Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Breast vs formula: a false dichotomy

One of the things that bugs me most about much of the discussion about feeding babies is the way that it paints breastmilk and formula as mutually exclusive options. 

There's a lot of guilt inducement all tied up in it too, much as a result of personal experiences of judgyness that cannot and should not be denied.  Many many mothers have felt the discomfort of the You Shouldn't Be Doing That stare, whether it be directed at their breastfeeding or the bottle they whip out to deliver formula (or indeed expressed breastmilk).

Shelley Bridgeman's ill-advised column in the Herald this week has brought out all sorts of feministy outrage, all over the interweb, not least in Giarne's guest post and the comments to that.  I've seen discussions on Facebook, Twitter, on other blogs, the comment section on the article itself, and heard them in real life too, all critiquing Bridgeman's bizarre take on it.  It has touched a raw nerve, which is not surprising given the factual inaccuracies and really quite out there conclusions drawn from a life experience that seems pretty rare.

I really liked this comment, which Nikkin made on Giarne's post:
It is sad to read of the "putting baby first" vs "putting mummy first". The mother/baby dichotomy is counterintuitive. The wellbeing of baby is caught up in the wellbeing of the mother and vice versa.
This has been so true for me.  And it has lead me to the conclusion that for me it isn't breast or formula that works, it is both. 

With Wriggly the formula started in the hospital.  My milk wasn't coming in, we were both struggling with feeding, and he was losing too much weight.  But it wasn't the end of breastfeeding for us; far from it, after three months, when most of our troubles came right, he was mostly breastfed until I went back to work at nine months.  After that it was a slow realisation that first expressing at work wasn't going to be practical (dropped lunch feed), then I had too much evening work (dropped dinner feed) and finally I just didn't have much left and he wasn't all that interested.  We made it to precisely a year. 

And it was formula that helped us make it.  It took the pressure off the breastfeeding and meant I could concentrate on increasing my supply, getting our latching right, and kicking the thrush to the curb, plus it slowed my unhealthy weight loss. 

Second time around and while the experience has been different in some respects (we made it to three months of exclusive breastmilk), again formula has enabled me to continue breastfeeding when the nipples just would not come right.   It has curbed weight loss, for both of us, and given me some flexibility for my mental health as well, on those days when the idea of being attached to Snuffly by a very short tether has simply been too overwhelming with everything else I have to get done.  He's just hit eight months and is having one breastfeed a day, along with two of formula and a fair few servings of solids.  It's likely I'll have to wean in the next month or two, due to commitments that will take me away from him overnight, and that's ok with me.

For me the Great Feeding Debate is not a debate at all, because it's an And not an Or.  These are the choices that have worked for me, for my body, for my babies.  They may or may not work for anyone else.

And for the record I don't feel a great desire to get breast implants post-breastfeeding.  Although I would quite like to go out and buy some beautiful new bras.


Boganette said...

Thanks for this post Julie. I really hate it when women who choose to formula feed - for whatever reason - are judged. Just like Bridgeman's comments implying women are ignorant and uneducated for breast feeding are disgusting, so are comments that imply the same about women who don't breast feed. There are heaps of reasons why some women feel breast feeding isn't right for them - their reasons are their own and nobody has the right to judge and criticise women for the choices they make around feeding.

Alison said...

Thanks for this Julie. I absolutely agree that formula supplementing can be the difference between baby getting a few days or weeks of breastmilk, and getting the benefits for much longer.

I can see why the WHO require health practitioners not to promote formula *brands*, but I think we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of not helping with formula feeding at all, which I know happens. We can recommend types (not brands, but casein-dominant vs whey dominant etc), and schedules so that formula supplementation or total formula feeding work to their maximum potential.

Sandra said...

Thanks for sharing Julie. I think you are very brave. Feeding is such a difficult topic and cuts very close to my heart. I had planned to breastfeed as long as possible and was devastated both times when my body let me down. First time I was sure I could do it with the right support and the second time I found that I was one of the percentage of women who could not feed. Breast pumps meant both children got some breast milk in the earliest weeks. It wasn't an easy discovery but I did find other ways to parent in the earth mothery way I felt fitted my goals and values most closely.

I hope that more women sharing their stories like you have, in a supportive context, will help others overcome the fear of telling their story.

Carla (@yngmamac) said...

fabulous post Julie :) at the end of the day how we feed our babies is nobodies business. you can only do the best YOU can do for you and your family.

its when people dont make those educated decisions that i start to question them...

:) Cx

david said...

Having read this article several times, I conclude it is likely to be some kind of satire. Or maybe not satire, maybe just a piss-take in the way Mrs Smith used to write in Idlevice, see:

Nobody using their own name in a national newspaper would seriously write in such a way boasting that they had a Karitane nurse who did the bottle feeding and nappy changing 24/7 and that breast feeding was only for Third World mothers who needn't worry about saggy boobs.

Sally Bridgeman is a real person but the column is not for real, IMO.

hungrymama said...

It may be a reflection of the circles I move in but I know very few women who didn't *want* to breastfeed so the divide is between those who breastfeed and those who are grieving the breastfeeding relationship they didn't get to have. We live in a society which tells women that breastfeeding is "best" and then largely fails to support them.

david said...

Sally Bridgeman is a real person but the column is not for real, IMO.

Shelly. I should have added, that while I do not think her column is for real, it's of concern that many vulnerable people might take it seriously and act on it in ways good for neither themselves nor their infants.

Giarne said...

Should we let Bridgeman hide behind satire as a way of her beneficiary bashing or seeing herself as above the lower stations in life.

Commentators I have been reading linked to a House & Garden article about her renovations. Its H&G so is really OTT regardless of the writer and is for the purpose of getting people out buying expensive designer items but ... the voice is the same.

Bridgeman and her peers have a right to an opinion about plastic surgery, a right to throw research to the wind - no matter how reckless, superficial or sad that may make them.

She started some great discussions between people so I thank her for that. What I would be most sad about is for her hate of the lower classes to be the lasting taste in my mouth and if they try to cover that up or excuse it with satire I won't be buying it, it will only make me madder!

The lasting taste at the moment is patronising, white whine, condescending, ignorance and a stunning lack of empathy. Perhaps I have another blog brewing.

Great blog Julie, you definitely deserve some new bras!!!

Azlemed said...

I had huge issues breastfeeding my eldest, it was a mammoth battle and we comp fed with formula from day one, we didnt have much choice, the paediatricians recommended it and my nipples were so badly damaged that I need to use it too.. my breastfeeding lasted 10 months with using formula too, pretty bloody good really, I got my 2nd to 11 months with no formula at all, #3 to 14 months and I am still breastfeeding #4 at 17 months.

I had awesome support from a brilliant lactation consultant, she was amazing and so supportive of me.

Ms Bridgemans post was offensive for many reasons, but its great that we are able to blog and have this discussion.

love your response Julie and Giarne. :)

Leilani said...

Great post julie, the breast vs bottle fight is unhelpful. As is guilt over not breastfeeding. However I do think breastfeeding does need promotion in our patriarchal society where womens bodies are made strange. There are lots of attitudes that breastfeeding is gross, something that should only be done in private, or inappropriately sexual. So the public does need re education about breastfeeding as healthy, and the right to breastfeed needs to be realized in workplaces etc. Bridgeman 's ridiculously ill considered piece suggested that maintaining physically beautiful breasts was a reason against breastfeeding. I hope that's not the case. The act of feeding and nourishing a child is beautiful and courageous whatever way you do it.