Breast feed or formula feed? It can be a sensitive and triggering debate for many Mums. If you follow me on social media, (if you don’t you should by the way! I’m on facebook and instagram) you’ll probably know that I am pretty passionate about breastfeeding. However, I’m also passionate about women’s choices and autonomy over their own body. Which is why I’ve written this blog post, to share my learning curve on the attitudes of infant feeding. But also because I feel there’s a lot of coverage of breastfeeding. There’s not so much on formula feeding (outside of big business marketing). Statistics show that more women bottle feed in the UK*, so why not talk about it more? *Exclusive breastfeeding at six weeks was 24% in England in 2010, as documented by UNICEF.
When I was pregnant for the first time back in 2015 I read up about breastfeeding, I attended a breastfeeding workshop, I knew all the benefits for me and my baby. There was no alternative method of feeding for me. I just knew that this is what I would be doing.
Breastfeeding came fairly easy to me and my newborn. So easy in fact that I fed him for over two years. Only stopping half way through my second pregnancy. Mainly due to my milk drying up, and feeling like it was a good time to wind down. So I found it confusing when I came across other Mother’s who didn’t choose to breastfeed. Sure, I understood those that couldn’t. They had tried, and it didn’t work out. They had my sympathy, and respect for giving it a go, often through challenging experiences.
What I couldn’t understand was those who never tried. The ones that packed formula and bottles in their hospital bag, and not just as a back up. Don’t get me wrong – I did not think less of them as a person or parent. I just genuinely didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t someone want what’s ‘best’ for their baby?
It was when I started teaching hypnobirthing in 2016, and meeting parent’s to be outside of my regular network that I finally started to get it and have some understanding. I started meeting pregnant people who had reasons I had not even considered or come across, my perspective widened. I learned that sometimes what’s ‘best’ for a mother and baby isn’t as clear cut as nutrition and health benefits.
One of those parents was my lovely client Mia, who I have asked to help with this blog piece. (It would be foolish of me to write a whole article on something I have not experienced first hand myself.) Mia has exclusively formula fed her baby Theo, who is now ?? months old. Below, Mia answers some of my questions about bottle feeding. I hope you find the answers enlightening.
What was your reason(s) for choosing to exclusively formula feed?
There were probably a few reasons. It wasn’t a decision I made immediately upon getting pregnant. For some reason people you’ve never met feel the need to ask you about whether you’re going to breastfeed or not! Which obviously got me thinking about it. I initially told people I would try my best to breastfeed. However, the more I imagined having to breastfeed, the less I wanted to. The alternative is obviously to formula feed.
My experience of pregnancy wasn’t the most positive. Because of this, I worried about bonding with my baby. I was also worried about having time to recover from the long, calm and serene labour I had planned! (Mia’s birth was a super fast un-planned homebirth, which you can read about here) I did some research and stumbled across an article/blog from a new mum who had given up breastfeeding. She had said something along the lines of “my body has done enough” and this really resonated with me. I felt that I had given enough of my body and my life to pregnancy and a baby, before he was even born. My other train of thought was that I wanted my partner to be able to feed Theodore. That he could be as involved as I was.
Was it something you discussed with your partner in advance? What were his thoughts?
I am incredibly lucky and Joe is very supportive. Initially i was nervous about broaching the subject, probably because of the pressure I had initially placed on myself to breastfeed. I told him how I was feeling, that I didn’t think I wanted to and his reply was that it was my body and my choice. He would support me whatever I decided.
I’ve heard of women being pressured by medical staff during pregnancy and birth to not formula feed. What was your experience of this?
Unfortunately, at the start of my pregnancy my first midwife was signed off sick long term. Then I saw a string of different midwives each with their own views and attitudes. One in particular did push me to say I would breastfeed and that it would be ‘right’ for my baby. She told me that they would help me in the hospital after labour and I wouldn’t leave until I was successfully feeding. Luckily for me, a young midwife was placed there to cover the clinic whom I got along with very well. I felt that she was always on my side. So when I said I thought I would formula feed, it wasn’t a problem.
I did have an additional midwife sit in on one of my last appointments who found me a colostrum harvesting kit at my request. I had read that this was an option from 38 weeks. Again, it was given to me with encouragement and guidance and no pressure. Which in the long run worked out amazingly. It meant that my husband could give Theodore the colostrum I had stored up for his first feed and share a really special moment together.
The best response I think I had was about 3 days after Theodore was born and the midwifery team were checking in on me. I had a text from the on call midwife to ask how I was doing, if my milk was in and if I needed any support in feeding. I replied that I had chosen to formula feed, and she sent such a lovely response with kind words. The message ended with ‘FED IS BEST. You do what is right for you as long as you’re both happy and healthy’.
I had felt a lot of societal pressure whilst pregnant, that it was the ‘right’ thing to do. That women who breastfeed are good (and better) mothers and bond with their babies far better than those who formula feed. I think I felt guilty that if I could breastfeed then I SHOULD. Even after Theodore was born, in public places I have had a few disapproving looks when I prepare Theo a bottle. But I don’t care really, he’s happy and thriving.
I’ve been to children’s centers for help on breastfeeding and there are plenty of facebook groups for support. Has it been easy to get help and advice on formula feeding (if needed)?
It was tricky! When pregnant the first thing I wanted to look into was the differences between formula, and which is closest to breast milk. There are so many types (it is a minefield!) I watched the BBC documentary too and found it all very overwhelming. Many midwives or professionals I asked were vague in their answers. They didn’t know or told me they were not allowed to be seen to be promoting formula feeding. I went in search of facebook groups and felt none the wiser. I tried to compare nutritional values but most are practically all the same. Eventually I settled on buying cow and gate. It seemed that many peoples formula fed babies had not encountered problems with this brand. There are no guidelines on formula feeding apart from whats on the box and as we know not all babies are the same. I was fortunate that after giving birth to have a good bunch of friends I had met in a group that I could ask questions and swap advice. But I also felt quite confident in making decisions for Theo. I knew I knew my baby better than anyone.
I have friends who have had issues with formula feeding and have struggled to receive any support at all. There are Breastfeeding support groups and even drop in sessions at centres but not general feeding groups. There’s not much signposting on where to access that support.
I did have some issues regarding bottles, I started on Tommee Tippee and poor Theodore struggled with these. He got really bad trapped wind, as he was sucking so much harder than he should have to. We tried bigger teats, variflow (again, you’re completely guessing because there isn’t anyone to ask) and after spending copious amounts of money on teats we settled on MAM bottles. This was after yet another night of googling for answers. Almost immediately he was more relaxed when feeding and he still uses them now.
Through breastfeeding I’ve felt a real sense of camaraderie with other Mums in the community. How has your experience of formula feeding compared?
It’s been a mixed bag. I have loved going to groups and spending time with other mums. I would say 99% of the time the way in which we had fed our babies hasn’t been a barrier to feeling we are in the same boat. Again, I am so fortunate that I went to a Post Natal course at my local Children’s centre. Theodore was only 5 weeks the first time I went. Even though the course was only 5 weeks long, I saw that group of women and their babies every week for the best part of a year. Now I have moved to the Midlands from the South East, but I speak to two of those mums every day, one breastfed and one bottle fed. Both had completely different experiences of feeding, labour and life but we are very similar in the way we parent. I think that has had more of an impact on the feeling of solidarity and friendship.
If you had a second baby, do you think you would formula feed again?
This one is a difficult question, I think I would consider breastfeeding but this again depends entirely on my pregnancy. As a sufferer of Hyperemesis Gravidarum, I was told that I have an 80% chance of being as sick as I was the first time around. This would mean I won’t be able to be the Mum and Wife I would like to be for the duration of my pregnancy. After which I may just want to be able to share my time as equally as I can between my newborn, Theodore and Joe. I know choosing to formula feed will allow me to do this.
I wish I had been offered the option to combination feed. Since having Theodore I met so many women who were offering both bottle and boob and it works for them. There is so little support and information on formula and combi feeding, unless you have a baby with a medical need.
When Theodore was around 6 weeks, we were doing skin to skin and he latched himself. (He has always been a HUNGRY boy). For a couple weeks following that, the last feed of the night I would let him breastfeed. But obviously in order to keep up a supply I would have to pump in the day and I HATED it. It didn’t suit me or my lifestyle. I know lots of women that loved being at home all the time with their babies, but I didn’t. Possibly because I hadn’t left the house in weeks before Theodore was born (due to Hyperemesis Gravidarum), I loved taking him out everywhere. Walking with him in the pram, I loved how people cooed at him. Bottle feeding really allowed me to get out and about. Formula feeding allowed me to recover and be the best mum I could be.
I hope you found this article interesting. The pros and cons of all of the different types of infant feeding can not be covered in one short blog post. My intention of this post is not to upset anyone, but to simply open up the conversation in what I hope is a supportive way.