What I Learned From Not Being Able To Breastfeed

I have been writing about the importance of breastfeeding for years, so it was rather ironic and very shocking to me when after feeding my son for four years, I was then unable to give the same gift to my daughter.

She was born pink and perfect, save for the fact that her digestive system just didn’t work. Over the months we went back and forth with our breastfeeding relationship. I offered her the breast as often as I could, though she continued to refuse it. I fought to get her tongue tie cut and I finally managed to get her to latch with the use of nipple shields. For a blissful few months we managed four to six five minute feeds a day, and I was hopeful that this would continue to grow, though the majority of the milk sat undigested in her tummy. But as the weeks went on, the milk made her more and more uncomfortable. She squirmed away from the breast, and when she did latch it would only be for a minute or two.

Then she had major surgery, and after that try as I might I could not get her to feed. When I did manage to coerce a few sucks, she would be so uncomfortable and distressed the rest of the day that I felt guilty and awful for pushing her.

I continued to express daily, wanting to build a stash of milk she might someday drink, and keep my supply up in case she should suddenly take to the breast. But as the months went on it became apparent that it wasn’t going to happen.

Now, at six and a half months old I have pretty much accepted that she is not going to breastfeed. I have donated several thousand bottles of expressed milk, of which she is yet to drink a single one, and though I still have a chest freezer filled to the brim with milk she may one day need, I am slowly winding down the expressing as I let go of what might have been and accept the reality.

When I first realised I couldn’t feed her, I was terrified. After years of research I knew the importance of breastfeeding and I was devastated that my baby would miss out. I worried about her health, her emotional development and crucially our mother child bond.

Several times a week I am approached by strangers remarking on how advanced and intelligent my four year old son is. I confessed to my husband I was afraid she wouldn’t reach her full potential, as our son had, because I couldn’t give her the nutrients she needed.

“No,” he replied. “It wasn’t just the milk. It’s the connection, the co-sleeping. The unconditional acceptance, the freedom to follow his own passions and explore the world. It’s the minimal screen time and the lack of baby talk and dumbing down. It’s the whole package and the breastfeeding is just one little part. She’ll be just fine.”

And he was right.

Breastfeeding is one part, but you can breastfeed and still neglect all the other vital areas of child development. Breastfeeding alone is not enough, it’s about the whole package. No, my daughter can’t feed, but she has two parents who have been her advocates and protectors from the moment she was conceived, and she is going to be just fine.

Already many of my biggest worries have been dispelled. Other than the obvious health issues, she has never been any more unwell then my son was as a baby. She is intelligent. She is developing just as my son did and reaching milestones on the same time-line.

And she is bonded.

We have a powerful and unbreakable bond, and I feel exactly the same about her as I did for my newborn son. She shows a strong preference for Mama, with or without the milk incentive and if anything that makes me feel all the more special because I know she chooses me, even without the sweet lure of warm milk.

I feel no guilt over not being able to feed her. I have tried everything I could try and I have done everything I possibly could. I still feel a stab of jealousy when I see a baby breastfeeding or when passers by mistakenly suggest to their child that I am indeed breastfeeding, when in fact she is just cuddled up close. But even those feelings are starting to lose their power over me now.

It’s not the journey I expected to be on, but maybe that’s OK.

So, do I still believe breast is best?

Absolutely. It is the easiest and most natural way to fill your baby’s nutritional needs fully and it is a magical and beautiful thing to do. There are so many benefits it brings to the mother child relationship and it is indeed optimal.


If you, like me, really can’t feed your baby for whatever reason, if you have tried and tried and are beating yourself up because you couldn’t give your baby the best, please let me reassure you.

It may not be what you would have chosen, but your baby, her development, her health and your bond are going to be just fine. Let go of the guilt and enjoy the unique child you have in your arms.

Sometimes life takes us somewhere unexpected, but if you look, you can always find a silver lining. My daughter has slept through the night since birth (with the exception of serious illness related to her condition). This is something my breastfed son didn’t do for three and a half years so I am definitely seeing the positive side of that!

Find a positive and focus on that, because the guilt and feelings of failure don’t serve your child and will destroy you if you let them.

For breastfeeding support and advice visit the following websites:

La Leche League


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2 thoughts on “What I Learned From Not Being Able To Breastfeed”

  1. Thank you for your words of honesty and grace. I am so sorry the journey has been so difficult for you. It is inspiring to see what you are taking from it all and how you are pushing forward.

    I breastfed my daughter for about two months before switching exclusively to pumping and feeding her my milk through a bottle. I cannot tell you how often I have seen a breastfeeding mother and wished I could be doing what she could. I have often felt like a failure because I could not breastfeed successfully. I have thought numerous times that I should have tried harder. My husband has often said the same as yours – that the bond between mother and child is about so much more than just breastfeeding. It is so hard to remember that everything we do for our children affects their development.

    I read your words and cried tears of relief to know that the fear I have of not having a good bond or not having a daughter who develops the same as a breastfed daughter is a fear shared by other mamas. I’m not alone. And in that moment I realized my daughter will be just fine too. 🙂

    1. She absolutely will. I know just from reading your comment that she will, because you care enough to consider these things. There are many ways to meet a child’s needs and it sounds to me like you have found the best way for your family. Thank you for commenting.

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