nipples and mastitis and might just think you’re taking the easy way out. As with others, quash their criticism firmly but fairly, Vera says. “Say, ‘I appreciate your concern, but there are a lot of things you don’t know about that have led to this decision.’ It’s about trying to make people think before they frown.”

A change of mothers’ group may be all you need to find understanding mums in the same boat.

The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends babies be exclusively breastfed until around 6 months of age, with breastfeeding to continue alongside appropriate first foods until at least 12 months of age. While breastfeeding is the ideal way to nourish your baby, we recognise that not all mums are able to do so. If you have any concerns about your breastfed or bottlefed baby, see your child health nurse or GP.

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