health

11 women share their experiences of “formula shaming” after giving birth.

A baby crying in hunger while a midwife searches for a formula-feeding consent form.

Access to formula being guarded like it’s some kind of illicit drug.

Being told that formula is “terrible” for babies and “an easy way out”.

These stories came from new mums struggling to feed their babies in those first few heady days in hospital.

The early moments of motherhood can be an intensely confusing and stressful time, despite all the pictures of beautiful newborns snuggling in stripy blankets you can see in your social feeds. If you struggle with breastfeeding, as many women do, that stress can be multiplied. Which is why these women’s stories – just a few from those who say that they were “shamed” for requesting formula for their babies while they were in hospital – are important, and troubling.

WATCH: How to get a newborn baby to sleep. Post continues below.

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Although 96 per cent of Australian mothers start out breastfeeding, only 39 per cent of them are still exclusively breastfeeding their babies by the time they’re three months old. For a lot of women, the struggles with breastfeeding begin early on.

Many hospitals around Australia have been accredited under the Baby Friendly Health Initiative. This means there are 10 steps that staff are required to follow, including, “Do not provide breastfed newborns any food or fluids other than breast milk, unless medically indicated,” and, “Counsel mothers on the use and risks of feeding bottles, teats and pacifiers.”

This protocol is in place with the aim to “protect, promote and support” breastfeeding. But an unintended side effect can be that new mums are often left feeling “shamed” when they ask for formula to feed their babies.

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In looking into women’s experiences for this story, Mamamia found some new mums have felt supported in their choice to formula feed their newborn babies, but plenty of others found it difficult to access formula in hospital and were been left upset by how staff made them feel. The below are just some of the responses we received.

Em explains that she went to a breastfeeding education session at the hospital before she had her baby, and says half the session was spent explaining “why breastfeeding is better for your baby than formula feeding”.

“The midwife who ran the session said something along the lines of, ‘You can just tell when an adult has been formula fed as a baby,’ which I thought was ridiculous,” Em says.

Marley is one of the many women who have struggled with breastfeeding. She says she had issues with all three of her babies.

“Each time I felt the shame of having to ask for formula in the hospital like it was some sort of drug I was trying to get hold of,” she says. “Some midwives were wonderful but some made me feel like I was a terrible mother.”

She says for her third child, she had to sign a waiver when she wanted to formula feed, “like I was submitting my child to some terrible circumstance.

“I was a lot stronger as a third-time mum but it was still very hard to ignore the guilt.”

Jules says she went into hospital thinking it would be great if she could breastfeed, but if not, formula would be great too.

“I thought everyone shared that mindset,” she says. “I was very wrong.

“The shaming and prodding I went through, even when it was evident my baby was starving and not getting enough food, was disappointing. I even had to sign a consent form in hospital before I could be given 10ml of formula to feed my baby, in a cup.

“It felt like I was in The Handmaid’s Tale at some points.”

Raechel says she was trying her best to breastfeed, but due to a “huge range of issues”, her daughter never took the breast.

“Some midwives made snide comments about overfeeding or how it’s so hard to monitor ‘these formula-fed babies’,” she says. “Some would push you to the bottom of the priority list, and in one case, it took 20 minutes between the midwife requesting formula and the midwife bringing it, and the whole time my baby was screaming. Apparently she was looking for the paperwork.”

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Katie also had issues with consent forms. She says after her baby twins were born, they screamed and screamed, and she knew they were hungry.

“I was still offering breast first and wanted to top up with formula after. I had to fill out a consent form, every single time. I asked to be discharged by day two to save the hassle.”

Another mum explains that she was “extremely sick” after giving birth.

“I had mastitis so badly one of my boobs looked and felt like it was on fire,” she remembers. “The pain was worse than giving birth and two out of the three midwives that looked after us told me to ‘push through the pain for the sake of your daughter’. Talk about instilling mummy guilt early on. I was continually told formula was so terrible for bub and an easy way out.”

Meanwhile, Amanda couldn’t produce enough milk because of damaged ducts, but she continued to be told that “breast is best”.

“I ended up not sleeping or eating properly and ended up in hospital with post-partum psychosis,” she explains. “Thank goodness I recovered. I’m pregnant again, and even though I point out my previous experience and the fact that breastfeeding was a contributor or trigger to the psychosis, each nurse continues to tell me to breastfeed.”

As for Kasey, she was seeing a lactation consultant, taking double doses of medication and pumping every two or three hours but still only producing 200ml a day at most. She rang a nurse info line to ask a question about formula.

“The nurse told us that formula was poison, that the companies that make it are evil and we shouldn’t be feeding it to our child,” she says.

Laura assumed breastfeeding would work for her. But it didn’t. She simply couldn’t produce enough milk for her baby. For the first two months of her life, the little girl remained below her birth weight.

Listen to This Glorious Mess Little Kids, the Mamamia podcast for parents with small humans. In this episode, Leigh and Tegan speak ask a midwife all the pressing questions. Post continues below.

“We were back at the hospital for baby to be weighed three times a week because baby wasn’t gaining at all but we were still pushed to feed and not use formula,” she explains. “Photos from that time still make me cry because the poor kid was starving and no one said the obvious – formula was fine.”

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Megan says she was told by a lactation consultant/midwife to “just keep trying”.

“I did, until my nipple was chewed off three-quarters of the way round – literally hanging by a thread – and my baby was marked as ‘failure to thrive’. It took 12 weeks for the nipple to heal, while being sucked on every two hours round the clock, and every feed was agony.”

Misti chose to formula feed her baby. She says one midwife was “quite judgemental” when she told her what she was doing.

“She tried to hand me the iPad to watch ‘breast is best’ videos,” she remembers. “I told her again I wasn’t breastfeeding and she condescendingly placed the iPad in my lap and pressed play.

“Each midwife asked me, despite it being recorded on my chart. It was rude and disrespectful of my wishes as a mum.”

Midwifery advisor Dr Megan Cooper says the Australian College of Midwives supports the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that babies should be exclusively breastfed up to six months of age and that breastfeeding should continue beyond six months.

“We understand that some women will choose to feed their baby formula and in such cases, women should be supported in this choice,” she tells Mamamia. “As many hospitals and health organisations around Australia are accredited under the Baby Friendly Health Initiative, they will generally not supply formula and therefore, we encourage women who are choosing to formula feed to bring their own supply of formula.”

Some women contacted Mamamia to say that they weren’t formula shamed in any way – that they received help and encouragement when they decided, for whatever reason, to start their baby on formula. Experiences varied from hospital to hospital, and even from midwife to midwife. Several women felt enormously grateful to the midwives who supported their decision to formula feed.

“My favourite was the midwife who asked if she could feed my baby as she said they never got to do it anymore,” Bec remembers. “It was a quiet night and she sat in my room feeding him for a good hour. I’ve never forgotten her kindness and how tender she was with him.”

If you want free 24-hour health information and advice, you can call Health Direct Australia on 1800 022 222 (available for residents of the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia).

If you need help settling or feeding your baby, you can contact PANDA’s national helpline on 1300 726 306.

If you’re breastfeeding and need help, you can call the Australian Breastfeeding Association on 1800 MUM 2 MUM (1800 686 268), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Do you have an experience you want to share? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Feature image: Getty. The women featured in this story are known to Mamamia and have chosen not to reveal their identity for privacy reasons. The images used are stock images.

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