Bonding on Bottles

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, “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.

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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24 thoughts on “Bonding on Bottles

  1. I totally agree and love that you posted this. Yes (and thank goodness), breastfeeding and bottle feeding present equal opportunities for physical closeness, bonding, emotional intimacy, giving and receiving love. Formula feeders, dads, grandparents, and adoptive parents don't have to miss out on a thing. We can all make feeding as special as we want it to be.

  2. So true. Breastfeeding was hurting our bonding as well. the longer we went the worse it got. I didn't want to hold him at all except when feeding, even then I could barely take it because it took so long. When we stopped BFing it went away.

    What I also did was wear him. We had a baby carrier (a moby wrap) and I just carried him in it all around the house most of the day. It was also the only way he stayed content because he wanted to be held all the time. We co-slept as well.

    You don't have to breastfeed to have a strong bond. I think we have a pretty strong bond despite formula feeding.

  3. I really like this list and think that at least 1 of these can help every bottle feeding mom! I especially like number 5. I used to love looking into her eyes while bottle feeding!

  4. Great post!! I was recently involved in a bit of a heated discussion with a lactivist on the Best For Babes Facebook page about this topic. Best For Babes had asked bottle feeding moms to post suggestions on how to make bottle feeding more like breastfeeding. Naturally, I chimed in with my suggestions and said that I didn't feel like I missed out at all on bonding with my daughter. Some lactivist comes on and starts getting belligerent with everyone about how it's impossible to bond while bottle feeding, and that we really need to go back to a system where people who can't breastfeed use a wet nurse instead. Of course, I said that I wouldn't have wanted someone else feeding my child, because I did bond while feeding her, but it was like talking to a brick wall. This woman just kept insisting it wasn't possible to bond while bottle feeding. I guess I just imagined it 😉

  5. Breastfeeding hurt our bonding too. It was going so horribly and she cried, pushing away from me. The worst feeling in the world. We snuggled and bonded so much more once we moved to exclusive bottle feeding. My now-17-month-old daughter still likes to snuggle with me while she drinks her milk or water. She backs up and sits in my lap on the floor, or asks to come up if I'm in a chair. Just because you're not breastfeeding doesn't mean that feeding time can't be a special time!

    Congrats on bottle weaning FC! 🙂

  6. I completely second the Kangaroo Care. My daughter was 7 weeks premature and I did this in the NICU and at home with her. Its relaxing for both mom (or Dad. my husband did this too) and baby. It was an easy way to unwind from a long day (I am also a working mom). I recently suggested this to a friend was Dx with PPD as well.

    More on the bonding note, I dont think a baby feeding from a breast is the ONLY way to bond with your baby and anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant. (@sammantha, I would had loved to get in on that debate! unbelievable!)

    FFF, I love everything you do! Thanks for being so amazing!

  7. What a great post! I too had a hard time bonding with my baby while trying to breastfeed. It was so stressful and both of us were in tears every time we tried to feed. It wasn't until I decided to exclusively formula feed that I could start to let go of some of the stress and guilt and finally enjoy being with him instead of feeling anxious and dreading each feeding.

  8. Breastfeeding was killing any bond I had with my first daughter as well. It was terrible – I was completely miserable and I resented her for the excruciating pain she caused me. Lo and behold, out comes the bottle and I start to feel calmer and happier and a lot more loving and bonded to my daughter. And that bond remains unbreakable today, and quite strong. And I honestly can't say that I feel more bonded to my currently breastfeeding 12 week old than I did my eldest. I just don't see the method of feeding as the only way to bond (whatever that means exactly) with your child. What I can see is that my youngest is much more of a pain in the a– about letting other people hold her and soothe her, which frankly is annoying when you have an older child who also needs attention. I can't say that I see that as a benefit of breastfeeding at all!

    And Samantha, doesn't that lactivist see the logic lacking in her comment that we should return to wet nurses in a discussion about BONDING? You can't bond if you bottle feed, but it would be SO much better to let someone else take over feeding entirely? Some people are insane.

  9. I think it's plain mean-spiritedness and intentionally divisive to suggest that a milk delivery system is what creates a bond between a parent and a baby. I probably could have nursed longer, but I didn't want to for a variety of reasons. I enjoyed my babies immensely, and have absolutely no question that we bonded intensely and fully during their formula feedings. We continue to bond with them at our family table – it's an ongoing process, not a magic formula (npi).

    It's increasingly irritating to see the lactivists bent on interference in another family's menu, because that's what it is. What's next, you don't like that I feed my kids peaches so you're going to accuse me of abuse for not feeding them pears? Seriously, it just seems the time would be better spent increasing the bond between themselves and their own children, instead of bullying people who have made an equally valid choice. It's an odd element of human nature to insist that everyone has to do things our way to feel our own choices have been validated.

  10. FFF I love this post and your suggestions. This is exactly why I knew I had to go full-time on formula feeding my daughter. I actually bonded way better with my daughter when I was bottlefeeding her rather than when I would breastfeed her. In the beginning that was even hard to admit to myself, but I later came to recognize that because my overall mental and physical health became better once I formula fed her that I was actually being a more better and attentive parent to her and knew I did the right thing exactly. When I tell most of my peers this they just don't get it because they stand breast is best. Well that's fine, but I know my own personal truth on this one.

    My adventure is also unique in the case of fathers. My husband was hospitalized for 1 week after my DD was 5 weeks old. He was totally depressed over this and felt he was missing out on so much. He continued to be hospitalized off and on that following year and the one thing he absolutely loved when he was home was feeding our girl. So it was important for him as well. Even my husband could clearly see how better things were with myself and my daughter. We knew it was the best in our case and we never looked back.

  11. Having my mom or husband holding a bottle and tube supplementation system while I tried to keep DS latched was not exactly bonding friendly. I didn't really feel like bonding with the pump either and my body felt defective, not nourishing.

    When I used just the bottle at night (I had no intention of waking up the household to get help with the supplementing) I finally got to hold and cuddle my sweet boy in the peaceful hours of the night. Those were bonding moments.

    When I finally had to try a pump in the hospital due to a hungry baby my husband got to feed our son his first bottle. It was emotionally painful for me then but I love knowing that they got to bond so early, I still remember the look of peace and joy on my husband's face as he fed our son.

    The skin-to-skin is a great thing too… when I was in recovery from the c-section my husband sat in a rocker in the nursery with our brand new baby against his chest cuddled under a blanket.

    Bonding is important for mom & dad. NOT breastfeeding is far better at accomplishing that!

  12. Just another vote for: what about Dad? Why do these lactivist types always forget about him? Throughout human history, Dad has never breastfed, yet somehow, many fathers are bonded (whatever that means) and have great relationships with their children. And if Dad can bond with his children, anyone who invests some time and some love can…other family members, care providers and friends.

    It never even crossed my mind that there could be some bonding issue between my children and me (or their father.) Also, I have twins, so we were never able to give 100% attention to one child, as his brother had similar demands. Both children have been cuddled by us, their grandparents, aunts/uncles and daycare provider, and I don't think they've suffered because there was no nursing to go along with the cuddling.

  13. I breastfed my first three children(to age 3, to age 18 months, and the third made it almost to age 4). My fourth was(is–she's 20 months and still takes 2 bottles/day) bottlefed. I'm as bonded to her as I have been with my others. It's definitely a different experience. But different isn't the same as bad/not as good/inferior or whatever other negative connotations get thrown out there in regards to bottlefeeding. 🙂

  14. Thank you for this, it's sooo wonderful to read! I think this leads to an important and neglected discussion about what is bonding and when do you know you have achieved it? It's one of those buzz words that gets thrown around a lot but for me, as an exclusive bottle feeder, it's been very validating and helpful to define for myself and my baby. And yes, indeed I believe we have bonded and are bonding!! It's fun to look up the word in other languages to get some perspective. In Spanish “to bond” is translated as “to link” or something that is guaranteed.

  15. “What's next, you don't like that I feed my kids peaches so you're going to accuse me of abuse for not feeding them pears?”

    Ha, that made me laugh out loud.

    Here's something I've been thinking about lately – there's a lot of national concern over the obesity epidemic, particularly related to children and childhood obesity. I know that there are some studies indicating that breastfed children “may” have lower rates of obesity. Without getting into whether that's true or not, it made me think about eating and particularly, emotional eating. For many people, this is a big problem. I know I'm one of them – eat when you're happy, sad, etc.

    Now, I know that the idea of “bonding” is somewhat different from actual emotion, but I sometimes wonder if the whole lactivist emphasis on bonding while feeding an infant is in some way constructing an emotional response to food. I mean, I know having my baby near me when I feed her (however I do that) and to be comforted by being in my arms is necessary, especially in the early weeks and months. And I think at that age it's more of a comfort of being near a parent than comfort from food. But what about as kids get older? If we're constantly “bonding” with them while they eat, do they then attach emotion to food? Which would perhaps increase the tendency to eat emotionally and thus overeat? I don't know, I might be entirely off base, but it seems that at a certain point, if you're really concerned about childhood obesity (which is very often a reason quoted by lactivists for breastfeeding), wouldn't you eventually want to instill the idea of “food as fuel” rather than “food as fun”?

  16. Interesting point, Mel. Then there is the problem of totally detached eating, or eating out of boredom, which is my problem. When I have nothing to do, I midlesdly eat. Could that come from learning to be too emotionally detached from good? I know my mom has always had major issues around food and weight, which she passed onto me. Could my early feeding experiences have influenced the detachment from food? Fascinating to think about. I would imagine (as with so many things in life) a healthy balance between “food as love” and “eat to live,” is needed.

  17. I am going to go against the grain here and say, as a bottle feeding mom, that I do feel bottle feeding sort of makes bonding more difficult for me. I would have liked nothing more than to breastfeed exclusively for a long time , but I had a low supply and supplementation made me feel like a total failure and I quickly spiraled into depression and started having anxiety attacks. I also have a toddler so I decided it was best that I just stop because the whole ordeal was affecting him very negatively. I just wasn't able to take care of him and do everything to BF and supplement.Perhaps part of the difficulty in bonding for me comes from the fact that I made a choice I didn't want to make.
    Anyways, having done both I must say that I do feel frustrated sometimes in ways that I don't think I would if I was breastfeeding. The thing is that bottle feeding takes less time than breastfeeding (I know there are some exeptions to this). When baby is full they just turn away from the bottle and there is no comforting them with it anymore. Some babies will take a paci, like my first child, but this baby just refuses. She will often scream and cry and I have to rock, pace around the room, take her for car rides, etc. Breastfeeding was more time consuming but at least I could just sit and do other things or just relax while she fed (which was literally all the time b/c of the low supply) and I felt more relaxed. Also, because she is bottle fed and I see her downing the formula I feel really exasperated when she is done and then ten minutes later she is up again. I know she isn't hungry because she doesn't want more and I just get really frustrated that she is up just because.

    I am sure part of this is my depression over breastfeeding not going the way I wanted it to a second time and perhaps I just have the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome, but I just wanted to chime in and say that I feel bottle feeding can make it more difficult to bond. I recognize that me getting angry isn't my daughter's fault and choose to try to find other ways to comfort her, but it is very frustrating to not have nursing as a tool to use. I babywear a lot and that helps but at night sometimes I just really feel lost as to what to do.

  18. Thanks Anna for sharing with such honesty. I feel you girl. I was never able to bf and as much as I've surrendered into the bottle feeding bc we've had no other choice, I do wish I had the experience of breastfeeding. It seems wonderful but maybe it would have been a nightmare, I've heard both sides. I”ve been enjoying the skin to skin suggestion from this Bonding on Bottles article. Anything helps.

  19. @Anna,

    I am so sorry you are dealing with all of that. I completely understand how it could be difficult to switch gears when you are used to one way of doing things. I think about that a lot, in the reverse. It sounds stupid, but as soon as my son could hold a bottle (around 5/6 months), it made car trips so much better. (For the record, that was the only time I let him hold his own bottle, b/c I loved cuddling him while he ate, but the fact that I didn't have to pull over in a seedy area to feed him made a big difference), taking him in the car became much more pleasant. If I do breastfeed my second, I have NO clue how to handle such situations. It sounds silly, but the point is, I'm comfortable with one way of feeding, and it works for me; if something happened and I was unable to do it, it would be a tough transition.

    I hope that doesn't sound like I'm brushing off your feelings, b/c obviously they go far deeper than that. I just wanted to say that I'm sorry things didn't work out for you, and I hope that once this stage of life passes, you will start to heal…

  20. Thank you so much for this 🙂
    I think the bonding argument is totally nonsense. There are absolutely no SERIOUS scientific grounds to sustain that idea.
    Bottle-feeding allows cuddles, kisses, skin-to-skin, AND the most important thing of all : eye contact !
    How can a breastfeeding mother do eye contact with her baby, by the way?
    In many cases, breastfeeding harms the baby-mother relationship: pain, sleep-deprivation may induce depression, and therefore inflate the ambivalence that any mother naturally feels towards her baby. Society cannot accept such an ambivalence. That is why women are pressurized to breastfeed their babies. A hungry baby is a suffering baby ! Dr Sears attachement parenting is a fraud. A very personal interpretation of Thomas Bowbly’s attachement theory. Dr Sears, who is a member of La Leche League, is one of the reason why Formula-feeding women are bullied !

  21. Pingback: Bonding through Bottle-Feeding: Three Secrets to Bottle Feeding with Intention | Learning Motherhood

  22. I would just like to say that dads bottle feed too and I enjoy bonding with their babies. I don’t see why we need to perpetuate this cycle of sexism and divides between mother and father. I am a new dad of a beautiful 9 week old baby and am doing my best to not feel inadequate in a society that says only females are capable of showing love and affection for babies. I love having skin to skin contact, sharing a bath, singing songs I’ve made up for him and generally doing what is only natural for a father to do. Come on this is 2015. Divorce rates are at all time highs, broken families are the norm. We need to do what we can to strengthen the idea of a family unit and that starts with the mother and father bonding then bonding with their children. Men were created as beings of love just as women. Let’s move forward repair the unbalanced westernised view of the standard family. Bless u all.

  23. Directly breastfeeding also killer the bonding time with my son. i didnt feel like we were closer because he was on my boob. What i felt was stress, exhaustion, pain, and like i no longer had any say with my body anymore. Plus he had a terrible time keeping his latch. Then, we switched to pumping and using a bottle, and wala!! My stress was cut almost all out. Instead of hating feeding time, i feel so much more connected to my son. i cuddle the crap outa him and can keep eye contact, and if im just too tired, daddy is right there, eager to cuddle his son too. So honestly i dont care how much of a guilt trip the doc wants to lay on me about not direclt bfing, because i know this is what is best for both of us. Ive also been supplementing too make sure he gets enough to eat regularly cus for some reason i dont produce the same amount every day. Im proud to be a bottle feeder 🙂

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