This excellent article, Stop The Hyperbole When It Comes To Breastfeeding encompasses many of my beliefs in regards to breastfeeding. My son, Alden, was born unable to suckle, even from a bottle, and I chose to supplement with formula and donated milk until I could make enough on my own. It required a lot of hard work and sacrifice on my part to the point that I became chronically sleep deprived. While I’m happy that I was able to breastfeed for two years and (mostly) enjoyed my relationship with breastfeeding, I wish I had taken better care of myself in that first year, especially in regards to sleep.
Recently, a friend with newborn twins messaged me in a panic because of the difference between IQ points that has been observed in breastfed, full-term singletons versus formula fed, premature twins. Breastfeeding was not going well, but she was worried about giving it up because of the disadvantages her twins already had. I told her what I wish someone had told me in those early days: formula feeding, either through supplementation or full, will not damage your child’s intellect, and may be a much better option for your family than breastfeeding or bottle feeding expressed milk.
For one, those studies that link breastfeeding with IQ points may not be entirely accurate. When siblings are compared, no significant differences in IQ were found. Even if a link is later found with other studies, and IQ is slightly lower in formula fed children, there are many other examples of parental choices that can reduce IQ in children, such as the link between number of children in the family and IQ score, which results in younger children and children from large families scoring worse than those older and with fewer siblings. I have 8 siblings and my dad has 7. If the younger ones in our families have lower IQs than us older siblings, that is not shown in success or happiness. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that IQ doesn’t matter as much as conscientiousness, openness to experience, grit, and curiosity amongst other traits. Do we tell mothers that they will damage their families by having more children because of the differences in IQ? Of course not.
Another important factor in my support for women choosing to formula feed is the link between maternal depression and infant attachment. While breastfeeding is tentatively linked with IQ, chronic sleep deprivation is solidly linked with depression, negative emotions, and hostility. Although my boys were such terrible sleepers their first year that I doubt a few baby bottles topped off with formula would’ve helped much past the first 4 months, it would’ve helped me considerably had I done it more during that time period when I was most sleep deprived. Many women find that breastfeeding increases the overall amount of sleep they get, but that sadly was not the case for us. Several friends of mine had to chose between breastfeeding and medication for postpartum depression or other mental health conditions. Many expressed conflict and guilt, which was not helpful at all for their mental state.
When my boys were a few months old, I took them to a local parenting shop to pick up a few items with my mother-in-law. Our trip overlapped with their every-two-hours meal, so I decided to feed them in the store. My mother-in-law rocked one baby while I breastfed the other. One of the store employees saw me and asked if I was breastfeeding my twins. I said I was, but also used some formula to help out (especially when out alone, as was usual). She gave me a look of pity and said, “Well, at least you tried.” Sadly, this attitude is becoming more common online and in person. Friends of mine have reported being judged for purchasing formula or pulling out a bottle at a playgroup. A friend posted a picture of the formula she bought on facebook and many of the comments were on the benefits of breastfeeding, showing no regard to her situation. I’m well aware that the judgement goes both ways as I was asked to either cover up or stop nursing at a public pool, even though I was tucked to the side, showing less skin than many of the swimmers, and none of my friends in the pool who observed the scene realized I was nursing at that moment. I’ve also been told (online only thankfully), that breastfeeding until 2 is ‘unnatural’.
A lot of breastfeeding advocates believe the best way to encourage breastfeeding is to highlight the benefits and portraying it as something that you do in order to give your child an advantage. I’ve seen essays that argue that formula should be considered an inferior, damaging choice. Personally, as someone who really struggled to breastfeed and dealt with conditions such as mastitis multiple times, I didn’t find this attitude very helpful. Whenever I was thinking of quitting breastfeeding, it was those who were more accepting of my choices that kept me going strong.
Rather than condemn formula, give mothers the support they need.