Formula Feeding And “Breast Is Best” — The View From Three Years Later

Around this time in 2011, I was a soon-to-be first-time mom, navigating through a confusing new world of recommendations and ideologies on everything relating to pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. And while there seemed to be plenty of conflicting opinions on many subjects — birthing plans, sleeping arrangements, discipline, child care — one thing was all but unanimous: breastfeeding is the optimal way to feed a baby, and formula is distantly, woefully second best.

And so, like many first-time moms in my middle-class college-educated demographic, I planned to breastfeed. Why wouldn’t I? It didn’t even really feel like a choice — breastfeeding was presented as indisputably superior in every possible way, to the point where any good mother should do it unless she had a compelling medical reason not to.

(Random propaganda-ish breastfeeding poster from 1938, courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

(Random propaganda-ish breastfeeding poster from 1938, courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

In retrospect, I’m glad to say that I never really got too over-zealous about it, and never fully bought in to the more extreme flavors of the “formula is poison” mentality… although looking back, I’m a little unnerved by how subtly, and yet how completely, I had been influenced by the “breast is best” message.

For instance, I would see a new mom’s mundane status update on Facebook about running to the store to pick up baby formula, and I would think to myself, “But why isn’t she breastfeeding? Doesn’t she know it would be healthier and cheaper and more convenient?” Or I would read the lactivist bloggers who aggressively touted the benefits of breastfeeding and risks of formula feeding — shamelessly dismissing any objections from formula feeding moms — and I would think, sympathetically, “They’re just being honest. They have all the science on their side.” I look back now and shake my head at those reactions, but at the time it all just seemed to make sense.

As the due date approached, I had (thankfully) gotten enough of a balanced perspective to have a sense that there are many valid reasons someone might not breastfeed, and that formula feeding wasn’t the end of the world. Still, to give an idea how completely I was expecting to breastfeed myself, when we set up the registry for our baby shower, about the only bottle-feeding related thing that went on there were some fancy glass Dr. Brown’s bottles, and even then, only because it seemed prudent to have some bottles in the house in case we ever needed them.

(Opening the bottle gift at the baby shower, October 2011.)

(Opening the bottle gift at the baby shower, October 2011.)

I remember what I was thinking, almost guiltily, as the above photo was taken: “It’s great that we got these, but they’ll probably just go in a cabinet and not get much use. I’ll be breastfeeding, after all!”

Fast forward to the birth of our daughter, and things didn’t exactly go as planned. My milk supply was very, very minimal, and when it became clear that she was losing weight at an alarming rate and becoming jaundiced, we didn’t hesitate to provide her with formula. Nothing seemed to help when it came to improving my milk supply, and by the time she was two weeks old, she was an exclusively formula-fed baby. The short version is told in this post from just after we made the switch — and while it gives an idea how confident I was in the decision already at that early stage, I’m not sure it fully captures the misery that was involved in our brief and futile attempt at breastfeeding.

It was an exhausting, painful, all-consuming ordeal. I remember collapsing into bed, desperate for an hour of sleep between the round-the-clock feeding sessions, only to jolt awake thinking “How long was I down?! Did I let too much time pass since the last feeding?!” And even at the time it seemed all but pointless, all that endless nursing and pumping to produce only a tiny amount of milk and feed baby mostly formula anyway. It only took a matter of days before my attitude was, “This obviously isn’t working. Enough is enough.”

There’s a certain school of thought that says virtually every woman can breastfeed, that supply issues are largely imaginary, and that virtually every breastfeeding difficulty can be overcome with enough dedication, education, and support. By those standards, quitting after less than two weeks probably sounds premature, and there are probably people out there who would think it’s a pity that I didn’t try harder. Because — let’s face it — there was almost certainly more that I could have done. I could have continued nursing and pumping for weeks or months longer. I could have hired lactation consultants in the hopes that they would know some magic trick for increasing supply beyond what we were already doing. I could have tried every herb, drug, and remedy anyone claimed could increase milk production.

But looking back now, one of the things I’m most grateful for is having decided not to drag it out any longer than we did. Reading about things like “letdown” and “engorgement” and the challenges of “drying up” after switching to formula felt like reading about the biology of an alien species. These were not things that I experienced, and I remain extremely skeptical that a few additional weeks of round-the-clock nursing and pumping and downing supplements would have changed anything, other than turning that precious newborn phase from a happy time into a hellish one.

As it turns out, formula feeding was wonderful by comparison. There was no ordeal each time our daughter was hungry, and no question as to how much she was getting or whether she was getting enough. She did fine on a no-frills generic brand, and the increase in our weekly grocery bill didn’t strain our budget. Joe and I were able to share equally in feeding duties — I even got a full, uninterrupted night of sleep 50% of the time during those first few months. And most importantly, Lillian was content and healthy and thriving.

And looking back now, all of this seems like it should be ancient history. It’s been almost two years since we weaned from the bottle — as crazy as it is to think about, we’ve spent the lion’s share of our parenting journey not having to worry about infant feeding of any kind at all. In the blink of an eye we find ourselves with a big kid, one who eats real grown-up foods while sitting at a real grown-up table, and increasingly the concerns of the baby phase fade into the background as we navigate through a world of kissing boo-boos, potty training, providing consistency and routine and discipline as best we can, trying to teach the correct ways to behave in a grocery store or restaurant, reading her favorite children’s books over and over every night, answering questions like “but why?” for the millionth time, and all the other things that make up the real meat-and-potatoes of parenthood.

Instagram Lilly Sidewalk

(A random Instagram photo of our big kid walking down the sidewalk.)

And needless to say, none of the ill health and all-around doom so often promised for formula-fed babies ever materialized. No chronic illnesses. No asthma or allergies or developmental delays. I can count on one hand the number of times she’s been sick, and that’s with her being in full-time daycare since she was eight months old. This child is as healthy and happy and smart and well-adjusted as any parent could hope for.

In the early days of our formula-feeding journey, I came across the excellent Fearless Formula Feeder blog, which provides a rare and much-needed counterpoint to the usual deafening breast-is-best chorus. In the time since then, I also read books like Joan Woolf’s Is Breast Best? and Bottled Up by Suzanne Barston (author of the aforementioned Fearless Formula Feeder blog), as well as countless articles and blog posts and news stories that explore the science and politics surrounding breastfeeding and formula feeding.

One thing I’ve become firmly convinced of, based on both personal experience and a good deal of reading on the subject, is that it really doesn’t matter how you feed your kid for the first year. That may sound preposterous to some — three years ago, I would have regarded that statement as akin to declaring that the earth is flat — but there really is an enormous gap between the benefits that are often claimed for breastfeeding (Higher IQ! Better mother/child bond! Lifelong protection against everything from obesity to cancer to diabetes!) and the benefits that are supported by any decent quality evidence (such as a modest reduction in diarrhea during infancy).

The problem with much of the science — as many people have pointed out, including the researchers authoring some of the studies — boils down to the difficulties in separating out the actual impact of breastfeeding when a true randomized experiment is impossible, and when the moms most likely to breastfeed are also more likely to be wealthier and better educated and engage in other behaviors that can influence a child’s health and well-being regardless of how they are fed as a baby. Interestingly, a study came out a few months ago that attempted to untangle those variables by comparing siblings from the same family where one was breastfed and one was formula fed, and found no advantage or disadvantage for either feeding method at all.

Maybe that seems surprising — in a world where breastfeeding is often portrayed as the most important thing a mother could ever do for her child’s long-term health, findings like that definitely go against the grain. But I suspect there are a lot of bottle-feeding moms out there who wouldn’t (or didn’t) find it very surprising at all. Seeing your child thrive on formula and then move on — it has a way of making these infant feeding debates look petty, and even making the whole “breast or bottle?” question look like a trivial one. Just feed the baby, whether breast or formula or some combination of the two — the rest of the details really don’t matter so much.

Keep Calm And Feed The Baby

(Made using “Keep Calm” PSD template from here.)

And so on that note… We’re expecting Baby #2 to arrive in just a few short weeks, and we’ll almost certainly be formula-feeding from the very start. Part of that is knowing I’ll be delivering at a hospital that’s going for “baby friendly” status (a euphemism that has everything to do with promoting breastfeeding and little to do with the actual welfare of babies) and if our experience there with Lillian is any guide, they’ll probably be more interested in providing hollow encouragement and getting us out the door checked off in the Exclusive-Breastfeeding-No-Formula column than they will be in whether our new baby girl is becoming dehydrated or jaundiced or losing excessive amounts of weight. And that’s just not the kind of start I want to get off to again, considering that I really don’t expect anything to change as far as my supply issues go.

But the other part is, even if something did change and I did magically start producing enough milk to feed twins… the truth is, I’m really just not that interested. The truth is, I want to be able to share equally in all aspects of infant care with my husband, including feeding. The truth is, I want to be able to go back to work without having to worry about pumping or leaking all over the place. The truth is, I want to enjoy the first days of being a mom-of-two without the stress of worrying about how much nourishment our new baby is getting, or the pressure of having to produce some or all of her food supply. Those are the kinds of motivations that I’m sure some people would judge as selfish and horrible and generally not-good-enough, but I don’t see any compelling reason why those kinds of considerations shouldn’t matter — especially if we’re being honest about the actual magnitude of the risks/benefits involved when it comes to the decision of how to feed your baby.

Thanks to the experience and perspective gained over the past three years, I’m happy to be in this place of looking back on our infant feeding experiences with no regrets, and being able to make plans for our next baby without guilt or fear or shame. And for any other moms out there who may end up reading this, maybe while in the midst of their own infant feeding struggles, I hope this post may provide some small comfort that how you feed your baby really isn’t the be-all and end-all of motherhood. There are light years between what will seem important at three days and what will seem important at three years, and I can only imagine how that trend will continue as we progress another five, ten, or fifteen years along on the parenthood journey.

Neighborhood Block Party #4

This past Saturday was our neighborhood’s annual block party — and since I’ve been blogging about these every year since we moved into our house, I might as well keep up the tradition! (Also, how crazy that this is the fourth year in a row? I’m building up quite a collection here, with editions from 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

As in previous years, our block party was quieter than what we’ve seen on many of the neighboring blocks. It was mostly a day of sitting around in folding chairs wearing flip-flops, chatting with the neighbors, enjoying cool beverages and snacks and popsicles, watching as the kids ran around playing with toy cars and scooters and splashing in the kiddie pool our neighbor across the street had set up… Actually here’s a photo that captures pretty much all of those things in one shot:

Block Party 2014

Lillian really enjoyed that rainbow popsicle, though didn’t quite eat it fast enough before it melted. (I helped out with the last few bites.) Later on, we enjoyed another kind of popsicle that turned our tongues — and entire mouths really — emerald green, which she thought was hilarious.

While we had firetrucks visit during a few of the past block parties, this year we had a police car:

Police Car With Doors Open

It was actually driven by John Garrido, who happens to be running for alderman in our ward of Chicago, so he took the opportunity to stand around making introductions and shaking hands while the neighborhood kids crawled all over the police car, pretending to drive it and so forth while their parents snapped photos.

Toddler Driving Police Car

(Lillian “driving” the police car.)

It was kind of neat, since seeing a police car so close up (as well as the inside) isn’t really something you get to do every day, and I was admittedly guilty of crawling inside as well. As it turns out, the back of a police car (or this particular one at least) is crazily uncomfortable, so I stayed only long enough to snap a quick goofy-looking photo.

Sitting In Police Car

(Lillian insisted that I buckle my safety belt while sitting in the back of the police car.)

Earlier in the day, we set a portable tent canopy (which my mom had brought over) in our front yard, but ironically we probably didn’t spend more than 15 minutes using it. Most of the day was spent going back and forth between a few of the neighbors’ houses, as well as chasing Lillian up and down the block.

Canopy In Front Of House

(A view of the unused canopy on our trim but slightly weedy front lawn.)

Our sentiment at the end of the day (in addition to being worn out from all the fresh air and exercise, and a little overly full from indulging in too many snacks and grilled foods) was to say, “We should totally join in the planning process next year and see if we can get a bouncy castle and stuff!” But if this year is any guide, we’ll forget all about it, and then the block party will sneak up on us, and then we’ll say the same thing again about the next year, and so on and so forth in an endless cycle.

But overall it was an enjoyable day of outdoor summer fun, and something we’ll probably continue to attend as long as our neighborhood keeps throwing these block parties!

Pregnancy Advice From The 1940′s

The year before last, while helping my mom clean out the old house in preparation for selling it after my dad passed away, I came across a book that had once belonged to my grandmother — Expectant Motherhood, by Nicholson J. Eastman M.D. (2nd edition), originally published in 1947. Basically the “what to expect when you’re expecting” of a few generations past. I was intrigued enough at the time to hang onto it, and found it again while cleaning out the soon-to-be nursery — and being pregnant right now, I couldn’t resist cracking open the yellowed volume and reading through to see how much things have changed.

Expectant Motherhood by Nicholson J. Eastman, M.D., 2nd Edition

Granted, I’m no doctor or expert of any kind, but I think anyone who has been pregnant, experienced prenatal care, or given birth in recent years will have at least a vague idea of the state of modern obstetrics — enough to recognize some of the glaring differences between now and 1947. Reading through this book was fascinating, and sometimes funny, and sometimes a little scary — and so for today’s post, I wanted to share some of the more interesting tidbits.  Read the rest of this post →

The Nursery Plan For Baby #2

Ever since the start of this pregnancy, there’s been this urgent sense of “we need to figure out where we’re going to stash this baby” in the back of our minds. Originally, we were hoping to do a basement remodel or attic expansion in order to add a couple of extra bedrooms to the house, but we ended up putting those plans on hold for mostly financial reasons (more on that here and here). So that brought us back to square one, and we were left to make any nursery plans fit the space we already have.

Luckily, we do have a bit of extra space in the form of a “tandem room” right off of our bedroom — we’ve been using it as sort of an office nook since we moved in (or more accurately, we put a desk in there but hardly ever use it and it just gathers junk) so it seemed like the perfect space to convert into a nursery for the new baby. Below is a colorful floor plan of the house showing the new nursery location:

Floor Plan With Nursery

In case it isn’t evident from the floor plan, it’s completely open to our bedroom (not even a door or anything, so in some ways it’s sort of like one big room with a dividing wall). Also, the space is tiny — only 6.5 feet by 10.5 feet — but based on some preliminary measurements, I’m pretty sure there’ll be enough room to comfortably fit a crib and rocking chair in there. Ideally we would also like to have a changing table and some storage as well, but it will really depend on how well we can Tetris those things in.

After months of procrastination, we finally managed to devote some time to cleaning out that little room this past weekend. I never thought it was particularly bad, but once we started cleaning, it started to feel like something out of Hoarders. Why do we have all this stuff? We haven’t listened to actual physical CD’s in like eight years! And why did I save this empty box full of other empty boxes? Etc. etc. etc.

So in conclusion, the room itself is still in too embarrassing of a state to post a “before” picture — that will be coming at some point in the future when the rest of the furniture and other junk is moved out. In the meantime, just to get ahead of things by a few miles, we already have a theme in mind as far as nursery decorating goes. It all started when we were at that hot air balloon festival for the Fourth of July and picked up this colorful souvenir:

Hot Air Balloon Spinner / Wind Sock

It’s a windsock spinner thingy intended for outdoor use, but it seemed like just the sort of cheery, colorful item to hang in a future nursery — so it’ll be serving as sort of a jumping off point. A hot air balloon theme seemed like it’d be pretty cute, and not overwhelmingly gender-specific (which is something we were drawn to when setting up Lillian’s nursery as well).

But like I said, all of that is getting ahead of things a bit — at this point, being 31 weeks pregnant, I think I’ll be pretty happy if we can get a crib in there before baby arrives. So much to do, so little time!

 

30 Weeks Pregnant (And Starting To Feel Like It)

I’m now 30 weeks along with this pregnancy (going on 31 weeks as of tomorrow). To mark the occasion, here is another “baby bump” picture, originally posted on Instagram:

30 Weeks Pregnant

Me with Lillian (and Piggy, her current favorite stuffed animal).

I’ve now graduated to every-two-weekly doctor’s appointments, and toward the beginning of July, I took the one-hour glucose test at my 28-week appointment (where they feed you a really sugary beverage and then test your blood sugar an hour later in order to screen for gestational diabetes). Everything came back normal with that, so that was a relief.

As far as baby’s health goes, everything there is looking good so far as well — good heartbeat, growth is right on track, no abnormalities or problems detected. There was also an ultrasound at that previous appointment that took a bunch of measurements and such, and baby’s weight was estimated at 3 pounds 5 ounces, which falls at the 77th percentile.

As far as other pregnancy updates go, here are some random bullet points:

  • Fruit baby resembles this week: A cucumber, according to TheBump.com, since I guess the average cucumber is closest in size to the average baby at this stage of pregnancy (15.2 to 16.7 inches, 2.5 to 3.8 pounds). Although interestingly enough, I found this article about some freakishly large and possibly record-setting cucumbers measuring 43 inches in length (!!!) — thankfully I don’t think I’ll need to worry about this baby growing that large!
  • Animal I feel like this week: A big lumbering dinosaur. I’m starting to feel pretty huge these days, and bending over is getting a lot harder than it used to be, and I’m starting to do the pregnancy-waddle thing more — which in fairness usually has more to do with stiff/sore hips than the hugeness, but still. *insert dinosaur sounds here*
  • General comfort level: On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being “not pregnant” and 1 being “worst pregnancy-induced discomfort ever,” I’d say I’m at about a 7 or 8 most days. So not too bad! Still doing most of the same things I was doing before (such as working full time, walking two miles a day, and wrangling a two-year-old) despite often feeling like a big lumbering dinosaur while doing it.
  • Sleep: Good! I’m happy to say I’ve been having no issues with falling asleep or staying asleep, or even needing to get up multiple times during the night to go to the bathroom, etc. The biggest threat to my getting a good night sleep these days is just plain staying up too late, doing things like surfing the internet or writing this blog post.

And in the “preparing for baby” category, here are a few random updates on that front:

  • Hospital pre-registration: I actually got all the labor and delivery pre-registration forms filled out and turned in today, which feels pretty good to have gotten out of the way — apparently I didn’t get around to it until the 36-week mark when I was pregnant with Lillian, if this old blog post is any indication.
  • Child care arrangements: Upon learning that there was a spot open in Lillian’s daycare, we decided to go ahead and put in the deposit to reserve it. This may seem a bit premature (considering that we have a few more months before this baby is even due) but it’s a relief knowing we’ll have reliable, high-quality childcare lined up.

But that’s about as far as the preparations have gotten so far. When it comes to getting the house ready or preparing a nursery, pretty much nothing has happened yet, so we’d better get on that — I’m sure these next 10 weeks will fly by sooner than we know it!