Breast is best, but formula’s fine? Question mark?

So far, from the perspective of nearly eight months of parenting (does it count as sixteen if I have two babies?), it seems nothing divides us quite like the issue of breastmilk vs. formula feeding. Over and over again, on various parenting forums and e-mail lists to which I belong, the battle is waged, and over and over again I am bemused by the hostility. I think it’s sad that, as parents – and particularly as mothers – we feel so defensive about our choices and methods, especially when it comes to feeding our children. This is not to say I don’t understand why we’re so defensive – I certainly do, and as a breastfeeding, formula-supplementing mother of twins, I’m far from immune to those feelings.

Formula-feeding moms often feel bombarded by the “breast is best!” slogan, which is so ubiquitous that it even appears on cans of formula. They We feel judged and found wanting, and they we are not crazy for feeling that way. When I started carting Robin and Wren around in public, I was regularly asked by strangers, “so, are you nursing them?” I didn’t tell those people I was supplementing with formula; I simply said “yes,” and let it go, though this kind of interrogation felt aggressive and intrusive.

But why do people feel entitled to ask the question at all? It’s valuable to have some perspective on the history of feeding babies in this country.* Formula was created in the late 1800s, something close to what we have now was developed in the 1950s (at which time over 50% of babies were already being fed on evaporated milk formulas), and by the 1970s, over 75% of babies were fed on commercial formula, due to a variety of social pressures and successful marketing by formula companies. So the push for breastfeeding, not unlike the push for natural birth, is relatively recent, and is no doubt sometimes pushed hard because of the ingrained institutions and corporate interests it’s pushing against.

On the other side, there is a lack of real support for breastfeeding. Women regularly have to fight for their right to feed their babies in public, or for safe and sanitary lactation facilities at work. A woman at my office was surprised I was nursing at all, and made a horrified face when she found out I was planning to nurse for at least two years, saying “That’s too long!” A pediatrician condescendingly told me that he knew it was important to me to breastfeed, but . . . and left the implication hanging. Despite what seems to formula-feeding moms to be an overwhelming pro-breastfeeding message, as of 2003 only 36.2% of mothers were still nursing at all at six months.

It’s so incredibly hard to feel secure in our own choices as parents, because god knows it seems everybody and their dog on the street feels they could parent our children better than we can. There is extensive research that says breastmilk is best, but that doesn’t mean that formula is inherently damaging or that using it makes you a bad parent. In a perfect world, everyone would have the physiology and the support necessary to create a healthy breastfeeding relationship. In reality, the alternative shouldn’t be chronic guilt and defensiveness.

*I specify this country because the breastmilk/formula debate takes on whole other dimensions in less industrialized places.


20 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Mahala said,

    “I was regularly asked by strangers, “so, are you nursing them?”

    I think (now that I’m older, wiser and alot cockier than when my daughter was born) I would have just said, “Yeah, I feed them.”

    There’s something about being pregnant or being seen with an infant (or two) that makes perfect strangers think they have the right to be all up in your business.

  2. 2

    Mom said,

    Such questions are not confined to mothers. Grandmothers get them, too.

    It seems to me that we probably need to think about what babies mean in our society, beyond the obvious “new generation, hope for the future” kind of thing. We don’t live in communities where infants and their mothers are always or even commonly in our social frame. They stand out as special and become objects of intense interest. At the same time, people think that because they’ve had babies, or have read about babies, or once were babies, they know all about them. So everybody knows that breast is best. Or everybody knows that two year olds are too old to nurse. Or everybody knows that babies should be fed on schedule. Or on demand. Or whatever.

    And babies are rather anonymous. Unless they’re color coded, they lack gender.They’re confined to strollers and slings. They don’t talk much. Their parents may understand that they have distinct personalities and preferences, but the rest of the world does not. In short, they lack boundaries, and, by extension, it would seem, so do their caretakers.

    One last thought: given our society’s emphasis on individualism, autonomous and isolated nuclear families and inter-generational rupture, it seems that babies give us an exceptional avenue of connectedness, a way of transcending the separateness of modern life. In that light, I think that all these questions and opinions, annoying as they may be, may not be such a bad thing.

  3. 3

    akeeyu said,

    Did you know that I had to close comments on that post because it was picking up breastfeeding assvice like goatheads on socks? As a rule, I don’t delete comments, but I made an exception for that post.

    Your pediatrician is a dick. Heck, a whole bag of dicks.

    Also, I think that the intense pressure to breastfeed and the complete lack of legal/physical/financial support for breastfeeding is just one more misogynistic aspect of our country. “Here, we’ll hold this up as the only way to be A Good Mother…and then we’ll make it as hard as possible. Check it out, it makes ’em all confused and insecure. Makes ’em fight amongst themselves, too. It’s awesome!”

  4. 4

    esperanza said,

    There’s not such a distinct line between breastfeeding and formula, huh? I’m still pumping, going on 13 months now, but we’ve had to add formula to her bottles so she can get “extra” calories. She never did learn to breastfeed. Never did I imagine I’d still be pumping (as we speak, as a matter of fact–I did learn to multitask early on!).

    As a tangent, there was an interesting article in our newspaper a couple of weeks ago about a breastfeeding study done in two sister border cities (Brownsville, TX and Matamoros, Mex). Mexican women were more likely to be breastfeeding when they left the hospital than the American women. I was surprised. The stats that you cite, along with some others I’ve read, just don’t support the hype. I wonder if anyone has done a socio-economic class study with regards to breastfeeding? ‘Twould be interesting.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. 5

    Red Diabla said,

    Ever notice how DIFFICULT it is to do things that are good for you? Whether it’s having a decent place to breastfeed in public, buying fresh food in an economically depressed area, riding a bicycle to work in a city that doesn’t support much in the way of bike lanes, or going off the power grid, it ain’t easy. It should be, but it ain’t. Ah, the irony.

  6. 6

    geckogrrl said,

    Amen, Amen… I had to defend my choice to nurse (even though I only had a few ounces per feed) over and over again. We should just feel lucky that there is a choice, that if we have to supplement or turn to formula, it’s okay. And that if we are able to and choose to nurse it’s okay.

  7. 7

    MonkeyGurrl said,

    People will say stupid stuff no matter what. I don’t know the statistic, but I read (somewhere; maybe here?) that people make up their (respective) mind early on, and then spend the rest of the time justifying their decision. You just go on doing whatever you and Husband (but mostly you) think is right; the babes certainly are thriving. And parenting is inherently “shoulda/coulda/woulda”, so you might as well get used to it. 🙂

    [As a side-note, we have a new employee here that could *totally* be your fraternal twin (looks-wise), but she’s not very friendly. Makes me miss you even more.]

  8. 8

    Allison said,

    The formula haters really give breastfeeding a bad name and aren’t helping make it more accepted.

    I think your pediatrician should have kept his social judgments to himself. Unless he had some sound advice or studies that extended breastfeeding does some kind of damage to your children or you’re having problems as a result of it, there’s no need to say anything.

  9. 9

    from away said,

    I’m not getting why you feel compelled to answer strangers who are rude enough to ask how or what you’re feeding your kids. Maybe some people are just curious, but more are probably interested in finding something to judge. Not answering or telling them they’re being rude are really fine responses. Mothers and children aren’t public property, much as We act like they are. So why even get into those conversations?

  10. 10

    nod said,

    @esperanza, I can’t prove it, but I read about a study a few years ago that said that more educated and more financially secure people breastfeed, while less educated and poorer people use formula. I thought that was pretty ironic that the people who can least afford to buy formula were the ones more likely to use it.

    To be honest, just last night I was thinking about Wren and Robin and wondering if they were being breastfed, but mostly because I am having a hard time keeping up with my new daughter some days, and I was wondering how someone with twins does it. Expecially on those growth spurt weeks. Sorry if that makes me a bad person.

  11. 11

    Pam said,

    Ahh the constant breast feeding debates I hear at work…basically do what works for you. Pretty much the only thing to do is to make sure you are picking up on the cues from your munchkins and from yourself that it’s time to stop. You’ll know when the time is right. The only advice I think makes sense is that if your child can feed themselves and is verbal enough to request milk (like around age 2 1/2-3), it’s time for them to feed themselves to give them a better sense of agency.
    In the end though, it’s up to you. Having spent about 75 hours now with moms and babies, it stinks to have everyone butting their heads into your business when all you want is someone to hang out, listen, and let you take a nap.

  12. 12

    uccellina said,


    It totally doesn’t make you a bad person, and I think it’s totally normal to wonder in the context of your own nursing experience. Also, this blog is an open conversation about my life and my thoughts, so questions are appropriate here. It’s the grocery store and the bank where I am caught off guard.


    Children do not have to stop nursing in order to feed themselves. I know several extended nursers who do not lack for agency in any way 🙂

  13. 13

    Nora said,

    It’s interesting to me that women have more choices today in so many ways and yet so often feel more pressure, no matter what they do. There is a commercial about breastfeeding showing pregnant women running on top of a rolling log in the middle of a river, basically saying that choosing to bottle feed is equivalent to such activity. I find that an unnecessary and hurtful manner in which to promote breastfeeding. There is such a war on women in America– the older I get, the more clear it is to me– and many times it’s propagated by women themselves. Making the best choices we can for our children is one of the most basic and challenging aspects of parenthood, and we would do better to support and re-assure each other as we each do the best we can in finding what works in our particular circumstances.

    I have a friend who planned to breastfeed, who got an infection and was sent back to the hospital a few days after her daughter was born. Amidst the trauma of being away from her daughter and dealing with a serious health matter, she suddenly had to deal with the fact that not only wasn’t she getting to breastfeed but she wasn’t getting to be the one FEEDING her kid at all for a little while. Exhausted and recovering, when she returned from the hospital she decided not to change up her daughter’s life all over again and continued with the bottle feeding.

    While I am strongly considering breastfeeding if I have children one day, my sister’s learning curve on the whole baby business was so huge, and her relative isolation so deep, that I honestly believe that breastfeeding was too much for her to take on at that moment. For her I’d say it was the most RESPONSIBLE choice she could have made.
    In other areas my sister has drifted from more “conservative” practices– she’s wary of certain vaccinations and has refused some for the moment, and until recently BestNieceEver shared her parents’ bed. (I think the decision to move her into a crib was not because it wasn’t ‘working’ in theory, but more that my favorite toddler started clocking them in the head with a remote control to wake them up each morning.) She does things which I think are silly– like insisting that the formula be mixed with bottled water– but I rejoice in knowing she is really thinking about what’s best for her kid and is willing to stand by what feels right for her.

    It bothers me that among all the mothers I speak with on a regular basis, both “seasoned” and relatively new at parenting, seem so often to be burdened with the concern of whether and how they’re going to screw up their kid, let them down, do the wrong thing. I wish I could take that burden away. They’d enjoy their kids a lot more, not to mention feel a whole lot better about themselves.

  14. 14

    Oh and I meant to say, that’s great! You’re a fab momma. Do what works for you. xo

  15. 15

    julie said,

    I’m still nursing my 3.5 year old. Admittedly, he’s down to 1-2 times a day. Yes, I’m a proponent of child-led weaning. It works for us. Having said that, I’ll chime in with another do what works for your family, and try to let go of the guilt. Parenting is so much more fun when you’ve got a positive outlook. And it would be even better if everyone were more supportive/respectful of the choices we make.

  16. 16

    KS said,

    I am trying so hard to walk away from this…sigh…and yet, I am who I am. 😉

    “There is extensive research that says breastmilk is best, but that doesn’t mean that formula is inherently damaging or that using it makes you a bad parent. In a perfect world, everyone would have the physiology and the support necessary to create a healthy breastfeeding relationship. In reality, the alternative shouldn’t be chronic guilt and defensiveness.”

    I am quoting your last paragraph because I think you really hit the nail on the head here, especially the last sentence. However, I think that it’s important to find a way to support individual women in their choices, while at the same time speaking the truth about the many issues surrounding the breast/bottle choice. I would definitely describe myself as pro-breastfeeding, and I will do anything I can to help any woman who wants to nurse, but I also (hope that I) have been completely supportive of you, Uccellina, in the many different and sometimes difficult choices you have had to make in the past two years.

    Mom, I loved your comment, especially the last two paragraphs. I will often ask parents questions I don’t care about or don’t agree with (for instance, asking parents if they know the sex even though I don’t think routine ultrasounds are necessary) because I just love babies and I like talking about them with their parents. So a lot of times I think the questions we get asked aren’t loaded at all, and it’s our own unresolved issues that make us feel judged.

    Allison, why you gotta hate on the formula haters all the time? Sure, there are some radicals out there who say offensive things. There are also people who call them boob-nazis, which ain’t doin much for your side, sister!

    Nora, I think the reason those commercials exist is to counter the sheer volume of formula advertising. In this day and age of constant stimulation, it takes shocking images to get people’s attention, especially on television. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with your conclusion that it’s hurtful and unnecessary (I haven’t seen the commercial, and I am definitely biased towards more pro-breastfeeding media), but I do think there are good reasons for going for shock value.

    I have noticed in these discussions that the ones that stay polite always have stories of people who couldn’t nurse for one reason or another, people who were formula fed and turned out fine, and an agreed conclusion that everyone should support each other’s choices. So my question is, how do we support individual women in their choices while still disseminating correct (and important) information about breastfeeding, and how much should we be responsible for our own reactions to that information? I have had people be incredible opposed to my extended nursing, co-sleeping, and vaccinations, and while I might be upset by the specifics of their reactions, it doesn’t make me feel bad about my choices. Even choices that I am ambivalent about I try to own. So my hope is that when we talk about why nursing is important, that those women who choose not to (or not exclusively, since as esperanza pointed out it is quite a gray area) can say for themselves “I made the best choice for me” without undue angst.

    In re-reading the posts just now, I also noticed that most of us here have very young children (Mom excepted) or none at all. I know that the older my kids get (my oldest is 6 1/2), the less I care about what people think or what other people choose to do. I suspect that for people who are struggling with the feelings that accompany such a loaded parenting choice as infant feeding in our American society, it will seem pretty unimportant in about 2-5 years.

  17. 17

    […] 3, 2008 · Filed under Everything Else KS wrote in comments below: So my question is, how do we support individual women in their choices while still disseminating […]

  18. 18

    Annika said,

    Pam, your comment doesn’t make any sense to me. Being able to ask for something means you shouldn’t have it? Really? I don’t think that’s what you meant, but it’s what your way would really boil down to. Maybe this is just the very defensiveness that’s being discussed, but my two and a half year old asks to nurse frequently and also asks for food and drink, depending on what he wants. Likewise I asked my husband to make me an omelet yesterday. By your reasoning, I should have made it myself. Again, I don’t believe that’s what you mean. Is it?

  19. 19

    Pam said,

    Hey Annika!
    To clarify what I meant, I just started learning more about infant development and was reading that it’s positive for toddlers to feed themselves in order to develop a greater sense of independence and trust. I believe what the article meant was that it’s important for them to be able to use their utensils and fingers for food and to be able to ask for more when they are still hungry and to inform when they are full. By dictating what they can eat and when, toddlers supposedly learn more about their own bodies and desires and how to articulate them. The article also specified that by the time toddlers are eating solid foods and feeding themselves, it’s not necessary for them to breastfeed for nutritional reasons and thus the breast-feeding is seen as more of an attachment behavior. The article also dealt with sibling relations, so it’s entirely possible that they were in fact writing about the phenomenon of regression where the older sibling wants to breastfeed when the younger sibling is breastfeeding.
    In addition, I think the article definitely had the underlying message of Western culture where mothers don’t “need” to breastfeed their children past a certain age because there are nutritional foods available to sustain them. There was also the idea of fostering a healthy separation based on a secure attachment, which relates a lot to object relations theory. Following that model, breast-feeding would appear to signal that the older child perhaps has not fully internalized the secure attachment object (the mom) and thus needs to use the same behaviors as they did earlier to affirm their attachment. This is not necessarily a bad thing but the behavior looks different when viewed through that filter.
    In conclusion, I think the parents and child should do whatever works best for them. I think that within our culture, it’s a great idea for parents to help their older toddlers get comfortable with different foods and with the idea what breast milk (and mom) won’t always be available all the time because soon, those toddlers will likely be going to pre-school. I’ve noticed that even within my mommy and me groups where there are 1 1/2 and almost 2 year olds who are still breast-feeding at home, none of them want to breast feed at group (ie they never request it) and are far more interested in eating and watching each other eat at snack time. Food becomes a very important part of socialization and it’s awesome when the kids are already familiar with a routine.
    Wow, that was a long explanation but I hope it made more sense!
    Your sleep-deprived psych intern,

  20. 20

    Sweet Pea said,

    Let me start off by saying Way to Go for breastfeeding your twins for 8 months. I Breastfed mine for 7 months and because I went back to work when they were 9 weeks old I pumped three times and day and my goal was 6 months. Now I formula feed them and I do not have one single once of feeling guilty about it at all.

    I agree each family has to do what is right for them, but I do commend you for bfing your twins because I know how hard and at the same time rewarding it is. Congrats!

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