Why Choosing to Formula Feed Was The Best Decision I Made As A New Mom
On completely opting out of breastfeeding and new-mom guilt
Note: I share my experience not to insist that this is the best way to do things, but to put one positive story of a loving family who formula feeds by choice out into the world.
Since watching The Business of Being Born on Netflix years ago, and living the type of life in Brooklyn where we have a backyard garden and my dad pokes fun at me for how much kale I eat, I knew when I became pregnant that “natural” everything was the right way to do things.
We all know that formula feeding is poison right up there with taking your kids to McDonalds for three meals a day, right?
Then I met up with a friend who surprised me with her nonchalant report that she had gotten an epidural during her recent birth and highly recommended it. Everything I thought that I knew said that epidurals were bad, but I couldn’t even remember why anymore. What a revelation that childbirth didn’t have to be extraordinarily painful! I gave it some more thought and eventually added epidural to my plan.
Around this time, I was also collecting stories from friends about the physical and emotional challenges of breastfeeding. Nearly every new mother I knew had some amount of struggle feeding their babies, and experienced varying levels of guilt and shame of not being able to do something that was supposed to be easy. The ever-present nausea and discomfort for nearly all of my 41 weeks of pregnancy was causing me one of the most miserable years of my life, and the thought of potentially tacking on additional physical challenge for another year after baby filled me with dread.
One of the first parenting books I read was Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti which pokes holes in lots of the things that are the “right” way to do motherhood. Chapter 3, “Breast is Best” blew my mind with an entirely new perspective on breastfeeding than I had previously considered, and presented the idea that the benefits of breastfeeding and detriments of formula are overblown. I had never even questioned the possibility of not having to do it.
[Dr. Joan] Wolf sees the overblown benefits [of breastfeeding] as part of a broader cultural issue, something she calls “total motherhood” — the notion that mothers should be experts in everything having to do with their children (from health issues to consumer safety) — which she describes as a “moral code in which mothers are exhorted to optimize every aspect of children’s lives, beginning in the womb.”
After I finished reading the chapter, I cried with relief and wanted to read stories of women who had chosen to formula feed without guilt. I couldn’t wait until my husband was home from a trip a few days later so I could share what I had learned and bounce the idea of formula feeding off of him.
His initial reaction was not a positive one. The only parenting book he had read at that point was Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth so his vision of our baby’s feeding involved a joyful, natural, and richly fulfilling boob feast on a farm.
To learn more, I began a quest of scouring the internet for every article that said that formula feeding was not child abuse and I found a total of six articles.
On the entire internet. (I’ve since found a few more, all of which are linked below, but it’s still the tiniest fraction of resources compared to what is out there about the unrivaled beauty and wonder of breastfeeding)
It was so few that I asked that my husband read them all, and he finished reading during a short subway ride from Brooklyn to Jersey City on the way to a birthday party. To my delight, this was enough for him to start to understand the burden on women that breastfeeding presents and warm up to the idea of choosing to formula feed.
The long and the short of what I learned is that the current widespread belief among privileged well-educated people in the U.S. that “breast is best” is fueled by ~30 years of influence from militant breastfeeding advocates who have very successfully guilted and silenced everyone else. The other articles and resources I’ve linked below do a great job of getting into this history and its modern consequences, so please read those if you want to get into the details.
I instead offer why my husband and I decided that exclusive formula feeding was best for our family:
- Equal Partnership: We wanted to be 50/50 partners in raising our child, and that started with sharing every feeding from day one. I would not be the “primary parent”. We would do this as a team.
- Pumping: I didn’t want to spend my time and energy planning to pump, then pumping, then worrying that I wasn’t producing enough instead of spending quality time with our child. When imagining myself back to work, I did not want to schedule meetings all day around pumping alone in a dingy room or shipping milk across the country while at conferences. (After reading the very informative book, Work. Pump Repeat. The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work, it became very clear to me that I was not interested in these logistics.)
- Expense: I heard often that people can’t justify the expense of formula when breastfeeding is “free”, but breastfeeding is only cheaper if you believe that a woman’s time has no value. $50 a week to get more sleep, improve my mental health, and save 14+ hours felt like a bargain.
- Happier Life: As someone who had such a miserable time with being pregnant, the added lack of sleep and bodily challenges of breastfeeding seemed like they would increase the likelihood that I’d experience postpartum depression.
- Feminist Rage: I believe that the current recommendations in the U.S. to breastfeed for a year while not providing women any paid maternity leave are a subtle trap created to tie women to the home, and as a feminist I did not want to support to it. (The only federal law in place allows a new parent to take 12 weeks off unpaid, which leaves women to manage the logistics of pumping and working for 9 months after parental leave ends). The system and expectations set women up for guilt and failure before they even start. Other countries recommend breastfeeding for less time even while providing extensive paid time off to help support women’s careers. The stigma we have in this country about formula feeding is cultural and is at a peak in current trends — it is not the only and best truth.
- Formula Is Good Enough: Formula is truly ALMOST as good for babies. I did not want to be focused on only giving my child the very best of absolutely everything at the expense of all other considerations, particularly myself and my relationship with my husband. There are many instances where good enough is good enough, and this was one of them. The only conclusive studies I encountered showed that we would basically be putting him at risk for one extra stomach bug in the first year. As noted in the Atlantic article The Case Against Breast-Feeding:
…extended breast-feeding did reduce the risk of a gastrointestinal infection by 40 percent. …in real life, it adds up to about four out of 100 babies having one less incident of diarrhea or vomiting. Kramer also noted some reduction in infant rashes. Otherwise, his studies found very few significant differences: none, for instance, in weight, blood pressure, ear infections, or allergies — some of the most commonly cited benefits in the breast-feeding literature.
- My Body Was Over It: I did not want this process to be tied to my body anymore, and once he was out, I actually had a choice in this.
- Happy Mom, Happy Family: I believed that what is best for a child includes a mom’s well-being and fulfillment. The idea of not breastfeeding made me much happier, and that is ultimately best for our family. This is not being selfish.
I emailed a similar bulleted list of these “whys” just two days before giving birth when I was sharply asked by a dear old friend,
“What the fuck!? How do two well-educated, worldly, health-conscious people choose to give their child substandard nutrition?”
What the fuck, indeed.
New-mom guilt seems to be a requirement for women trying to be good moms in our current culture. I’m already someone who wants everyone to think I’m doing a “good job”, and it’s something I’ve been soul-searching about for years to try to calm within my everyday life. So, when it came to preparing for motherhood, I wanted to set myself up to completely opt out of the expected inclination to feel guilty and strive for perfection. There seemed to be too much room for stress, failure, pain, and rules about what a “good job” looks like when it comes to breastfeeding, and I decided that I just didn’t need it. The potential pros did not at all outweigh the potential cons for me, and when we decided at about five months pregnant that we would exclusively formula feed, I started to brace myself for negative feedback.
I had read about women being aggressively pressured and guilted by doctors and lactation consultants, like the woman who had had a double mastectomy and was still pushed by a nurse after giving birth to give it a try. When I talked to my midwives and doulas about it, their first response was to encourage that I try breastfeeding, but after hearing that my mind was already made up they got on board. Being confident about it closed the door to them questioning our decision.
Now that we have a four-month-old baby angel, I’m happy to report that we still stand by these original ideas. It has really worked out.
With exclusive formula feeding, some of the great things that happened included:
- Our baby ate well from day one, easily gained weight at a healthy level, and is always well hydrated.
- He slept for longer stretches than breastfeeding friends reported they experienced in the early weeks, so we were all better rested.
- He has a sweet bond with his dad who feeds him often, and could also spend full days/ nights with doting grandparents to give us well needed rest.
- He had an easily tracked eating schedule, and has slept through the night without night feedings since two months old.
- The roller coaster of hormones with extensive sob breaks in the first few weeks that friends prepared me for did not happen for me, and I feel like opting out of breastfeeding may be part of the reason why.
- Now that I’m back to work, I don’t have to take breaks to pump, or worry about pumping in the middle of the night while he’s asleep, or struggle with him not taking bottles if someone other than me is caring for him.
How to Turn Off Your Boobs
In all of my reading of books and articles on the topic, I learned to open up to the concept of formula feeding, but found absolutely no mention of how it actually physically works to choose not to ever breastfeed after birthing out a sweet baby.
A generation ago, most of our moms formula fed… where’s their advice? As a planner, I wanted to be able to plan for how it would all shake out, and had absolutely no idea.
I asked my midwife, who had never been asked this question before and had little advice other than to try taking some Sudafed. Then I found a formula feeding moms Facebook group where I posed the question, and I hit the jackpot with a handful of extremely useful responses.
Here’s the summary of their tips — many are simply the opposite of the things generally recommended to encourage milk production:
- Wear a sports bra all the times (I liked these, because normal sports bras were a little too tight for comfort when things got real.)
- Put frozen cabbage leaves on engorged boobs
- Drink No More Milk tea
- Face away from hot water in shower so you don’t stimulate engorged boobs under any circumstances
- Motrin & ice for pain
- Nursing pads for leakage (bonus tip: keep in freezer)
- Take Benadryl or Sudafed to dry up your business from the inside
Here’s what actually happened…4 days after giving birth, I had a day of extremely swollen and hot boobs that were hard as rocks, and within a week it almost entirely subsided. I kept a bra on at all times (even for the months before birth to keep things in check), took Sudafed every six hours, and put on ice packs during days four and five when it was the worst.
The only surprisingly popular suggestion that I don’t recommend is the cabbage leaves. They may be perfectly boob-sized and cold, but they leave you waking up in the middle of the night smelling like rotten coleslaw. Also, my husband got the purple kind, so they stained everything. It’s gross. Just get some ice packs.
And the tea, does it work? Who knows, but it doesn’t taste great, so feel free to opt out of that, too. It only comes in packs of three from Amazon, anyway, which is way too much.
Which Formula Feeding Gear is Actually Necessary?
With that covered, we entered life with a hungry newborn. Some of the items we rely on in our daily formula feeding routine are:
- Happy Baby Organics Formula: This is the powdered formula we use that a crunchy blog I read said is the best one. Good enough for me, it’s easily available online from Amazon and Target, and our baby likes it. It also doesn’t smell gross in the bottle or in the diaper later like some other types do.
- Dr. Brown’s bottles: We initially started with much cuter little bottles, but on day one at home from the hospital, we hired a night nurse who told us that Dr. Brown’s are the gold standard. Particularly with formula, they minimize the amount of air that babies inhale while feeding so it’s easier on their tiny little stomachs. I recommend having eight 8-ounce bottles on hand, especially if, like me, you don’t have a dishwasher.
- Kiinde 2 piece funnel: To pour powdered formula into a tiny bottle at 3 AM without spilling it all over the place.
- Babyganics foaming bottle soap: Also recommended by our night nurse, it’s more gentle than your typical dish soap, so on the off chance that he ends up eating a little of it on the bottle he won’t die.
- Munchkin stainless steel bottle brush: Having a dedicated bottle brush keeps things cleaner. We had a Dr. Brown’s bottle brush first, and it fell apart after a few weeks. Then we tried the plastic Munchkin brush, which lasted for about two months of daily use and conveniently has the extra little nipple brush built into the handle. This version is the very best. You can replace the heads when you need to, and they seem to last much longer.
- Boon grass drying rack: It’s nice to have a place other than the normal dish drainer to put all the bottle components after washing.
- Boon stem drying accessory: Holds all the little bottle parts while drying and fits into the grass rack in a cute way.
- Joovy Boob Formula Dispenser: With this you can take three pre-measured servings of powdered formula on the go. We bring room-temperature bottles of water with us, and can shake it up anywhere. Babies have no preference for warm food if they’ve never had a warm boob before. It just can’t be ice cold, since that’s harsher on their stomachs.
- Pacifiers: Sucking for soothing and strength training is important for babies, so this gives them something to suck on between feedings that’s not a boob.
- OXO Travel drying rack: For bottle drying when you are travelling. Folds up nicely and includes a brush.
- Dr. Brown’s Formula Mixing Pitcher: This became useful at three months when we started preparing four bottles at a time for a day of daycare.
- BabyConnect app: Especially in the early months, it helped us juggle feedings between my husband and I by tracking when and how much our baby ate. A perk of formula feeding is being able to measure and chart exactly how much he eats, so you can ensure that it’s on target for healthy growth.
A friend said that this sounded like a lot of unnecessary expense when it seems like breastfeeding requires no accessories, but consider the cost of lactation consultants, pumping supplies, lactation cookies, nursing outfits with boob zippers, curtains for your office window while pumping, bottle accessories for pumped breast milk, and most importantly — your time.
You’re not just the mother of a child, you are a person whose time is valuable.
I have been pleasantly surprised to receive absolutely no judgement from any hospital staff or pediatrician about our choice to formula feed. On baby medical forms, a very common checkbox is “breastfed” or “formula fed”. I like this visual reminder that it is a choice. It doesn’t say “loves child” vs. “poisons child and ruins their opportunities for health, happiness, and success in life”. When I told nurses caring for me in the hospital that I was formula feeding, it simply meant that they didn’t need to check the working condition of my boobs, coach us on breast feeding, or worry that our baby was dehydrated.
I feel very strongly that choosing to formula feed was one of the best decisions that we have made as new parents. I have absolutely no regrets or FOMO about breastfeeding (especially when I feel how hard baby gums can bite).
As I have shared my thinking with others in conversation and through our parental leave podcast (shameless plug, here’s the link to our podcast), I have heard time and time again that my new mom peers, like me, never even considered formula over breastfeeding, because we all just understood breastfeeding to be the only acceptable option. Let’s change this.
Every other account of formula feeding that I have read was from moms who came to formula feeding reluctantly after not being able to breastfeed as much as they had planned. I believe that there are others out there like me who thoughtfully chose this path, but choose to keep their choice private to avoid the potentially fierce criticism from others. I’m willing to take the heat if it can help other women let go of any guilt. Let’s not be so quick to judge other parents.
If you want to comment about how I’m a terrible person who is abusing my baby, please don’t. I’m very familiar with this perspective, and you can rest assured that your view that breast is best and formula is evil is more than adequately represented in the modern cultural consciousness (and I will swiftly delete any such comments).
Having a baby really isn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and there are many options for how things can be done. Formula feeding is one more option to consider as you navigate this new life of parenthood, and I’m happy to report that it’s possible to make this choice while also choosing not to feel guilty about it.
Resources I’ve enjoyed along my journey to embracing formula feeding (I believe all of which were ironically written by women who at least partially breastfed) —
- Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti (I LOVE THIS BOOK)
- Work. Pump Repeat. The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work, by Jessica Shortall
- Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, by Lori Mihalich-Levin JD
- Here’s the Plan.: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood, by Allyson Downey (Side note: The chapter about how to negotiate with H.R. for your parental leave is so useful)
- Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy, by Courtney Jung
- Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t, by Suzanne Barston
- Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting, by Amy Tuteur, MD
Every article I could possibly find:
- The Case Against Breastfeeding, by Hanna Rosin (The Atlantic)
- Overselling Breastfeeding, by Courtney Jung (NYT)
- The Ideal and the Real of Breastfeeding, by Jane E. Brody (NYT)
- The Milk Wars, by Alissa Quart (NYT)
- The Unapologetic Case for Formula Feeding, by Amy Sullivan (New Republic)
- When The Breast-Feeding vs. Formula Wars Hit Home, Jessica Grose (Buzzfeed)
- Rethinking the health benefits of breast feeding, Sydney Spiesel (Slate)
- Don’t Want to Breastfeed? The Case For Formula Feeding As An Informed Choice, by Kaven Senepathy (Forbes)
- Everybody Calm Down About Breastfeeding, by Emily Oster
And more in-depth, Adam Conover’s podcast episode with Courtney Jung is very informative, and is quicker than reading her book, Lactivism.
This piece was excerpted on Upworthy, which is pretty cool.