What do formula, IVF, pregnancy after 30, and working moms have in common?

Some critics of this blog have taken issue with the fact that I “promote” formula feeding as a legitimate choice. It’s alright to support those who tried to breastfeed and failed for some medical reason, they say. But no mother should knowingly put her child at risk by opting for the bottle. 

I realize that most of the FFFs who are frequent readers of this blog fall into the first category. I do, myself. However, a friend of mine – one of the strongest, most amazing women I know – made a conscious choice to formula feed from day one because her husband was deployed at the time and she realized it would be a better decision for her family. Another friend (also a beautiful person and superb mother) just had her second baby, and was torn about whether or not she should try and nurse – her first daughter had a host of issues that made breastfeeding impossible, and caused a lot of stress and concern, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to risk that again; on the other hand, she couldn’t help but feel guilty about those feelings. (For the record, she breastfed for about 24 hours just for the heck of it, then switched to formula, and reports that she feels relaxed, happy and not a bit guilty.)

These women don’t deserve to be chastised any more than the woman whose baby had a severe milk protein allergy, in my opinion. As parents, we make all kinds of choices that require cost-benefit analyses, and I honestly believe that breastfeeding is just another one of these choices. There are some very real, very wonderful health benefits to breastfeeding that formula can’t match – I don’t dispute that. But I also do not think that any of the “risks” one might take by formula feeding are severe enough to justify driving yourself crazy. If you live in a place where clean water is plentiful, and can afford formula; if you commit to cuddling your baby while bottle feeding (and let’s be honest, any parent who find snuggling a newborn a chore will probably not bond that well with their kid regardless if there is a plastic or actual nipple in said baby’s mouth); if you make other healthy choices to counteract the slight increase of potential stomach upset and ear infections (like not allowing your baby to drink lying down, as liquid can pool in the ears, or making sure you find the right formula for your particular child, as certain blends are easier to digest than others); if you encourage healthy eating habits as they grow up to keep childhood obesity at bay (this is assuming you believe that formula fed kids are more prone to obesity, which I personally think is a b.s. finding completely muddled by confounding factors)… you get my point. Any slight statistical advantage can be counteracted.
I have hesitated to bring something up for awhile now, because the LAST thing I want to do is cause anybody undue worry or insult. But I do think it’s important to consider the following: 
There are other choices women make that put their children at equivalent “risk”, which most people are too P.C. to bring up. 
And for the record – I think that all of the following statistics are just as irrelevant and disputable as the breastfeeding ones – my point is simply that the stats are out there, and could just as easily be used to take away other choices from women. Which is why I intend to support formula feeding as a choice, irrelevant of the reasons behind that choice. My hope is that the ridiculousness of the following statements will bring some perspective to why I feel as I do.

Other Parenting Choices That Incur Risk to Children

1. Waiting too long to have kids 

  • From March of Dimes: Women ages 40 and older are more likely than women in their 20s and 30s to deliver prematurely,  are about 2 or 3 times more likely to have a stillborn baby, and have a significantly higher risk of chromosonal problems like Down Syndrome
  •  The risk of seven of the 10 most common childhood cancers increases slightly, about seven to 10 percent, with every five-year increase in maternal age, according to a study from the University of Minnesota.
  •  Women who put off having children until after the age of 30 are twice as likely to develop hereditary breast cancer, experts have warned. (I found this particularly interesting, considering breastfeeding also lowers the same type of breast cancer risk. So basically, you get the same protective effects by having kids a bit earlier as you do from breastfeeding. There’s a choice for you.)

2. Undergoing IVF

A 2003 article on MSNBC discussed a myriad of studies about babies born through Assisted Reproductive Technologies, showing that they were:

  • “more than twice as likely as infants in the general population to be born underweight (6.5 percent vs. 2.5 percent), putting them at risk for breathing difficulties and other potentially deadly health problems at birth as well as developmental difficulties down the line.”
  • “more than twice as likely as naturally conceived infants to have major birth defects (9 percent vs. 4.2 percent), including problems with the heart and urinary or genital tracts.”
  • privy to a  “five- to seven-fold increased risk of a rare form of eye cancer known as retinoblastoma.”

 Another article in The Guardian warned that kids born through IVF and other fertility treatments:

  • Were four times more likely to have autism than those born to fertile parents.
  • Had a higher risk of more minor problems – the incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) rose by 40%, and other medical conditions affecting hearing and sight nearly doubled.

Side note: the MSNBC article went on to explain that “Common sense would say that a lot of people have been through this and most of their children are doing well…It’s really a question of subtlety and small differences.”

I wonder what would happen if a doctor said the same about the breastfeeding studies?

3. Working

  • A British study found that children of working moms are at greater risk of becoming obese than offspring of those who stay home.
  •  Another British study claims that children of working mothers are “more likely to do worse at school, become unemployed and to suffer mental stress than youngsters whose mothers stay at home to bring them up…According to the study, the impact of having a full-time working mother on a child’s education is similar to growing up in a single-parent family..They also reject the idea that a child is helped if the father stays at home, showing that his absence has little effect on the child’s educational success.”

Imagine the uproar that would happen if these studies were used to guilt women into not working, or sacrificing other goals to have kids earlier, or not having kids at all. I’d be on the front lines of those protests. I bet a lot of other lactivists (many of whom are self-proclaimed feminists as well) would be too.

This is why I think it’s important for someone to be offering a bit of devil’s advocation regarding the breastfeeding hype. Even if you believe each and every study that says that formula feeding causes obesity, cancer, autism, etc… equivalent risks have been shown in other studies examining other choices we make as parents. We’re all doing our best, and who am I to judge another woman’s “best”?

So, yeah: I support every woman who chooses to formula feed. It’s just food. It’s good food. It may not be organic, pure, human milk. But it’s a good enough substitute that will nourish our kids well, and we are lucky to live in an age when this is an option. We are living in an age when a woman whose husband is at war can choose to feed her baby in a way that reduces a little of her (understandable) stress. When a second-time mom can look back on a bad nursing experience and decide to proactively protect her new baby (and herself) from that hell. When there is a wonderful thing called the Internet, where these women can find support for these loving, wise choices.

 I hope that answers the question. But I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that it doesn’t. 🙂

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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16 thoughts on “What do formula, IVF, pregnancy after 30, and working moms have in common?

  1. Exactly.
    In all honesty, there are so many choices we make as mums/women that can put our child at 'risk'.

    You are a brave woman for bringing up those three, I have to say 😉

    Also, thanks for also standing up for the likes of me, who may not of had a medical reason to formula feed from day one like I did, but a deep rooted emotional one that made me throw up with anxiety for 3 months before the decision.

  2. In my opinion, some (ok, most) strong headed Breastfeeding activists have their heads shoved so far up their asses its impossible for them to open their minds up just a little bit to see things from another side. It's very rare I find a FFF who is anti-BF however a majority of BFers are anti-FFF exaggerated 100 times over. Which is exactly why we have to have a medical reason for not BFing in order for them to “accept” a FFF's decision. Even then, I doubt they truely “accept” it as a valid reason, they just say they do.

    Sorry if that offends any BFers, but “walk a day in my shoes” and then try to deny it. Although they will have to take their heads out of their asses in order to do so.

  3. You raise an excellent point about the multitude of other decisions related to parenting that have “risks” associated with them. Even putting your child in a car seat and driving them around is a risk. And no one in their right mind would chastise a mother or call her selfish for doing that.

    I feel lucky that the majority of women I know who breastfeed are thoughtful and nonjudgmental. Unfortunately, I have run into some of those moms who feel it is completely appropriate to judge FFers. I might be wrong about this, but I think those women are in the minority of breastfeeders. But they still manage to make a lot of noise and do a lot of damage (both to promoting breastfeeding and moms who formula feed). If I think about that particular pool of women, my guess is that none of them would be supportive of a woman who puts off childbirth to have a career, a woman who uses IVF, or a mother who works outside of the home. These particular women (that I know) would consider all three of those choices to be “selfish” and “unnatural.” If you ever want to check out a particularly hair-raising blog entry of the sanctimommy variety, take a look at Adventures in Crunchy Parenting's response to “The Case Against Breastfeeding.” It's like a horror movie.

  4. Did you see the Dr. Phil episode on mothers' choices? There was one woman who thought that working outside the home was selfish and irresponsible. She is who I thought of while reading this. And I think she is the kind of woman Jen was referring to!

  5. Love the blog! Love the term “factivist!” This post reminds me of so many other parenting behaviors that disadvantage children to a far greater degree than not breastfeeding. Take parenting style. We have tons of evidence that authoritative parenting (warm, meet out appropriate “discipline” versus a more permissive or authoritarian style) is linked to the most content, independent, stable children. Obviously how parents interact with (including disciplining) their kids must far surpass any effect of breastfeeding. But how often do we hear about that? It's much harder to measure, teach and practice good parenting than hooking our babies up to our breasts. We're so worried with what kids eat, especially in the first couple years, we've lost some perspective. Speaking of eating, are people surprised to learn strict control of children's diets increases the risk of future eating disorders? As a psychologist these things trouble me! And what about the dads out there. Recent research has linked paternal age to autism. Waiting to children isn't so hot for men either. Anyhow, thanks for the great posts.

  6. Great post! Thank you so much for your nice comment on my blog. From time to time someone from another country will email me about breastfeeding study/formula feeding study that talks about the downsides of breastfeeding. You never hear about them here in the US.

    Honestly I remember when I started my blog getting negative comments from readers about formula feeding my kids. It's been a long time now since formula feeding and it never comes up anymore. However, I have found that a lot of the people who were so judgemental about formula feeding tend to be judgemental about what activities other kids do, whether they watch TV and how much, what they eat, where they go to school etc. It's really too bad.

  7. I'm not anti-formula and I think it is a shame, unethical and innapropriate for women who formula feed to be labeled as bad mothers. But these comments and posts are in the same light and humor of “those strong headed breastfeeding activists”. You all are complaining about how judgmental “us breastfeeding advocates” are but you too are being overly critical. You intend to put it in the light of “standing up for formula feeders” because you're sick of being deemed as “unfit” mothers because you formula feed, but the fact is, most of you are being just as judgemental and overly critical too, except it's leaning in the other extreme. I suspect that the purpose of this blog is not to bash breastfeeding or breast milk, but to stop the ridiculous backlash about formula feeding, your message, however, is being lost amidst your rants, and you are in effect down playing breastmilk and their benefits, and thus actually making it look like you're anti-breastfeeding and not anti- close minded and self-righteous breastfeeding advocates. I'm a breastfeeding acvtivist , but I DO think it's wrong to tell a woman she's a bad mother because of the fact that she formula feeds for whatever reason under this sun, you simply cannot, should not and must not express nor THINK or FEEL that way about other people. This blog and the majority of the comments it elicits, however noble their intentions or purpose, simply sinks to the same level as the judgmental pro-breastfeeding advocates.

  8. Aruban,

    Thank you for your critique. I am saddened by your comments, and I have been sitting here attempting to see how you arrived at your conclusion. I am not sure how any of my “rants” come off as anti-breastfeeding. Since you left this comment on a specific post, I can only assume that this is the post you are referring to, and in reading it over, I can't see how any of it comes off as “anti-breastfeeding”. I just outlined some other “risks” that studies have shown about other parenting choices we make, the point being to counteract all the breastfeeding propaganda citing study after study proving how sub-par formula is, by looking at it with a little perspective. If it isn't clear, this is how I feel about breastfeeding: it is a wonderful choice a mom can make in this day and age. If she finds it to be a rewarding experience, and her baby does not have any health issues that prevent him/her from getting proper nutrition from the breast, then yes, all things being equal, I think breastfeeding is probably better (just like I think it would be better for all of us to get 2 years maternity leave rather than having to leave our kids in daycare, and to feed our kids organic foods only if cost wasn't a factor, and so forth). But unfortunately, this just isn't reality for many nursing dyads. Maybe the mother finds nursing uncomfortable, painful or impossible due to work/social/psychological/medical factors. Do I think she should cause herself stress in this situation, forcing herself to “stick with it” despite constant struggle? No. Because I think formula feeding is a great second choice, and in some cases, the ONLY choice. Happy mom = happy baby.

    I know that sometimes comments are made that sound angry or out of line on my blog. However, we also get a lot of very ignorant and disrespectful comments from the “other side”, so I think my readers are often reacting to that. This is a heated, emotional issue. I post every comment I receive b/c I do not believe in censorship, but sometimes this means that people speak out of anger and do not weigh the impact of their words. Sometimes I am guilty of that too, but I really do try to avoid this. However, I do not agree that I have ever insulted breastfeeding moms, since as I've said before, ALL of my friends are breastfeeders and I respect them infinitely. I really don't see how looking at studies that suggest breastfeeding may not be the cure-all it's made out to be takes away from their choices. If its something that you get joy out of, that makes you feel closer to your baby, that empowers you as a woman – why should a few studies saying that it isn't the cure for cancer or whatever lessen your belief in that choice? I think women should choose to breastfeed b/c it can be a cool thing we can do as women, something that many of my friends get immense enjoyment out of- not b/c we are made to feel like if we don't, our babies will suffer. That isn't an empowering choice, that's a choice made out of fear. That is what this blog fights against.

    I would love to hear how you think I could support formula feeders without “sinking to the same level as the judgemental pro-breastfeeding advocates”. I'm always open to suggestions!

  9. I know this topic is often (strike that, practically ALWAYS)a heated debate that usually ends up with one or the other or both parties feeling tense and offended. I put my comment on this post, because I figured it was the most recent. I feel very strongly about breastfeeding, and I wish to see more moms breastfeed, but I do not feel that pushing my “ideals” on a mom, especially if she has already started and well on course of formula feeding and cannot reverse it, will simply do any good. I am friends with a raaaaaaaaange of people where breastfeeding opinions are concerned, and I've read and heard many women beat down and belittle others for formula feeding, but these women are not active in giving or extending care to pregnant or breastfeeding mothers the way I am, because when you are active with such, you just cannot and should not say those things. What good do they do? Will those remarks actually make that same mom breastfeed or “get it right” the next time around? Pfff, not likely, and this is where our activism becomes detractivism. It is where our sometimes angry or rough and tactless words actually distort our message. I do believe that every woman has the right to choose if she breastfeeds or not, BUT it must be an informed choice. Weighing both risks and benefits, both advantages and disadvantages. Although I sense that you yourself as the blog writer may just want to defend or provide more insight into the hows and whys of formula feeding, I saw that many times after reaching the end of the article, some readers are just “ready to pounce” on anything breastfeeding.To tell you the truth, I don't know how you can support formula feeders without stepping on anyone's toes, I do seem to think though, that it has less to do with the opinion and more to do with the person's overall attitude on tolerance and respect towards opinions that may be contrary to their own.In any case, this is just my viewpoint that may or may not get lost out there with everyone elses. 🙂

  10. Thank you, and to tell you the truth, there are too many mothers out there who need and truly want breastfeeding information and support, and I much rather expend my energy on such moms rather than shifting my focus and energy in a negative and belittling way on women who've already made their decision. I'm a lactation consultant, not a lactation-decision-maker-for-you

  11. I don't expect Aruban to understand, but see that she is trying. Unless you are forced to deal with the judgement that comes with formula-feeding, you just can't ever get how horrible it is.

    I disagree with your initial premise/critique, Aruban, because this blog and the angry comments (mine included) are reacting to HURTFUL JUDGEMENT ABOUT US AS MOTHERS. Whereas “the other side” is not getting (from me or this blog anyway) judgement about themselves as mothers, but emotional reactions to THEIR HURTFUL JUDGEMENTAL COMMENTS. Big difference. Standing up for myself and getting angry about hurtful comments is not sinking to their level. I've never criticized anyone's ability to mother their child or lambasted the choices they've made.

  12. “none of them would be supportive of a woman who puts off childbirth to have a career, a woman who uses IVF, or a mother who works outside of the home. These particular women (that I know) would consider all three of those choices to be 'selfish' and 'unnatural.'”

    In reading this comment, I see that two words are being used together: selfish and unnatural. I would agree that the three things listed above are certainly unnatural, given our biological makeup as women, the unnaturalness of separating a small baby from his mother, etc. But – that does not necessarily mean that these choices are selfish. “Natural” has a more definite meaning and tends to be shown with facts, whereas you cannot use facts to prove selfishness as easily. However, selfishness is not entirely subjective either… there are choices which are selfish. Any choice made for a selfish reason can be judged as such. If a mother says, “I wanted to breastfeed only because I heard it can help you lose the pregnancy weight faster,” then she is her choice to breastfeed is selfish. Likewise, if a mother says, “I'm going to formula feed because breastfeeding just seems difficult and uncomfortable,” then that is also a selfish decision. Does that make sense? Of course, most mothers don't choose to breastfeed or formula feed based for either of those reasons.

    Where I live, there is no judgment of formula feeding… I see it everywhere. I am the one who gets some strange second glances when I nurse in public, and I have only ever seen two other people breastfeeding in public in my town, while I have seen at least 1000 babies with bottles.

    I also know that some choices I make are judged by others as being harmful to my children. For instance, I co-sleep with my babies. People tend to get criticized for this because they think it endangers the baby's life. But I feel absolutely no guilt because I have made an informed decision. All the criticism in the world could not make me second guess myself or feel attacked and hurt. Another issue though, vaccinations… I am trying to make the best choices I can there, and it is difficult with all the conflicting advice. I don't know if what I am doing (alternative/selective vaccination schedule) is the very best choice, but it is not for lack of trying. If somebody who was totally anti-vaccine berated me for placing my baby at risk (or if somebody who was totally pro-vax did the same because of my skipping certain vaccines), then I may feel irritated at their attacks, yet I would have to say in the end, “I am doing the best I know right now. You're right, I could be endangering my child… but I don't know what the 100% correct answers to on the vaccination issue. For now, I am satisfied w/ my choices, but I am always open to learning more on the topic that may cause me to want to skip more vaccines or choose to get more of them for my children.”

  13. Amber-

    I think you said it really well…”this blog and the angry comments (mine included) are reacting to HURTFUL JUDGEMENT ABOUT US AS MOTHERS. Whereas “the other side” is not getting (from me or this blog anyway) judgement about themselves as mothers, but emotional reactions to THEIR HURTFUL JUDGEMENTAL COMMENTS.”

    Love it. Whenever I feel myself questioning what I'm doing here, I read something like this and feel validated. I really, really appreciate that.

  14. Once you called someone who disagreed with you “ilk” I couldn't read any more and started deciding that you are, after all, that boob you didn't set out to be…

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