Beyond "Breast Is Best": It's A Little More Complicated Than Just Choosing Breastmilk Or Formula

Family Matters on 05.16.11
Contributor bio

Photo: nerissa's ring / Creative Commons

It’s unfortunate that in the debate between breast or bottle, there’s so much unnecessary guilt-tripping going on. Formula-feeding mothers get called “lazy”, “negligent” or even “failures,” while breastfeeding advocates are called “snobbish” or worse, “breastfeeding nazis.” In the larger picture, is all this mudslinging productive?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer that “breast is best” and that breastfeeding offers more than just food. After becoming pregnant, I started out certain that I would do it as naturally as possible. I chose a midwife-assisted home birth, found a doula but also had a hospital backup. I was also sure that I would breastfeed exclusively because of all the known benefits. 

Yet, I’m a mom who doesn’t belong to either ideological camp because in the first couple of weeks after delivery, the unexpected happened, as it often does with birth. The home birth became a hospital transfer after an exhausting labour, and there I picked up an infection that caused my immune system to catastrophically shut down two weeks later, no doubt assisted by sleep deprivation. That's when my breastfeeding plan fell apart.

When things go wrong

In the first days, my milk didn’t come in fast enough to help my baby wet the minimum number of diapers. We waited for almost two weeks in the hopes that it would step up and even tried pumping, but then my sudden illness put a wrench in things. With some trepidation, but confronted with the fact that I was on antibiotics and my baby was dehydrated and losing weight, we started supplementing with formula through a tube, on the advice of both my midwife and doctor.

Currently, I still breastfeed on demand throughout the day, but supplement with a bottle of formula at night before putting baby (and myself) to sleep. My baby is now five months old and is healthy, happy and bright. He’s hit a number of developmental milestones early for his age and his height and weight are normal. I've since tried herbal pills and pumping to increase my milk production, but with little success. Nevertheless, I will continue to nurse my little guy for as long as possible -- breastfeeding is not something I would give up. But after initially feeling guilty about supplementing, I eventually got over it, since I knew I was less of a stressed-out, sickly and zombified wreck if I was able to sleep once in a while.

I’m willing to bet there are lots of moms out there like me. It’s an imperfect world and there may be many reasons why a mother is not able to breastfeed or may supplement with formula. In any case, I believe that if a careful, informed choice is made -- with the goal of a healthy mom and baby in mind -- then it’s a choice that should be respected regardless of anyone’s opinion. There’s no need to make others feel guilty or less of a parent because they may have faced a different set of circumstances.

What they don't tell you about breast milk or formula

But back to the breast versus formula debate -- is it really that simple? Perusing the breastfeeding and formula literature and parenting forums out there, there is plenty of emphasis on the health benefits of breastmilk. But there’s also a flip side that doesn't seem as talked about -- namely the fact that due to agribusiness and industrial pollution, breastmilk is also high in chemical contaminants like pesticides, heavy metals, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) – all of which accumulate in our fatty tissues and are passed onto our babies via breastmilk. All of this raises bigger questions that must be answered, yet this fact is often conspicuously absent in the general promotion of “breast is best.”

Formula is hardly ideal either. As an artificial concoction, it's a poor imitation of the real thing, lacking the antibodies and other complex nutrients that are present in breastmilk. Then there's the factor of safety. As a mass-produced product, there's always a chance of contamination and error, even in organic formulas – like the melamine scare a few years ago. Even the packaging that these products come in can be toxic, not to mention the plastic bottles that we feed with, leaching chemicals into baby's food (a good reason to use glass baby bottles). Plus, the thought that some profit-mongering conglomerate is feeding my child gives me the willies. But, the purpose of formula is to feed babies whose mothers do not have adequate supply, have a medical condition, or cannot pump at work. That's what it's for, even though it's obviously not perfect.

Enough guilt-tripping, let's ask bigger questions

To really make "breast is best" ring true, we need more of us parents out there fighting together for a less-polluted environment so that breastmilk is free of contaminants. For mothers who cannot breastfeed, we need to be working together for better safety standards in the infant formula industry. What about “green products, you say? Yes, green or organic products are great, but just buying “green” isn't the same as actually tackling the root of the problem, it's merely a consumerist-driven bandaid.

Beyond that, there's also the issue of better maternity leave benefits, a more supportive work environment for pumping moms and affordable childcare for mothers who work. These are all crucial concerns that boil up in me every time someone asks me that loaded question: "do you breastfeed or bottle-feed?" That is why it's not just a black-and-white matter of breast versus bottle, and why there is no perfect answer. In the end, it's clear that we as parents have to look at the greater picture, identify and address the bigger issues together -- like the sorry ecological state of our planet or the lack of benefits in our workplaces -- rather than judging or heaping abuse on each other. 


Top Stories on Breastfeeding 

10 Things No One TellsYou About Breastfeeding
10 Tips for Breastfeeding Success
Breastfeeding Basics: What You Need to Know to Start Breastfeeding