Breastfeeding and the Great Bottle Debate

Breastfeeding. It’s a topic I have never been brave enough to tackle. The emotional minefield it presents is fraught with the danger of offending one side or the other, or both if it’s not handled well. But I think the time has come for someone to say something balanced if only for the benefits of mothers everywhere who are doing their best in whatever way they think is best for their children.

Let’s start with the formula and bottle feeders because they often appear to feel the most maligned, (stop me if I’m already offending someone). I bottle fed both my children with a mix of formula and expressed milk for a myriad of reasons that actually aren’t at all relevant to this article.

But that, in a sense, is the heart of the matter for many bottle feeding mothers. We have our reasons. They are many and varied – we may have read the research that has shown babies can be more settled, sleep better and cry less after a bottle. We may not like the idea of cluster feeds. We may need to get back to work and not fancy pumping. Some mothers have faced sexual assault in their lives and breast feeding can bring many of these emotions to the surface, something that is not particularly helpful when you are sleep deprived and hormonal. We may just not like it, and that’s okay too.

What we don’t want is another person who is not the mother of our child saying something along the lines of “I understand when there’s a medical reason or breastfeeding just doesn’t work for you, but I get annoyed when women don’t even consider breastfeeding.” Or “did you know formula contains multi-chemicalis-terribilitis? Do you really want your baby exposed to that?” Or, “breast is best. It’s natural.” Or my favourite, “But babies never get sick when they are breastfed and they are much smarter too!” (That one is less common I’ll admit.)

We know you mean well, but the truth is we don’t want it said to us by well-meaning friends and family and we don’t want it written in well-meaning articles. The thing is, you are preaching to the converted. We already know the benefits of breastfeeding. We get it – but while the nutritional, (and other), advantages of breastfeeding make a compelling argument to breastfeed something else compels us more. Like one of the reasons mentioned above. We’ve made our choice and while we may politely smile and nod if you give us unwarranted advice, (Strangers Offering Opinions, I’m looking at you!), we’re not going to change our mind because there is something you believe is more important than our own thoughts and research. We appreciate that you care, but it’s a personal decision and we’ve already made it.

This is a good point to make note of the ABA who do wonderful work for many mums out there, but have the habit of getting formula feeders offside, often through the comments of rogue volunteers, sometimes through their own media statements and lobbying tactics. If you want to increase breastfeeding rates, (and more power to you if you do), you need to find out exactly why women are using bottles. I mean specifically – because in my experience it’s often not due to a lack of education, it’s due to choice.

You can’t ignore the elephant in the room and try to force formula out of view in hospitals and supermarkets, or put industrial strength labels on formula tins. Well, you can, but it probably won’t work. The jig is up – we know that formula is safe. We know it’s not as good as breast milk in some ways but we believe it’s better in other ways. For us. If you hope to change our minds you need to find out what our objections to breastfeeding are and overcome them. Same as any salesperson or lobby group.

And now to the breast feeders – those wonderful mums who persevere through difficulties or happen to find breastfeeding easy. You have my utmost respect. It is never okay for someone to judge you for feeding your child the way nature originally intended. It is never okay for strangers or those same pesky well-meaning friends and relatives to make you feel as though you shouldn’t breastfeed in public or you should stop breastfeeding at a particular time. There is really no reason whatsoever for me to go into why you would make that choice, it’s been covered a million times before. There are great benefits to breastfeeding. Full stop. And it’s your body and your child. Full stop. No one else gets a say. Good for you for making your choice. You are amazingly clever to be able to nurture your child that way. Many bottle feeders wish they could do it, (and yes, many don’t and that’s fine too). Respect.

And now the part where I might really offend someone. Apologies in advance.

Often, a great deal of criticism and judgement on both sides comes from women themselves. Mothers even. This in particular makes me really sad. I have seen the power of what women can accomplish when they support each other and it is awesome. Let’s choose that path instead of the minefield. Let’s make a concerted effort not to get easily offended when someone unwittingly makes a statement that, well intended as it may be, taps into our own feelings of uncertainty. And let’s try and remember before we give advice or profess an opinion that we project onto other people’s choices, that mothers have a tendency to take these decisions very, very seriously.

Whichever side we fall on, it’s likely we’ve thought it through and weighed up our options, and strongly expressing an opinion which reflects on another person’s choices serves only to remind them that there was another way, and that it might be better in someone else’s eyes than the choice we made. Let’s remember that mothers’ second guess themselves regularly because we are acutely aware of the impact our decisions can have on our children. Let’s be nice to each other. We are all doing something incredibly special just by being a mother. Let’s support each other in that no matter what choices we make on behalf of our children.

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