Breast Is Best, But It’s Not About The Milk

(Ditch The Formula Feeding Guilt & Bond With Your Baby)

“Breast Is Best!” The phrase kept haunting me.

I always assumed my child would be 100% breastfed. I read many books and devoured chapters of breastfeeding issues and how to overcome them. I knew it would be difficult, but I figured with the right support I would succeed. I struggled for 10 years with fertility delay and feeling like my body failed me before. Now that I had this miracle baby at age 43, it felt like another way my body was failing me when I couldn’t exclusively breastfeed. But, my child bonded with both my husband and me in a way that might never have happened if I exclusively breastfed. Over 2 years later, reflecting back on my experiences, I came to the realization that breast is best, but it’s not about the milk. It’s about bonding with your child through skin-to-skin time, community support, unplugging from technology, and listening to your child. You can do this feeding breast milk or formula.

All my research and intuition led me to combination feeding (both breastmilk and formula) being best for our family, and yet I still had some nagging guilt surrounding formula.

I read a few articles from the Fed is Best campaign and learned that some babies come close to dying, or became dangerously ill due to dehydration stemming from mothers trying to exclusively breastfeed with inadequate milk supply. But Fed is Best still didn’t make me feel any better about my decision. I still heard the message that breastmilk is the best choice, but our words will give you comfort if you are forced into a different option.

I couldn’t make sense of why the research on breastfeeding seemed to show breastmilk as being so much better than formula. So I started to look at the research from a different perspective.

What if the outcomes that were lower in formula-fed children, had nothing to do with the formula itself? Most people interpreting the research were convinced socio-economic factors accounted for the differences. But, I am firmly convinced it has to do with feeding practices.

The benefits of breastfeeding come from the act of bonding with a baby that is somewhat forced on you by having them drink breastmilk. You have to hold them in order to feed them in this way.

And what a baby requires to be healthy, have higher test scores, and do well in life is TOUCH. But breastfeeding is not the only way to give them the contact they need.

I would assume that the reason why formula feeders scored lower on many scales was that it’s easier to practice distracted feeding when the milk is in a bottle. It’s easier to say

“I will just place my baby on a couch and let them drink from the bottle while I get other stuff done”.

But what if it’s that bonding that is the real reason the studies come out so skewed in favor of breastfeeding, and not the milk content itself? The metadata conclusions, once other issues have been factored out, suggest that today’s formula and breastmilk are pretty much equal in terms of nutritional value. So, what really is the factor that makes the difference?

I say it is bonding with touch. If you look at Ruth Kamnitzer’s observations of breastfeeding in the Mongolian culture, the solution for toddlers who are acting out is for everyone to offer up their breast for breastfeeding. Even grandmothers, grandfathers, and other men, all who have no breast milk to offer, still offer their breast. And, what’s more, is that Kamnitzer says this loving comfort helps to re-center the toddler when they are having trouble playing with other children or generally having a rough time. The Mongolians instinctively know the power of skin to skin touch.

In a study performing a meta-analysis of breastmilk vs. formula, where differences between siblings in a family were looked at, suddenly that huge gap between breast milk and formula was closed. One study author concluded that maybe the benefit of breastfeeding is more about feeding practices than the milk itself.

In studies performed by Michael Kramer, where tests seemed to show breastfeeding to be superior, the scores were not consistent from one clinic to another. In talking with Hanna Rosin, author of The Case Against Breastfeeding, he mentions that maybe that the reason for the results being skewed towards breastfeeding could be that “breastfeeding mothers’ {are} interacting more with their babies, rather than of anything in the milk.”

I started to ask myself — what if they were studying the wrong variable? How we feed our children, not What we feed them. (Don’t get me wrong — if you are feeding your child some random food that is not designed to be used as formula or you prepare powdered formula with water that is not clean, this is not properly feeding your child. However, if you choose a quality formula and follow all the directions the research shows that the milk itself can be equal to breastmilk in terms of nourishment.)

My story:

One year before our child arrived, I made the leap to move from the US to Sweden to be with Mattias, the man who became the father of my child and my husband. When my waters broke 3.5 weeks early (PROM — premature rupture of membranes), and my contractions still weren’t starting I ended up with labor induction. Twelve hours later, after acupuncture to help clear my mind from the medication, and time in the bathtub, I finally pushed my child out in one fell swoop. Following a brief moment where E was allowed to lie on my chest, the midwife declared E wasn’t breathing well and told me we would all need to be transferred to a different hospital since they didn’t have a NICU where we gave birth.

My calm images of starting to breastfeed were all shattered. I anticipated this first bonding and my breastmilk coming in. Instead, the midwives said our child would be tube-fed formula while in the NICU, and I would be stuck hanging out with the breast pump. I panicked. I thought if I couldn’t exclusively breastfeed — my child would have a lower IQ, more allergies, poor digestion, and any breastfeeding we did would be more difficult.

The LAST thing you need when having your baby taken suddenly away from you is more guilt, but I was incurring a huge serving of it, on top of the physical and emotional pain and hormones going wild.

When we got to the NICU, the staff encouraged a lot of skin-to-skin time with our child. It was the calm in the center of a storm and it reconnected me to my child. Skin-to-skin bonding helps to regulate temperature and has been proven to help NICU babies recover faster and decrease the rate of deaths from complications.

In a meta-analysis study on skin-to-skin, sometimes called “Kangaroo Care”, in the NICU, the authors reported a decrease in mortality rate by 37% and interestingly enough, an increased rate of exclusive breastfeeding. Other factors such as improved head circumference growth, lower levels of pain and a decrease in hypothermia, hypoglycemia and readmission rate to the hospital, indicated that this was good practice for all premature babies.

In the NICU, E was fed through a tube, but once E graduated to stay with us in the special care ward, Mattias started doing feedings. As pumping took so much time, I was too exhausted to also do the feeding, so Mattias sat bare-chested with our little one and patiently fed little cups of formula. And then as my milk started to come in, he fed E my milk first, topping up with formula after. We slowly started to also breastfeed.

I remember in the first few days being jealous of the bond that Mattias and my child had. In inconsolable crying moments, it was only my husband that could soothe E, even though I was spending time holding them as well. Mattias would sometimes fall asleep with our child on his bare chest. It was a beautiful bond that still continues to this day.

In that study on Kangaroo care, they mentioned that pain scores were reduced by skin-to-skin care. The hospital was in the practice of giving some sugar water to help reduce pain for blood draws that they did. But, instinctively, I thought that our touching and holding would do the trick instead. We refused the sugar water and instead stayed close. I sang to E and offered to let them suck on my finger for comfort. E never cried when poked. I only noticed that E sucked more vigorously. After a week of learning to breastfeed and some light therapy to help get rid of jaundice, we brought our child home.

My milk supply continued to increase with breastfeeding and pumping. And by the time E was 6 weeks old, I felt so proud of myself for achieving full breastfeeding status. Only a day or two later, however, I descended into my own personal hell. My child became more and more upset and neither of us slept for more than 30 minutes at a time. E was constantly crying and fussy and you could tell that their tummy was hurting. E’s skin became increasingly yellow, a repeat of jaundice they had in the hospital. After nearly a week of exclusive breastfeeding, I went to my scheduled midwife/nurse checkup and burst into tears.

I confessed I was scared to give formula because I thought the best thing for my child was breast milk. But I was delirious from lack of sleep and resenting my child who I didn’t seem to be able to comfort. I was so scared of formula that I couldn’t make a well-informed decision. My nurse/midwife looked at me and said “feed formula if it’s what is best for YOU!”

Everything I had read focused on what was best for the baby. I hadn’t stopped to consider what was best for me as the mother. (And that by extension if something made me feel better, then it would also be good for my child because I would be a better mother when I was more rested and clear-thinking.)

My child was diagnosed with breastmilk jaundice. The doctor told me to keep feeding breastmilk and it would eventually get better, but the simple solution was to give some formula. I knew that something had to change or I was going to lose my mind. And my child was obviously distressed. Having previously read that heavy metals and toxins are often stored in breast tissue, my intuition told me that I probably had high levels of toxins in my breastmilk as a result of heavy metals from previous dental work. Jaundice means that the liver is having a hard time processing all the toxins it is receiving. I felt that the best option for my child was to feed a combination of formula and breast milk, both for my own sanity and for my child’s health. I also made the choice that if we were to feed formula long term, I would research the best formula options and I found an organic brand, HIPP that was available at our local grocery store.

Going back to a combination of breastfeeding and formula allowed my husband to take over some of the feedings and let me get some much-needed sleep. We also added a probiotic supplement and things started to improve immensely. In a day or two, jaundice disappeared and we had a happy baby and happy mama again. Formula was actually a saving grace for me.

If we want to improve outcomes for all children, both breastfed and formula fed, we need to talk instead about distracted feeding vs. SOUL feeding (Skin-to-skin, Oxytocin, Unplug & Listen). Click here if you would like to read more about how to incorporate these ideas into your newborn care.

Let’s change this conversation from Breastmilk vs. Formula to focusing on lovingly feeding our children. This is something everyone can do. Mother, father, grandparent, caregiver. We can’t all produce breastmilk but, we can all lovingly care for our children. We can all remove distractions and make sure to hold our child while feeding. Let’s focus on best practices to encourage forming strong bonds with our children that will set them up for greater success in life.

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