As a new mother I have been bombarded by others’ opinions on how I should raise my child, but never so much as when the subject of feeding rears its peach-fuzzed little head.
Like all mums-to-be in the UK I had been inundated with the ‘breast is best’ propaganda issued by the NHS, but a search for for a balanced discussion on the pros and cons of each method drew a frustratingly blank, blank.
I was coming to this debate with no particular leaning, but trying to find unbiased advice out there is really hard. Other than the occasional breakfast news story I had never really been aware of the depth of the breast v bottle debate, but the parenting forums and baby blogs were full of dictatorial ranting, polarised opinions and outright declarations of war.
If I were to believe the pro-breastfeeding extremists all bottle feeders are bad mothers; selfish, uncaring harridans who just weren’t willing to try. However, when I spoke to many bottling feeding mothers they told of the heartbreak over their decision, of the guilt, of the pressure placed on them to breastfeed whilst in hospital and the feeling of failure and inadequacy that accompanied the choice to switch to bottle when they left.
One mother even commented that a mutual friend was “very brave” for saying that she never wanted to breastfeed and sticking to her decision despite the pressure she felt from others.This seemed like a ridiculous thing to say but the further along in my pregnancy I got, the more I understood what she meant. The NHS in particular piled on the pressure to breastfeed, sending me through enough pro-breast leaflets to paper a palace, but not once did they discuss the pros and cons of bottle feeding.
So what did the other side have to offer to the debate? Well according to the bottle feeding advocates all breastfeeding mothers are middle class hippies who are pampered and have nothing else to do but see to their babies. Indeed, even the National Childbirth Trust has been in the news recently for abandoning it’s evangelical breastfeeding stance as part of their push to become more inclusive and attractive to the working classes. (I would argue they’d be better dropping their prices to be honest, but that’s a rant for another day).
There are clearly some out there who feel that breastfeeding is a middle class endeavour and certainly I can see why – the cost of electric pumps, breast milk storage bags and pots, slings, concealed feeding tops and the time taken to feed or express for your child makes it seem that a great investment may be needed.
Reading all this had made me more and more confused. I didn’t really want to be seen as uncaring or as a tree hugger. I’m not middle class and I certainly don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to sit around doing nothing but feed, but by the same token I don’t really fancy a great pile of bottle-fed guilt. Even the statistics didn’t help me; although most women breastfeed immediately after birth, by 6 weeks 53% are bottle feeding. So, still baffled by all the conflicting advice, I did what I do with any decision I’m struggling with, I scribbled away at a pros and cons list. And here it is:
- Health benefits for baby – a breastfed baby is less likely to have stomach upsets, ear infections, eczema and can protect against infections and diseases.
- Health benefits for mum – speeds up weight loss (huzzah!), lowers risk of female cancers, reduces feelings of stress by releasing oxytocin.
- Bonding – all that extra skin to skin time enhances the bonding experience, especially useful if you have been separated for some time
- No equipment needed – seriously ignore that shelf in Mothercare, you really don’t need all that stuff, ask your Granny.
- No preparation required – no mixing formula, measuring water, or washing and sterilising bottles
- Convenient and transportable – where don’t you take your boobs?!!
- Free – free food for baby can never be a bad thing.
- Poop – Nappies smell better (allegedly, I’ve found no scientific evidence for this one)
- Wind – breastfed babies suffer less trapped wind which means you save time in winding them.
- New Skills – like all new skills it will take time to learn. You may never have even seen mothers feeding and certainly wont have been able to take a good look at their nipple position during latching.
- Mums health & medication – there are only a few conditions which would completely prevent breastfeeding but many medications cannot be taken if feeding this way as they can find their way into the milk. It also limits the non-prescription medications you can take for minor ailments.
- Anxiety about feeding – many women feel nervous about public feeding despite new legislation which protects your right to do so. Ultimately this means some mums begin to feel very isolated as they hide themselves away to feed.
- Milk supply – although almost all women will produce milk, getting a milk supply established takes work, especially if you are separated from your baby for any reason.
- Physically hard going – breastfeeding can be physically exhausting, especially in the first few days while supply and technique get established.
- Risk of mastitis – all new mothers have a risk of getting the infected milk ducts that cause mastitis but it is more prevalent in breastfeeding mothers purely because the milk is being produced for longer.
- Total responsibility – you have to do all feeds, or at least express for those feeds you wish others to handle.
- Personal guilt– when it’s great, it’s great but many women report it feeling very personal if baby refuses to feed or isn’t feeding as well as one would like.
- Risk of leaky nipples – again all new mums are at risk of leakage but this is obviously increases the longer you feed for.
- Easier – you have probably either done this before or seen it done. It’s not really a skill you have to learn.
- Anyone can do it – all the family can get involved and this can be a good way to encourage sibling bonding with older children.
- Measurable – it is very easy to tell what nutrition baby is getting and how much baby is taking.
- Public feeding – this is very easy and many cafes and restaurants provide bottle warming facilities
Bottle feeding cons
- Cost – This is a major con. For a newborn you will be spending around £7 per week on formula, plus the cost of bottles, steriliser, replacement teats, bottle brushes, storage, milk/powder storage/bottle warmers etc add in the occasional emergency pre-mixed feed when you are out and the cost rockets. When I ran the figures it came in at just under £700 for the first year.
- Space – all those bottles and accessories take up a lot of cupboard space.
- cleaning – again cleaning and sterilising that kit will take you up to an hour each day.
- preparation – all your feeds have to be prepared in advance. If you are on-demand feeding that means listening to the screaming that little bit longer. While those who are feeding every two, three or four hours will be able to prepare on time, your baby may not stick to their schedule and that still means having up to 12 bottles washed, sterilised and filled with pre-boiled and then cooled water.
- NHS sanctioned guilt – while friends and family are seen as more supportive of the bottle feeding mother, many mothers report disapproval from medical professionals and parenting support groups when they choose to bottle feed.
So what did I do? Well I spoke to my Granny, as the only person I knew who’d fed both ways more than once and she gave me the best advice of all – do what is right for you and baby. As it was my daughter was in neonatal care for the first 15 days of her life and was severely underweight, so what was best for her was breast milk. But as I wasn’t in hospital with her, she had as much breast milk as I could manage and formula when there wasn’t quite enough to fill her up. Having tried both methods, I found I actually enjoy breastfeeding (despite a few problems we encountered) and I hate all the faffing with bottles and sterilisers and powder that formula feeding brings. So although my little girl will still take either method happily, I’m trying to get her off the bottles for the most part.
I think Granny had it right. It doesn’t matter so much what you feed, what matters is that whichever method you choose, it meets the needs of both of you. If you don’t want to breastfeed or you try and don’t like it or struggle and run out of steam, you shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for that. As for my little one, she’s lying in my lap feeding as I type, and looking at her chubby chomping cheeks I can’t help but think it is the fact that I am happy with what I chose to do that makes her so happy and healthy today.
good places for support/further reading.