I received an email this morning from a doula, asking me for tips on how to simulate breastfeeding for bottle feeding mothers. Before I answer her question, I just want to say publicly that I am so grateful that there are women like her out there, taking the time to actually help and nurture new moms, rather than pressuring, judging, or ignoring them, like so many in the birth industry.
As some of you may know, I’m in the final stages of editing an FFF online documentary (which should be up for your viewing pleasure in about a month). We just decided to cut a portion of the video which deals with bonding, mostly because it simply didn’t flow well with the rest of the content. But I think it’s an incredibly important subject to cover on this blog, since so many women seem to be more concerned with this aspect of bottle feeding than any of the more controversial health claims.
Part of the reason for this concern might be because something like bonding isn’t exactly quantifiable. Yes, there have been studies trying to prove that mothers who breastfeed are more bonded with their children, but how do you “prove” an emotional connection? By surveying the mothers and their children? I guess that would be one way to do it, but I’m unaware of any study that used this methodology. Plus, I know plenty of grownups who are close with their parents, even in our primarily formula-fed generation. I would assume that most of the popularized bonding benefits of breastfeeding are limited to infancy… which, to be fair, is a legitimate concern for bottle feeders, since those first few months are so nerve-wracking for new moms. The last thing you want to be worried about is your connection to your baby – especially if you’re suffering from PPD, or even a mild case of the “baby blues”. And those feelings can come back to haunt you… I interviewed one mom of four amazing girls (ranging in age from 1-11) for the documentary, who still worries that her connection with her kids may have been damaged by her inability to breastfeed. (For the record, later in the conversation she stated that she believes her kids feel loved, and that she can’t imagine being any more bonded to them than she was, but the fact that she voiced these concerns in the first place is worth mentioning.) The better-bonding-through-breastfeeding claim also puts a lot of unneeded stress on adoptive parents or two-male-partner families, who (unless they choose to attempt induced lactation, which is a potential alternative, even for males; although I don’t think anyone should be made to feel like they “should” do so, I want to make sure I state that this is an option) are most likely going to be bottle-feeding by default.
In my case, breastfeeding was hurting my bond with FC. He couldn’t stand to be near me, since I represented pain and frustration for him; I was in pain and frustrated too, so I’m sure I wasn’t giving off the most calming, loving vibe, as I sat there during nursing sessions gritting my teeth in agony and soaking his fuzzy head with my tears. The bonding began for us when we switched to bottle feeding. Finally, I could hold him close, stroke his cheek, look in his eye, talk softly to him or sing (I had a repertoire of three songs – Dylan’s Lonesome When You Go; Phish’s Farmhouse, and American Pie. All we needed was my some incense and a crappy guitarist, and we could’ve been at one of the parties from my acting-school days). It was beautiful, and relaxing, and I loved it.
I know, however, that this is the exception, not the rule, and that breastfeeding does inherently offer opportunities for closeness that bottle feeding does not. But that doesn’t mean that bottle feeding can’t offer similar benefits – it just takes a bit more effort. I hope the following suggestions, gleaned from 20 months of bottle feeding (ahem, yes, I am proud to announce that FC is FINALLY weaned off the bottle, at the ripe old age of almost 2) and time spent on this blog hearing from women with excellent suggestions and ideas, can help bottle feeders bond like Elmer’s Glue (but with a lot less sticky mess). Please note, though, that these suggestions are not intended as dogma or to make anyone feel that if they use a different method for feeding, they are any less of a parent. The question posed to me was how to simulate breastfeeding for a bottle-feeding mom, and the following are my suggestions for doing that. C’est ca.
The FFF’s tips for bonding with the bottle
1. Make like a kangaroo: A bunch of preemie moms I’ve spoken with have brought up the benefits of “kangaroo care”. According to Prematurity.org, “Kangaroo Care consists of placing a diaper clad premature baby in an upright position on a parent’s bare chest – tummy to tummy, in between the breasts.” This works great for full-term babies, too. I’m a huge believer in skin-to-skin, and there’s no reason to miss out on this just because you are feeding from an artificial nipple rather than a real one. Take off your shirt, strip your baby down, and get all marsupial with your bad self.
2. Use feeding time as quiet time: Just because we have the luxury of feeding wherever, whenever (which unfortunately many of our breastfeeding sisters do not – like in this case – something we all should keep fighting to change), doesn’t mean we have to. You have a right to make feedings as sacred and special as a breastfeeding mom. I loved having FC curled up in my lap, contentedly drinking his formula – in fact I loved it so much, the thought of losing these moments made me hesitant to wean him, despite the annoyance of cleaning his overly-complicated bottles. You might establish a special chair (for us, it was his red glider in the nursery), sing a special song, or play soft music. Granted, this ceases to be easy once the little buggers have minds of their own, but in the newborn stage, you can make feeding times whatever you want them to be.
3. Assume the position. Cradle your arms and try positioning your baby with his head in the crook of your elbow; keep that elbow slightly raised. Basically, have his head at breast-level. You can even lean in so his head rests against your chest. Use the other hand to hold the bottle, and keep it tilted to reduce gas. This positioning will also help with some mechanical hazards to bottle feeding – ear infections might be caused by liquid pooling in the ears, so keeping your baby slightly upright will help with that. And for stomach distress/gas/reflux issues, one of the first holistic solutions mentioned is proper positioning for feedings. Not that holding your baby this way will prevent any of these problems, but it will at least rule out causing them by poor positioning.
4. Make it yours and yours alone. I can’t advocate making feeding times a mommy-only activity, because one of the things I most love about bottle feeding is the equality of it all. Fathers can take on equal responsibility – and in turn, an equal opportunity to bond with their children. But why not make it parent-only time, as a general rule? To be clear, I have no problem with letting other relatives or caregivers feed your baby. Moms and dads need a break, so do whatever works. I’m only suggesting, for those who are concerned that they are somehow “missing out on” the bonding time that nursing moms get, that they establish baby’s feeding as something for the parents only.
5. Let go of the guilt, and just enjoy feeding times. So you’re not feeding your child from your breast. So what. That doesn’t mean you can’t snuggle with them just as much as a breastfeeding mom. You can still babywear, take baths with them, and hold them as much as you like. Think of it this way: I doubt any adoptive mother, or woman who used a surrogate, would say that she loved her child any less because s/he didn’t come from her womb. Sometimes we use different means to get to the same end. A bottle might be between your body and your baby’s mouth, but you can still hold that child as close to your heart as a nursing mom can.