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Stigmas, formula-feeding and milk fairies: Gainesville moms discuss breastfeeding

Emily Johnson, 28, holds her son Miles, 2, at a La Leche League meeting Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Alissa Gary/WUFT News)
Emily Johnson, 28, holds her son Miles, 2, at a La Leche League meeting Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Alissa Gary/WUFT News)

On Isabella Ruiz’s third birthday, the milk fairy came.

She was prepared for its arrival. Just a month earlier, her mom, Nicole Ruiz, cradled her in their living room rocking chair after their naptime breastfeeding. “Did you know there's a milk fairy that comes?” Isabella’s mom asked her. “The fairy comes, just like the tooth fairy, and it takes the mommy’s milk, and it gives it to other babies who need it.”

Isabella protested at first; she didn’t want to share with the other babies. But the morning she turned 3, she never breastfed again.

Nicole Ruiz invented the “milk fairy” — loosely based on a parenting book she had read — to wean her daughter, now 4 years old, off breastfeeding.

Ruiz, 44, and an office manager at Resilience Charter School, said she wanted to breastfeed her children from the moment she became pregnant. The process wasn’t always easy — she experienced postpartum depression and anxiety, and she sometimes felt like quitting.

“As overwhelming as it can be, it's also so amazing because you sit there, and you can watch them literally grow in your arms,” she said.

Like Ruiz, mothers across Gainesville navigate the emotions, pains and questions of breastfeeding in the months leading up to and after pregnancy. The journey can be highly rewarding, with some moms feeling closer to their babies through nursing. Other moms said breastfeeding can be painful, and the shame of being unable to nurse hovers like a cloud of poor parenting.

Nursing by the numbers

Breastfeeding is commonplace across the country. About83% of babies born nationwide in 2019 have been breastfed at least once — slightly higher than Florida’s average of 71%, according to the CDC.

Breastfeeding tends to reduce the chance of babies developing a slew of diseases, including asthma and leukemia. It also puts mothers at lower risk of certain cancers and diabetes. Another perk: It’s free.

Victoria Armstead, 37, and a correctional officer, fed formula to her first two children. With her third child, a 4-month-old daughter, she chose to breastfeed, which she’s found more convenient than formula-feeding.

The process hasn’t been completely smooth — Armstead has recently been remedying a condition that makes her breast milk taste like soap — but she said nursing is worth the struggle.

“I just wish moms were more educated about breastfeeding,” she said. “They get so tied up from, like, ‘let’s do formula because it’s easier and more convenient.’ But obviously breastfeeding is the way to go.”

Her youngest daughter latched on “with no issue” the first time she breastfed at the hospital. Armstead took a photo to remember the moment.

Kshama Green, 28, gestures to the other mothers at a La Leche League meeting Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Alissa Gary/WUFT News)
Kshama Green, 28, gestures to the other mothers at a La Leche League meeting Tuesday, March 19, 2024. (Alissa Gary/WUFT News)

‘I feel awful for parents’: Breastfeeding stigmas

Rachel Modrow, 34, had just concluded that formula was right for her when the 2022formula shortage hit.

As powders disappeared from shelves and companiesrecalled disease-causing formulas, Modrow, a pharmacist, decided to give breastfeeding a second chance.

Breastfeeding is considered the “gold standard” of parenting, according to a 2020 study in Breastfeeding Medicine, to the point that mothers who are unable to breastfeed can feel guilty and anxious. In the same study, some moms hesitated to reveal they bottle-fed out of fear they’d be deemed a bad parent.

With her first son, Modrow struggled with overproducing — that is, creating more milk than her baby would need — so she was hesitant to resume nursing. With her second, who’s 4 months old, she feeds him a combination of breast milk and formula.

Modrow said she felt internal pressure to breastfeed, particularly because she didn’t want to rely on formula during the shortage. At the same time, she felt external pressure to try formula feeding so she wouldn’t have to pump at work.

“There’s always a little bit of a feeling obligated, like this is the way it should be,” she said. “But then always secretly wanting to be like, ‘Well, can we come out with a study that says that formula is just as good?’”

Before moving to Gainesville in January, Modrow lived in North Dakota. There, she said, the concept of breastfeeding was foreign. She was the first to become a mom in her department at the small hospital where she worked and she had to adjust to pumping several times a day. By comparison, Gainesville seems more open to breastfeeding, she said.

“This would be the last place I would imagine that someone would make any sort of comment,” she added.

While Modrow said she never received disapproving comments about pumping in public, Tricia Elbl, 48, was once asked to leave after nursing inside an Illinois mall in 2006.

Now an international board certified lactation consultant in Gainesville, Elbl says stigmas against breastfeeding in public are less common, but still exist. She recently heard a similar story to hers from a mom who was asked to leave a local establishment for breastfeeding.

“I feel awful for parents,” Elbl said. “There's so much judgment about what you're doing and what you're not allowed to. It's hard to be a parent in this world.”

Finding community

Worries about producing enough milk and discomfort while nursing are the biggest concerns new moms bring to Elbl, a Gainesville international board certified lactation consultant.

Elbl offers her advice both at her private practice and at the La Leche League, a mom's support group focused on breastfeeding, where she is a group leader.

The group offers three meetings a month, each led by moms with at least one year of breastfeeding experience. At a meeting March 19, miniature trucks and bright toys littered the floor, keeping a group of toddlers busy while their moms chatted about their successes and struggles, when to wean and clashing opinions among family members.

Kayla Sutcliffe, 32, balances raising her 3-year-old and 9-month-old sons with completing her Ph.D. program at the University of Florida College of Education. She came across La Leche through Facebook and joined its virtual meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now having a second child, she both offers advice and receives it.

“To make friends with moms that have the same age kids is really nice,” she said. “To just know that you're not alone.”

La Leche encourages parents to choose methods that feel right for them and their babies, whether that’s breastfeeding for six months or three years.

Creating a community in which breastfeeding is openly discussed is crucial for new parents, Elbl said, who often feel alone after giving birth. “There's nothing more validating than sitting in a room of nursing moms and their children and feeling heard,” she said.

Alissa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing