FFF Friday: “Surely we should all be a bit more understanding?”

It kills me that FFF Shane still feels “slightly guilty” about her choice to formula feed, even though her son is thriving, happy, and healthy. Today, Fearless Husband and I were talking about some very dear friends who are going through their own 3-days-postpartum struggle with feeding. I confided that while I wanted to give this new mother the support she needed to switch to formula, I also worried that in the long run, she’d have an easier time breastfeeding – because the guilt you have to live with as a formula feeder (especially if you decide to stop when your body and baby are still allowing breastfeeding to be a possibility) cancels out the relative “ease” of it in the beginning. Fearless Husband thinks I’m nuts… what do you guys think? If a friend of yours was struggling with breastfeeding and wanted to switch to formula, would you encourage her to “persevere”, or throw in the nursing cover? How do you meet a woman where she is at, if you can’t really know where she is at due to the enormous pressure put on mothers these days, coupled with those postpartum hormones and the transition to new motherhood? I think these questions matter, because Shane’s point about the sisterhood of women being mucked up by the breast/bottle war is excellent, and maybe we should start thinking about how best to support our friends and fellow moms. Start the revolution that way, rather than just railing against the powers that be.

Regardless – I hope Shane’s guilt will fade… she made a decision which put an end to a great deal of stress for her and her family, and all three members of that family are happy, fed, and loved. Full stop, as they say in her neck of the woods…


I have 3 sisters who all have children – and who have all breast fed successfully. My mum had five kids and she breast fed too (apart from my little brother – she gave up after two weeks as ‘he was a greedy bugger and I couldn’t keep up with him’.) I naturally assumed that breastfeeding was the way forward for me – hell if all my sisters could do it why couldn’t I?

Throughout my pregnancy I was bombarded with breast feeding info from the NHS and Bounty packs which I read up on, I attended a breastfeeding class, read books, the internet and quite frankly I thought I had it sussed.

So when the happy day arrived (when England was rioting – I was in labour when all hell was kicking off 5 minutes down the road..) I ended up having an emergency c-section which I think may have played a part in why I really struggled to feed him,(As an aside – could
emotional stress affect the production of milk? I was still grieving for my dad who had passed away a couple of months earlier from a sudden illness).

Everytime I voiced my concern to the midwives I was told to keep persevering. I had midwives shoving my boobs into his mouth and pulling me into different positions. When I got home my delicious son was starving. After the 2nd sleepless night my husband and I bought formula with heavy hearts. It felt like I had failed at parenting at the first hurdle.

But the joy of knowing our son was eating overwhelmed us – but I was still ridden with guilt and desperately tried to feed him – I tried pumping (by hand and electronically). I was still encouraged by the home visiting midwives to persevere (and not one piece of advice about
alternatives!) which I tried to do but I was producing so very little after two hours it really wasn’t worth it. So after a week of struggling my husband and I switched onto formula. It did help that I had my mum visiting from Scotland at the time who was an excellent
voice of reason.

I went through periods of feeling fine about the formula (My husband could feed him! We could go out and about! I wouldn’t have to wear maternity bras! I could have that extra cup of coffee/bar of chocolate/glass of wine!) and then an overwhelming sense of guilt burbled up from my stomach to my heart (Is he going to be plagued with illnesses throughout his childhood? Is he going to be the dunce of the class? Will he be a mutant?).

I’ve talked to my friends about it and they have all been very supportive – some even admitted that they wished that they had gone onto formula sooner after they spent months struggling with breastfeeding.

3 months down the line I still feel slightly guilty about it but my beautiful baby boy is healthy and content. He sleeps well, he eats well and is a happy and healthy boy.

My concern is at a time when mums and mums-to-be should be supporting and understanding each other, there is this one-up womanship regarding feeding our children – surely we should all be a bit more understanding?


Thanksgiving may have come and gone, but you can still give thanks to all the brave women who’ve shared their stories by sharing yours (and if you aren’t American and therefore could care less about Tofurky Day, well, you get the point) – email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

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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23 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “Surely we should all be a bit more understanding?”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Shane. And absolutely, we should all be more understanding.

    FFF, your question is trickier. How to one's baby is a very personal decision. Both methods have their pros and cons. Deciding if and when to throw in the towel on BFing seems to just as difficult sometimes. I would be awfully tenuous advising a friend in that situation, too. I'm not a medical professional, and I wouldn't want to impose my views/ experiences on another mom. Perhaps you could answer your friend's question with more questions (a sometimes frowned-upon method, I know). Is your baby getting enough to eat? Are your enjoying your child's early days? Are you spending so much time feeding nursing and expressing that you have trouble with things like eating, sleeping, showering or caring for your other child(ren)?… I realize these things can be a struggle regardless of infant feeding method; should I phrase it as, Are you spending more than 12 hours a day BFing, pumping/expressing and washing pump parts? Is your sanity in jeopardy? Have you tried/ can your try a lactation consultant or breastfeeding counselor? Can you afford formula? How do you feel about the work involved with FFing (washing bottles and mixing formula… and in some cases boiling water and sterilizing bottles)? What do you want to do?

  2. I agree with the previous poster. It truly is such a personal decision. When I was struggling with my own breastfeeding issues, I turned to a friend who struggled as well and eventually switched to formula. She posed some of those question to me, but told me it was up to me and babies tend to be happy as long as they're fed. It wasn't until I saw her baby happy, healthy, thriving and completely indistinguishable from a breastfed baby that I started to consider the switch.

  3. I agree with Bethnrich above…you can't just suggest a method to your friend without getting more information. Also, another question that could be included is: how do you feel about combo feeding? If the mother can nurse/pump some of the time, and formula feed the rest, and she is ok with that? My understanding is that combo feeding may be more difficult to get going,but once established, can work for many people.

    And if the mother is fearful of formula feeding at all, and voicing concerns like Shane did (will my child be a sickly mutant if I don't breastfeed?) then reassure her with facts (no, your child will not be a sickly mutant, no you can't chalk every sniffle up to not enough breastmilk, yes bf'ed babies get sick too, etc).

  4. Well put – I didn't realize less that 12h per day was a reality for any parent of newborn (seriously – 12 hour-long feeds per day for the first four weeks in our case), but there you go – when all you hear is the message of “it's hard to have a baby and you just have to deal,” it makes it difficult to tease out what is worthwhile or doable for an individual parent vs trade-offs in feeding. Sometimes it's psychological, in that you feel as the mother that it is overwhelming to be 100% responsible for this new baby's needs and having the bottle option can actually be a good thing in allowing you to continue BFing at least part of the time. It's such a personal trade-off that I think the best a friend can do is to offer their own experience. New parents get enough unsolicited advice as it is. I am extremely grateful for the sensitive and respectful advice I got from my girl friends who had had babies, but it was never unsolicited.

  5. Good questions. I struggle with this, especially on parenting forums that are full of first time moms. If someone asks a question about breastfeeding and possible issues (PCOS, former piercings, etc), I am sometimes reluctant to post because there are many who see anything that isn't “you'll be fine” as anti-breastfeeding when I think it's also important to provide realistic information. I think it's sad that we've gotten to a point where anything that isn't 100% breast is best (for every child and every mom in every situation) is really sad. I know this isn't very helpful, but I've been thinking a lot about it and how to best answer questions without having a brigade of voices telling me to STFU because I'm not being supportive.

  6. Good points.

    It would be good to bring up combo feeding… and maybe EPing, depending on what problems this friend is having.

    I think reassuring a new mom that formula wouldn't hurt her child is also important. I'm not anti-BFing; I realize it works out well for a lot of families. But I don't like that a lot of moms seem to nurse out of fear (that formula/ not BFing will will make their child a “sickly mutant”, “the dunce of the class” or *insert any number of other bad outcomes here*).

  7. A good lactation consultant will help the mother find a pumping schedule that works for her without being overwhelming. Even if it means that the mother may end up needing to supplement with formula–it's the mother's choice.

    I don't think it's okay to tell a mother that her baby will be fine with formula feeding, because it might not be (allergies, for example) It's no better than saying that breastfeeding is easy for everyone, for example.

    It's hard to watch a friend who is struggling with breastfeeding.

    You could offer to help your friends by sending meals, holding the baby while she pumps, running errands, watching older children if there are any, finding sources of reliable information about her breastfeeding issues, and referring to professional help if needed. Perhaps you could say that you formula fed and to ask you if she has any questions–that is providing information. But saying anything more than that is influencing her unfairly at a vulnerable time. You'll see by her reaction whether she wants to hear more.

    The problem with talking about formula feeding at three days is that it's just not enough time to get the hang of things. If your friends start formula at three days it makes it hard for them to change their mind and go back to breastfeeding later–she may not know what she wants yet at three days. The first two weeks are the most important for building up a long-term milk supply and this is the best window that she has if she wants it.

  8. Hannah, thanks for your advice. Not sure how familiar you are with this blog, but I'm pretty well-versed in the intracacies of early breastfeeding challenges. That's sort of what we deal with on a daily basis here.
    Friends often ask me for advice because they know I'm sort of a “feeding” freak- I've researched the hell out of both breastfeeding and formula feeding issues. I don't agree that mentioning formula at day 3 (and actually at this point she's at day 5) is detrimental in all cases, because a relief bottle can do wonders. I'm a fan of doing whatever it takes to preserve the mom's opportunity to breastfeed if that's what she wants- but we also need to take each woman on an individual basis. This particular woman has already been supplementing and never had a strong desire to nurse, so that's where I need to “meet” her.
    It's an odd situation, because friends know my area of research and often want to know where the facts stand- not so much from my own personal experience, but from the opinion of someone who has immersed herself in the infant feeding discourse for the past 3 years. Usually they want reasurrance that it's okay to stop, and I'd be lying if I told them it wasn't ok, from a purely health-related POV. But it puts me in an odd position, because I never want to sway someone either way in the first few days when things are so emotionally fragile. I usually do suggest that they pump or supplement and get the number of a good LC once they get into a calmer environment at home. After a week or two, if they are miserable, we can revisit the conversation.

  9. I agree with you for the most part, Hannah, especially concerning the window to establish BFing. A couple of points that I question though: “'I don't think it's okay to tell a mother that her baby will be fine with formula feeding, because it might not be (allergies, for example)…saying anything more than that is influencing her unfairly at a vulnerable time.”

    I don't know that “unfair” is the right word here, because everyone might be making their own decision and it's just as “unfair” in some cases to tell someone that they must persist with BFing against heavy odds or in a difficult health/personal/physical situation. And just as FFing may not be best for the child, neither may BFing – my baby was a mess with milk protein allergies and I persisted and drove myself nuts for five months at a difficult time – and depending on one's own personal situation that may or may not be worthwhile. The idea that breast milk will always be better may itself be a kind of negative or unfair message in some situations, and I certainly got my share of unproductive pressure in that regard. Difficult to say what undermines or supports someone when you each child, each mother and each BFing situation is in some sense unique.

  10. I agree that a relief bottle can sometimes save breastfeeding.

    But bringing up the option of bottle-feeding–which she knows exists–is not usually supportive in my opinion.
    Despite all your research, saying that formula feeding is “fine” is still an opinion, not a fact, and can be just as unsupportive as some of the extreme claims of breastfeeding supporters that you rightfully object to.

  11. Perfesser:
    I also don't agree with telling mothers that they must persist with breastfeeding in difficult cases–that is equally “unfair,” as it were. Even if it seems like a simple case, it may seem very difficult to the mother.
    “Difficult to say what undermines or supports someone when you each child, each mother and each BFing situation is in some sense unique.”

  12. “Despite all your research, saying that formula feeding is “fine” is still an opinion, not a fact” – I think most of us realize FFing is not *optimal* for a child's health but have fed our children who have thrived on it, and many were ourselves FFed as babies so I'm not sure what you mean here. I think FFing is “fine” health wise for children. If you mean that telling someone that FFing is OK is an opinion, yeah sure, it is but it is grounded in fact – your child will be OK fed either way but whether or not you choose one path now is up to you because it will entail x consequences, and the short term vs long term costs and benefits are up to you to weigh based on good information. In any event, I think we all agree that it's kind of a no-win situation to give someone advice at this point. Which is why I wish doctors were better able and trained to help women in these situations, rather than forcing them to rely on friends or on lactation consultants who may or may not be able to offer unbiased advice.

  13. What to say to a friend in this situation can be tough. I think it might be most helpful to just listen, and to help in the practical ways that Hannah describes. If my opinion was asked for then I would want to convey
    – a good lc can be really helpful, and a postpartum nurse is not the same as an lc
    – breastfeeding is often really tough in the early weeks,but most of the time it will get much better as mom and baby learn
    – breastfeeding has definite health benefits, but most babies will thrive with either method of feeding. The evidence only supports the first part of Dr. Sears' claim that breastfed babies are “healthier, happier and smarter.”
    – Feeding is only one part of parenting, and your method of feeding does not determine how well you bond with your baby, or how responsive you are to your baby's needs, or how good a mother you are.

    I think that saying “formula is fine” would be OK if the mom in question brought the issue up herself or seems to be leaning toward formula. I would also say something like this to a mom who is being advised to supplement, although I'd encourage her to follow the advice of an LC. I can see how it can be undermining a mom's efforts if she is still set on breastfeeding, as it could come across as saying “this work isn't worth it when formula is an option.”

  14. “Despite all your research, saying that formula feeding is “fine” is still an opinion, not a fact, “

    No it's not. It's a fact.

    Breastmilk may be best (barring health issues of the mother), but formula is fine.

  15. I'm so glad I found this site over a year ago. I've learned so much about both formula feeding as well as breastfeeding. I am mostly a lurker, but today I decided to comment.

    I chose to breastfeed two and a half years ago. And for the first several weeks it was pure hell. I don't know why I persisted, except that I kept thinking it would get better. I wasn't sure where my breaking point was, but I know I was getting close. I did not spend those first few weeks bonding sweetly with my baby. I spent those weeks terrified of her next feeding, and desperately pumping.

    After the third week, things got easier and better. I finally had the breastfeeding relationship I wanted.

    With all that said, I would NEVER advise a mother to trudge through breastfeeding difficulties simply because “I did it.” Never.

    Every mother is different. Facing different issues. Different thresholds. Different risks.

    Helping a mother come to her own decision, and supporting that decision with love and kindness and reassurance that it's okay. If it seems apparent that breastfeeding has become more traumatic for both mother and child, then a gentle talk about considering other options might be helpful in allowing her to consider formula without judgment. If she wants to continue with breastfeeding, then offering as much help with the baby, meals, etc. are wonderful ideas.

    I think that reassuring the new mother that she's a good mom, that she's doing an amazing job on little sleep, that you admire her devotion to her baby…all goes a long way, also.

  16. I think the most helpful thing is to tell about your personal struggles so that your friend knows that she is not alone. When I was going through all of my breastfeeding troubles, the most helpful thing for me was to talk to a family friend who had combo fed all three of her children. It really helped me begin to envision what this could look like to me and that breastfeeding did not have to be an all or nothing proposition.

    One of my friends recently was having a lot of problems. She told me how awful breastfeeding was, how little she was pumping (5ccs), and how she was ready to give up. Even though combo feeding ended up being the right decision for me I felt like I was in no place to tell her to keep going. I did tell her things that had made me feel better about formula feeding, such as the ridiculous amount of money I was spending on lactation consultants and fenugreek and that I could finally have a life now that I was not tied to the pump.

    I am so appreciative of the loving non-judgmental support I received. If anyone had told me to stop breastfeeding completely, I think I would have resented it.

  17. Just to clarify – I would never urge a woman to formula feed. I would never tell her to do ANYTHING. I agree with you that it would be just as bad to talk her into formula feeding as it would be to talk her into breastfeeding. I think where I feel “stuck” in these situations is that if people are asking the FFF for advice, chances are they want me to help them make the leap and move to bottle feeding. And if that is truly what they want to do, then I DO want to help them do it, and do it in the safest, happiest, healthiest way possible.

    However, my beef with ALL infant feeding (and general parenting) advice is that it should be a personal decision, not influenced by guilt, fear, empty promises, etc. So I worry that by telling them formula is a viable option, they will take that as me saying 'switch to formula and all your problems will be solved' when maybe, deep down, they need someone to tell them to keep pushing through with breastfeeding. If someone had been more honest with me about the learning curve, maybe it would have made things less maddening. Ultimately it would not have made a difference though… and on the other hand, if someone had told me that my refusal to give up on breastfeeding would ruin my first 4-6 weeks of motherhood, spiral me into a deep postpartum depression, and make my baby miserable….maybe I would have just switched to the bottle on day 3 and been a whole lot happier because of it.

    But of course, hindsight is 20/20, so I think all we can do is support our friends, and listen to what they are telling us.

  18. Your last sentence is interesting (the rest of the comment is great, too, I just wanted to comment specifically on this section). I hadn't even thought about the discussion of formula as “fine” being a direct slam of breastfeeding. That's a great point.

    In some ways, though, I wonder if this isn't the problem with the whole breast/bottle war. Just because formula is a viable option, it doesn't mean that breastfeeding isn't worth it. I think that anything you really want to do is worth the time, energy, and emotion it takes to get it, you know? So if a woman wants to breastfeed, then she should do all she can to make that happen, unless of course it gets to a point where she is harming herself or her child or her family.

    I think you're right that it's best to wait for someone to bring up formula on her own. But once she does, I think it is important we tell her the truth about what the science says, about relative risk, and about cost/benefit analysis. And I think we also need to make sure she is aware that breastfeeding doesn't have to be all or nothing. Formula and breastmilk are not in competition, and can work wonderfully hand in hand.

  19. I think both my mother and MIL told me to stop, and I DID resent it!! 😉

    However, I think I may have felt differently if I'd been talking to someone who had been through her own breastfeeding struggle, and really knew what I was going through… which is exactly what you are saying about sharing personal experiences. That's a beautiful way of approaching things.

  20. Your last para is what I was trying to get at when I said that it is factually correct to say that FFing is “fine.” By presenting the FFing choice as one that is NOT OK and could make your child more sick (as opposed to just saying here are the costs and benefits), I think LCs and others are not doing women favours and are not helping their credibility. If someone tried to discourage me from BFing based on false information (e.g. the clueless old male doctor who told me that baby should not feed more than ten mins on either side, not realizing he was in a growth spurt; or people like my mom's friends insisting that formula is “richer” than BM which is untrue) then I would be annoyed; if however someone was telling me the truth, then I don't think that's unfair pressure or unsupportive behaviour. And besides, I can seek out other sources of information and call an LC, as I did. People can think for themselves. When one of my dearest friends called me in tears every day after her new baby would not nurse because of severe tongue tie and her supply was way down by the time it was spotted and fixed, I reminded her that my baby was OK combo-fed with some formula and reassured her that it was fine that she was using formula; she continued to BF a little bit for a few weeks as well. Why is this sort of thing considered a “slam” of BFing? I find it puzzling. Surely someone who is committed enough to BFIng to have tried it in the first place (seeing that it is difficult) will not be dissuaded by the simple mention of the fact that formula is safe and healthy?

  21. “When I was going through all of my breastfeeding troubles, the most helpful thing for me was to talk to a family friend who had combo fed all three of her children. It really helped me begin to envision what this could look like to me and that breastfeeding did not have to be an all or nothing proposition.

    And this is why I think that lactivists have really kicked themselves by making formula out to be the “enemy.” There are many good reasons why women may need, or want, to combo feed. But when you demonize formula, you make breastfeeding an all or nothing proposition. Nobody is served by that. It's very offputting to many, many women who might otherwise do what they could to get as much breastmilk to their babies as is feasible given whatever their life circumstances may be. It's especially odd in light of the fact that lactivists routinely claim that breastmilk has a dose-response relationship for the many health benefits they claim for it (true for some, not so true for others). If that is the case, then some would be better than none, no? Whose interests are being served if a woman gives up any breastfeeding at all because she gets frustrated or overwhelmed and the only advice or feedback she gets is Breast is Best?

    I think the reason they do it is that it is imperative to them that women make all the “right” choices. There's a great deal of rhetoric out there making formula the “easy” choice, the “lazy” choice, and treating women as if they are hapless fools unable to resist the temptation of formula. The rhetoric is downright patronizing, but no one seems to call it out.

    No one does everything “best”, and few people do many things very well. There's no reason why infant feeding should be a minefield of misery. If it's best for the mother/infant dyad to get some formula, then by all means, combo feed.

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