The one question you should never ask a formula-feeding mom

When I’m out and about with my children, and it’s time to feed the baby, I make up a bottle. A mom nearby asks, “Why don’t you breastfeed?”

It might seem innocent enough on its face, but this question always punches me in the gut.

You’ve all heard of the mommy wars. And most of us know about the recent resurgence in breastfeeding support. Unfortunately, the coupling of the two has oftentimes led to a demonizing of formula feeding. So whenever the topic comes up, I’m constantly worried what someone might say next – what they’re thinking – how they might be silently measuring me up and finding me failing as a mother…. What if they can’t wait to burst into a lecture about how all women can breastfeed, and those who think they can’t just aren’t trying hard enough?

There is no question in the world that has made me cry more than “Why don’t you breastfeed?” Either I can give a vague answer and risk being taken for a lazy, ignorant, or unloving mother, or I can give the real reason – which is emotionally charged, very private, and frankly, not something I care to share with nosy onlookers. And even when I do give the real reasons, people often immediately start offering ideas for how we could have made it work.

I know this comes from a place meant to help, but it actually hurts. First of all, there’s no going back and changing the past now. It’s just pouring salt in the wound to belabor it with retroactive suggestions. Second, these comments fail to acknowledge all that the mother has done. There comes a point in time in every failed nursing attempt where mom has to say, “Enough is enough, I need my sanity and my baby needs to gain weight.” So when someone says: “Oh, you didn’t try x?”, all we hear is: “Well, it sounds like you didn’t try as hard as you could have…” 

Every time someone asks me why I don’t breastfeed, I end up going home and crying. It is the most dreaded single question in my life. Frankly, I believe this question should almost never be asked. It’s like asking a couple why they don’t have children – the answer may very well be infertility.  Unless they’ve decided to share that with you, it’s not something they should feel obligated to share.

This question brings up all my deepest fears and feelings of inadequacies – Am I failing my child? Will this hurt his future? Am I not doing enough for him? Is there something – anything – I could have done differently to prevent this from happening? Oh God, why must I bear this cross? Could you not have taken something else? Why me? Why this? 

There is no happy way to respond to this question.

So when someone gives a seemingly flippant answer for why they don’t breastfeed, let’s reserve our judgement. We may honestly have no idea what’s going on, and she may be keeping us at arm’s reach to guard her broken heart. As mothers, we are deeply invested in all of our decisions and actions. We believe that the choices we make are the best ones. So when we see other women mothering differently, it’s easy to question them. The resulting problem is that we tend to assume mothers are guilty before we assume they are innocent.

And honestly?

It’s none of our business, anyway.

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If you liked this article, then you’ll like this crunchy mom’s story about how she had to get a c-section:


“…I know what it feels like to be frustrated with a body that won’t do what you want. I know how it feels to make choices you never thought you’d have to make, and to face fears you never even considered. I think that all mothers know those feelings…”

3 thoughts on “The one question you should never ask a formula-feeding mom”

  1. I too have struggled with this and looking toward baby number two I am scared and somewhat hesitant to even think that maybe this time I can make it work but it’s important to keep in mind that no matter what I’m doing what’s best for my baby even if that means formula

  2. Just wanted you to know that I formula fed all three of my children and they are happy and healthy at 14, 12 and 4. I had my own private reasons for choosing formula as well.

    So sorry you are feeling so much angst over formula feeding. It doesn’t make you a bad mom. There are so many things that go into mothering well. I’ve known moms who breast feed but who also neglect their children in other ways. It’s not the end all/be all of mothering. I don’t have anything against it. It is a blessing that mothers are able to feed their children this way. For some us, for many complicated reasons, from physical to mental, it’s not the right choice for us. It’s ok. I was also formula fed and it didn’t have a huge negative impact on my life. Since I’m 43, I think I was even given Carnation Evaporated milk. Baby formula has come a long way and science (although not perfect), has greatly improved the nutrition it provides. Even breastfed babies are at the mercy of their mothers and what they choose to eat can have an impact on the nutrition in their breast milk.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I wasn’t able to breastfeed my son either. We did the SNS, pumping, supplements, teas, cookies, all of it. At eight weeks I finally gave up and had him on formula. I often say that I’m okay not nursing in the future, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t secretly hope it would work out in the future.

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