My friend recently had her second baby, which inevitably had us talking about the things everyone talks about when there’s a new arrival. How is the baby sleeping? How did the birth go? Are you breastfeeding or formula feeding?
Opinions vary wildly on issues related to babies, and most of the time, it’s due to our individual journeys and experiences. In one particular area, social networks and norms put heavy pressure on a new mother. I’m talking about the question of whether to breastfeed or not.
Breastfeeding vs formula
I won’t go into the health benefits of breastfeeding for baby because I think most people know them. Every new mom has experienced the pressure to breastfeed. In baby groups and during doctor visits, we keep hearing about the pros of breastfeeding and the benefits of breast milk. In this ongoing breast milk vs formula debate, we’re also aware of a silent judgment on mothers who choose not to breastfeed.
In fact, many hospitals offer donor breast milk to mothers who can’t or won’t breastfeed. While this service is obviously great for those who need or want it, some may see it as having an underlying message: it tells new moms that by not breastfeeding their child, they’re somehow letting their newborn down.
On the other hand, formula feeding has its own benefits. Some people tout how easy it is, noting that you can measure the amount of milk your baby is eating, which is great for hungrier little ones. For me, the greatest benefit is the ability for someone else to feed the baby. This allows fathers or grandparents to join in and bond with the baby. It also gives new mothers a bit of independence as they don’t have a newborn constantly suckling at their breast.
You’re probably thinking now that I must have formula-fed my own children. I seem to be leaning that way, right? If you have placed me in the “fed is best” camp, then you’d be surprised to hear that I breastfed all three of my children. Still, I wasn’t blind to the social unfairness of the breastfed vs formula-fed debate.
The “breast is best” pressure
My daughter was my first child, and I clearly remember going to every class and reading every book as if they were the gospel. All new parents do this sort of fervent learning, absorbing everything, over-planning, the works. I planned to breastfeed mainly because I was told that’s what I should do. However, I also bought bottles, sterilizers, and a breast pump so her father could feed her, and I could have a break.
She decided she didn’t want to come out on time. Labor was induced, and I ended up having an emergency C-section, losing a lot of blood during the surgery. While recovering, I couldn’t even feel my legs, so a breastfeeding nurse had to come in and latch the baby on. My poor girl tried and tried, but my body had nothing to give as it was trying to replenish my blood supply. I must have sat like that for ages, trying to get my baby to suckle, but there was nothing for her to get.
I told the nurse it was painful and that I didn’t think the baby was getting anything. She tutted and chastised me, telling me I was wrong. “All women produce milk,” she said, insisting that my baby was feeding, but I was just too inexperienced to notice. Four hours later, my daughter had screamed herself to sleep, and I had tears streaming down my face, convinced I was failing. Here I was, a first-time mother, and I couldn’t even feed my daughter properly.
At that point, the nurses changed shifts, and an older one came in. I explained to her how I’d sat here for hours trying to feed my daughter, yet she still seemed hungry. I showed her my sore, cracked, and bleeding nipples. She flashed me a reassuring smile, picked up my daughter, and gave her a small bottle of formula.
This nurse told me how to treat my raw wounds and explained it might take a few days before I could breastfeed my baby properly. The woman was an angel. After a few days of formula feeding in the hospital, my body had time to heal, my milk had time to come in properly, and from day 3 onward, my daughter and I never had a problem again.
With my second child, I had the breastfeeding experience. At all the postnatal checks, I knew I’d be doing it. The nurses always seemed happy when I said I was breastfeeding, but I often wondered about the moms who chose formula feeding. Were they pressured, chastised, or made to feel bad about their decision? Many of my friends have told me they were.
I went into natural labor with my son, and while we ended up going through an emergency C-section, my body was ready this time. My milk came in quickly, I had confidence and experience, and I don’t remember having any issues with him in regard to feeding.
Formula feeding stigma
Then, nearly 5 years later, I had my youngest son, who also decided to take his time coming out. Since I’d already had 2 C-sections, the doctors set a date for me to have surgery, I brought my birth plan, and we were booked in. I was again asked “Breast or formula feeding?” Naturally, I chose to breastfeed as I had the experience, and it had just been easier for me and my children so far. The surgery went as expected, but I lost a lot of blood again. My son was healthy but came out a whopping 10 lbs, and I swear that boy came out starving!
A few hours after the surgery, we were trying to breastfeed him, and I was flashing back to the experience with my daughter. My son would suckle for a few moments, then get frustrated that nothing was coming out and scream his head off. This time, I knew there was no milk coming out. I buzzed the nurse and asked her for a bottle of formula to tide my son over while we waited for my milk to start flowing.
The nurse looked at me with something akin to disgust. Checking my birth plan, she remarked, “It says here you’re breastfeeding. If you formula feed him, you won’t be able to breastfeed him later.” She went on to give me a 15-minute lecture on how I didn’t know what I was doing, how I would confuse him, and all the benefits of breastfeeding.
At that moment, I felt the social pressure almost bordering on stigma where formula feeding is concerned. I was sitting there with my 3rd child, and I had breastfed two previously, and this nurse was criticizing my decisions as a mother. It felt absolutely horrible, and I empathized with the other mothers in the ward who were subjected to such censure. Thankfully, I was confident enough by that point and stood firmly behind my decision. The nurse grudgingly went to fetch the formula and nearly slammed it on the bedside table before storming out of the room.
My son instantly drank 1.5 times as much as he should have, then fell asleep contently. I later informed the nurse I would want more formula for the next few feeds. By the time my son and I left the hospital, my milk was in, we were breastfeeding, and my baby didn’t get confused or anything. Yet, I still remember that feeling of being judged as a mother based on how I fed my child.
Is “fed is best” the way to go?
Obstetrician–gynecologists and other obstetric care providers should support each woman’s informed decision about whether to initiate or continue breastfeeding, recognizing that she is uniquely qualified to decide whether exclusive breastfeeding, mixed feeding, or formula feeding is optimal for her and her infant.-American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ guidelines
There is some discussion about whether supplementing with formula reduces the benefits of breastfeeding. Sometimes, the journey doesn’t go according to (birth) plan. The reality is that as many as 51% of women who had a C-section and 31% of those who had a vaginal birth have had to supplement with formula before leaving the hospital.
Formula should be a completely viable option. At such a life-changing point, the pressure on moms to breastfeed and the stigma attached to the alternative are actually harmful to those unable to breastfeed. Furthermore, no one should feel like a failure or less of a woman because she wants to formula feed or circumstances force her to.
Every mother deserves to be supported physically and emotionally while caring for her child. As long as that baby is healthy and happy and has a full belly, there should be no judgment on how it is achieved, be it overtly through speeches and instructions or subtly with huffs and disappointed looks. Policymakers, healthcare providers, and caregivers should be mindful of the potential of the “breast is best” rhetoric to stigmatize formula feeding. They should focus on finding ways to also promote safe and healthy formula use.