Breast vs. Bottle: Time to End the Debate?

Another 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 and is the debate editor for Brain, Child Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.