Breastfeeding or formula-feeding, why do we care?!

Breastfeeding icon bottle of formulaThere are always opinion articles or publications (pseudo-science with questionable funding sources which introduces bias in the findings) praising or bashing breastfeeding. WHAT. THE. HECK.  Are we really arguing about this?  What’s the point?  Why put yet another stressor on new moms who just want to do what’s right for them and their baby whether it’s breast, bottle, or a combination?  Why should anyone care so adamantly what’s best for a mom and her baby except for the very same mom and baby in question?

According to the latest data (for the year 2011), most moms who gave birth attempted to breastfeed at some point (nationally 79.2% according to the CDC Breastfeeding Report Card published in 2014), but the numbers decrease dramatically at 6 months (49.4% for breastfeeding and 18.8% for exclusively breastfeeding). See how your state ranks on page 4 of the report.

I am really tired of hearing about the breast is best debate and I’m a Certified Lactation Counselor! I try to be really careful when talking to newly postpartum or still pregnant moms because I don’t want to introduce pressure, judgment, opinion or bias into the conversation.  Even with the high breastfeeding initiation rate, there remains a lot of misinformation, confusion and downright breastfeeding myths floating around.  So, as a lactation professional, my objective is to educate new moms about breastfeeding, give them the scientifically sound information, and empower new moms to choose what they want to do.

My hope is a new mom, older mom, or anyone with preconceived notions of breastfeeding reads the words so generously and eloquently shared below and sees there is no debate because we’re all learning, and trying to figure out this parenting thing out together as we go along.  Truly, we’re just trying to do the best we can for our kids.

So where does the debate, stress and pressure to feed your baby a certain way come from?! I asked some moms who have been there, done that, (and in some cases are still doing it!) to answer a few questions for me.  (I answered them too.)  What I find most interesting is how each mom’s experience sounds similar, yet completely their own.  Just like every birth story is unique, no two “feeding” stories are alike.

  1. What did you think of breastfeeding before you ever thought about getting pregnant and what did you think about breastfeeding when you were pregnant? Did you experience pressure from anyone with a strong opinion on how you should feed your child?

I honestly didn’t give breastfeeding much thought; I had a few friends who did it and a few who didn’t. When pregnant, I assumed breastfeeding came somewhat naturally and it was sort of the obvious choice – less costly, health benefits, etc.  I never felt pressure from anyone.  – Denise, breastfed and supplemented with formula for 7 months; then used only formula until 1 year

I think I knew my mom had nursed me and my brother and sister, and had a generally positive opinion of it, but thought it was something people only did at home. I didn’t think about the logistics of it at all. Upon getting pregnant, my mother pressured me most to breastfeed, but I don’t consider it a bad thing. My sister had a baby before I did and I know my mom wanted her to breastfeed. My sister did for 4 months while also supplementing, [knowing this] made me even more determined to breastfeed for at least a year without supplementing. No one else really “pressured” me. – Courtney, exclusively breastfeed for 6 months and continued until deciding she was ready to wean at 15 months (baby got his first teeth at 2 months!)

My sister breastfed, and for some reason, I believed I was breastfed (I wasn’t) so I had a very positive attitude about it. I always wanted to breastfeed a baby, because, really, what else were my breasts for? I planned on breastfeeding from the get go. The only pressure I received was from my sister-in-law, but that was not to breastfeed. Amy, exclusively pumped for 12 months (her baby was born premature at 34 weeks gestation and never got the hang of latching to the breast), now a Certified Lactation Counselor

My feelings were pretty neutral about it. I wasn’t pro or con. When I became pregnant, the more reading I did, the more I learned breastfeeding has so many health benefits compared to formula feeding. I decided at that point I was going to breastfeed and felt more strongly about my decision as my pregnancy progressed. I told myself that I was going to try my best, but always added the caveat that if for some reason I couldn’t breastfed then I would consider other options. My husband had a strong opinion about me breastfeeding…. he was very pro breastfeeding. I wasn’t bothered by that, nor did I feel like he was too opinionated or bossy. I was ecstatic that he was so supportive. – Britt, exclusively breastfed her premature baby for 6 months and continues nursing past 12 months (baby was born premature at 35 weeks gestation)

I was 100% NOT planning to breastfeed, at all, EVER. I did not have any experience being around breastfeeding moms, and my female role models told me breastfeeding provides no special benefits and it’s disgusting.  When pregnant, I experienced pressure TO breastfeed and NOT to breastfeed from various sources.  New moms from Generation X (and often Millenials) do not have a strong network of females (Baby Boomers) with breastfeeding experience (breastfeeding rates were really low in the 1970’s, see graph below).  I did not have a close relationship with anyone who could really speak to breastfeeding from a place of real knowledge.  Instead I received a lot hearsay and uneducated opinions.  My OB pushed me to breastfeed, and my husband very gently suggested I “give it a try,” (because he knows outright telling me to do something will backfire) so I thought, “OK, I’ll try it.” – Michelle, exclusively breastfed 3 daughters (two of which are twins) for 6 months, continued until they all self-weaned at 13 months, now a Certified Lactation Counselor


The source is unknown, but I have seen this graph in a number of reputable lactation sources
Notice the low points in the 1960s-1970s. The source is unknown, but I have seen this graph in a number of reputable lactation sources.
Note the funder of this research is a formula company (Abbott makes Similac, Pediasure and Pedialyte), so I am mindful of potential bias
Rates began to increase after 1970. But, note the funder of this research is a formula company (Abbott makes Similac, Pediasure and Pedialyte), so I am mindful of potential bias.


  1. What was your breastfeeding experience like, physically and emotionally?

From day 1 in the hospital, everything seemed to go very smoothly – good latch, minimal pain, etc. A few days after birth, my newborn started crying after some feedings, mostly at night. I became very discouraged, but started pumping.  Part of my issue was lack of education.  At the time, I didn’t know cluster feeding was normal, and I should have tried to get in up to 12 feedings a day in those first several days to build up my milk supply.  I saw a Lactation Consultant, who gave me tips to try to increase my supply, but I think it was too late.  I began supplementing with formula when my baby was about 2 weeks old. When my baby was about 3 months old, he began to lose patience with breastfeeding.  Not wanting to lose the chance to provide him what little breastmilk I could, I got a supplemental nursing system, which I used for almost 4 months, and then I switched to 100% formula in bottles when my baby was 7 months old. – Denise

It was overwhelming sometimes to be solely responsible for his food and growth, and the lack of sleep was challenging. Your whole life revolves around milk; how to get it, how to keep it, how much, and when. But overall I really enjoyed the experience of nursing.  Part of my prep while pregnant was positive visualization of successful nursing, and picturing my sweet baby latched on and happy. I really think that worked for me. – Courtney

My relationship was strained! Since my baby wouldn’t latch, it broke my heart. So breastfeeding was highly emotional for me. Physically, it was a struggle to keep up. And it meant getting up a lot more than I might have had to in the middle of the night, since I had to pump. I also had to feed her so I sometimes did double duty. That was hard because I would get even less sleep. –Amy

I never expected nursing to be such an emotional experience. The most challenging part was not being able to nurse my son until he was about two days old. The image of a blissful skin-to-skin moment and first nursing session where tossed out the window when I had an unplanned caesarian section five weeks early and my little guy was whisked away to the NICU. When I did get to feed him it was a slow road. We used a nipple shield and he was tube fed. We had to work hard for 12 days until he was able to coordinate sucking, swallowing, breathing on his own and nurse around the clock. I know we got off easy in terms of a NICU stay and my heart goes out to families and babies who spend months there. The best part of breastfeeding was developing such a strong bond with my son and knowing I’m literally the only person who could provide him with his milk. I genuinely enjoy our nursing sessions and seeing how his nursing style has changed over these last few months. I had no idea what a physical toll breastfeeding can take on a women (giving up your body 24/7)! –Britt

Physically I think I experienced many of the same issues most new moms experience, including cracked/bleeding nipples, pain, blocked ducts, and mastitis. Overall, these issues were pretty transient and I felt really good about exclusively breastfeeding my daughter.  Emotionally, I loved being forced to slow down my day and physically sit and stare at my perfect and beautiful little girl while nursing (she was a very slow eater and still takes her sweet time to eat).  While pregnant with my twins, I was terrified.  I didn’t know what to expect from their delivery (most twins are born prematurely) let alone how I would manage nursing two babies at once.  But, seeing the success I had with my oldest daughter, I was really determined to breastfeed my twins.  I sought help from an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) to prepare.  Emotionally, I think the hormonal benefits of nursing (flooding my body with oxytocin) helped me immensely.  I worried I would struggle with postpartum depression and breastfeeding reduces the risk of PPD.  I am SO happy I was able to breastfeed my multiples because it was something I really valued and I did not want to miss out on the same experience I had with my oldest daughter. – Michelle

READ: One-upping and feeling like I’m back in high school
READ: How long is a full term pregnancy? 40 weeks
READ: Beyond Baby Blues. What you should know about Postpartum Depression (PPD)
  1. How has your experience shaped the way you view breastfeeding generally?

While it’s still “natural,” meaning it’s what mothers’ bodies were created to do, I definitely don’t think it’s easy. I think there’s an odd catch-22 in our society; it’s well-known that “breast is best,” to the point some mothers feel judged for using formula, but at the same time many people get outraged by seeing a mother breastfeeding her child in public [or beyond a certain age]. It’s not a very supportive scenario for nursing mothers, and that is unfortunate. Breastfeeding is something many mothers need to work at (some more than others, like in my case); and sometimes, no matter how much effort one puts in, it still may not go smoothly. I have more respect for women who can exclusively breastfeed…what I mean by that is it’s something I thought was pretty standard before, and now I know what a commitment it is and how challenging it can be, especially at first. – Denise

Before meeting other moms in the breastfeeding moms groups, I never understood the variety and intensity of struggles some women go through to breastfeed before they decide to supplement or fully transition to formula. After hearing others’ stories, I have a better understanding of why for some, formula feeding works best, even when they know nutritionally breast milk is best. I still think every mother and family deserves the right to choose what’s best for their family without being judged. I also think there needs to be more education and support for mothers, especially new mothers. Breastfeeding alone, without any support is hard and unnecessary. We need to normalize breastfeeding, but in a way that does not alienate those who formula feed. –Britt

I wish breastfeeding was seen as the norm and that formula feeding was few and far between, only for extenuating circumstances. I never want to be one of those self-righteous people who make moms who can’t breastfeed for some reason feel bad. We are lucky that we have options. – Courtney

I have learned there’s a lot of misinformation shared with moms. Some moms really want to make breastfeeding work, but without a few key pieces of information, they set themselves up for a really hard journey. Knowledge is power and social support is truly integral to breastfeeding success.  New moms are not alone.  Being formally trained and educated in lactation has opened my eyes to all the different feeding scenarios possible.  It’s not always one or the other.  I ask moms about their feeding goals while they are still pregnant because you just never know how they feel about it and I never want to assume anything.  Even after the baby is born, you never know what’s going on and maybe despite all a mom’s hardest efforts, they are doing a mix of formula and breast milk and it’s something they are still figuring out.  My dream would be for all moms to feel supported in every feeding decision they make.  Breast milk is how I choose to feed my babies, but it may not be the very best choice for another mom who has other issues going on and it’s not my place to decide what is best for someone else. -Michelle

Here’s a different point of view from a breastfeeding mom, who does not enjoy breastfeeding.

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2 thoughts on “Breastfeeding or formula-feeding, why do we care?!”

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