How to Cope If You Can't Breastfeed

mom bottle feeding baby

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As a new parent, it can be frustrating and upsetting to realize that your plan to breastfeed your little one isn't a viable option anymore. Sometimes, for reasons such as engorgement, latch issues, or nipple soreness, breastfeeding does not work despite your—and your baby's—best efforts.

While "fed is best" when it comes to how your baby eats, it's natural to feel a deep disappointment and sense of failure at not being able to feed baby at your breast. Learn more about why breastfeeding isn't an option for everyone and how to cope with the emotions if that's the reality for you and your baby.

Why Breastfeeding Doesn't Always Work

There are many reasons why breastfeeding may not work out. For Caitlyn Hendrickson, the barrier was that her now-4-month-old daughter Sofia was never able to latch on successfully. "I was completely heartbroken that I couldn't breastfeed," says Hendrickson, who received help from the lactation consultants in the hospital, to no avail. "It was very hard because I would try so hard to breastfeed but get nothing, so I had to bottle feed her."

In many cases, a baby has trouble nursing. Other times, a breastfeeding parent is not producing an adequate amount of milk, despite best efforts. Sometimes, people can't breastfeed due to breast abnormalities, prior breast surgery, or chronic medical conditions like diabetes.

Additionally, breastfeeding may not be an option due to logistical or informational struggles, such as needing to go back to work, not having access to lactation support or pumping supplies, perceived insufficient milk supply, or simply feeling overwhelmed or frustrated by the breastfeeding process. Social and economic factors and racism can also become barriers to breastfeeding.

People taking antiretroviral medications (for HIV/AIDS treatment), chemotherapy medications, mood stabilizers, migraine medications, sleep medications, or any illegal drugs should speak with their doctor before breastfeeding as some of these substances can pass through breast milk and pose a danger to babies.

In Hendrickson's case, she believes the size of her breasts and areola made it difficult for her baby to latch on. She says other medical conditions may have played a role, too. Plus, lactation help was not available to her during the night, when she needed it most. "Ultimately, I just had to suck it up and deal and not get disappointed at what I couldn't do," says Hendrickson. She resolved to focus on just making sure her baby—who is now thriving—is fed.

Fed Is Best

It's important to know that formula-fed babies can and do thrive. It is well-established that breast milk is the optimal form of nutrition for babies; however, the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges that this is not always possible, and moreover, they agree that "fed is best." Research also makes clear that if breastfeeding does not work for you and your baby, formula is a sound alternative and provides all the nutrition your baby needs to grow and develop.

How to Cope With Not Being Able to Breastfeed

Not being able to breastfeed may be something you are aware of before giving birth, or it may come as a surprise, often in the overwhelmed, tiring, whirlwind hours of new parenthood. Making the decision to switch to formula (or simply supplement) may feel like a defeat or failure.

"I wanted to breastfeed as soon as I found out I was pregnant," says Jimmi Sivia, mother of a 7-month-old baby. However, despite help from nurses, her doula, and a lactation consultant, breastfeeding just did not work. "I tried to latch and it was instantaneously a wave of frustration, embarrassment, and shame," says Sivia.

Repeatedly trying to breastfeed without success was no fun for either Sivia or her son. "I couldn't get a good position and my nipples would flatten out every time he got his mouth on them," she says. "It was extremely frustrating. I felt that I didn't realize something was wrong with my nipples and I felt embarrassed."

After some soul-searching, Sivia decided to stop trying to breastfeed. "It was all too much. I wanted feeding time to be a time of peace and nourishment for us, not this frantic and chaotic tear-filled time," she says. Pumping and supplementing with formula ended up working out best for her and her baby.

However, for many people who had hoped to breastfeed, there may be a lingering sadness. Here are some ways to cope with this disappointment.

Know the Facts

The truth is that breastfeeding doesn't work for everyone. Some 60 percent of mothers don't end up breastfeeding for as long as they intended to, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You are not alone in this experience and it's not a reflection on you as a parent or person.

Also, not breastfeeding doesn't mean your baby won't be healthy or well-fed. Formula is a healthy alternative to breast milk and your baby will be just as happy, loved, and nourished as a breastfed baby.

Moreover, says Jennifer Abdul-Rahman, BSN, RN, IBCLC, a lactation consultant in Lehigh Valley, Pa., "All experiences are valid." There are so many different experiences and ways to feed your baby.

Embrace the Positives

While breastfeeding has its own health benefits, formula feeding offers distinct advantages, too. First and foremost, formula-fed infants tend to sleep longer and better and they don't have to feed quite so often. More than likely, this means you will be getting more sleep, sooner, too.

Additionally, bottle-feeding can be done by anyone, not just the person who delivered the baby. So, this job can be shared among partners or taken on by family, friends, or caregivers.

Grieve the Loss

If you're feeling sad about not being able to breastfeed, acknowledge and express your feelings, says Karen Gail Lewis, EdD, MFT, MSW, a marriage and family therapist in Washington, DC. Let yourself feel disappointed, frustrated, or mad.

Share your grief with trusted family members, friends, your healthcare provider, or a therapist, advises Lewis. Letting out your feelings can be the first step in moving on and making peace with the situation. Once you've given yourself a chance to be sad, you'll be better equipped to let that disappointment go as you shift to focusing on your baby.

Find Acceptance

The key to accepting that you're not breastfeeding is by finding other ways to enjoy and bond with your baby. "Listen to your body and don't get frustrated about what you can't control," suggests Hendrickson. "As long as they are fed and loved, that's all they need."

Also, notes Abdul-Rahman, even if you only breastfed a little or are solely pumping, you are still breastfeeding—and simply, feeding—your baby. "Breastfeeding is not all or nothing and doesn’t just look one way. It’s not just breast or bottle either. There are so many ways to feed a baby and so many ways that this process can look." Ultimately, if your baby is well nourished, whatever way your are feeding them is a success.

Get Help if Needed

If you feel you are having trouble processing your grief or it is keeping you from your daily activities, seek out help. A therapist or your healthcare provider can offer guidance and support, says Lewis. New parents are at risk of postpartum depression, so be sure to consider if your sadness has become something that needs professional attention. Signs to watch out for include mood swings, fatigue, trouble concentrating, crying spells, hopelessness, anger, despair, and anxiety.

Other Ways to Bond With Your Baby

While breastfeeding is one way to connect with your baby, it is not the only way to nurture the intimate, loving parent-child bond. "There are so many opportunities to bond with your little one," says Sivia. "Breastfeeding is an amazing one but it isn't the only one."

It's important to focus on other ways you can connect with your newborn. "Find ways to bond with your baby that work for you. Breastfeeding isn’t just about nutrition, it is warmth and comfort and nurturing as well," says Abdul-Rahman. Here are some additional ways to bond with your little one.

Feeding

Bottle-feeding can be a special time with your baby. While feeding them, you can sing or talk to your child, or simply take in the wonder that is your sweet newborn. Just by giving your baby your attention, you are strengthening your bond," says Hendrickson. "You still get the same time with them when bottle-feeding, and you can tell that they feel love. Their eyes say everything."

Tending to Their Needs

You can turn any time you are taking care of or cleaning up your baby into a time to connect. Bath time, brushing their few hairs, getting them dressed, putting on lotion, or even changing their diaper can be great occasions for bonding with your baby. Again, take the time to laugh, sing, or chat with your baby, advises Lewis. Look them in the eye, smile at them, and stroke their cheeks or their toes. Whatever feels natural and loving to you is sure to resonate with your child.

Baby-Wearing

Wearing your baby in a sling, wrap, or baby carrier is another great way to keep them close, suggests Abdul-Rahman. They will enjoy the warmth of being next to your body, the comfort of hearing your heartbeat, and spending lots of time with you. Baby-wearing may also be a part of practicing attachment parenting.

Holding

Likewise, you can also simply hold your baby. Nothing is sweeter than cuddling up with your baby, and babies love to snuggle. Whether you are seated, standing, or lying down, you and your baby will both enjoy the experience.

Skin-to-Skin

You can also do skin-to-skin care, suggests Abdul-Rahman. "It helps boost brain development and helps regulate the baby’s blood sugar levels, heart rate, breathing, and body temperature," she says.

"I bond with Sofia by doing skin-to-skin time and rocking with music," says Hendrickson.

Holding your baby close, particularly skin-to-skin, also releases oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone, explains Abdul-Rahman. "This helps promote bonding and brain development," she adds.

Playing

Even though a newborn can't exactly play with you, that doesn't mean you can't play with them. You can tickle their toes, gently whisper in their ears, put your finger to their nose, give them a massage, play peek-a-boo, or lightly blow air on their face. You can get down on the ground with them during tummy-time and read them books or demonstrate fun, age-approriate toys. The possibilities are endless and sure to bring lots of joy for you both.

A Word From Verywell

Not being able to breastfeed your baby can be disheartening, whether you knew before childbirth that it would be impossible or had unexpected trouble during the newborn period. In either scenario, there are healthy ways to process and move through the grief while you nourish and bond with your baby in other ways. Embracing the beauty and joy of feeding your baby, whether at the breast or bottle, is a good place to start. Likewise, remember, the most important thing is that your baby is loved, cared for, and fed, no matter the method.

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