From Boob to Bottle: Postpartum Depression & The Unnecessary Shame of Quitting Breastfeeding

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The fantastic writer Catherine Connors at the blog Her Bad Mother has taken up the big honkin’ subject of breastfeeding with a wonderful new post called “Shame & the Mom: A Boob Story”. I know what a HUGE issue breastfeeding and postpartum depression is for Postpartum Progress readers, so I’d like you to read her piece. Catherine ended up quitting breastfeeding one of her children after a long struggle. Here’s a bit of the story:

“With no formula-friendly lactation godmother, I was subjected to the repeated assertion that if it hurt, I was doing something wrong (I wasn’t. I know this) and that if I quit, I – and my child – would regret it. It made me crazy – literally. My post-partum depression worsened under the constant pain and intensifying anxiety, even as I reminded myself that someone, at some point, had told me that it would be okay to quit. Even as a few sane voices in the blogosphere quietly urged me (off the record, always) to consider quitting, for my sanity’s sake, I was gripped by the conviction that it would not be okay if I quit. It would be wrong. I should be able to do this. A good mother could do this, would do this. I was a lactivist, for God’s sake. And so I persevered.

It never really stopped being painful, with Jasper. He nursed round the clock, and my nipples bled, and I almost never slept. I was sparing with my PPD meds, for fear of contaminating my milk. But I battled the gathering dark, and persevered. I nursed publicly, and proudly: on planes, in front of TV cameras, standing in front of a crowd while speaking at BlogHer. I nursed another woman’s child. I persevered. For ten months. Ten dark months. And then I quit. Exhausted from the lack of sleep, and the pain, and on the verge of falling headlong into the dark, I quit.

And I felt ashamed.”

I can just imagine all the bobblehead-like “uh-huhs” going on at this moment. I know I’m nodding up and down furiously. Things started out great with my son in the hospital, but then he started refusing the breast. I found out later the nurses in the hospital nursery had been giving him bottles because of his jaundice. I freaked out. I felt rejected. I tried nipple shields. I tried all those othercurious contraptions that you wrap all around your boobs so that you can succeed at doing THE-ONE-THING-EVERY-MOTHER-MUST-DO-NO-MATTER-WHAT! I read the how-tos and followed them step by step. It didn’t matter. Plus, what little breastfeeding I was able to eke out had me so worried about how much milk he was getting I practically had anxiety attacks. So I quit. And I feltenormous relief. AndI felt guilty that I was so relieved.

I have written about this topic many times before, and shared with you some amazing stories written bywomen with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders who struggled with breastfeeding — some who quit, some who kept going. There is NO right answer.

In 2008 I shared a beautiful story written by Lisa Sniderman thatI still find very poignant, at least as it relates to those of us who either choose to or have to stop. (I’m frustrated that for some reason the formatting of the piece is all screwy, but read it anyway because it’s worth it.) Lisa had always suffered from bipolar disorder and chose not to breastfeed in the end because of the medications she took for that illness.Here’s a tibdbit:

“Was bottle-feeding really a ‘choice’ for me? Only if I could somehow have ‘chosen’ instead to spend my daughter’s first year either in unbearable torment or dead. The rhetoric of personal responsiblity that surrounds breastfeeding, despite the very real barriers so many women still face, disturbs me in general. When it is applied to severely mentally ill mothers who need uninterrupted sleep, mood stabilizers and antipsychotics, it absolutely stops me cold.”

Another piece, written by Sophie from Sophie in the Moonlight for the Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health, also brilliantly captured the painful upheaval women go through. In her case, her body’s inability to produce enough breast milk contributed to a suicidal postpartum depression:

“’But what about breast cancer prevention? What about his immune system? What about the lower IQ that he will have because of the formula? What about breast is best!!!’ I’d believed all the pregnancy books. I thought the What to Expect When You’re Expecting lady would personally track me down and sear me with an Unfit Mother brand if I failed to provide breast milk.”

“I tried so hard to do the right thing for everyone else but me. I weaned myself off of my antidepressant because I wanted to breastfeed, to give my infant the best possible start … the golden stuff right out of the boob. So my lactating breasts and I were on call, with no substitute available, for months and months and more months … long enough for me to make the walk of shame from the maternity ward to the psych ward.”

Ugh. Why do we do this to ourselves? I love that Catherine is so honest about the competing thoughts in her head. When you read the gazillion comments on her post you will see how many women have the same struggles.
Not everyone needs to quit, of course. Some people find breastfeeding isthe only thing that helps them hang on to what’s left of their sanity. Others, like me, find quitting helps them on the road to sanity. Just make the right choice for you and know that we are on your side, whatever side that is.
Photo credit: © onoky – Fotolia
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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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  1. QUOTE: I was subjected to the repeated assertion that if it hurt, I was doing something wrong (I wasn’t. I know this)
    Out of interest, how do you know this? particuarly given bleeding nipples were involved?
    To me this is a bit like someone with a huge blister saying, it can’t be the shoes – they fit. Without something not being right, pressure CANT be applied to cause bleeding!
    Was tongue tie or high arched palate ever explored?

  2. Everything was explored. He was latched properly, he wasn't tongue-tied. It was similar with my daughter, just not as intense. One lactation consultant finally admitted that my boobs (esp being fair-skinned with sensitive skin) might be sensitive, and my son an aggressive nurser.
    Anytime that I wrote about the pain, tons of women chimed in to say that YES, BFing DOES sometimes just hurt. For some women, anyway. It's a bugaboo of mine that this isn't more widely acknowledged, because the insistence that you must be doing SOMETHING wrong can really aggravate one's anxiety…
    (Thank you, Katherine, for following up on this. It – BFIng and PPD – something we need to discuss more openly.)

  3. This is SUCH an important post for so many women to read because I know there are so many women out there who struggle with it.
    My daughter wouldn't latch for 8 weeks, but I was so determined to breast feed that we "finger fed" her – using a syringe and tubing every day, around the clock for 3 weeks, but only after I tried and failed to nurse her at every feeding. It was highly recommended that we do the finger feeding so my daughter would develop a stronger suck and be able to nurse, and I remember feeling guilt and relief simultaneously when we decided to use bottles instead, because I thought I might be forever ruining her chance to latch on.
    I pumped around the clock every 3 hours and dealt with chronic clogged milk ducts.
    I felt like an enormous failure for not being able to breast feed my own child, and I resented the hours I spent at the pump instead of having my own baby nursing.
    She eventually nursed at 8 weeks, but only on one side, so I tried all the contraptions, too, to no avail, and eventually pumped just one side and then weaned from one side.
    The first 3 months I had undiagnosed postpartum depression and I'm sure that all the pressure I put on myself about HAVING to nurse, no matter WHAT contributed to my depression and some anxiety as well.
    I decided to stop after 9 months, and it did SO much good for my mental health. I felt relieved and my baby was none the wiser – she didn't care what she drank. She took to the formula with no problem.
    So, I felt relief at no longer having to deal with the physical and emotional pain that was attached to my breastfeeding journey, but then the irrational guilt for using formula kicked in.
    Eventually, I got over that, thankfully.
    I look back and can't believe what I did to myself. I am trying to take what happened and learn something from it for the next time I have a baby. I am NOT willing to pump around the clock or put up with chronic clogged ducts or any of that junk. I just hope I have my wits about me enough next time to deal with things differently.
    Thanks again for sharing this post.

  4. Michelle S says:

    Thanks so much for raising this topic. It was a HUGE issue in my PPD.
    My baby would not latch on properly. She became frustrated, pushed away, and screamed. She was so hungry, but unable to get more than a few drops.
    When she was about a week old, I had an appointment with the lactation consultant. She preached and pontificated, lectured and hectored, and instructed me to use a supplemental feeding system (plastic syringe containing formula or expressed breast milk with tube taped to my nipple) that would purportedly teach her to latch on, and allow her to subsist on formula in the mean time. I had to do this every three hours, followed with pumping. The entire process, including washing the equipment, took an hour, which meant I could never have more than two hours at a time free from this.
    After struggling with this a few days, my commonsense INTJ personality kicked in. I realized, that for all the pro-lactation propaganda, breastfeeding was not working, with or without the supplemental system. My baby was hungry, angry, and frustrated. She could not eat and her hunger was obviously causing her distress. I was deteriorating rapidly, physically and mentally. In retrospect, I realize that I was fast descending into severe PPD. I was genuinely worried about the baby starving to death. I knew that if I continued this downward spiral, I would become mentally and physically unfit to care for my baby.
    There was only one logical solution, and I resorted to it early one morning after days without any proper sleep. I gave my baby a bottle. I'll never forget the expression of relief when she finally, at age two weeks, had a proper and satisfying feeding. I saved my baby from starvation, and I saved myself from severe PPD. And after my baby finished the bottle, and peacefully went to sleep, my husband looked at me as if I had poisoned her and said, in disgust, "I can't believe you did that." The breast-is-best (or better-dead-than-bottle-fed) cult had done its job with him, I'm sorry to say.
    I bore up under his disapprobation for another week, until he finally begrudgingly accepted that I had no other choice. (The pleasure of giving the baby a bottle helped reconcile him to bottle-feeding.) His reaction, and the bullying and harassment of numerous others, ensured that my now mild/moderate PPD would persist for several more months. I even had to endure harassing phone calls from the lactation consultant, until I finally told her firmly that the baby's health, not her sacred cause of breastfeeding, was my priority.
    I now warn every pregnant woman I know about this. I warn them that the lactation nazis do not have mothers' or babies' best interests at heart: they care only about their Cause. Happily, my husband has realized his error, and he now gives expectant fathers the same warning. We've been bombarded with so much breastfeeding propaganda, so many exaggerated claims about the benefits, so many flimsy condemntations of formula. We really need to hear the message that breastfeeding, like everything else in nature, is capricious. Sure, bottle feeding isn't natural, but neither is living in a heated house, or wearing clothing, or vaccinating against illness.

  5. This topic pretty much sums up what I feel helped start my PPD. I was producing NO milk at all but felt like a total failure because my body did not do what it was supposed to. My son was so jaundice he was in the hospital and I was not making milk. "You are a failure" was what I heard in my head all day, everyday. And to this day I still get comments from my "breast is best" sister-in-law that maybe I didn't try hard enough. With my second child I decided with my husband to not even try and wouldn't you know I had tons of milk. So then I felt guilty for not trying.
    On a side note, I wish I would have discovered your blog during my darkest days. I felt so alone and know no one else who has gone thru it all. Thank you for all you do and spreading the word about PPD!!

  6. I just want to thank you for this – thank god more people are starting to talk about this very real and troubling issue. I too suffered from PPD and breastfeeding issues, and it is a double whammy of guilt and sadness, isn't it?
    I actually just got into a little blog-battle with a lactivist about this very issue… so it is really wonderful to see that other people are on my same page. If you want to check it out, I think you can follow the links through my blog..
    http://fearlessformulafeeder.blogspot.com/2009/10
    Anyway- thanks again. This is a terrific blog and resource for new moms and you are doing a real service. Keep up the amazing work – you have fans!

  7. I also experienced the pressure to breast feed. Of course, I wanted the best for my child, as all mothers do. However, it got to a point with all my friends and families advising me, that if I did not safeguard my mental and physical health, then what good would I be to my baby? I hated to admit it, but they had a point. At some point we have to forgive the guilt that we so easily ascribe to ourselves and do what works for us!

  8. I have to disagree, personally. My contributing issue with breastfeeding and PPD is that I never want it to stop! I don't feel an obligation to do it, I want to do it. I hear so many women feel this overwhelming obligation and I want to shake them and say, "Don't you WANT to do this for your child?" If you don't really want to breastfeed, you're hurting your chances. I'm 7 months postpartum and still going strong in the nursing department, I'm proud to say. I would never shun another woman for deciding to formula feed! It's every woman's choice but I do get angry when I hear what sounds like women not even wanting or willing to try and give 110%! And yes, there are women who want to nurse and can't and go the extra mile to try and try again… I feel like I'm contradicting what I'm trying to say here. I guess that some women (myself included) have PPD because we want to be with our babies 24/7 and have to work instead. That's where my PPD lies…

  9. The breastfeeding choice is just one of so many that new mothers have to grapple with–binki or not? Co-sleeping or crib? Cry it out or wear baby in a sling? No wonder we're so succeptible to depression/anxiety! That's not even taking into account the hormonal roller coaster we ride at the same time. Why do so many have to feel so passionate about converting new moms to their way of doing something (are there really women who call themselves lactivists?) I am so grateful for the compassionate, supportive tone of Postpartum Progress. That's what new moms need as they make their way along the road of parenthood–support and assurance that they are equipped to make choices that will best serve their baby and themselves.

  10. Quote: I guess that some women (myself included) have PPD because we want to be with our babies 24/7 and have to work instead.
    So very true. And it adds to our anxieties as mothers. In the world today when almost all causes are greatly sensationalized, sometimes people loss grip on the most important and urgent thing. To breastfeed or to bottlefeed I guess, our decision would lie not on "what should" but what's best in a given situation.

  11. I await my results for the Lactation Consultant exam (Friday), work as an LC in a hospital setting for the past year, postpartum nurse for the year before that, nursery nurse the two years before that, and nursed my own 4 kids in the 1980s. Please know that not all LCs are "Nipple Nazis". I work with a group of great Nurse LCs and most are able to look beyond the breasts to the mother behind them.
    Just this past week, I was helping a mom as she attempted to latch her fourth child to her breast for the first time and knowing that she'd tried with her 2nd child for "less than a minute", I expected that there might be a problem. Watching her shoulders tensed and her concentrated facial expression as baby latched, I could not see how this would be a positive experience for her. Did it hurt? No. Did it feel …. weird? YES. "But I want to try to like it." I tried a nipple shield after she admitted to "extremely sensitive nipples" and immediately, she exclaimed that NO – she could not stand that. I reassured her that only she could answer this question of whether breastfeeding was right for her.
    Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, it's just best for moms to NOT breastfeed. It's great when it works and it can be wonderful for those who want to. It can also be sad for those who want to desperately and for whatever reason, the milk does not come.
    Yes, breastfeeding is about more than just providing milk, but so is mothering more than just breastfeeding.

  12. Thank you for this blog! I had ppd with all 3 of my girls. Each time I started out breastfeeding and each time I felt like a failure when I chose my sleep and my sanity over breastfeeding. It hit me within 3 hours of my beautiful homebirth, I just could feel the darkness coming in, and I sent dh to get formula. Still, I breastfed on and off, trying to meet her nursing needs. After a month, I was in a really bad place, even with meds. I gave up breastfeeding, my hubby and I switched off nights- one night he got up with her, the next I did. I felt better almost immediately. I support breastfeeding and agree it is best for babies, and almost always for Mom- but for some of us, the constant waking and little sleep, sends us into a downward spiral.

  13. In 2008 I had my fourth baby , and the worst ppd of the four. Bf was a huge challenge , I had chronic mastitis sore nipples and yeast infections. I never thought that ppd and bf could be linked until I read the stories of all the wonderful mums here.
    I wanted to be super mum, no pacifier or formula. I wouldn’t take meds for fear if it leaking into breast milk.
    I persevered for 16 months until things started to look better.
    I ended up breast feeding for 3.5 years. I have a huge smile on my face while saying that and feel very proud.
    I’m expecting baby # 5 and you know what I will not push myself to insanity to give him or her the breast. If it doesn’t work out I will pay myself on the back and feel greatfull that formula is an option. I need to be sane , depression and anxiety free for myself and my family.
    Thank you for sharing all your stories.

  14. I read this last night with tears in my eyes. It was a necessity for me to quit breastfeeding my son in order to take medication for postpartum depression/bipolar disorder. I was (and still kind of always will be) devastated that I had to make this choice. I did it because I knew it was right for me. But I never thought it was right for him. Is he okay now? Of course. In hindsight it is what had to be done at the time.But it sucks really bad that I had to feel so terrible about it. I felt so much guilt and anguish.

    Now that I’m breastfeeding my third baby and struggling AGAIN with PPA, I recently did A LOT of research and talking with my doctors to determine a medication I can take while continuing to breastfeed. I am fine with formula as well but I feel such a wonderful bond with my baby when I nurse her, I didn’t want to cut it off as I feared my anxiety would actually worsen.

    Thank you for writing about these tough topics and bringing to light what many new moms are feeling. Regardless of how we feed our babies, everyone deserves to know that they are not alone.