Let’s stop the war between breastfeeding and formula feeding


I am all for breastfeeding.  Without doubt, breast milk is incredible stuff.  And it’s free.  Who complains about free?

Nevertheless, somewhere along the way, the campaign for breastfeeding has spun out of control.  The topic has morphed into yet another competition in the arena of parenthood.  Mothers boast about breastfeeding.  Mothers compare how long they nurse.  Mothers compare how much milk can be pumped in one sitting.  Mothers are made to feel like failures for not being able to keep it up.

Formula is not evil.  Thank goodness for another means of nutrition in the case that breastfeeding doesn’t work out.  Sure, formula cannot mimic some of the benefits of breast milk.  But you know what?  Babies will still thrive and grow just fine on formula.  Really.

Breastfeeding is not a competition.

Breastfeeding is not a badge of honor nor an entrance to some non-existent mother’s hall of fame.

Breastfeeding is not a gauge of a mother’s love for her child.

I still do everything I can to encourage mothers to breastfeed.  I want to help them get through the ups and downs. But obstacles do arise.  Obstacles abound.  Breastfeeding does not come naturally for many, and life can often throw a wrench in the most well-intentioned plans.  Severe pain and slow healing.  Minimal time with a lactation consultant.  Discouragement from family members or even medical providers.  Postpartum depression and stress.  Insufficient glandular tissue.  Illnesses and hospitalizations.  Medications.  Returning to work.  Limited support for pumping at work.

The idea that every woman can nurse is a hurtful myth.  For some, it is due to the breast itself.  For many though, returning to work makes it simply too difficult.

I was fortunate and did not have difficulties with breastfeeding.  But that’s all I can call it — fortunate.  My ability to nurse my baby did not make me a more successful or more loving mother than someone who decided to use formula.  When my milk production dwindled after returning to work, I just had to give up on the idea of feeding my baby only breast milk.  I remember sitting on at my desk during lunch hour, eating with my left hand, finishing up charts with my right, and hunched over as I balanced the breast pumps with my knees.  One time, they nearly spilled.  It was ridiculous.  And for what?  A few ounces to lug home like some pitiful victory after a long day at work.  Forget it.  The best thing I could have done for myself back then was to take that time to rest and refresh myself.  That would’ve made me a better mother by the end of the day, more so than providing a few extra ounces of breast milk.

The mark of a mother is not whether she dons a nursing cover.  The mark of womanhood is not whether her breasts are able to produce enough milk.  Since when did mothers need to prove that they care?

So let’s stop this war between breastfeeding and formula feeding.  More importantly, let’s stop the war between moms.  Instead, the discussion needs to refocus on the barriers to breastfeeding for those who are truly wanting to make it work.  Inadequate lactation resources.  The high cost of breast pumps.  Attitudes at work towards time spent pumping.

When the pressures and struggles of breastfeeding become a source of stress and tension between mother and baby, the harm begins to outweigh the benefit.  The big picture of what is “best” has been lost.  If we really are to care about the baby, then we need to care about the mother too.

Yolanda Wong is a pediatrician who blogs at Well Child Chats.

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