Fed is best
Up there with the amount of time new mums spend talking about sleep is the also common, and somewhat associated subject; feeding.
I entirely agree that back in the 1970s, the formula companies were in the wrong and were pushing for profit over health; benefitting from selling it to parents who didn’t need it.
However, I also wonder if we’ve gone too far with the “breast is best” diatribe and it’s affecting maternal mental health.
This is in no ways an anti-breastfeeding post; I am instead wanting to balance the thinking.
We see too often mothers who are at their wits’ end or have had their ability to bond with their babies compromised.
They’ve been so obsessed with breastfeeding at whatever cost, that they look back on the first six months of their babies lives as a battle, riddled with anxiety and guilt.
“Fed is best” has gained in popularity to counter this, and can help us to bring some healthy balance back.
In the Western world, where we have access to clean water, formula need not be viewed as subpar; it is merely an alternative food source. However, that’s still not the prevailing opinion…
Mums matter too..
I saw a mum recently for a home consult for her 9 month old. As it often does, the conversation strayed towards this mother’s mental health. She had suffered terribly from depression before having her baby and was experiencing postnatal depression presently. Her doctor was urging her to go back on the medication that she needed, but it was one that wasn’t safe to take while breastfeeding.
This mum was struggling to get her head around the idea and didn’t want to quit breastfeeding for the sake of the medication, despite it being what she needed to thrive. Unfortunately, this mother who knew that she was not well, was being forced to make a decision. Not only was she struggling to look at it objectively, she was honest about feeling the weight of other people’s opinions. She knew she needed to do this, for her health, but was confronted by a real barrier around “quitting”.
Unfortunately, this struggle is not uncommon…
A mental shift
One family that I went to see recently had a baby who was suffering from milk intolerances and struggling to breastfeed. This mother was full-time expressing, while also trying to get her baby back on the breast, and spending any remaining time trying to settle him to sleep. She was so stretched! What’s more, she was also suffering from post-natal depression and anxiety.
However, this client was really struggling to get her head around the idea of topping up with formula. We talked through all of the options – gently reminding her that her own well-being mattered too – and she eventually decided to persevere with feeding her son at the breast and utilize formula for top ups. Being able to take a few minutes to eat or rest when she did manage to get her son down to sleep, now that she was no longer spending all day on the pump, made a huge difference to her well-being.
My own experience
Soon after my third child was born, he was diagnosed with a posterior tongue tie. Our feeding had been derailed and I had taken to pumping and bottle-feeding him – a decision that I maintained, even after his tongue tie was addressed. Lactation consultants urged me to try to relatch him to the breast following his procedure, but I believed it would be too stressful for me to do that and I was happy to continue with what I was doing.
Understanding that ‘fed is best’ and that what mattered, above all, was that both him and I were happy, I made a decision that I believe was right for me and my mental health. My son was a good sleeper and my supply was good, so I was able to pump easily while he slept; it worked for us. I can, of course, appreciate that this approach isn’t for everyone though. There are different courses of action that are best for each and every situation – the common element being that, in all cases, we’re ensuring the baby is fed.
It’s not all or nothing
Obviously, I talk to lots of parents every day, and many of them have babies under six months of age – a time when feeding is very intrinsically linked to sleep. We often ask to look at a baby’s growth chart and can quickly see the ones where quantity of milk may be influencing their sleep. Unfortunately these babies are not ready for solids, as they’re still too little, but very few parents have ever had it suggested that they might offer one extra formula top up to help fill their babies tummies.
I’m in no way suggesting here that a formula bottle is a magical sleep cure – that’s simply not the case – but what I’m calling for is a mindset shift. Sometimes it can be the thing that breaks the cycle and gets you back on even footing, enabling your baby to fill their tummy for a good, solid sleep. After a good sleep, most babies feed better, as they are not too tired to drain the breast.
What’s important to remember is that it’s not all or nothing. There really are only three options; your baby is either breastfed, mixed fed, or formula fed – and all of them are OK.
Unfortunately, mindset shifts are slow in coming – and I predict we will still be having some of these conversations with mums for some time. However, we can all start thinking more about the way we conduct our conversations around feeding our babies, to help with the much-needed shift.
One of the terms that I think absolutely needs to go is “exclusively breastfed”, as it’s only working to perpetuate the problems. As it stands, the word exclusive implies something special and unique. It also signals that you’ve opted for something to the exclusion of something less favourable. Not to mention how it makes other women, who may have struggled with feeding, or had to make a decision to use formula – for whatever reason – feel.
It may appear that I am being sensitive, but consider this quote that I think sums it up best:
“Words reflect and influence our attitudes and behaviours in ways we are not always conscious of; they convey layers of meaning, and subtly – or not so subtly – define the power balance in conversations and relationships.”
There has been a shift, in the world of midwifery, around words and phrases that should and shouldn’t be used. “Normal birth” has been replaced with the term “physiological birth” to reflect the fact that anything other than a narrow percentage of experiences are not ‘abnormal’. Similarly, “failure to progress” is now referred to only as “slow labour”. After all, no labouring woman wants to hear they are failing at anything at that point!
I believe that “exclusively breastfed” should be similarly dismissed. I’ve said it before, all babies are simply either breastfed, mixed fed, or formula fed – it needn’t be more loaded than that. For all our sakes.
Tell me abut your breastfeeding or formula feeding or mixed feeding experience in the comments, we love to hear your stories.
Quite liked reading your Fed is best article. Thanks for sharing. I had fierce trouble with breastfeeding when my first was born in 2015. My milk took ages to ‘come in’ which I knew nothing about prior to birth. Latching was an issue and trying to get my son to feed on both breasts comfortably was hard going. The pressure of breastfeeding back then was enormous. I just wanted my son to have a full belly and I did feel like I was cheating when he received a bottle with formula or breastmilk as top ups. I knew my mental state was not good and seeked additional support. Public service was too slow so I went private for my own sake as I knew the signs of depression. He was not a sleeper which was exhausting. Started to sleep thru (thanks to your team) at nearly 3yrs.
My daughter born in 2017 took to the breast well and I happily fed her on the breast until 8mths. I was happy. She was happy. Transitioning to a bottle was difficult however we got there in the end.
I am now overdue with my 3rd and not apprehensive about breastfeeding this time around. I’ll give it a go and should abottle be required, I don’t feel like a bad mum for doing so. Finally believe that happy mum is needed and that it is absolutely okay to have me time.
Admittedly the push of breast is best had been embedded in me and thank god I changed my belief to Fed is best as I know if I had shared my initial belief I would have hurt a close friend of mine who needed mum support not criticism.
Thanks again for sharing.
I feel quite passionate about this topic, so thought it worth sharing my thoughts. Firstly, I’m going to say that I TOTALLY agree with what you’re saying, that ultimately the only thing that matters is that a baby’s fed. How that happens and whether it’s breastmilk, formula, or a combination of both, is irrelevant. I can only hope that in time there is less stigma around not breastfeeding. I had a very difficult journey with breastfeeding. My daughter had both a lip and tongue tie, and even after we’d had them “cut”, it took some time for her to learn how to latch and feed well. And that’s the key…babies have to learn how to feed; it actually doesn’t come that naturally. And Mum’s have to learn how to help them. My milk supply was also a bit rubbish and I didn’t have a great breast pump in the early days to help promote my supply, so it was quite a battle for me. My baby seemed to be constantly hungry and I’d spend several hours going through the feeding settling cycle. And then she’d sleep 5 – 7 hours. In hindsight I shouldn’t have let her sleep that long (I don’t think), but rather tried to feed more regularly, which (again, I think) would’ve helped my supply. Anyway, lots of lessons learned for me. In the end my hubby insisted we get formula to top her up, and honestly, I felt like the worst Mum in the world standing in the supermarket aisle trying to work out which formula I should buy. However, it was the BEST decision we could’ve made. Our girl took to the bottle easily, and while I’d start with a boob feed, she’d then have a bottle, and was satisfied! She’d no longer take hours to feed, she’d settle easily, and we got into a good rhythm of sleep etc. I couldn’t be happier!! I was back at work part-time from about 6 months, and I’d invested in a much better breast pump, so had plenty of expressed milk for her feeds at daycare. We ran out around 8 months, as I’d gotten sick and my milk dried up. However I was stoked to have been able to give her breast milk for even that long, and she certainly wasn’t suffering for being on formula too. Our girl is now a little over 2 years old and is thriving! With all the struggles, we’ve come through it, and I continue to encourage other Mum’s to do what’s right for them and their baby. And tell them just to make sure they’re fed! I encourage them not to beat themselves up if the breastfeeding thing doesn’t work out. Fed is best!
Anyway, probably enough blabbing! But thank you for sharing this email and hopefully Midwives can actually start sharing the message of fed is best, rather than pushing breastfeeding so hard.
Agree with you wholeheartedly.
My personal experiences with feeding, with both babies, has been pretty text book… not easy, not hard, but with some patience, frustrations, tenacity and grit, it worked and we got there just fine. Like most mums, nobody told me before the baby, that it’d be hard and not come easy. So as someone who likes to be prepared and in control, I was in for a shock and it definitely wasn’t a pleasant chapter for me.
One comment I will make; shit, it’s hard for first time mums… they’re (we’re) so very vulnerable and exposed to influences both good and bad. There’s so much info and advice… it’s confusing, overwhelming, conflicting, far more often than it is helpful or conclusive.
With my second, i say he’s breastfed. 95% of the time. And he is. ‘Exclusively breastfed’… hmmm sort of. But I leave the house, and I sometimes use a bottle, and sometimes I give defrosted breastmilk, and sometimes I use formula if I forgot to defrost some… but meh, it’s all good. I feed my baby at the times I know he’s hungry and he is just fine. He’s better than fine, he’s bloody brilliant.
I’m not sure what the difference is… but I think it’s cause I’m less vulnerable to those other voices and opinions that are not my own.
Keep doing what you do, it’s inspirational. V
My son had severe jaundice when he was born- requiring lots of extra fluids (hello formula) to help him heal, he also had a bad tongue and lip tie- which we got fixed, and then he got a cold at one week old- that lasted for five weeks. On top of the lip, tongue, blocked nose, I was not a very good producer of milk. I went to Lactation consultants, drank teas, biscuits, medication, and researched all I could to improve my supply.
None of the consultants were able to help, but I persevered with nipple shields and a really unhappy baby, topping up with formula and expressed breast milk- each feed was taking me over 2 hours. I persevered because my midwife kept telling me how uncomfortable my baby would be with formula in his belly, and that it would sit in there like concrete. Never once did she top and think that I obviously needed the formula top ups, and in hindsight breast feeding didn’t work for me on any level. Plunket was similar, very negative, when at six months I mentioned I thought it was time to phase out pumping (I had stopped feeding from the breast at 3 months).
I could not agree with you more how health professionals need to be mindful of their language. New Mums are so tired and so impressionable, that they hang on to every comment like gospel. It’s about time we place some love and care back to the Mumma’s too.
Well I from the beginning intended to ultimately formula feed for mental health reasons, but would’ve liked to give my baby colostrum. It didn’t work at all, as he was both lip and tongue tied. Everybody was fantastic and very understanding, but one of my grandmothers, despite knowing my mental health problems which existed even before my pregnancy, saw me feed my son and claimed that the milk was “only water”, almost implied that I was malnourishing my son. I was devastated. Though I am envious of the bond had between breastfeeding mother and her child, and will be one of the first to agree that breast milk is most definitely superior to formula, milk powder in no way malnourishes babies and I am now at total peace with my decision. And although I’d like to try and give colostrum to my next baby, I sure as heck know I’ll be formula feeding.
I so needed to read this. Breastfed by first, but after failure to thrive, switched my second to formula. Lived with so much guilt for so long! Guilt for feeding my baby? What was I thinking!!!!