Breastfeeding is a Marathon (and You Don’t Have to Run It)

Breast and Bottle Feeding Postpartum Health

I have, at a few different points in my life, run. But I would not have then, nor would I now, call myself a runner.

I ran because I wanted to get in shape and because it was free and I could do it on my own schedule. But I’m not passionate about it. And as is so often the case with healthy habits we don’t find joy in, something always happened to throw me off course. Either an injury flared up, the weather got bad or I got too far along in one of my pregnancies for it to be comfortable for me anymore. I never ran very far. Maybe two miles most days and three or four if I was really pushing myself.

When I think about it, most physical efforts are difficult for me. Whether it’s running or any other sport, carrying heavy groceries, or even having the hand-eye coordination to play Frisbee, I’m pretty terrible at anything that requires the use of my physical body. Even growing my humans was so challenging and I was in pain every day. Besides walking, there is only one use of my physical body that comes easily to me and that I enjoy thoroughly, and that’s breastfeeding.

I am so lucky to not have had any major issues breastfeeding my two babies, because I know so many other moms who do. I’ve never had mastitis, my babies both latched just fine and my supply was generally pretty good. I’ve never even needed to wear nursing pads!

But even though I didn’t face any major issues, it was still such hard work. With my older daughter, I worked full-time away from home and pumped three times a day. I pumped round-the-clock on business trips, pumped in bathrooms when locations didn’t have lactation facilities and left extra-early for flights in order to bring pumped milk through security. Approaching her one-year birthday, I was barely able to pump enough to fill the bottles she needed while I was gone. I dedicated time and effort into increasing my supply with extra pumping sessions so as to offer her only breast milk. And although I spent more time at home with my younger daughter, I dealt with eliminating dairy from my own diet and simply wanting to throw in the towel due to her biting, being too distracted to feed or even the sheer amount of time the whole process took each day.

All I was able to pump on a three day trip away from home around the time my older daughter was 12 months old.

I pushed through these challenges and ultimately did not offer either of my babies formula, but please hear and believe me when I say that it was not because I believe that formula is poison or that using it would have had any negative effects on my kids!

But because I recognize that using formula would have been just fine, I had to ask myself why not using it was so important to me. Ultimately, I realized that I wanted to cross the finish line. I wanted to be able to look back on my life and say that I did it. Exclusively breastfeeding my kids was a personal achievement that was important to me, and – this part is crucial – I had the physical capacity and the time and energy to dedicate to it.

Exclusively breastfeeding my kids was a personal achievement that was important to me, and – this part is crucial – I had the physical capacity and the time and energy to dedicate to it.

All this brings me back to running. I can confidently say that I will never cross the finish line of a marathon. I probably won’t even ever run a 10K! My body is not cut out for it and I don’t enjoy it. Pushing myself to run more than five miles, let alone 26.2, would bring me pain and frustration. It would take time away from other things that really matter to me, which would cause me emotional distress. And while running is, generally speaking, a healthy thing to do, we certainly can’t say that crossing the finish line of a marathon or any other race will add years to my life. Our bodies are too complex to pin our health or our ailments on one individual factor, and moreover, what is beneficial to one person can be harmful to the next.

This is how I feel about breastfeeding AND running sometimes!

But while we recognize that running marathons, like breastfeeding, is a healthy thing to do, we don’t disparage those who are unable or who choose not to be runners. Yet I have heard comments that formula feeding moms have received regarding their choice that legitimately make me question my faith in humanity. Moreover, non-runners don’t feel that they are personal failures for not enduring what comes more easily to those who do run. I don’t feel an iota of guilt over the fact that I am not a runner. But find me a formula feeding mom who can say the same, who has not at some point questioned whether her decision, or what likely didn’t even feel like a decision due to factors outside of her control, makes her less of a mother. This is, of course, NOT TRUE but I have yet to encounter a mom who has been confident with her decision to use formula from the start.

I have heard comments that formula feeding moms have received regarding their choice that legitimately make me question my faith in humanity.

Certainly, you will find running enthusiasts who will argue that anyone could be a runner. That almost any challenge a runner faces can be overcome. That anyone can one day run a marathon if they put enough effort into it. These are also the messages that women receive about breastfeeding. But it’s so much easier to shrug off the running enthusiasts as fitness fanatics, whereas mothers internalize public health messages about breastfeeding as undeniable truth. What we’re failing to recognize in both cases is that even if a person CAN overcome the obstacles set forth (which I don’t actually think is true in either case, anyway), there are so many VALID reasons why she may choose not to.

Perhaps we could try the argument that running is one of many different ways to stay physically fit, while breastfeeding incurs benefits to the child that cannot be achieved otherwise. But while that is so easy to believe, it is actually much harder to prove. In a first world country like the U.S. where both breastfeeding and formula feeding are safe, we now know that the benefits of breastfeeding have been overstated.*

Breastfeeding my younger daughter meant missing my older daughter meet Minnie Mouse while I sat outside at Disney World.

Now clearly, I am not arguing against breastfeeding. I adore breastfeeding. But I am saying that we need to frame the breastfeeding versus formula decision differently. I know too many moms who endure unnecessary pain and emotional suffering because of the pressure we put on women to breastfeed. This is no way to start our journeys into motherhood! So rather than painting formula feeding moms as failures and quitters, can we acknowledge that breastfeeding was simply not the right choice for them, whether physically, emotionally or both?

Can we celebrate breastfeeding mothers as people who have put the time, effort, pain and tears into something awesome, something that was the right fit for THEM and their families?

Next time you hear about a mom choosing to formula feed, please tell yourself “this is not her marathon.”

Next time you hear about a mom choosing to formula feed, please tell yourself “this is not her marathon.” And if you are the mom mixing up a bottle of formula and feeling at all guilty about it, remind yourself of all the other passions and accomplishments you have in your life (raising a human chief among them) and of what you are able to do BECAUSE you are offering formula.

And to my fellow moms who exclusively breastfed, high five for crossing the finish line! Let’s grab a beer. Everyone’s invited.

Breastfeeding is hard work and it's not the right choice for everyone. Breastfeeding tips from a registered dietitian.

*I almost didn’t link to this article because while I really respect the author, I don’t love the closing line she uses about ice cream. But I do think it’s a great summary of the most recent research. I will elaborate more in a future post, but in short if you want your children to have healthy eating habits, please DON’T hold off (too much) on the ice cream!

Featured image by Andrew Tanglao. Running exhaustion image by Massimo Sartirana.

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