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WHY AS A MOM-TO-BE WITH CROHN’S DISEASE I’VE DECIDED NOT TO BREASTFEED MY SON

How to deal with the conflicting debate around breastfeeding while taking a biologic drug to manage your chronic illness.

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Breastfeeding. It’s amazing how controversial this topic is and how critical and opinionated people can be. Since I announced to family members and friends this past summer that I was pregnant with my first child, I’ve quickly learned the majority of people naturally assume that’s the route you’re going to go. Whether it’s casually mentioning the best breast pump or laughing about nursing pads to put in your bra—it seems no one expects you to formula feed your child. People are vocal and proud of breastfeeding—and I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is people who judge and make you feel like you are depriving your child and being a “bad mom.”

I’ve thought about it for years…as a woman with Crohn’s disease my health and the medications needed to treat my illness make it a whole different ball game. While I expect there will be many naysayers and people who question my decision—it comes to this. It’s my son and it’s my personal choice. While doctors and people say “the molecules are too large in Humira to pass through breast milk,” it’s always followed up quickly by…BUT… there are no long term studies.

Humira first hit the market in 2002 for rheumatoid arthritis…it wasn’t even approved by the FDA to treat Crohn’s until 2007. I started giving myself the injections in July 2008. In my heart of hearts, I don’t feel comfortable knowing that 20 years down the road unknown long-term health effects could start popping up. It’s just not worth the risk or the wonder on my part. My baby and I are part of five-year study that looks at Mother and Baby and the response to biologic medication. For more information, click here.

My mom was on the blood thinning drug Heparin while she was pregnant with me and after she delivered. As a nurse, she too made the decision back in the 80’s to formula feed my brothers and me because she wasn’t sure about the long-term effects of those injections. I always appreciate that she looked out for us. It’s my hope that my son will have the same appreciation for my decision to follow in her footsteps.

It’s helpful to have my regular OB, high-risk OB and gastroenterologist all in my corner. I had a glimmer of hope about possibly breastfeeding my future kids after my bowel resection surgery in August 2015. In order to heal, I was off all medication from July to mid-November. I started whimsically thinking about a life without medicine and what that would mean for not only me, but also my family. Then reality and some harsh words from my GI doctor brought me back to earth. Not taking medication when dealing with Crohn’s is like playing Russian roulette. You may be “ok” for a couple of months or years, but the likelihood of needing additional surgeries and dealing with flare-ups skyrockets.

Aside from the medication, living with Crohn’s can be extremely scary. One hour you’re fine and the next you’re being rushed to the hospital. I’m so fearful of a postpartum flare and parenting while dealing with debilitating symptoms. I don’t know when I’ll be in the hospital next or when I’ll need to be on additional medications that aren’t safe for my son. For now, being pregnant has magically silenced my disease. While pregnancy has its fair share of discomforts, struggles and pain, my baby boy has taken my Crohn’s and shown it who’s boss. He’s truly the healing hands where it used to hurt.

There’s no telling how my health will be post-delivery and in the years ahead—but, it comforts me to know that my Crohn’s and medications don’t need to be tied to him in any way once he enters this world. It’s difficult enough giving myself injections and taking pills throughout the entire pregnancy. I want to free of him any link to what I’m taking. If you google IBD and breastfeeding the conflicting articles and research would make your head spin. One article will explore how breastfeeding can put you at greater risk for a postpartum flare, while the next says the opposite. With Crohn’s, nobody’s disease process is the same. I’ve found it’s best not to look at what the numbers show and compare yourself to others.

Now that I’m well into my third trimester I keep envisioning the first moment I hold my son and how he instinctively may try to start breastfeeding when he’s laid on my chest. It brings tears to my eyes—because I’m sure I’ll feel a sense of failure and that I’m depriving him of what many believe is best for his health.  But, it will also be my greatest accomplishment in life. Successfully bringing my son into the world will feel like a huge victory against the disease that has robbed me of so much, but made me stronger than I was before.

I know this article goes against what many mothers and people believe—it may cause you to try and sway my thoughts or make me feel guilty for choosing bottle over breast, but it’s my decision and I’m standing by it. Whether it’s discussions on Instagram or forums online, I’m amazed at how many women with Crohn’s constantly look for guidance on whether they can get pregnant, when they should start trying to conceive and if they should breastfeed…all because of their medication and their own personal health. I stand by all of you prospective mommies grappling with those questions and I’m here for you. Follow your heart. Do what’s best for you and your child. And while it’s easier said than done, stay true to what you feel most comfortable with—because at the end of the day—no one knows your body or baby like you do.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Barbara Katz, “Birth is not only about making babies. Birth is about making mothers: strong, competent, capable mothers who trust themselves and know their inner strength.”

SIDE NOTE: This was written two months before I had my son, I ended up breastfeeding for three days in the hospital after he was born so that he could get the colostrum. I have bottle fed him formula ever since. It was emotional to give him a bottle, but eased my fears knowing he would no longer be connected to me or my illness.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Educating women with chronic illness about the benefits vs. risks of breastfeeding.

How does this research relate to our use cases and personas?

Offering perspective for women about whether or not breastfeeding makes sense for them, the health of their baby, and their journey in motherhood.

Tell us about yourself:

I'm a former news anchor and reporter or spent a portion of my career in corporate communications and media relations. I currently do public relations for a digital healthcare company.

Are you currently an employee of Sutter Health or UCB Pharmaceuticals?

  • No

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Photo of Rekha

Thank you for sharing your journey with us! Glad to hear that you stuck with what you believed was best for you and your son. I didn't have any regular medications but my daughter was born a few weeks early and never latched on, my production was low and I had to feed her formula as well. It was hard at the time and the hormones make you feel worse but always know that you're doing your best for your child.

Photo of Natalie Hayden

Thanks for reading and for the kind words--the decision to breastfeed or give formula is such a personal one, and oftentimes people are very judgmental. I ended up breastfeeding my son the first three days so that he could get the colostrum, and then started a bottle. I didn't want him to have any connection to my medication any longer.