Guest Post Week: Formula feeding and maternal happiness

For our last Guest Post Week feature (well, thumb not counting FFF Friday tomorrow), I chose a submission from Joy Paley, a blogger and writer.
Study reports (surprise) no difference in psychological health or infant attachment between breast and formula feeding moms
I know you frequent readers of FFF might initially roll your eyes at this study about maternal happiness, since its conclusions may seem obvious. The research, which looked at psychological health of new moms and their attachment levels to their infants, showed no significant difference in these arenas between women who were breastfeeding and those who had weaned their babies.
The research, out of the School of Psychology at Australian National University, isn’t terribly new; it was published in The Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology in 2006, but there are so many gems in it that when I found it I knew I had to share. It directly challenges many popular notions about breastfeeding and maternal health and is refreshingly unlike the scientific rhetoric in other studies that FFF has helpfully picked apart before.
For one, the authors directly recognize that maternal happiness has not even been mentioned in the large amounts of literature that have come out in support of breastfeeding. In their focus on physiological and immunological benefits of breastfeeding, these studies have completely left out the experience of the mother. “Possible negative maternal experiences of breast feeding and those experiences of formula feeding mothers have largely been ignored in research to date,” says this paper.
Another remarkable part of this study is that it recognizes and discusses the methodological shortfalls of previous studies about breastfeeding moms and happiness. These studies had some serious issues in how they evaluated the psychological health of new mothers; they didn’t differentiate between current or past breast feeders, or women who had used formula from the birth of the child. Some had very small sample sizes, and others measured the women’s psychological health at varying times throughout the pregnancy.
Wait, there’s more: these studies also used psychological distress scales that are inappropriate for a woman who has just given birth; i.e., they count sleep disturbances and tiredness, normal parts of becoming a new mom, as probable signs of depression.
With these previous issues in mind, the researchers in this Australian study stated that the empirical evidence claiming that breastfeeding mothers were happier was mixed at best, even though that is the popularly held assumption. They set out in their study to challenge these commonly held notions and correct the methodological problems found in previous research.
To do the study, the researchers collected data on 60 new breast and formula feeding mothers using a 30 minute interview and a questionnaire. Standardized methods of quantifying psychological states such as life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety, depression, and maternal attachment were used to assess the well-being and attachment levels in the two groups.
And, drum roll please: no significant difference was found between the breast- and bottle-feeding mothers in psychological well-being, anxiety, or feelings of attachment to their infant.
“No evidence was found to support assumptions that breast feeding mothers have greater psychological health or have greater perceptions of attachment with their baby than mothers who are formula feeding their infant after weaning,” said the researchers.
I found the posture of these social scientists and the way they framed their research question to be quite encouraging—here are academics who were not simply looking at data on infant immunity and ending their papers with curt statements like “breast is best.” I’d probably attribute this to the fact that the researchers here are psychologists rather than, say medical doctors. There is an effort made to look at the potential social impact of the dominant opinion that breastfeeding leads to more happy, caring moms, and to thoroughly put to question that popular assumption.
Their final statement of the paper reflects this, and I have to agree with them: “Until more research is undertaken on maternal experience of feeding a baby, widely help assumptions may continue to place excessive and unnecessary pressure on new mothers.”

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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5 thoughts on “Guest Post Week: Formula feeding and maternal happiness

  1. I didn't even know that the purported superiority of breastfeeding for bonding was bothering me, but this research gives me a sense of relief.

  2. @ Helen. I agree. I had thought the idea that bonding would be affected was not really part of my thoughts, but as I am considering formula feeding bub#2 and as I already have enough angst building up about how I will love bub#2 as much as bub#1 (and bub#1 did receive some supreme efforts at breastfeeding), I find this study very reassuring.

  3. Why is access to these studies so hard to find or not more widely known? You very rarely hear people discussing these outcomes or informing their patients about these outcomes. People talk about “educating” women and having them make informed decisions. How is filtering this information serving that purpose?

  4. I hadn't heard, let alone researched either of those points (breastfeeding= happier mothers than FF, and breastfeeding = more attached mothers), before I well underway with FFing, possibly even after the boys outgrew the formula. The attachment one, I started hearing about in connection with AP, and immediately discounted it as BS, since it seems obvious to me that babies attach to anyone who spends time with them and gives them love and affection. Lots of men and adoptive parents of both genders have wonderful bonds with their children, which they forged outside of BFing.

    As for maternal happiness, that seems more complex. I'm glad these researchers conducted their study this way, especially since (as the guest poster points out) no one else even considered the mother's happines. I guess my question is: why do people think BFing leads to happiness? Perhaps people are thinking of the milk let-down hormone, oxytocin, which is associated with contentment Maybe, they are thinking of sleep dep—sometimes BFing moms manage to get more sleep, sometimes FFing moms—I think there is little hard data that proves that either group of babies sleep better, but there are a lot of anecdotes out there. Maybe they are thinking of guilt factor: a mom that successfully BFs and enjoys it is likelier to be happier than a mom who feels guilty or bad for not BFing. Regardless, it's nice to know there is real data out there, supporting the idea that method of feeding (in and of itself) doesn't determine maternal happiness.

    @Karen–you'll do fine with #2. There's always enough love to go around for all of the children. I have twins, so I have no idea what it's like to focus all of my attention and love on one child…but I love both of my children equally and do my best to spend similar amounts of time with them (either together or separately). It's true you can't give 100% attention to two (or more) children—but that's ok.

  5. @Karen- My third child is scheduled to be born November 4. As I always tell my boys “love multiplies; it never divides”. 🙂 You'll love #2 just fine and be surprised how it makes love in your household grow.
    As for the study, RAWK ON! We moms have enough on our plates without added worries of how much we love our kids.

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