Breast vs. Bottle: Time to End the Debate?

shutterstock_259712723Another day, another heated discussion on Facebook about breastfeeding. This one in response to a somewhat provocatively titled New York Times article, “Overselling Breastfeeding,” by Courtney Jung.

Like Jung, I’ve spent years of my life breastfeeding. I’ve cried tears of pain because it hurt so damn much, tears of anguish because all I wanted to do was roll over and sleep when the baby was demanding to be fed yet again. And I’ve been absolutely high on the beauty and power of sustaining life from an elixir of my own making. In other words, my experience with breastfeeding has run the gamut and, in hindsight, I can say with confidence that my decision to feed my children in this way was, on balance, the best one for me.

Ah, but there’s that pesky word: best. The albatross around the breast-versus-bottle debate’s neck, the thorn in its side. For as soon as you introduce a superlative into a conversation about parenting—particularly a superlative with no qualifier, a la “breast is best”—in rushes Obligation and her trusted handmaiden, Guilt, following swiftly in its wake.

Now, I am very prepared to say that breast milk is a better food than formula, in that it is perfectly tailored to a growing baby and has properties that we haven’t been, and might never be, able to replicate in a synthetic product. And yet, semantically and conceptually speaking, “better” doesn’t always equal “best.” Nor is the internal quality of the milk given—and the hypothetical outcomes it might generate as a result—the only factor in the equation of baby’s overarching happiness or health. Especially when, as we are fully aware by this stage, a mother’s well-being and her baby’s are intricately entwined. Such is old news.

What’s newer, and this is a focal point of Jung’s essay, is that breast milk isn’t quite as superior to formula as we once thought. Babies who are formula-fed grow into adults who can be smart and healthy and, according to the latest research, rather indistinguishable from their breastfed counterparts. What we have now, it would seem, are simply two good feeding options available for infants.

Acknowledging, however, that breastfeeding and bottle-feeding are both “good,” shaking ourselves loose from the hierarchical language we are so used to employing when we talk about infant feeding, has consequences. It means that, as with many choices between incommensurable alternatives, in opting for one, you will in all likelihood miss out on something the other affords, without recourse to the reassurance that the decision was objectively “best” overall. Breastfeeding mothers, for example, will miss out on the variety of freedoms they always have—the ability to leave the baby for a long stretch or to sleep through the night—but this time without being able to say, well, it was best for my child, even if I was unhappy doing it.

In this vein, it is revealing that breastfeeding mothers and advocates alike tend to interpret articles that seek to challenge or contextualize the data surrounding the proven benefits of nursing as vilifying the practice itself. The uproar raises an interesting question: What do we actually lose as breastfeeding mothers once the idea that it is unambiguously best is taken away? Perhaps, for at least some of us, what we lose is the rationale for driving ourselves so crazy in order to achieve it. Because any way you slice it, breastfeeding involves a unique set of personal sacrifices. And it is human nature to want to justify sacrifice in the face of a comparable alternative.

But being a slightly better food for baby—more easily digestible, yielding a reduced risk of infection—is not the only reason to choose to breastfeed. Breastfeeding can be wonderful for all sorts of reasons. For bonding, for practicality’s sake, for the financials. The continued push to lionize its longer-term effects on a child, despite increasing evidence that suggests otherwise, becomes especially problematic for new moms who are looking to make a genuine choice about infant feeding: a choice that is not pre-loaded with cultural pressure about what is in her baby’s best interest (and, by extension, what constitutes a “good” mother), but one that allows her to take into consideration the whole picture, including her own wants and needs.

For women who do in fact prefer to breastfeed, there is no doubt that adequate support is important. I live in the U.K., a country with good postpartum care, free access to lactation consultants, and hospital-run breastfeeding groups, all of which I benefitted from. So, too, accurate information is vital. Giving formula in the early days can, and often does, interfere with milk production. But deciding to avoid formula early on so as to establish milk supply is an entirely different beast from deciding formula feeding, or some kind of combination feeding, might be the most viable option for you moving forward. Advice about the former should not cloud advice about the latter.

New mothers are a notoriously vulnerable group, what with the hormones and the flash flood of anxiety that accompanies the responsibility of bringing home a tiny human to raise. Tell a new mother that X is the unadulterated best thing for that tiny human, with the implication that Y is a dingy second string, and she will feel crushed to the core if she can’t provide it for her baby. That is not a healthy context for decision-making.

Choose breastfeeding because of how nice it can feel to curl up with a warm creature latched onto your very own flesh or because you don’t want constantly to wash and sterilize bottles or because you love the concept of being the only person in the world capable of nourishing your baby. But, if it isn’t working for you, don’t choose to keep going out of guilt or obligation. Given that there is now little evidence to indicate breast milk has talismanic power “to ward off evil and disease,” as Jung puts it, new mothers are finally in a position to make a true decision about what’s best—for their child and for themselves.

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Lauren Apfel is a writer and mother of four (including twins). She blogs at omnimom.net and is the debate editor for Brain, Child Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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    Comments

    1. This is an exceptionally insightful, quiet-yet-powerful piece – proof that sensationalist, absolutist types should not be monopolizing the conversation. Thank you for taking the time to write it, and express what so many of us are thinking.

      This ‘debate’ helps no one. All it does it create a false dichotomy of us vs them, good vs bad. Our society villanizes food, and formula is no exception (actually, maybe the most obvious example!). The problem is, breastmilk and breastfeeding are 2 separate things – one is a foodstuff, one is an act requiring two willing participants. No other food carries this double burden. It’s not like feeding your kids broccoli. The choices one makes about infant feeding are not always choices at all, and even when they ARE choices, those choices are usually made under duress.

      All this is to say – these are complicated issues, which we’ve mistakenly trivialized. Thanks to articles like this, though, I hope we can finally elevate the conversation.

    2. If I could thank you for this 1000 times, I would. I so desperately wanted to breastfeed, and when it wasn’t working out, not only did I feel life my body was failing me, I actually got bullied by a lactation consultant in the “baby friendly” hospital I delivered at. She actually admonished me because my milk hadn’t come in by day 3. My baby was preterm, her weight was rapidly plummeting to the “danger zone,” I was recovering from an unplanned c-section, and I was incredibly vulnerable. I turned to the Internet for support and there was no shortage of people claiming everyone could breastfeed, I just needdd to try harder, formula was “junk” that would leave my baby sick, and cause her to have a low IQ.

      After being discharged from the hospital, I kept trying, despite my husband insisting that we give her formula because she was hungry, I was a mess, and I needed to let him be a dad. Weeks later, I saw a decent lactation consultant who enlightened me to the fact that I had multiple rusk factors for being unable to breastfeed, and she didn’t think anything was going to help us. She applauded us for trying, but told me that my baby was hungry, and formula was fine. I bawled when we went to the store to pick up some formula, still feeling like a horrible failure.

      Four months later, my little girl is gaining weight, healthy, meeting her milestones, and developing like a normal baby. I am finally healing, as well. I think it is so wonderful when a woman wants to breastfeed and can, but I wish I had just given her formula in those early days, instead of driving myself straight into PPD because I was so convinced that “breast is best.” I missed out on some wonderful moments because I was tied to a breast pump.

      I also think that here, in the US, we have to do a better job of including a “what if I can’t beastfeed” part in prenatal care. I had no idea what my options were, or that I even had issues that increased my risk for being unable to breastfeed.

    3. Great article. It’s getting really old listening to the breast feeding mafia put more pressure on new moms. Feminism is about supporting women making choices that’s best for them and body autonomy. Telling women that they are not good mothers if they choose not to or cannot breastfeed is rediculous. First and foremost whatever a woman chooses is no one else’s damn business. Her reason for not breastfeeding could be pure vanity. Still none of anyone’s business. There is a million reasons to breastfeed and a million reasons not to. All are valid. The incredible pressure to only choose correctly sets up women to feel guilt and have unrealistic expectations of motherhood.
      One major benefit to using formula is to continue to have an egalitarian partnership with a male partner so many of us worked so hard to have. Having a child see mom and dad equally is important to some people as is sharing childcare duties.

    4. Good lord the comments and tone on the fb post of this article is terrible.

    5. This is well-thought out and sensible. Breastfeeding can have numerous benefits, but so can formula. They both come with costs. Which benefits and which costs make sense for you the individual will vary. Those of us in the first world are exceptionally lucky that we have a second safe option at all.

    6. Julie Thaxter-Gourlay says:

      I find it sad that Ms Magazine is not immune to exploiting the Mommy Wars to generate ad revenue. This is how they block equality, you know. If we are too busy fighting each other we can’t fight for equality together. Shaking my feminist head.

      • THANK YOU!! Why would Ms. Magazine write an article on such an important women’s issue in a way in which makes women divided? To get attention, views and revenue? Sure, lets talk about motherhood.

        But let’s talk about the systemic issues that cause such judgement of mothers. Let’s have discussion about how women are still held to the 1950’s standard that women make the best caretakers. Lets talk about how women are often forced to stay home because daycare costs are astronomical and women make 77 cents to a mans dollar. Lets talk about how even when mom and dad work, women do the vast majority of domestic duties. Let’s talk about how employers regularly break the law by disallowing women to pump breastmilk for their babies. Let’s talk about how women are not trusted to make choices about their bodies (both for abortions and in choosing to FF or BF). Let’s talk about how healthcare professionals regularly undermine how women choose to give birth.

        But to resort to trashy tactics like pitting moms against each other? Thats not helping the feminist cause.

      • How does this article encourage dividing women? It seems super-uniting to me.

    7. Thank you for this article! Every mother is a good mother no matter how they feed their child. I am a mom who can’t breastfeed I don’t have the ability to do it due to medical issues and I have felt really really bullied by people.

    8. I enjoyed your article. Finally a discussion that is tempered with reason and is nonjudgmental about the baby feeding choices of moms. Women should not have to feel guilty if they do not breastfeed just like they should not feel guilty if they have a c-section rather than a vaginal delivery. Women are very hard on themselves and do not need others to be critical of their choice to breast feed or bottle feed their child.

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