As most new moms know, the pressure to breastfeed—reinforced by endless reminders that “breast is best”—is real. It can also be extremely dangerous, as this mom’s heartbreaking story shows.
In a blog post on Fed Is Best, Jillian Johnson shared how five years ago she lost her healthy baby boy just 19 days after giving birth. The cause of death: accidental starvation and dehydration. Jillian gave birth in a hospital that mandated breastfeeding over formula feeding. “Unless you’d had a breast augmentation or cancer or some serious medical reason as to why you couldn’t breastfeed, your baby would not be given formula unless a prescription was written by the pediatrician,” she wrote
After two days, Jillian was discharged from the hospital despite her son Landon “having lost 9.7 percent of his birth weight continuously and exclusively breastfeeding with a mother whose milk had not come in.” Less than 12 hours after her son went home, he went into cardiac arrest caused by dehyrdation.
Jillian’s heartbreaking story is just one example of why a “breast is best” mindset isn’t right for every mother and baby.
The reason experts and many moms advocate for breastfeeding is that breast milk has specific sugars, fats, and proteins that don’t exist in formula, says Annemarie Stroustrup, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor in the Division of Newborn Medicine and the Department of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.
During the first few days after birth, breast milk is particularly packed with protein, fat-soluble vitamins, minerals and immunoglobulins (antibodies that provide passive immunity to the baby from mom), according to the American Pregnancy Association. This is called “colostrum.” (After the first few days, the nutrient content of breast milk changes—meaning if a baby has trouble breastfeeding at first, they may miss out on the vital nutrients provided by the colostrum.)
However, it’s not uncommon for first-time moms to have trouble breastfeeding—especially at first. “Difficulties can arise in the early days after birth when breastfeeding is being established,” says Stroustrup. “During this time, a mother may not make much milk (and may not know how much milk she is making), and a baby may not feed in an efficient and coordinated fashion.”
When this happens, like in Johnson’s case, babies can suffer from dehydration, which can cause severe brain damage and even death. “The dangers of poor feeding resulting in newborn dehydration are real,” says Stroustrup.
However, Stroustrup says there are signs new parents can look out for. “At home, after the baby is 24 hours old, a well-hydrated newborn will make a wet diaper every three hours,” she says. “Although having one dry diaper in a day is common, not dangerous, and not cause for alarm, a newborn who has not made a wet diaper in many hours deserves further evaluation.”
Johnson is speaking out with her heartbreaking story to help address the stigma around bottle-feeding newborns.
“I just want people to educate themselves so they don’t make the same mistake I did,” Johnson told in an interview. “I couldn’t sit by any more and have another mom feel what I feel every day. I don’t want any parent to have this hole in their heart. Nothing can fill it.”
The bottom line, breast may be better when possible, but a well-fed and nourished baby is best—even if that means using formula. “Formula is certainly a good food choice for a baby where breast milk is not available, be it from inadequate supply, maternal medical limitations to breast feeding, family choice, or medical condition of the baby where a specific formula is recommended,” says Stroustrup.