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Formula feeding vs. Breastfeeding: My Personal Pros and Cons

Sweet baby G, snoozing away at naptime yesterday

Before I really dig into this subject, I want to lay the groundwork, so that y’all understand where I am coming from.

First of all, I am a vocal, longtime, public advocate of breastfeeding as a critical infant-maternal and public health issue. In fact, I even wrote a relatively popular book that is chock full of info on the hows and whys of breastfeeding.  Lately, I am disappointed with, and somewhat baffled by an anti-breastfeeding meme that I think started with this Hanna Rosin article in The Atlantic, and is now being repeated in all kinds of other ways in the mainstream parenting media. I just don’t get trying to make the case that the large and growing body of well-designed, peer-reviewed medical research demonstrating that breastfeeding is a very important component of overall good health for populations of women and infants isn’t that compelling. Because it is.

Furthermore, I’ve got what you might refer to as “issues” with the corporations that make and sell infant formula. Although I credit these companies with doing a better job in recent years of formulating their product to be safer than it was back when  I wrote this scathing article on the topic in the late 1990s, these companies are still not meeting their ethical obligations relative to the obscene amounts of money they are raking in on this unbelievably lucrative product. I strongly believe that the advertising and marketing activities of infant formula companies operating in this country and elsewhere should be brought into compliance with the WHO Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, and that the remarkably inappropriate relationships between infant formula producers and many doctors and hospitals need to be better regulated by physicians themselves, as well as the FDA. While babies and women in less developed countries suffer more when infant formula companies flout the WHO Code, our own government’s disinterest in setting the right example on this critical issue here  in the U.S. is truly sad.

As for my personal baby-feeding experiences, I’ve kind of done it all. I breastfed my first baby for only  three weeks back in 1991. I wanted to nurse him, but I was only 23 years old, and totally clueless, and there was no Internet to help me realize how faulty my pediatrician’s breastfeeding advice was. So that foray into breastfeeding didn’t last long. Then I went on to nurse my second baby for more than 4 years. My third baby weaned from the breast at about three years, while my fourth baby was breastfed for 13 months (not coincidentally, she was the first baby I breastfed while also working at a demanding, full time job, outside the home).

Having said all of that, I am currently exclusively formula feeding my fifth child, Baby G, now seven months old. G was born six weeks early on June 27th of last year, only 3 weeks after my oldest child died after a lengthy, stressful hospitalization. The combination of a premature baby who was too tired to nurse, on top of the shock and grief of having just lost my precious son did a real number on my body’s ability to produce milk for my baby. After exhausting all workable options for making breastfeeding work in my baby’s first few weeks, I began formula feeding my baby full time.

I did not and do not feel guilty about this, and no one has ever acted like I should feel guilty. It’s kind of seemed like a non-issue. I also don’t feel that my guilt-free use of infant formula to feed my daughter conflicts in any way with my position on the importance of breastfeeding. The fact is that I could not feed my own  baby with my own milk this time around, even after getting the right support, information and help. Thus, I turned to the most reasonable replacement option, which in my particular case was commercial infant formula. And that’s what infant formula is for – to feed babies a relatively nutritious substitute for mother’s milk when the best option isn’t available – whether that’s by maternal choice or necessity.

I continue to believe that breastmilk would be healthier for Baby G, but that’s a moot point. I don’t have any to give her. So as with so many parenting experiences, I had to shoot for “good enough,” and move on.

So that’s my context for this blog post. I have both breastfed and formula fed my babies. I have been a stay at home, exclusively breastfeeding mom, and I have been a full-time, work outside the home pumping, breastfeeding mom. And now I have been a full time, working, formula feeding mom for the last six months. This variety means that I have a lot of real-word experience  to draw on in sharing what I’ve liked and disliked about each type of baby feeding. But again, nothing in the list of  my “pros and cons” of each feeding method that I am about to offer up should IN ANY WAY suggest that I don’t continue to believe that breastfeeding matters a great deal to babies’ health and women’s health, and that breastfeeding support and promotion should be a public health priority. That is a given, and represents the context for my thoughts on OTHER, more logistical aspects of the breastfeeding vs. formula feeding experience.

Okay, lengthy prologue over. Without further ado, I give you my super honest, highly personal comparison of what the experience of breastfeeding vs. formula feeding has been like for me as a mother.

Remember: your mileage may vary.

BREASTFEEDING PROS

-Breastfeeding was pretty much completely free. The only money I ever spent on breastfeeding was a few hundred bucks for a breastpump (this was for child #4. Until that, I never used one ) and some $$ to buy antibiotics for the occasional case of mastitis I got while breastfeeding. The few times that I needed outside help or support, I went with a La Leche League Leader rather than a Lactation Consultant.  LLL Leaders are volunteers, so their consultation and advice is – you guessed it – free. (FYI: if you do decide to go with a Lactation Consultant to which you will pay out money for her advice, be sure that she is Board Certified. Anyone can call herself a Lactation Consultant. I could hang a shingle tomorrow and set up shop as a “Lactation Consultant,” and in fact, some of the “Lactation Consultants” who are employed to help new moms in hospitals are not certified and have no meaningful training.)

-Breastfeeding was incredibly easy. After the first week or two of engorgement, baby learning to nurse, etc, I found breastfeeding to be super easy and low stress. No bottles to wash, formula to prepare, stuff to pack when you were going somewhere with the baby. Easy peasy. I’m lazy and can’t cook, so that worked for me.

-Breastfeeding was the simplest, no-fail way to soothe my babies/toddlers, or get them to sleep. If I needed my nursing child to fall asleep, whether it was in a movie theater or at bedtime, I just offered my breast. If I needed her to stop crying, whether from a toddler meltdown or a skinned knee, I just nursed her, and she suddenly felt that all was right with the world.

-Breastfeeding was cozy and special for me and my babies. Except at moments when I was in a crazy hurry to have them speed it  up and finish eating already, I really appreciated the fact that breastfeeding gave me an excuse to just be with my babies, snuggling and cuddling. No one else can nurse your baby, and you can’t rush it, so when I breastfed them, I was fully present.

-And in a ridculously ironic counterpoint to my last “pro,” another plus is that you can breastfeed and type at the same time. As a writer, I appreciated this breastfeeding pro A LOT. Let me tell you that many of the articles and essays that I’ve published over the years were completed with a baby or toddler nursing as I worked.

-Breastfeeding feels good. For me, breastfeeding offered moments of actual physical euphoria, which I recognized as an oxytocin rush. Who doesn’t like euphoria? Yay for euphoria!

-Breastfeeding helped me learn to mother. With my first babies, I was kind of unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. I’m not sure if I can articulate this clearly, but it was my experience that breastfeeding required me to be so physically in tune with my baby’s body and cues that I sort of got the hang of every other aspect of caring for him/her. Has anyone else experienced this?

-Changing a breastfed baby or toddler’s diaper is WAAAAY less yucky than changing a formula fed baby’s nappy. ‘Nuff said.

BREASTFEEDING CONS (remember, I am describing ONLY MY OWN EXPERIENCE. You might not have had any of these logistical bothers or frustrations with nursing, but I did.)

– I would rather chew and swallow broken glass, chased down with a cup of motor oil mixed with pureed fishsticks than pump my breasts. Okay, there I go with my natural tendency to go all hyperbolic on y’all, but seriously, I am not exaggerating to say that I hated pumping my breasts about as much as any other physical experience of my life. Yes, I had a high quality pump. Yes, I knew how to do it. Yes, I looked at photos of my baby, etc, etc. None of that ameliorated the hatred I had for affixing a breastpump to my breasts. While I pumped, I felt like clawing my eyes out. It felt a little like having a low grade anxiety attack, so unnatural did the pump flange feel pulling on my boobs. The whole thing was very puzzling; how could I love nursing my baby so much, and find it relaxing and pleasant, but find the mechanical version of the same activity so appallingly distasteful? I have no idea. I know many other women who don’t mind pumping one bit, but who feel really uncomfortable physically when actually nursing their babies. Now, having said all of this about the whole pumping thing, it’s important to note than many breastfeeding mothers never have to touch a breastpump. It’s totally possible to nurse your baby for a year or more and never use a pump. Even some working moms manage to do that with flexible scheduling. As I mentioned, I never used a breastpump ’til baby #4, when my work schedule required it of me if my baby were to be breastfed. So yeah, I hated breastpumping to a pathological, slightly bizarro degree. Your mileage may vary.

-Unless you do want to use the dreaded breastpump (and remember, you may not mind using it at all. But I do. And this is my blog, so we’re talking about MEE, MEE, MEE), it’s very difficult to schedule more than 30-60 minutes away from an exclusively breastfed baby, whether that’s to get your legs waxed, take your older child out for ice cream, or see a movie with your significant other. I never wanted to spend large amounts of time away from my breastfed babies, but in retrospect, I would have been healthier mentally and physically during the first years of my exclusively breastfed babies’ lives if I had indeed gotten the occasional leg wax.

-Dressing to accommodate breastfeeding is somewhat limiting.  Let me be clear that I am one of those super indiscreet, public breastfeeders of the type people complain about on the interwebz, meaning that when I was nursing, I never used drapes, or hid myself away in other rooms (unless my baby seemed to want some quiet in order to eat). But even though I was bold, I still had to choose my clothing more carefully any time I left the house, not to cover anything up, but simply so that I could get to my breasts at all. This annoyance became even trickier when I was working full time, and pumping at work with baby #4. All work wardrobe items had to allow for boob access without a complete strip down. That ruled out any sort of one piece sheath, and lots of other cute items that Ann Taylor had on sale.  And although “nursingwear” – clothing designed specifically to offer easy, discreet access to breasts for nursing moms-  has gotten WAAAAAAY cuter in recent years (I recommend One Hot Mama for nursing clothes you will actually like wearing), a lot of it still looks like something that Michelle Duggar – bless her heart – would favor for herself and her girls. Again, this is a highly personal issue. You may love denim jumpers; I don’t. In fact, as much as I loved breastfeeding, and treasure the memories,  I hope to never again see myself attired in anything made of denim and featuring shoulder straps … as long as I live.

Okay, now on to formula feeding….

FORMULA FEEDING PROS

-You don’t have to use a breastpump in order to allow someone else to feed your baby, whether that’s a need based on your employment, or a desire based on your need to occasionally go have a glass of wine with friends. You can also trade off night feedings with your partner, even if you co-sleep, and again, no pumping while he/she bottle feeds your baby in the wee hours.

-You can wear whatever you want, wherever you are going, and your sartorial choices do not require any relationship whatsoever to your baby’s need to eat.

-No one hassles you if you feed your baby a bottle of formula while having a martini at a restaurant. In reality, low to moderate alcohol consumption while breastfeeding is safe, but most people don’t know that, so they act really weird if you are nursing and having a beer with your burger on the 4th of July, and then you feel really bad because you are already wearing a really frumpy denim nursing jumper at the picnic, where’s it’s 99 degrees that day, making you feel like that character from “It’s Pat,” on Saturday Night Live, only sweatier, because your baby is also  sweaty and pressed up against your denim-draped, temporarily oversized chest.


FORMULA FEEDING CONS

-Oh lordy, it’s a major pain in the ass. Formula feeding is just a huge hassle. The bottles, the nipples, carrying around enough powdered formula for outings, making sure you remember bottles and formula when you travel. Lugging bottled water to the zoo so you don’t have to prepare your baby’s mid-outing meal with water from the nasty zoo water fountain. The list goes on and on…

-Infant formula is UNGODLY expensive. Granted, my baby is on a special, predigested formula that I suspect may be made of ground up fairy wings and gold-plated unicorn breath – because that’s how much the stuff costs – but all infant formula is expensive. The brand Baby G drinks (after trying several at first) costs about $23-$26 per smallish can. As she grows and eats more, her diet becomes exponentially more expensive each month. I suspect (but won’t ask Jon, who buys it, because the answer would break my heart) that we are currently spending around $400 a month on infant formula. Think what we could be buying with $400 a month. Ugh. But even my formula-feeding friends buying the economy brands and clipping coupons are spending between $150 and $250 monthly on infant formula alone.

-Infant formula – every brand that exists – smells absolutely wretched. My older kids love their baby sister, but sometimes decline to actually hold her because, as her 7th grade brother has explained, “She smells like some old french fries that got left in the car on a hot day.” And as gorgeous as she is, and as much as I adore her, I have to admit that he’s right. My formula-fed baby smells like what she eats, and that’s not a good thing. Our whole family longingly waits for the day when she is weaned from the stuff and we can find out what she actually smells like.

-Night feedings are much more tiring when you are formula feeding. Granted, you can trade off night feedings with someone else, unlike if you were exclusively breastfeeding. But on the other hand, when I was night-nursing my breastfed, co-sleeping babies, I barely woke up to feed them, snuggled up next to me. I didn’t lose much sleep and didn’t really need any help at night. Now, when G – who also co-sleeps with us, just like her older siblings did –  wakes up for a snack or a drink at night, I have to deal with poking around in the dark for the bottle on my nightstand, or even get up and make a new one. Plus, nasty smelling infant formula inevitably ends up dripping onto my sheets and pillows.

So there you have it. That’s my personal take on the pros and cons of what it’s like to formula feed vs. breastfeed a baby, because I’ve done it all, and so I really can compare honestly. Of course, what I find irksome may not trouble you a bit, and vice versa, but I thought I’d offer up my own take.

All in all, even with some pros in the formula feeding column, I’d choose breastfeeding hands down, if both options were equally possible for me. I look back on breastfeeding my babies as some of the most precious parenting hours of my life. And while I absolutely feel every bit as bonded to and close with Baby G as I did her siblings, that bond really isn’t connected to how she eats. For us, her food is more about, well, getting fed, while breastfeeding felt like a food-plus kind of deal between me and the babies.

So here we go. Have at me. (Donning my flame proof suit now, sans nursing openings, of course, since I am formula feeding and can wear whatever I darn well please). Where am I all wrong? Or alternatively, in what ways did your feeding experiences mirror mine? As a breastfeeding advocate, should I have written this blog post at all? Or was it irresponsible? Should I only talk about the parts of breastfeeding that I loved, and the things about formula feeding that I hate? And how about you? What are your own lists of “ros” and “cons” for each feeding method? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

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