Beyond Breast VS. Bottle: A Conversation with the Fearless Formula Feeder

This week Suzanne Barston, the writer behind the much-admired blog Fearless Formula Feeder, launches her new book, BOTTLED UP: How the Way we Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why it Shouldn’t.

I’ve long followed Barston’s blog, the tagline of which is, “standing up for formula feeders, without being a boob about it,” and was thrilled to be able to interview her for Babble. I encourage all of you– whether you feed your babies formula, breastmilk or gruel — to read what she has to say here.

Though I don’t always agree with the particulars of Barston’s arguments, I consistently find her to be one of the most engaging, open-minded and articulate women on the subject of baby-feeding. Like her blog entries over the years, Bottled Up conveys more nuances than absolutes when it comes to the question of how and what to feed babies.

On that note, here she is elevating the breast vs. bottle conversation and answering important questions like, “How we can normalize breastfeeding, without abnormalizing formula feeding?” I enjoyed this interview immensely, I hope you do too!


Ceridwen Morris: You and I have had some very civilized debates about breastfeeding advocacy in what can be some fairly uncivilized settings (comment boards on blogs!)  I always enjoy our back-and-forth because I think you’re genuinely interested in opening up this conversation. It’s never breast vs. formula with you, which is refreshing. Still, engaging in this conversation isn’t easy and flame wars ignite so quickly. Do you have a few tips for our readers on how to engage in productive (online) debate on the topic of breastfeeding?

Suzanne Barston: I think hot topics whether it is politics, religion, abortion, or parenting can always be discussed politely and respectfully. But it’s much easier to do so when the person on the other side of the conversation is treating you with the same consideration. Unfortunately, online, it’s too easy to veer off into snark and condescension, because I think a lot of us take out our stress and anger on the keyboard, you know? There’s that old “internet manners” rule about keeping in mind what you’d say to a person if they were face to face with you… and that’s definitely a good place to start. Some of us are confrontational in real life too, though, so I’m not sure obeying that rule will do much. I’ve gotten to a point where I only engage if I think someone is open to a rational discussion. It’s pointless to get into an endless loop of anger with extremists you’re not going to change anyone’s opinion.

Still, I think the most important thing we can do when it comes to the breast/bottle debate is realize that it is NOT a breast/bottle debate. It is a breastfeeding pressure/bottle feeding choice debate. I talk about this in the book, but breastfeeding moms get a load of crap from ignorant folks online and in their everyday lives (especially if you dare to nurse a child after their first birthday); it’s understandable that they are on the defensive. And likewise, formula feeders are constantly weathering a barrage of articles about how formula feeding costs our country billions of dollars a year because of our “suboptimal” behavior, and studies which try and tell us why we aren’t breastfeeding, and why if we’d just been educated more on the evils of formula our breasts would work better, or we wouldn’t have had postpartum depression, or what have you. I don’t think most moms who get into these debates as formula feeders are the same ones who are saying disparaging things about breastfeeding moms – although I do see women lumping breastfeeding moms together with militant breastfeeding advocates, and this is like nails on a chalkboard for me. Luckily most of those people fall into the irrational extremist category mentioned above, so they’re not worth engaging with anyway right? For the most part, the women I see getting involved in online wars on this subject wanted to breastfeed, or if they didn’t, they don’t extend their distaste for the practice to others it’s more of an internal thing (kind of like me not liking kiwi. I freaking hate kiwi. But I totally get why other people love it.) So I wish breastfeeding moms could enter these debates with that knowledge- that most bottle-feeding moms support breastfeeding, and are simply defending our experiences, and are raging against what we consider to be sub-par research and support.

Just as importantly, formula feeding moms need to be really careful not to assume that any blog post or article that is talking about breastfeeding in a positive way is a direct dig to their way of feeding. I think it’s awesome when people write positively about breastfeeding. I’d like to see a parenting world where we can talk about breast and bottle not as competitors, but as two means to the same end. And if you do have strong opinions about the way people feed their babies, that’s okay just realize that your words are going to ruffle feathers if you start telling other women how they should feel about their breasts. The people who ruin the conversation for everyone else are the ones shouting generalizations and absolutes. Parenting should be about shades of grey. (Just not all 50 shades, because that would be exhausting…)

Formula was big news for the working women of the 70s. It meant they could ditch the confining domesticity of previous decades and take on new roles and jobs out in the world. These days, women– and many feminists– are fighting for a woman’s right to breastfeed; to be supported in breastfeeding right away, to be able pump at work, to have more maternity leave, to be able to nurse in public. You’ve talked about how having a “choice” is really what we need to focus on. What does having a REAL choice between both feeding options look like?

A real choice means that we are educated during pregnancy about the realities of both breastfeeding and formula feeding. This means statistics translated into plain speak, explaining relative risk (i.e., most kids have a x in y chance of getting whatevershmever disease. Feeding formula is associated with a z increased risk, meaning that a formula fed child may have a x in y chance of getting whatevershmever.)There should be literature written by both breastfeeding experts and formula feeding experts made available— I think it’s ridiculous that the only two places new parents can get info on formula feeding is from the formula companies or from breastfeeding advocacy groups/organizations with a vested interest in raising breastfeeding rates, like WHO or Baby Friendly USA. That’s like having to get info on vegetarianism from either the beef board or PETA. Hardly neutral.

Real choice then means respecting a woman’s decision once in the maternity ward. That means not pushing formula on anyone; abiding by the steps set forth by Baby Friendly USA, as long as the mother does not request otherwise. If she makes it clear that she wants to supplement or not breastfeed altogether, this choice must be respected, and she should be given unbiased, scientifically sound information on safe formula preparation. If she wants to breastfeed, she should be offered round-the-clock lactation assistance and the opportunity to opt against supplementation unless medically necessary. Simple as that.

Next, society needs to stop having a say in how women feed their babies. Politicans do not need to be weighing in on what we do or don’t do with our breasts. Instead, they should be ensuring that no matter what a woman’s choice of feeding, parenting is respected in our country. Breastfeeding in public should be legally supported and anyone who harasses a woman for doing so should be penalized not because breastfeeding is best for society, but because respecting women is best for society. Full stop. Government needs to put their money where their mouth is and subsidize maternity leave for all women because saying that companies should do it solves nothing. What about all of us who are independent contractors, waged workers, etc? Not all women are doctors, lawyers, teachers, or corporate accountants. If the president is going to endorse breastfeeding and urge women to do it, I’d like to see him help give us adequate time to figure it all out.

Real choice means accepting that breastfeeding is not going to work for everyone, at least in the exclusive, long-term sense, and ensuring that formula is the best it can be. Or, creating systemic change that could make milk sharing or screened milk banks a more common practice. But true choice means allowing for an alternative to breastfeeding or exclusive pumping. I’ve had numerous breastfeeding advocates tell me that it is impossible to support both formula feeding and breastfeeding as viable options. I don’t know why we are willing to settle for this argument. Why the hell not? What does that say about our society, and the way we treat women?

What do you think about the slogan “breast is best?”

Not a fan, but I don’t think I’m the only one— which is exactly why there’s a push to switch to “breast is normal”, right? Saying breast is “best” implies that it is a privilege to breastfeed it lumps it with other “best” things like good private schools, organic food, and fancy strollers. Breast is normal implies exactly what it says breastfeeding is the norm, formula feeding is an alternative. It’s actually a logical assessment and I don’t disagree with it. But I find both sayings really tunnel-visioned. Who has the right to tell a woman what is “normal” or “best” for her family? Yes, science can tell us that one option is preferable over the next. But science is not life. Health and wellness is connected to social and emotional factors as well, and these are the intangibles that we need to consider when talking to women about breastfeeding or formula feeding. A lot depends on the individual. I think a better saying would be “Breast is normal. Formula is an option. Make an informed choice, and love your kid.” But that wouldn’t make for a very catchy slogan.

One reason I got
involved in fighting for more acceptance of breastfeeding was the incredible ignorance about and disgust over women’s bodies (or, more specifically, milk-making abilities) I encountered when I had my first baby. My family is Anglo-Australian and while my parents were far from hippies, there was a much more gentle and, to put it in today’s vernacular, “body-positive,” feeling around birth and breastfeeding. I saw breastfeeding from an early age and it was completely normal to me. Many American women and men I meet don’t have this background. In the US there’s a ridiculous tension between the idea of sexy breasts and functional breasts– where I come from they’re both. But then when I start to talk about how beautiful and normal and wonderful breastfeeding is… that makes women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed feel like I’m saying they are abnormal or not wonderful or beautiful. This kind of sucks for everyone. How do we normalize breastfeeding without abnormalizing formula feeding?

This is a really good question. I think if we could stop the game of trying to make it Breastfeed Or Else!!! and instead focus our efforts on portraying breastfeeding as beautiful, normal, and body-affirming, it would be a truly positive change. If the fear and guilt aspects were not hanging over the heads of those who can’t breastfeed for physical reasons, then I don’t think this would offend people as much. Sure, there would be a wistfulness involved but there are plenty of “ideals” we’d like to achieve that we don’t. My friend has a gorgeous, big house. I’d love to have a bigger house. It doesn’t make me feel like less of a person because I don’t have one and she does. I’m happy for her.

I’d love to see a campaign which focuses on the beauty of breastfeeding, and doesn’t focus on the health benefits or throw a bunch of statistics at me. I think that would help far more women who want to breastfeed to be able to do so definitely more than the current campaigns do.

Kind of off-topic, but I want to make sure my kids are raised knowing that breastfeeding is normal. So when we discuss babies and bottles and bodies, I make it a point to tell them that most of their friends were fed from their mothers’ breasts, but that some babies are fed from bottles. I want them to know that both are okay, and that a lot of babies eat from both, and I don’t want them to have any moral judgments about it. They’ve seen all of our friends nursing. To them, it will be normal. Doesn’t matter if you breastfeed or bottle feed, that’s something we can all do to help future generations avoid this stupid mommy war crap, and to normalize breastfeeding.

Recently there was a story about a formula additive causing deaths in newborns. I immediately saw Facebook comments saying things like, “another score for breastfeeding!” which was horrific. Babies with severe refux had died. Some had died from this additive put into breastmilk. But the knee-jerk reaction by some members of the community was to shout out, We should all be breastfeeding! See! Other breastfeeding advocates criticized those comments immediately, but it made me angry because when people who call themselves educators or women’s advocates or awareness-raisers say things like, “formula is poison,” Oh Lordy, do we set the entire conversation back! Can you please give us breastfeeding advocates a few tips on how to not be jerks?

I stayed away from that news story with a ten-foot pole, because it pissed me off so much that I knew I’d never be able to keep my cool. First of all, the additive was a thickener, used in both breastmilk and formula feeds. Nothing to do with formula. But I digress.

I know there are some breastfeeding advocates who think I’m the devil incarnate, and anything I say will fall on deaf ears. They do think formula is poison, and that anyone defending formula feeding is working for the formula companies or delusional or defensive or… so I don’t know if there is anything I could say that would change that. But I’d warn them that if the goal is to increase breastfeeding rates and normalize breastfeeding, statements like “formula is poison” are going to alienate a lot of women. Most women in our generation were formula fed or have friends who formula feed; looking at our breastfeeding rates, most America women are using some formula by 6 months out, even if they are breastfeeding predominately. So these sort of extreme, polarizing sentiments just widen the divide between “us” and “them”. You might want to grit your teeth and hold your tongue, and just let loose on private message boards rather than the public ones.

But luckily, I think the vast majority of breastfeeding advocates are wonderful women who care deeply about a cause, and might just make a misstep here and there. I hope the same could be said about me I know there are times I step over the line, or inadvertently insult someone when that is not at all what I mean to do. The best we can all do is try and think how we’d feel if someone said the same thing to us how would you like it if, when a baby died from smothering while a mother breastfed on a plane, or a newborn dies from a drug overdose passed through the mother’s milk two totally freakish stories that happened in the past few years people started saying “breastfeeding kills!” If you’re getting defensive just thinking about it, there’s a good reason it would be a ridiculously stupid, insensitive, and incorrect thing to say. That’s how we feel when people are so quick to jump to conclusions about formula. Even if you know it’s not true, it still makes you wince to hear it. And then you want to correct it, so you post a response, and there we are back at the online mommy wars again. It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

If you could design a PSA about baby-feeding what message would you want to convey?

Honestly, I’d write a 30-second spot based on the story I tell in the last chapter of my book. Two women, similar stories, different endings. Both feeding their babies confidently, with proper support. Healthy, happy mothers and babies. The message would be: we need to support women in whatever choice they make. Breastfeeding needs more help because it has a lot of societal barriers to overcome, but we can’t throw formula feeders off the side of the bus in the process.

How have your feelings about baby-feeding changed over the years?

I was a bit, er, dogmatic about breastfeeding while pregnant with my first. Then, after struggling so hard and feeling like my failure to breastfeed ruined my first months as a mom, I was angry. Seriously angry. I call this my “militant formula feeder” stage. I was always pro-breastfeeding, but I definitely had less tolerance for breastfeeding advocacy and could not understand a lot of the reasons behind certain campaigns (like banning the formula swag bags, for example). After researching the issue for several years, I think I am more pro-breastfeeding now than I ever was I’ve seen studies that show some truly miraculous properties of breastmilk, and I am utterly convinced that it can be one of the coolest things a woman can do. I also know how hard it can be to breastfeed in many parts of the country and in different socio-economic and cultural atmospheres. This has made me appreciate those who are fighting for breastfeeding’s resurgence. But at the same time, I have grown increasingly adamant that breastfeeding advocacy is veering off into a very dangerous and counterproductive place. I know firsthand how formula is a lifesaver for so many women and babies, for reasons most people can’t imagine; I know how necessary it is to view infant feeding with nuance and flexibility.

I think this issue is far more complicated than it is made out to be, and yet the solution is embarrassingly simple: our goal should be healthy, happy families, not higher breastfeeding rates. Breastfeeding should be supported, but not forced. Formula feeding should be accepted as a viable choice. And no matter what, we shouldn’t be treating infant feeding as anything more than food, in the end. Love is love, and as cheesy as it sounds, the organ beneath the left breast is far more vital to motherhood than the mammary gland on top of it.

Ceridwen Morris (CCE) is a childbirth educator and the co-author of the pregnancy and birth guide From The Hips. Follow her blogging on Facebook.



Thank you Suzanne!

Article Posted 4 years Ago

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