Health, Lifestyle, Parenting

Of Boobs and Bottles – Is Breast Always Best?

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.

Breastfeeding mother reading a bookOne 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:Baby breastfeeding in close up - Photo: thekmancom

Breastfeeding Pros

  • 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.

Breastfeeding Cons

  • 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.

Formula feed being made up - Photo: Darren WBottle feeding pros

  • 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 Baby feeding from a bottle - Photo: katerhafriends 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.

About Kait Leeming

Pushing 30, thrifty crafter and foody. One husband, one dog, one baby (small). Too many interests, too little time, far too few brew & biccy breaks.


6 thoughts on “Of Boobs and Bottles – Is Breast Always Best?

  1. This is such a great article. I’ve very pro-breastfeeding because I thoroughly enjoying it with both my children but I was never able to find objective information on formula or bottle feeding. I wish I’d had an honest pros and cons list to read like this, it would have saved me a lot of anguish when trying to decide whether I should switch to formula or stick with the breastfeeding when the going got tough.

    Posted by eggdipdip | March 6, 2012, 2:28 pm
  2. It is a great article, however I wish to challenge you on a few points. Firstly, breast isn’t best – it is normal. It is the default way to feed a baby. You can’t escape the fact that if you have a baby, your breasts will produce milk – the mechanism is that a hormone which inhibits lactation switches off when mum gives birth and when the breasts are stimulated. The full term baby will automatically root for the breast. These facts are incontrovertible, with the rare exceptions where there is something physiologically wrong with the baby or the mother – and many of these things (previous breast surgery, tongue tie and poor muscle tone in the infant for example) can be overcome with skilled support. Your circumstances, are not normal, I appreciate that and you are doing an amazing job!
    There are few medications that pass enough in to breast milk to cause potential harm to the infant, the problem is not all GPs think to even look and investigate the options because it is easier to tell mum to stop breastfeeding.
    A lot of your cons under breastfeeding is due to how society views breastfeeding – such as the guilt, nursing in public, tiredness, not seeing other mums breastfeeding. In societies where breastfeeding is commonplace these issues do not exist. Sadly in the UK we live in a very anti breastfeeding society – breastfeeding mothers are far more game for abuse than formula feeding mothers – to the point that the NHS and other medical establishments are reluctant to discuss the health risks of formula for fear of alienating mothers who formula feed. Just look at some of the recent articles in the press!
    Absolutely mothers have the right to choose not to breastfeed and I support them, there are lots of valid reasons, health, lifestyle, social and family pressures and of course mothers should not be made to feel guilty. However they need to be informed of the risks, and the NHS are absolutely correct in wanting more mothers to breastfeed. More mothers breastfeeding means less admissions of babies to hospital for bronchiolitis, gastroenteritis, D&V, asthma, pneumonia and necrotising encotolitis, which saves the NHS money. However what they are doing wrong is putting too much money into promotion and not enough into support. Consistent, informed and knowledgeable support is vital, and one of the key things Norway put in place to increase breastfeeding rates to make them the breastfeeding capital of Europe.
    In ideal world, all mothers who do not or cannot breastfeed should have access to donor milk, but there are few milk banks in the UK. So turning to formula is completely understandable. After all no-one should allow their child to starve and formula is adequate to sustain a baby until the transition to a solids based diet.
    Sadly the millions of pound spent on aggressive marketing of formula over the last 80 years has done an amazing job of convincing too many mothers that they cannot breastfeed for more than a few weeks. How sad that these marketing gurus have stolen our faith in what our bodies can do.

    Congratulations and enjoy your new baby!

    PS I recommend reading Kate Evan’s the Food of Love, it has some lovely cartoons in it and I feel it is quite balanced. And if you feel up to it in a few months, Politics of Breastfeeding: Why Breasts are Bad for Business by Gabrielle Palmer is a huge eye opener.

    Posted by madreleche | March 6, 2012, 3:16 pm
    • To be honest Madreleche, thinking of breastfeeding as ‘normal’ is exactly how I got through the difficulties I did have once I’d decided to breastfeed, but that’s a story for another post. And you are quite right that very few medicines actually prevent breastfeeding, but i’ve found in many cases a more careful selection of meds is required as so few practitioners are really up to speed on exactly what the risks are with each treatment. For instance Domperidone which is prescribed to help increase milk prodution (a side effect rather than it’s intended use admittedly) includes a fact sheet which advises breastfeeding mothers not to use it, so even the pharmaceuticals themselves can’t make up their minds.

      And yes I also take your criticism about breastfeeding negatives being mostly down to how society views breast feeding mothers, but we do have to live in that society so i don’t see them as any less valid than perhaps the health concerns. And whilst I support those women who do chose to feed this way and think it would be lovely to have a more supportive society in which to this i think the current approach is utterly inappropriate. The NHS’s ram-it-down-your-throat method actually nearly had me digging me heels in in protest. In my opinion this is a very personal choice and given honest and unbiased advice without the pressure or the guilt and with the support of more lactation consultants and feeding specialists I believe the uptake and commitment to ongoing breast feeding would be far greater. The fact the NHS present next to no information on bottle feeding means women have to turn to the formula producers for advice and this will obviously only push them one way.

      Regarding Norway, am I not right in thinking that you can only get formula there on prescription? To me that appears to be taking it entirely to the other extreme and surely what we want is a balance approach and informed choice.

      Posted by Kait Leeming | March 6, 2012, 6:50 pm
  3. Brilliant post! Your granny is a wise woman. So much of the conflict around feeding is about lack of information and innaccurate information. I suppose I now qualify as a breastfeeding advocate, what with running a breastfeeding clothing website and all… and should therefore villify the bottlefeeding mafia (!) but if you had taken those facts, and made another decision, based on your own baby and own family, that decision would still have been right and there should be no guilt or blame attached.

    What upsets me is that so often parents make decisions to breastfeed or formula feed based on rumour and misinformation… That kind of decision should be based in fact.

    Posted by milkchic | March 6, 2012, 4:12 pm
    • I agree totally Milkchic, getting the right information to the right people in the right way is the real challenge facing all those involved in this debate. For me breastfeeding has been tough, with a tiny baby with tongue tie, but it was the right decision I am lucky that I have had some good support but i have had medical practitioners tutting at me for choosing to breast feed (as it meant it took baby longer to get feeding established and therefore be able to leave the NNU) and others giving me disdaining looks for allowing bottle feeding at all (despite at the time it being breakmilk in the bottle). It’s hard for mother’s ever to win in this one, and if they can’t win they should at least be happy with what they are doing, in my opinion.

      Posted by Kait Leeming | March 6, 2012, 6:57 pm
  4. Poo definitely does smell nicer from a breastfed baby 🙂 It’s because the gut has less work to do as the milk is designed for that particular baby. I had one baby go on the bottle at 4 months, and the other one took over a year before I stopped, and the one that was exclusively bottle fed for a while definitely did smellier poo 🙂

    Also, leaky nipples get less as things get established – with both of mine, I had milk everywhere for the first six months (medication made me carry on lactating between babies) but then things calmed down. By the time my second baby was one, I was just dressing normally, with a normal bra, no breastpads or anything. I think the problem is that breastfeeding in this country tends to stop early (I’m not judging, both of mine stopped early) so the bit that is harder at the beginning takes on more significance as a proportion of breastfeeding time, if that makes sense.

    I must agree though, I felt much more judged when I gave child 1 a bottle, and I still feel guilty now that child 2 will snuggle up into my cleavage and drink cows milk from her sippy cup instead. But I would have felt more guilty if I had carried on and not got treatment for my health problems, so…who knows.

    Someone very wise (probably a mumsnetter) once told me that the rule of motherhood is that if you don’t feel guilty, you’re not concentrating hard enough 🙂 No matter what you do, having someone so reliant on you will mean that every single choice becomes more significant than it probably is.

    For me, the main attraction for breastfeeding was that you can’t make a bottle in your sleep – I perfected the art of moving a co sleeping baby from one boob to the other without even waking up properly, which was brilliant.

    Posted by Alicia J Duffy | March 6, 2012, 8:42 pm

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