You just wanted to breastfeed your baby, but it just seems like it’s all going to hell….. Maybe your baby was too sleepy to latch and you didn’t know what else to do?

Maybe you got scared that your baby wasn’t eating enough and you sent your partner out for some formula?

Maybe your doctor told you your baby was losing too much weight so you needed to start giving bottles? Did you know that you can still breastfeed?No matter what’s going on with you and your baby, there are always options if you want them. Even if it’s not going according to plan, if you want to keep breastfeeding, there is almost always a way to make things better. Even if you’ve started using, want to keep using, or need to keep using bottles, formula, pumping (or some combination) forever, YOU DON’T HAVE TO STOP BREASTFEEDING … even if you’ve entered the ‘Breastfeeding Grey Zone’.

What is the Grey Zone?

If we can agree that the usual definition of breastfeeding is the pretty traditional version where mom just sticks her baby on her breast and exclusively breastfeeds right from the source; then a mom enters the ‘Breastfeeding Grey Zone’ once she starts using any other method to feed her baby. Whether it’s using formula or donor milk, or if she has to start pumping or using tubes or bottles or cups, finger feeding or nipple shields, there are lots of things that can complicate breastfeeding. Even when these things are absolutely necessary, entering ‘The Breastfeeding Grey Zone’ can make things really hard.

Often, I meet new parents when they are in the thick of it. They are trying to latch their baby and nurse, they are pumping after feeds, AND they are giving supplements too. Their nipples hurt, they’re worried that their baby might be starving, and they haven’t slept in days. There’s a lot of crying, their crotch hurts and their boobs feel like they might explode, and they don’t know what to do next.

Don’t give up. Get help

Unfortunately, there is a belief right now that breastfeeding is supposed to be some ‘perfect’ experience, but THAT JUST DOESN’T ALWAYS HAPPEN!!! Telling mothers that it’s ‘so natural’ and that ‘babies will just crawl up and latch themselves on’ and know exactly what to do, is unfair and often, unhelpful. Sure it’s good to teach that breastfeeding is a normal thing that our bodies can do, but I disagree that it’s natural for most women right now. Did we all grow up in some magical village where all the topless nursing mothers sat around breastfeeding all day? Did we get to spend our lives watching babies feed, so we could learn about normal newborn behaviour, how to deal with common breastfeeding issues, and the best way to get a good latch? Um…. Nope.

Well, most of us in Canada and the U.S. didn’t anyway, and that’s a BIG part of the problem. It’s not ‘just natural’ right now. It takes work. It is a learned skill, and just like with any new skill, it takes practice, and we might not be ‘perfect’ at it right away. Be gentle with yourself during this process.

It seems like there are two extremes right now, when it comes to feeding a baby. Some providers don’t know how to help, so they just tell parents to start formula feeding and don’t offer support for breastfeeding at all! Even on Facebook mommy groups, the desire to eliminate guilt about ever using formula is making the phrase #fedisbest the first response when moms really just want some breastfeeding support. This is not enough…. (#supportisbest #informedisbest)

On the other hand, even well-meaning Doctors, Nurses and Lactation Consultants sometimes confuse ‘support’ with a tendency to issue blanket statements of what HAS to happen to make sure that breastfeeding works. I don’t think this is always helpful either! I don’t think being strict and judgmental about things is the best way to support new mothers and breastfeeding parents. If parents feel like they’ll be judged for ‘doing it wrong’ then they may be reluctant to ask for help, for fear that they will be criticized. Sometimes breastfeeding is messy…. And that’s ok. Things aren’t always just black or white, and that’s where the ‘Breastfeeding Grey Zone’ comes in. Support should meet you where you are in the journey, and offer help… not ultimatums.

It’s true that supporting mothers in the Breastfeeding Grey Zone can be hard. The knowledge that any of the things I mentioned can complicate the breastfeeding process, can make us worry enough to even tell mothers that these things shouldn’t be used at all! To me, it all depends on the goals of the individual family that I’m working with. If THEIR goal is exclusive breastfeeding, then yes, it’s important to teach about the risks and benefits of each method, and go from there. If they WANT to use these extras, then we still need a plan.

It’s important to me, that we make a distinction for those moms who JUST want to breastfeed their babies, because they usually need more support and are sometimes just not getting it.

The trend of telling a mother who is struggling with breastfeeding, that ‘fed is best’ is similar to saying that it doesn’t matter how we feed our babies! To many women who REALLY want to breastfeed, it IS important. What they really need is better support, and help to actually breastfeed.

Now hold on there for a second…. You know that I support moms who WANT to breastfeed in the Grey Zone too, right?? This is absolutely NOT a discussion of how a mother is any less of a breastfeeder or less of a good mother if she WANTS to use any of those things, like formula, pumping or bottles. LOTS of moms simply chose to do ‘a bit of both’, or maybe they don’t want to breastfeed at all. As long as that’s because they WANT to, (and not because they are doing it due to lack of proper breastfeeding support) then that’s just fine.

The important thing to know, if you’re in the middle of Breastfeeding in the Grey Zone is that some mothers sometimes NEED to use these things on a temporary basis and it’s still ok… you don’t have to stop breastfeeding! You can end up needing these things if baby is sleepy, can’t latch, has a tongue tie, you had a traumatic birth, you are in pain, you have postpartum depression, you adopted your baby, had a surrogate, you had breast surgery, you weren’t taught about normal newborn feeding behaviour, you didn’t pump/express when it might have helped, you were told to give a bottle and just needed your baby to eat, and you didn’t know what to do next!! Not everyone can do it, but if YOU still want to breastfeed, there is almost always a way to keep going. It may not be ‘perfect’, but YES, you can still breastfeed.

I am a Private Practice Lactation Consultant, NICU Nurse and Doula who has worked with parents and babies for almost 20 years, and I have breastfed my three children (#3 is still going!) so I have seen a lot of breastfeeding in my day. Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be perfect to still ‘count’. I see so many mothers who are struggling in the first few weeks and they think they might have missed their chance. It’s not too late. Get help as soon as possible. Find someone who supports you and helps you reach YOUR goals.

If it is important to you, then is important to me. If you want to keep breastfeeding, don’t give up.