Formula feeding has a somewhat bad reputation. And it doesn't help matters that there is so much bad or just plain false information out there regarding formula. I know when I was pregnant, I felt adamant and absolutely sure I would never need the samples of formula I received from my doctor. The thought of having to use them left me feeling cold and confused, as if I was plunged into a world I had never stepped for into before.
Friends, as we well know, I used those samples of formula and more. (You can read my blog post about my postpartum depression, partially caused by my difficulties breastfeeding, here.)
When I wrote this post idea down on my editorial calendar, I found myself getting very, well, nervous about actually writing it. Writing about formula on the internet is dangerous business indeed; lots of women like to pop in to give their unsolicited opinion about formula, about women who use formula, and the horrible things formula "does" to infants (we'll get to this last point in a bit). I don't like confrontation and I don't like arguments; it takes a lot for me to stick me neck out and argue with somebody. But when it comes to formula feeding, it's one of the few things that really, really gets me going... probably because I believed so many lies about formula feeding before I even gave birth.
Let's start from the beginning, shall we?
My Experience with Formula
To briefly summarize, my son, Forrest, was born premature due to my severe preeclampsia. He is what is called a "late term preemie"; he was 36 weeks, which is "technically full-term," but not actually full-term. See, infants develop, and practice, suckling inside the womb at 37 weeks. Since Forrest was not in the womb at 37 weeks, he never learned to latch correctly. (It should be noted: some babies develop this earlier, which means they can be born at 36 weeks and latch successfully. But this is relatively rare; 36-weekers are notorious for being poor feeders, even with bottles.)
So, not only was he not developmentally able to breastfeed, he also developed severe jaundice (he had 2 forms of jaundice at once) and extremely low blood sugar; these two things made it very difficult for him to stay awake and effectively feed. We had to feed him in his sleep and he stayed in a bilibed for 6 days. We weren't allowed to dress him for the first 10 days of his life, because moving him around too much caused him to use too many calories.
I, rather heroically, pumped for exclusively for the first 2 months of his life. But as we got home and got settled, my needs for sleep outweighed my ability to pump. Finally, my doctor, at my 8 week appointment, sat me down and told me that if I didn't sleep more than 2 hours a day, something bad would happen. She told me to stop pumping at night and sleep. So I did. After that, my supply plummeted; I was more rested, but I was still a wreck, constantly anxious about how much milk I was producing.
So, I started supplementing with formula. I knew it was the only way. And it was very successful. I became less stressed about how much Forrest was eating and how much I was producing and I was able to more enjoy motherhood. I was still very depressed, wishing that Forrest could breastfeed like other babies (and trust me, packing a bag with formula, breastmilk, my pump, and everything else was an absolute pain when we left the house), but my anxiety was reduced.
At 6 months, I developed mastitis after a dramatic shift in my production. I went from producing about 10-12 ounces a day (my supply had always been very, very low) to about 2-4 ounces. I had a 104 degree fever and felt absolutely awful all day. Finally, it was time: I had to go all formula.
It was hard at first, because I felt like I had failed... but when I tell you that life became so much easier with formula, it's the absolute truth. No more monitoring my pumping schedule! No more constant washing and sanitizing of pump parts! No more worrying about taking my pump to work, or pumping while I drove, or trying to figure out which bottle of breastmilk I put in the fridge first. It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.
And honestly, Forrest thrived on formula. He thrived on any milk after the first 6 weeks, really, but once I became less of a mess, he truly became a different baby. I started reading about formula and trying to better understand the myths I had heard--I still worried that I wasn't giving him "the best," that I was going to be absolutely destroying his absolutely perfect insides. And you know what I found out?
Nearly everything I'd been told about formula was a lie. All the myths about the correlation between diabetes and obesity? Lies. All the myths about tooth rot? Lies. All the myths about formula and breastmilk being shockingly different? Lies. I want to talk about them, because it's important.
The Worst Formula Feeding Myths
This blog post isn't intended to talk anyone out of breastfeeding. However you choose to feed your baby, the most important thing is that 1) you feed your baby and 2) you are as happy and healthy and thriving as your baby. If I've learned anything from motherhood, it's that we matter as mothers and people as much as our children matter. We can hurt ourselves just for the sake of our child; it's not worth it.
There are just so many articles out there about breastfeeding. When I was struggling, I felt like there were no resources out there for me! Everything was about breastfeeding! I want there to be one voice for formula feeding, so that if you're struggling, you have another voice to here.
Alright, let's jump into those myths, shall we?
1. Formula feeding is pushed by hospitals.
Formula feeding was incredibly popular from the 1960s through the 1980s. If you were born in a hospital in the United States between 1960 and 1990, you were probably formula fed. It was just what everyone did. Why? Formula feeding was associated with wealth; it was expensive, but it was incredibly reliable. Prior to the invention of mass-produced formula, infant mortality was much, much higher; those who had the resources to afford formula were much more wealthy.
To say that formula feeding was pushed by hospitals during those years isn't wrong. Formula feeding was considered the norm and it was very popular. However, most hospitals now receive grants through the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI). What does that mean? If they have higher rates of breastfeeding, they receive more grant money and maintain their status as "baby friendly." Overwhelmingly, it's much more difficult to receive formula in hospitals these days. I had to sign a waiver to receive formula for Forrest and they pressured me to choose breastmilk from the Portland Milk Bank instead.
2. Formula feeding is correlated to higher rates of diabetes, obesity, etc., and can lead to lower intelligence in children.
These myths are all combined into one, but basically all have to do with the same thing: formula fed babies are stupid and unhealthy. This myth is so boring and so clearly aimed at guilting mothers, I debated even including it. Formula feeding is associated, now, with lower income women and families. Why? Because these families are more likely to receive formula via programs like WIC. They are also more likely to have to return to work within 4-6 weeks of giving birth (sometimes even less), they are more likely to not have health insurance that covers things like breast pumps or lactation consultants, and they are more likely to have employers who don't provide them with the necessary breaks. (In the United States, technically all employers must accommodate breastfeeding mothers; however, most workplaces only have to provide 1 30-minute lunch period for every 8 hours worked, as well as 2 10-minute breaks. If you're still pumping every 2 hours or so, that's just now enough.)
Associating formula feeding with increased health problems and lower intelligence, you are linking and stereotyping these issues to lower income families, while ignoring the reasons that many lower income families have to rely on formula for the sake of their children. This myth is a whole mess of problems and false correlations, but more than anything else, it's just plain wrong.
As I said, almost the entirety of the United States was formula fed for 25 solid years. That means almost everyone we know was formula fed. Most of my friends were formula fed and I'd say they are as smart or much smarter than me. Repeat it with me: formula feeding has no impact on health or intelligence. It's just food.
3. Formula causes tooth decay.
Tooth decay in children is called "bottle rot," because in the 1970s and 80s, it was associated with babies and toddlers being put to sleep with bottles of formula. Many mothers in this time just didn't know this wasn't wrong; their babies slept and everyone was happy! Until their teeth started to rot. Pediatricians learned quickly to warn mothers of formula fed babies to always brush their teeth after bottles and to never let them sleep with a bottle. The issue is that when a baby or toddler falls asleep drinking a bottle, the milk often pools in their mouth, staying on their teeth and causing rapid decay.
So, bottle rot is associated with formula feeding. But you'll be surprised to know that cases of bottle rot have rapidly increased in breastfed babies.
Why? Because mothers of infants who are breastfed are not warned to brush their children's teeth and, in cases where mothers are following attachment parenting, are encouraged to let their children breastfeed all through the night. But a child that lies all night with milk on their teeth that isn't brushed or rinsed away is going to get cavities. That's just how dental hygiene works! If I drank a glass of milk before bed every night and didn't brush my teeth, I will get cavities too!
Breastmilk and formula are both just fat and sugar; at the end of the day, that's what they are. If that is left on the teeth, it will cause cavities. All parents should practice good dental hygiene with their children, regardless of what they are fed.
4. Formula feeding is lazy.
This is, to me, the most hurtful myth. It presumes that if you choose formula feeding, you are lazy and therefore, don't love your children. It dribbles out of people's mouth and probably is followed by, "I bet you let them watch TV" and more. It's judgmental, it's stupid, and it's wrong.
Formula feeding, especially from the newborn days, is difficult and time consuming. You boil water; you prepare bottles; you have to sanitize everything. There is powder everywhere. It's awful! And worse, in the middle of the night, you have to mix up bottles, warm them if your baby takes them warm, and then wash it so you don't have a disgusting surprise in the morning.
That also doesn't take into account that many, many formula feeding mothers start as wanting to breastfeed. They may have tried very, very hard to breastfeed. They pumped, or they went to lactation consultants. They tried and tried and tried. Is that lazy? No, absolutely not.
And even if a mother choose formula as the best choice for her family, it is often because of a lifestyle choice--not because she doesn't want to put in any effort. This myth is so offensive; it allows those who repeat it put themselves on pedestals while disparaging other mothers. And, frankly, I'm tired of it always being a competition.
All the Benefits of Formula Feeding
You know the myths. You know they're wrong. So what are the benefits of formula feeding?
1. Travel is much easier.
Forrest was an Enfamil baby and when he was about 7 months, I found out that Enfamil makes these on-the-go packets of formula. They are pre-measured for a 4 ounce bottle, so all you need is 4 ounces of water. It was genius. No messy dispensers. For us, travel became so much easier when I wasn't pumping; plus, Danny could feed Forrest in his car seat while I drove, so our trips didn't get disrupted. It was also so much easier to be out and about, because Forrest could have a bottle as I walked around the mall or store.
2. Transitioning to whole milk is easier.
Formula and whole milk are very easy to mix. For us, making the switch at a year was so effortless and easy, Forrest didn't even notice! It was much harder to transition to sippy cups, but at least we knew he would take whole milk, and therefore get all the fat he needed!
3. Being able to accurately measure intake is amazing.
Having a preemie meant that we were always a little paranoid about measuring his intake. I counted diapers until Forrest was 8 or 9 months old, and I still have spreadsheets of his intake for months. His pediatrician always wanted to know and so being able to tell him that he averaged 25 ounces of formula a day and 10 wet diapers felt so easy. We always knew how much he was getting, so if his growth stalled, we didn't have to wonder if my supply was low or what. We just had to increase his bottles!
4. Mothers don't have to do all the feeds.
This is the best part. With most breastfeeding mothers, the onus is on the one who breastfeeds to do every feed. And for the first 3 months, that's every 2 or 3 hours, around the clock. It's easy to get touched out in that scenario. With formula feeding, anyone can feed the baby. Dad? Yep. Big brother or sister? Sure! Grandma? Yes. Grandpa? Absolutely! It gives mothers some free time to relax, or do some basic chores, and can be a huge help in reducing anxiety and depression.