Let’s stop demonising formula

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Let me preface this by saying I have both breast and formula fed and both methods have their benefits and drawbacks.

My first was exclusively formula fed from a few days old after a tongue tie and failure to latch left her losing scary amounts of weight and jaundiced. My second was mixed fed due to under-supply for the about 3-4 months. In hindsight, I could have stopped the top ups before I did- but I didn’t realise that at the time. Just another part of infant feeding where there isn’t much consistent advice or support.

When I was comp feeding with formula, I looked in to donor milk. A bottle of donor milk that had been pasteurised through a milk bank was going to cost me $8. It would have worked out costing in excess of $50 per week. I could claim part of that back through the tax system at the end of the financial year, but that doesn’t help much when living or a reduced maternity leave income. My other option was informal milk sharing through the HM4HB sites. In theory, I thought this could be a viable option- if I could find a local trustworthy regular donor- but something in me was not just not 100% comfortable with the idea. So we decided to use formula and *anecdotal evidence alert* my daughters are both healthy and happy children.

The breast vs. bottle debate is just one battle being waged in the infamous “mummy wars” (I refuse to dignify that with capital letters) and I really think it needs to stop. I personally support babies being FED. If you breastfeed- fantastic. If you bottle feed with expressed or donor milk- fantastic. If you use a commercially produced formula- fantastic. Your baby is being fed an appropriate type of milk, well done you!

I’ve written and spoken a lot about breastfeeding discrimination. It is still alive and well and I think my views on it are clear- it’s unacceptable and illegal. Formula feeding discrimination- does that exist? I’m not sure discrimination is the right word. I haven’t read or heard about formula feeding parents being asked to leave cafes, but the condemnation some have received for formula feeding is pretty appalling, all the same.

I do think that if there was better, more consistent support and education available for mothers with regard to breastfeeding, more women would breastfeed and/or breastfeed longer. However, even if this existed across the board, some women would still opt for formula. There are a myriad of reasons. Some mothers need medications that are incompatible with breastfeeding, some have personal or psychological issues (for example-past abuse) that mean they opt to formula feed, some find breastfeeding to be full of obstacles and just too difficult to continue, some just really don’t like breastfeeding. Exclusive pumping is a happy middle ground for some people but it’s not a viable option for everyone. I can’t express a full feed to save myself. My body just doesn’t respond to pumping and I’m far from the only one out there. Even if it did, pumping full time is very demanding and not always practical and comes with its own set of difficulties.

It comes down, also, to bodily autonomy. A woman should not be coerced or pressured to breastfeed against her will. It is ultimately her body, her baby and her choice. What she should be is educated and supported to decide how she will feed her child.

Whatever reason a person has for feeding their baby one way or the other, shaming them for their choices or requirements is counterproductive. Lecturing someone for formula feeding will not inspire them to re-lactate and breastfeed. Criticising a breastfeeding mother should not be a factor in her decision to wean (though it sometimes is, which is a terrible shame).

You might have some really firm beliefs about why it’s better to breast feed. I’m cool with that. Breastfeed away. Similarly, you might have firm beliefs in favour of bottle and formula feeding. I’m cool with that too. Bottle feed away. There is every chance that someone out there will disagree with you. And that is okay too. What is NOT okay is trying to force those beliefs on another person. Especially when your argument is designed to shame and denigrate the mother for her feeding choices.

I know several women who have been approached in public by strangers and criticised for feeding their children.

One friend was publicly abused for giving her baby a bottle of expressed milk when the stranger assumed it was formula.

A member of my mothers group was chatting to another mother at her local pool when she was roundly criticised for using disposable nappies and then questioned as to why the 15 month old was bottle fed. This stranger dismissed the medical reasons behind the mother’s decision to formula feed as “rubbish” and reduced her to tears.

This demonstrates a really skewed perspective. What does criticising a formula feeding mother achieve? Does it inspire her to ditch bottles and try breastfeeding again? No. Does it inspire her to want to breastfeed future babies? I doubt it- who’d want to join the ranks of the breastfeeding tyrant brigade? Will it rectify any problems she had breastfeeding or help her overcome the obstacles that may have stopped her in the first place? Of course it won’t. As far as I can tell, all it does do is give an aggressive person a misplaced sense of superiority. When you see a stranger bottle feeding a child, you have no way of knowing what is in that bottle or why that mother, father or caregiver is feeding a child a bottle. And you don’t NEED to know. The baby is being fed, that’s great, be happy that they aren’t starving and move on.

Sometimes the criticism comes from friends or family and again, even if it is your sister or your best friend in the whole world- your criticism WILL NOT HELP. Supportive comments, offering to be there for them, offering practical assistance and letting them know they can come to you for advice if they want to- these are the things that help. It’s okay to offer to lend a breastfeeding book or to offer to send a link to helpful resources to someone who is having troubles with it- it’s not ok to do these things unsolicited to someone who has chosen to formula feed because it smacks of judgement and will not help. All it does do is create or add to the guilt they may already be feeling and feelings of guilt or shame can definitely contribute to depression and post-natal depression.

I think most people know that breast milk is the optimal food for babies. However, milk banks in Australia can be prohibitively expensive and difficult to access for many families and many people are uncomfortable using informal milk sharing as the milk isn’t screened and pasteurised. So formula is the next logical step- it’s easy to access, it must meet certain standards, it’s affordable and it is designed to meet the nutritional needs of infants. It’s not a live food like breast milk and doesn’t contain the antibodies and enzymes that breast milk does, true. It’s not the same thing. But it IS food for babies that aren’t breastfed, and that is no small thing.

Feeding is just one aspect of parenting. Parents that formula feed still love their children, still nurture them, care for them, clothe, house and educate them. Isn’t that the important stuff?

I believe we should advocate for breastfeeding education and support mothers in breastfeeding but I do not believe treating mothers who cannot or do not breastfeed like crap is an effective way to encourage or promote breastfeeding. No more judging, stop the assumptions, forget the snide remarks. As  a breastfeeding mum I don’t like copping any of that and I wasn’t fond of it as a formula feeding mum either, so here’s an idea- why not all just be supportive of each other? A little understanding, empathy and acceptance goes a long way.

Exclusive Pumping info:

http://kellymom.com/bf/pumpingmoms/pumping/exclusive-pumping/

Bottle Feeding Support:

http://www.fearlessformulafeeder.com/

http://www.bottlebabies.org/

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