Baby wars: breastfeeding versus formula

BreastfeedingThe latest update on Lottie’s sleep will come in a subsequent post. This is partly because I’m really hoping the phase of her only wanting to sleep during the day in my arms or on my front in a carrier is a phase; I’m planning to write about it once it has passed. I may be delusionally optimistic about how quickly she will stop being ‘out of sorts’ but where there’s optimism there is hope! Instead, this post is about breastfeeding.

I was compelled to write about breastfeeding after reading this article by Mia Freedman about why she felt guilty about giving up breastfeeding after a nightmare seven months of mastitis. Mia’s story struck a chord with me as I have noticed that breastfeeding advocates, whether they be nurses, midwives, lactation consultants, mother experts on online forums, or even well-meaning friends and family who decide your babies feeding habits are their greatest concern, can come across as quite militantly insistent that ‘breast is best’. We’ve all heard this slogan many times, along with an array of reasons why breast is best. I get it, there are certainly many good reasons to breastfeed, however I will not leave this sentence there as I will add – if you can. Because I am certain that the vast majority of women who feed their babies formula turn to formula because breastfeeding hasn’t for some reason worked out for them. They have mostly tried to breastfeed, and have decided, usually in consultation with their doctors, that formula is the better option for them to keep their baby healthy and thriving. So why would people make them feel guilty about this outcome?

There are many medical reasons why breastfeeding doesn’t work for some new mothers. I’ve already had mastitis once and it wasn’t pleasant. So I can empathize with Mia about why after seven months of illness she fed her daughter formula. Good on her for calling out the bullies who have made her feel bad for doing something to save her health and sanity and in turn the health of her child.

Isn’t it just so typical that there is a comment on this article from a lactation consultant who perhaps inadvertently layers on the guilt by congratulating Mia for breastfeeding two of her children, and expressing great sorrow for Mia that she couldn’t find the help she needed to keep breastfeeding her third child:

‘This is so sad! As a Lactation Consultant it makes me so cross that you were not helped. If you breastfeed one baby without issue then get mastitis with the second – there’s a reason why that can most likely be fixed. Probably a structural issue. It doesn’t sound like you saw an IBCLC – just phoned the ABA and read books and saw a GP? Most GPs have very little breastfeeding knowledge – it’s a women’s health issue that isn’t taken seriously… Breastfeeding is normal for babies and for women… It’s great that your breastfed two babies as long as you wished to, and I’m very sorry that you were not helped to find out the cause of your mastitis with your second. Just treating the symptoms like it’s something random and uncontrollable is negligent. You deserved better care.’

This comment implies that Mia didn’t try hard enough to keep breastfeeding, reinforcing the attitude that Mia’s decision to feed her child formula was a failure on Mia’s part. Because Mia didn’t try hard enough. I would even say this comment is ironic given this is exactly the type of attitude that Mia is criticising. The problem is, this type of comment is so common and makes women who can’t breastfeed feel terrible. It has to stop!

In my opinion it is surely much more caring and supportive of new mothers and the experts who supposably support us if we all agree that it’s definitely worth trying to breastfeed, but if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason no one should be made to feel guilty. This is yet another baby war battleground where people need to get down off their high horse, show some empathy and acknowledge that the mental health of a new mother will not be improved by telling them they’ve failed their child when judging their decision to use formula instead of breastfeeding.

Now I’ve had my rant I thought it might be useful to list some of the pros and cons of breastfeeding and formula so we can have a mature discussion about the practicalities of both feeding methods. Even though I’ve pointed out that this isn’t a ‘choice’ for most people, I think it’s still handy to have this information.

Breastfeeding pros

  • You always have your breasts with you and you can therefore within reason breastfeed anywhere.
  • It’s free.
  • It’s good for your baby (note the nutritional benefits last only to the age of one).
  • Breastfeeding is a good way to soothe a cranky baby.

Breastfeeding cons

  • You have to wear something every day which is easy to pop a breast out of.
  • Your boobs often leak which is icky and you have to wear breast pads if you don’t want to walk around with leak patches.
  • You often worry about your supply, particularly in the evenings when your baby sometimes doesn’t seem to be able to get enough to fill their belly.
  • If you want to leave your baby with someone and go out or go back to work you have to spend hours expressing milk and going through the rigmarole of sterilizing the pump and bottle and storing in expensive sterilized bags.
  • I am finding I am always sweaty and stinky because of breastfeeding and I’m permanently thirsty.
  • Your nipples hurt. A lot.

Formula pros

  • You know exactly how much volume of milk you have given your baby so you can be confident they have fed enough.
  • Formula is designed by scientists with babies’ nutrition in mind.
  • Formula is digested slower so generally this means more time between feeds and therefore your newborn baby should sleep for longer stretches than breast-fed babies – major plus at night!
  • You can drink alcohol as much as you like.
  • You can wear whatever you like.
  • Generally feeding with a bottle is quicker than breastfeeding, leaving you more awake time with your baby to play and interact.
  • Other people can feed your baby as often as you like without having to worry about your supply being lessened and needing to pump and dump to keep your supply up and to stop your breasts from being engorged.

Formula cons

  • You have to prepare the formula bottles which can make it hard to feed anywhere and everywhere unless you are very organised beforehand.
  • Formula is expensive.
  • If you prepare a bottle of milk and your baby decides they’re not hungry but actually just wanted a cuddle, you’ve wasted the bottle/effort to prepare the bottle.

Overall, as you can see there is a fair list of pros and cons for both methods and I’m sure there are more that I haven’t thought of. But the point is, there is absolutely no reason to feel guilty about choosing one option over the other. Let’s face it, when you look at a group of five-year-olds, no one can tell which were breastfed and which weren’t. Here is a funny take on this idea. For the record, my mum breastfed me and my twin sister for as long as she could but when it became clear she just couldn’t produce enough milk for the both of us, she switched to formula. I’m glad she did this as I clearly didn’t starve and turned out to be a pretty decent human being. But seriously, my sister and I are very rarely sick and when we were at school, never had sick days. In fact I think my first sick day was in year 11 when I had glandular fever, which wasn’t caused by me being fed formula as a baby, but came from kissing a boy. So let’s all just calm down and stop the guilt trips laden in the slogan ‘breast is best’. Seriously, if I hear one more person quote the World Health Organisation’s policy of encouraging exclusive breastfeeding until babies are six months old I will scream. The World Health Organisation isn’t concerned with first-world-Australian mums sticking with the breastfeeding. WHO’s recommendations are targeted at women in third-world countries who don’t have access to clean water for formula, nor the funds to pay for formula and therefore breastfeeding really is best in these circumstances. But in Australia, where we do have access to clean water and funds to buy formula when it is necessary to use it, we should use it and thank our lucky stars that our babies’ health isn’t compromised by breastfeeding problems.

In summary, I definitely believe there are enough benefits of breastfeeding that it’s worth trying to breastfeed when you have a baby. But if you can’t breastfeed and it’s causing health problems for you and/or your baby, you should be able to feed your baby formula without being made to feel guilty. As one helpful commenter on Mia’s article suggested, why don’t we change the slogan from ‘breast is best’ to ‘breast: do your best’. Sounds good to me!


2 thoughts on “Baby wars: breastfeeding versus formula

  1. Hi Vic
    Very well said. Breast feeding my girls wasn’t easy, especially with my first! I battled on for three months and then started formula, I didn’t feel like I could care properly for my little one and I became depressed, it still makes me a little upset to this day. Luckily I had supportive family around me and we’re happy and healthy – no regrets switching. There is too much pressure put on mums. If everyone is healthy, what’s the problem?

    My youngest needed to be held for day naps, then we rocked her to sleep until seven months – I don’t recommend it – my arms hurt from the repetitive action!! I found that patting and sshhhing worked wonders but if you want to enjoy the cuddles do it. xx


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