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.

9 Comments

  1. Quite similar to the experience I had with Dave and Leanne, some 50 years ago! What matters most to Mom and Baby is knowing that your child is getting the nourishment he or she needs. Stress is a downer that neither Mom or Baby need! You are doing fine!

    • Thanks for the kind words, and for this beautiful reminder that while times may change, the challenges of motherhood can be so similar across different generations. We all do the best we can for our kids! :)

  2. I hope this post goes viral! We needed supplemental formula for the first two weeks with my daughter because of weight gain issues. Then I was able to exclusively breastfeed thereafter (luckily I had no supply issues). But we will be FOREVER grateful that formula was an option in those important first few weeks.

    • Thanks Tammi, I’m so glad others can relate. And I especially know that feeling of being grateful to live in a time and place where formula is safe and healthy and readily available for those of us who may want or need to use it, whether temporarily or otherwise. :)

  3. As you said, HOW you feed your baby is much less important than that you DO, and that neither of you is stressed over it. It did strike me as weird back when you were going through trying to breast-feed Lillian, that people were berating you over going to formula – the battle was the opposite when Joe was born, friends were asking why didn’t I take pills to dry up my milk and go to “easier, cleaner formula”, and you had to sneak off to the ladies room to breastfeed in public (no WONDER they thought formula was cleaner)! I think the problem is that a lot of people make all of life a competition . . . which makes them miss LIFE, IMO! While their are plenty of folks who will gladly take your money to give you advice, there are no “experts” on rearing YOUR child. Listen to and read advice, of course, but only if it’s delivered in a friendly, straight-forward manner – any time it comes across as “my way or doomsday”, walk away quickly!! You’re doing a great job with Lillian, and will no doubt do fine with the next!

    • Thanks for this comment. In all fairness, berating is probably too strong a word for anything I experienced — the reactions I got (in person at least) tended more towards assumptions that I was breastfeeding, and then pity upon learning that we had switched to formula (since I guess I did the socially acceptable thing by at least trying). But it’s frustrating that us moms should have to explain our feeding methods at all, or feel the need to justify why we’re formula feeding (or breastfeeding in your case, since the expectations do seem to vary considerably by time and location). Like you said, the biggest thing is that the baby does get fed, with the “how” being much less important. :)

  4. You sound like me except I didn’t buy one single bottle because I WAS going to breastfeed and I couldn’t understand why women would go for formula when they were perfectly capable of feeding their babies with their breast milk. ROFL. OH, I was foolish. From the start we had problems. On my daughter’s third day of life and breastfeeding was a living nightmare, I woke up early in the morning, went to Target with my mom and bough a few bottles. Not only was I relieved, but my baby swallowed that formula like there was no tomorrow. She was starving and I didn’t know it. Were exclusively formula fed from that day on. With my second baby, I did attempt BF again, but it didn’t work out and to be honest, didn’t try as hard as with my first because I knew formula was perfectly acceptable alternative and he would thrive on it just like my daughter did. My daughter is 8 and my son is almost 6. They are both extremely healthy, smart, loving and very confident children. They have immune systems of steel and I don’t remember them ever having a full blown cold or flu.

    • Thanks for sharing about your experiences, Vanessa — and your description of that first feed brings back memories of how hungrily our daughter gulped down her first bottle at the doctor’s office. I’m glad you were able to take a more laid-back approach to feeding with the second baby, and it’s great to hear from another mom whose kids are older and doing great after having thrived on formula! :)

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