All content of this blog is my own opinion only. It does not represent the views of any organisation or association I may work for, or be associated with. Nothing within this blog should be considered as medical advice and you should always consult your Doctor.

Guilt if you breastfeed, guilt if you don't....

Whilst we hear lots about how non-breastfeeding mums are made to feel guilty, the emotions of a breastfeeding mother seem rarely discussed.

Perhaps it's because only a tiny percentage are still exclusively feeding at 4/5 months? Or perhaps it's just because it's considered "best" anyone doing it must therefore feel splendid?

I noted several years ago on mainstream parenting forums, that the number of mums who commented they felt pressured or "guilted" into stopping breastfeeding wasn't negligible.

It seems for as many mums who feel guilty bottle feeding, there are as many who feel our culture is generally anti-breastfeeding and works against the breastfeeding mum.

The scenario generally goes like this - mum is having some sort of problem, most people don't know enough to help resolve breastfeeding problems and so the well meaning health professional, partner or other family member (who often genuinely want to help) reverts to what they know - not breastfeeding.

Mothers are told that introducing a bottle will make life easier; perhaps if baby is unsettled or suffering with colic, not gaining weight as well as hoped or if mum is very tired.  Breastfeeding can be undermined with "hungry infants" as mothers read tales from others whose baby was never settled until they had a substitute - or the relative who points out baby is obviously not "full" and he takes after his dad as he was always hungry and needed a bottle too - after all he's a big baby....

Some mums speak of "anti breastfeeding relatives", who go beyond just trying to help and imply mum is being selfish by breastfeeding; instead they want to cuddle and give a bottle.  Other talk about relatives repulsed that mum is going to breastfeed in public and friends who doubted just milk from mum would be "enough".

Then add in to the equation that we are still discussing whether it's even appropriate for mothers to feed their baby human milk in public.

Mothers it would appear feel judged however they feed.

For mums who don't want to stop breastfeeding, a range of emotions can follow.  Self doubt, confusion, mingled with hormones and tiredness.  Some speak of feeling "selfish" for wanting to continue when their baby would probably be happier on a bottle; others say they feel guilty for making things hard for the family, by being stubborn and wanting to continue when everyone is saying bottle feeding is "good enough".  Some with feel guilty at using NHS resources in a bid for help, others that they've been told older siblings would understand bottle feeding better.

As the baby gets older many hear that surely he should have a bottle as well by now, or won't he get too attached if you don't get him off it?  Surely you must want freedom?  Give a bottle so I can take him whilst you go out!

Mums comment they feel guilty they are "too attached" as they don't always want to leave baby or concerned they are "addicted to breastfeeding", because they don't want to stop even though baby is now not newborn and even guilt they enjoy the bond with their baby!

Breastfeeding guilt comes in many guises and it's interesting to see how it's dealt with.  I can't tell you how many breastfeeding calls I take start with "I hate breastfeeding and want to stop", but quite often a further chat highlights what the mums means is "I hate the current situation and want it to stop".   The fact is problems are common and help is sparse.  For many, especially those with a difficult or traumatic birth or with only non breastfeeding peers- breastfeeding can be hard, really hard!

Mums are often told "if it's getting hard, don't feel bad if you have to give a bottle - not everyone can breastfeed" (when the opening question was in no way related)  or "giving a bottle was the best thing we did!", sometimes followed by the old classic "happy mum = happy baby".   Perhaps by now not knowing what else to do, mum decides to stop, and for a while at least does feel better - because the situation has stopped, or because the dad or relatives are now happy, or the health professional has now relaxed since she is working with a substance she understands and can measure.

But what is often forgotten is that breastfeeding is a deeply emotive, primal drive - and down the line women can easily feel short changed they didn't get the experience they expected.  When partners are back at work and no longer doing nightfeeds with gusto, and the health professionals have backed off.   In fact the last infant feeding survey found 71% of mums would like to have breastfed for longer, and it's not uncommon for feelings to change from relief to uncertainty.   At that point of course, the breastfeeding guilt switches to bottle feeding guilt - the one we hear so much about. 

And so the cycle continues in a society which seemingly effectively support nobody...

Some quotes from mums about their breastfeeding experiences found on parenting forums (all reproduced with authors permission)
"My son is now 11 weeks old and exclusively breastfed. From day one my mother in law has asked me when I intend to give it up and when am I going to give him solids. She still asks me now, every time I see her.  She doesn't like that she can't settle him because I am the only one with the mil,k and will say 'well if mummy would just give you a bottle I could feed you, but she doesn't so I can't".  I could express for her if I wanted to and I have done once or twice, but this doesn't seem to satisfy her so I don't bother anymore.
I've also had a lot of pressure from my sister in law (who doesn't even have kids) to combination feed. She thinks I should only breastfeed once in morning and once before bed. I don't know why but she thinks it would be easier for me though, as I would have to sterilise and make up bottles!"
"I would love it if everyone knew how hard it can be, and how when we're struggling in the first few weeks, to have your partner, mum, well anyone saying just give him a bottle - get some sleep - combination feed so you can rest - IS NOT HELPFUL.  What we need in those first few weeks of horrendous problems if we face them, is for someone to stand next to us like a football coach urging us on and telling us how good we are doing. We need someone to recite all the normalities of the problems. We need to hear the stories of success and hope!  I really wish my family and friends had known what I have since learnt on my rocky path of breastfeeding."
"I didn't manage to breastfeed my first through exhaustion, pressure to bottle feed from family and poor advice from midwives. Second time around, I had the exhaustion and the pressure to bottle feed BUT I had amazing support from a good friend of mine who is a trained breastfeeding peer supporter.  Every time I had a wobble and almost gave in to the pressure, she was there explaining what was happening and why;  her encouragement was and is fantastic and really made the difference.  This time baby is 8 months and we both still love breastfeeding."
So what do you think?  Got guilt?


  1. Fantastic article, as always. I couldn't agree more with the second quote, saying that you need someone standing next to you urging you on and telling you how well you are doing. I didn't have that with my first and gave in to the 'make life easier and bottle feed' (haha) pressure. With my third I had a lot of trouble again and my husband was fantastic. I truly couldn't have done it without his constant support, sitting with me day and night whilst I cried through each feed, helping me get the baby latched on, talking to me and helping me relax. We got through it and I couldn't be happier to still be going at 2 years 2 months :)

  2. Really enjoyable read! Just stopped breastfeeding my 3 and a half yr old after being bullied for 2 and a half years being encouraged to stop.

  3. Great article! I've never really thought about it, to be honest, but I think it's because I've just had to get on with it - I have no family around and very few friends with ANY experience of children, so I've kind of just got on with it. I never really thought about breast/bottle before I had my daughter, but she latched on within a minute or so of birth and my mom helped me do it 'right' over the first few days and we never even had a tin or sample of formula in the house (although I vaguely recall thinking maybe we should get some, in case, but we never did). I think that's the important thing - if you have it handy, you might just go for it in a tired moment.

    So, ten months and still going strong!

  4. I've been b/f for nine years - two kids. Older one is now 8 (weaned at 5) and younger still b/f 4. I must say I just ignored all the rubbish out there. I had a terrible start with baby 1 and after being given no help at all and a bottle thrust at me by various people, I decided just to tough it out myself, get b/f established, and from then on filtered every negative remark out. I am glad I did. I have had no feelings of doubt or guilt about any of it. I am lucky - I went to La Leche meetings when dd was 11 mos and that just modelled for me what was biologically normal. You've got to be strong, but that's hard in a culture of early detachment. It is biologically normal to be attached and that's what's important to remember - and that most of the world knows this.

  5. What a fantastic post. I experienced all that "advice" when I had problems feeding my son.

    I'd had a caesarean after going into labour because he was breech. I was exhausted from the operation, given very little food while I was in hospital and often was left 20 minutes or more in the middle of the night when asking for help with anything, not just feeding. Discharged ourselves less than 36 hours after he was born as I was starving and in a lot of pain after they had forgotten to give me my painkillers on numerous occasions.

    My main problem was that he had be born three days before Christmas 2007 so there were no groups running so I had only health professionals to rely upon. When I told my health visitor I was having problems she said I should visit the local baby cafe. Not much help when I couldn't drive for six weeks because of the operation and buses are few and far between where I live. Other than that she had no other suggestions or advice. The midwife offered no more help than "Yes that looks right" when obviously it wasn't and she forgot her scales and falsified my notes saying I thought everything was fine when to look at him that it was obvious he was loosing weight. At his 2 week check he'd lost more than 10% of his birth weight and the only advice offered was to switch to formula feeding.

    I was determined I would not the incompetence of this woman interfere with my choice to breast feed my son. So from when he was 3 weeks old I expressed and only had to occasionally top up with formula when I was slightly short of milk.

    Then one night when he was 15 weeks old he finally latched on again. I laughed, I cried but more over I was just so happy that I had stuck out the difficult days and got what I knew was better for my son in the end. Next day I rang the health visitor and had to explain myself three times before they understood what I was saying, seemingly it was unheard of.

    After that I was loud and proud. No blankets or hiding away for me. We continued to breast feed until he weaned himself six months ago. I even had a little speech prepared if anyone ever gave me any trouble:

    "If you have a problem with what I am doing it is only your PERVERTED* notion of the female body that is causing embarrassment and not my son enjoying his meal."

    *I would make sure that word was particularly loud for everyone to hear.

  6. I've not really experienced guilt as such, but I certainly wasn't encouraged when I had problems breastfeeding my son. I had a horrible, horrible HV who immediately told me to supplement and even recommended which formula to use (because it was as close to breastmilk as you can get, she claimed.) So being exhausted and lacking confidence, I followed her advice and that was pretty much the end of breastfeeding for me. With my girls, I never had any problems and never had any negative comments - despite being one of those weirdo "extended breastfeeders". ;) Thankfully!

  7. Hi all
    Thanks for all the comments :) please take a minute to vote in the poll I've added at the top of the page?

  8. Comments test as a couple of people have mentioned they have been unable to leave a comment....

  9. There is still a lot of embarrassment around breastfeeding particularly from in laws who are keen to introduce a dummy to make the baby "content" - when a baby sometimes will get fretful and overtired when cluster feeding and only wants mummy - we need to see more breastfeeding in society and on television - stop Page Three and introduce breastfeeding! Gah!

  10. I'd be lying if I said I never had any anti comments but my baby was almost a month old when we got out and I had spent so much time teaching her to breastfeed that nothing could have stopped me, I'd invested too much into it. I just lalala'd my way through it!

  11. I'm thankful my husband is so supportive. When I ended up in hospital with an infection, he was quick to point out to the doctor that I would have to have our daughter with me since I was breastfeeding. Of course, it also helps that I'm incredibly stubborn and wasn't going to give up no matter what. That also came in handy when given incorrect (but well-meaning) info from the HV or GP or midwife.

  12. Thanks for this Charlie, I don't think enough can be written about guilt. The fear of inducing guilt has effectively silenced BF advocates for years - in fact it feels taboo to talk about the risks of not BF in case we 'make someone feel guilty'. As you expertly point out, guilt comes with motherhood and feeding method is neither here nor there!

    I can't see a poll??

  13. I kept wanting to give up breastfeeding in the early weeks because, frankly, I was exhausted. I have ME/CFS and I felt swamped by becoming a new mother and nourishing my son outside of my body. I ended up expressing a few times but this was largely unsuccessful so I persevered with breastfeeding.

    My mum, husband, gran, mother in law and pretty much everyone in my family gave me 100% backing and support. My SIL's were also a great support because they'd been through their own struggles. I found there was also a lot of support from people I knew at church. The only unhelpful advice I got was from my health visitor who kept dangling the idea of bottle feeding in front of me like it was some prize - the last visit she paid she said; "I know you don't like the idea of formula, but..." well I didn't let her finish the sentence because I cut in and very politely said; "We're happy with our breastfeeding relationship, we're actually really into a pattern with it now and it's fun." She looked taken aback but didn't argue.

    I would have thought more professionals would be pro breastfeeding but I didn't get that impression from my own HV. I felt massive guilt because I wouldn't bottle feed and I felt as though I was depriving my child of some kind of nourishment - now I know better through my own research.

  14. I think a lot of breastfeeding issues stem from the (wrong) notion that there is only one way to achieve breastfeeding. As again demonstrated in the article and in few of the comments.

    Babies do get typically hungry and unsettled in the first few days when the supplies are in the process, why not tell the truth? formula in the first few days, does actually make life easier. yes. Dummies may be a good solution for some. I'm against the guilt-ing in any case, this notion of - it has to be sole breastfeeding, no dummies, no bottle, do this don't do that, also creates guilt. What if i don't fit this scheme? what if i do want to breastfeed but i kind of agree that the baby is hungry. I say - tell women the truth for a start and help them achieve their breastfeeding their way. don't be fanatic. there is no one truth. (midwife)

  15. QUOTE Babies do get typically hungry and unsettled in the first few days when the supplies are in the process, why not tell the truth? formula in the first few days, does actually make life easier. yes.

    Life easier how? Easier than moving baby to breast? LOL Formula in the first few days has a HUGE impact which if a midwife as you claim I would assume you should know.

    How about - instead of deciding which bits you think mums should/shouldn't know, we just provide the evidence and let them make their own choices?

  16. Indeed, provide evidence and let women make their own choices. But keep looking for new evidence, don't just present your rigid handout. Open your eyes to see what women are actually facing. You demonstrate dedication to the common mythology about breastfeeding ignoring how difficult it can be for women. quote - "LOL". No, staying up all night with a crying baby when you have just drops of colostrum to offer is not funny at all. I'm very enthusiastic about breastfeeding, you don't need to convince me, I'm just saying - cut the crap, and stop manipulating women to guilt. Present the honest rough truth, risks etc and let them decide. Every women and her baby have a unique need and there is no one way solution that fits all.

  17. Anon
    If you had read much of my blog or my Facebook page, you would know that I am more than aware of what women are actually facing - I work with it every day. You will note numerous entries are purely to help women, so I hardly think I am ignoring it.

    I'm surprised to hear someone claiming to be a midwife, make a statement such as "when you have just drops of colostrum to offer" - I guess this sort of support is why demand for independent help exists.

    Thanks for your feedback

  18. It was through the fault of uneducated midwives, HV's and doctors that almost killed my son and prevented him from feeding efficientlx. AA actually helped me a little in my quest to get my son back on my breast and thankfully he did.
    Me thinks you don't actually understand what you are talking about!

  19. "tell women the truth for a start"

    yeah, why not tell them how big a newborns stomach is and that the frequent feedings and small amounts of colostrum are actually meant to be that way by nature. or why not tell them about failure to thrive and nipple preference due to the use of dummys and bottles.

  20. Anon, are you suggesting that womens bodies aren't good enough?

    If 'drops' of colostrum are all we can offer at that stage then surely that is all baby needs?

    Next you'll be suggesting that all mothers should have a c-section because pushing a baby out is a lot of hard work when labour can last so long and its not fun.

    I'm glad the midwives I dealt with reasured me of my bodies capability rather than undermined it.

  21. Gosh! HOW did the human race survive before formula... you know, with all those starving hungry babies only getting 'a few drops' of colostrum??! [/sarcasm].

    Anonymous, do you KNOW how small a newborn's stomach actually is? It can only hold a few drops of colostrum at a time. Which is why mothers only produce a small amount (though for what it's worth, expressing is no indication, so you cant really be sure you 'only' have 'a few drops').

    The more the baby nurses though, the more they get and the quicker the milk comes in (and that's way more than a few drops.

    After having a couple of kids, I've never known either to 'cry all night'. Not in the first few days, and not after that either.
    If a newborn is crying a lot but being fed on cue, there is something else going on there. Perhaps pain or discomfort from the birth (think forceps/vontouse delivery).. or tummy pain from being given formula, which is harder to digest *and* upsets the gut flora & gut pH), if it *is* a problem with lack of colostrum (remember, a newborn's stomack is tiny, the size of a marble, and as they are freshly out of utero they are not used to feeling 'full' and do not feel hunger like an older baby or adult does), then it is more likely to be due to the baby having issue latching and/or feeding (tongue tie or poor muscle tone, or discomfort when nursing due to pressure on the head during delivery [forceps etc]), *not* an issue with milk or colostrum supply.

    I'd recommend you do a search for 'the case for the virgin gut'.

  22. Anon is right about one thing, there is more than one way to achieve breastfeeding. There is mother led attachment and baby led attachment however the default method of 'achieving' breastfeeding in many post natal wards is to give formula top ups.

    But what I actually want to say is that every mother and baby dyad is unique. And it takes a midwife with the time, training and experience to sensitively make an appropriate suggestion to a new mother who is new to breastfeeding and is feeling confused or challenged by it. Formula top ups are not supposed to be the default setting for 'breastfeeding' intervention practice of many a midwife or other HCP seems to be. (it certainly was in my case 6 years ago!)

    Maybe Anon midwife is reacting out of the guilt which must harbour in the conciousness of many an midwife who knows she is under trained, under experienced and time poor. (not all her fault). Maybe she is just experiencing some dissonance from the poor breastfeeding support she has offered others or has been the victim of and this is how it has been expressed. I don't know.


  23. Yes, Anon, babies do get hungry at some point in the first days, driving milk supply through frequent feeding. That is normal physiology, not an indication to give bottles or dummies (which edit out feeding cues). Mothers should know that interfering with this process can lead to dire consequences.

    To say that "formula in the first few days, does actually make life easier. yes. Dummies may be a good solution for some." ----is as irresponsible a comment as you can make if you are a health care provider UNLESS you follow that comment with the more important fact that while it may make things easier in the short-run it is much more likely to spell failure in the long-run AND every ounce of artificial infant milk changes intestinal flora irreparably. That is a fact that any midwife should know. And care about.

    Anonymous says: "Indeed, provide evidence and let women make their own choices. But keep looking for new evidence, don't just present your rigid handout. Open your eyes to see what women are actually facing. You demonstrate dedication to the common mythology about breastfeeding ignoring how difficult it can be for women."

    I have never witnessed AA be indifferent to a woman's pain. Nor is her writing rigid in any way. But, I see no evidence that you are providing the evidence I referenced above. If you are an advocate of "letting women choose", then walk your talk and know what the issues are FOR THE BABY, whose well-being this is really all about. And tell the mother.

    "No, staying up all night with a crying baby when you have just drops of colostrum to offer is not funny at all. I'm very enthusiastic about breastfeeding, you don't need to convince me, I'm just saying - cut the crap, and stop manipulating women to guilt. Present the honest rough truth, risks etc and let them decide. Every women and her baby have a unique need and there is no one way solution that fits all."

    Drops of colustrum? Do you know that a newborn's stomach holds 7cc? Bottle-fed babies are drastically over-fed. Do you tell mothers that? Do you tell them to supplement with only 10cc every hour or two? I have rarely met a mother who could not hand-express 7-10cc of colostrum at a time if baby needs a supplement. What exactly are the truths you imagine women need to know? Every mother and baby actually has the same need--to establish exclusive feeding at breast. When that is not possible (which is not as common as we are led to believe) then coming as closely as possible is what they need our support to accomplish. What mother chooses may not be that, but from a physiologic perspective, that is the truth of what all dyads need.

    Further, Anonymous said: "I'm against the guilt-ing in any case, this notion of - it has to be sole breastfeeding, no dummies, no bottle, do this don't do that, also creates guilt. What if i don't fit this scheme? what if i do want to breastfeed but i kind of agree that the baby is hungry. I say - tell women the truth for a start and help them achieve their breastfeeding their way. don't be fanatic. there is no one truth. "

    You claim to be all about telling the truth, but your "truth" is a half-truth and reflects a complete lack of understanding of what guilt is and how it manifests. The truth that exclusive breastfeeding is of primary importance in establishing normal gut flora--which is the foundation of health for a lifetime is a fact. If a mother has a baby who is losing excessive weight, who is at medical risk, then why in the world should she feel guilty for feeding him? What she should have, however is the option to feed him donor milk. But, for a mother to give artificial infant milk bc she doesn't understand the normal physiology of breastfeeding is the fault of her care providers and our bottle-feeding culture. Guilt is just a straw man in the whole debate.

  24. Midwife/anon in your professional opinion, how does supplementing with formula make breastfeeding easier???? Call me silly but I was under the impression that in order to make milk stimulation was needed ie-a baby feeding, there is only one way to breastfeed, that's putting a baby to the breast. I'm a little upset by your comment, actually I'm extremely disappointed, angry and down right pissed off that health care professionals such as yourself are providing uneducated 'education' to new mothers. You should be ashamed of yourself and perhaps get some up to date training.

  25. the way my granny tells it, in her day the babies were brought to them in the hospital. that was it, they were expected to feed them. there was no "choice" to formula feed, so the majority of mothers successfully breastfed. guilt, agonising, worrying none of it existed, because what you did when you had a baby was breastfeed it. no doubt some struggled, babies probably suffered & it's wonderful that these days there are people to help & advise and if need be formula is readily available for those with genuine problems. That's how it should be. no guilt, just "getting on with it" (with help for those who struggle).

  26. I'm starting to feel the breastfeeding guilt. Although neither of my boys have ever had a drop of formula and knowing my mother is a (retired) BF counsellor I've never had any pressure to give formula to either of them I'm still getting guilt but it's a new one to add to the fantastic list already here.

    My first boy self-weaned when I was about 14 weeks pregnant with my second. He was 18 months old and I was chuffed that we'd made it that long, despite hoping to have a go at tandem feeding when his brother arrived. Now my second has just given up in the past week (I'm 23 weeks pregnant with my third and pretty sure my supply was all but gone anyway) but I'm feeling the guilt as I'd hoped to feed him at least as long as his brother. He's just over 16 months. I'm secretly hoping that he might decide to have another go when his sister arrives in December but if he doesn't I'll probably have a whole load more guilt to deal with then!
    Thanks again for the fab post AA!

  27. Wow, a lot of these comments have made me realise just how lucky I was (and hopefully will be again) with the people around me. My son wouldn't latch on for 48 hours after birth and even after that it was hit and miss and still only on one side for a further 3 weeks. In all this time not one single person around me mentioned giving him a bottle of formula, not midwives, health visitors or any family member. Everyone offered me support with breastfeeding, whether it was practical advice and suggestions, encouragement to keep going and that I was doing really well or by helping out with other things such as housework or making me meals. Above all else my husband was amazing and sat with me night and day through painful feeds and tears, had skin to skin cuddles with our son to settle and calm him down when he got frustrated so we could try again and rang a local support group and midwives to get me more help and support. I just wish everyone could have the support I had. I found breastfeeding hard enough in the early days, I don't know how I would have coped with guilt and pressure to formula feed as well!


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