FFF Friday: “Adoptive mothers are already subject to added scrutiny…”

Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.

Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They also are not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so. 

This week’s FFF Friday comes from Robyn, a mother who speaks about how breastfeeding pressure has affected the adoption community. 


I’ve thought quite a lot about how this debate ignores the experiences of many groups – tube feeders, fathers, male/male couples, etc. Obviously, adoptive moms are on that list, but as Robyn explains, the pressure to breastfeed has become so strong in that community that I end up lumping them in with non-adoptive mothers. Adoption is no longer considered a valid “excuse” for formula feeding, so adoptive moms are expected to induce lactation – a process which is not always successful, or desired. But I’d never thought about how this pressure, and an inability or disinterest in inducing lactation, might hurt an adoptive mother in so many additional ways. I’m really appreciative of Robyn’s essay, for that reason, and for many more.

Happy Friday, fearless ones – no matter how you became a parent. Giving birth is not what makes you a mom, and neither is feeding a child from your breast. And I’d question the emotional intelligence of anyone who says otherwise.



Robyn’s Story

I was born in 1975, my sister in 1977. Growing up, I was the smart one, she was the pretty one. I taught myself to read at age 4, and by third grade, I was reading at an 8th grade level. I was also fat – 70 pounds at age 5. My sister was skinny and beautiful. She was also never any good at school. I graduated with honors from a top private university in the US.  She ended up taking 6 or 7 years to graduate from a mediocre state school. (Although, to her credit, she did get a degree. Oh, and I got my weight under control.)

Which one of us was breastfed? Which one was formula fed?

You don’t know, do you? You think, “Formula-fed babies are supposed to be fatter and dumber; breastfed babies are supposed to be skinnier and smarter. Here, you have one fat, smart kid and one skinny, dumb kid. How is this possible?!?”

To end the suspense, I was formula fed and my sister was breastfed.

I believe I was in college when “they” came out with a study indicating that children who were breastfed were smarter than children who were formula fed. I remember reading the newspaper (we still had those back then) and thinking, “What a crock!” Even to my English major, “I was told there would be no math” brain, it seemed that any study that compared breast feeding to formula feeding was doomed to fail, because there are so many other factors in a baby’s life. Socioeconomic status, genetics, underlying medical conditions, what the mother did during pregnancy, premature v. full term, vaccinated v. unvaccinated, only child v. child with siblings, daycare v. at home with parent, … the list goes on and on.

In 2004, a good friend of mine had a baby – the first good friend of mine to do so. She was (and still is) a breastfeeding advocate. I came to visit her, to help out with whatever she needed. She was feeding the baby every 20-40 minutes. Her partner came home, held the baby for a few minutes, but then she wanted to eat again. He handed her over, and went to play video games. They agreed that it was more difficult for him to bond with the baby because she was, for all intents and purposes, attached to mom.

As for my own path to motherhood, I always wanted to adopt. I never wanted to be pregnant. I never felt the need to pass down my genes. That was a good thing, because I ended up with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), which is most easily described as permanent nerve damage in my knee. Not much is known about CRPS and pregnancy, probably because people with CRPS are in too much pain to have sex. I have been on a number of medications, none of which are recommended during pregnancy. One of the ones that ended up working for me is known to cause problems for developing fetuses. Another is an unknown entity. Pregnancy is not a good idea.

So, adoption. Obviously, I would formula feed. But wait! Apparently, a person can induce lactation, even if she has never lactated before. I had no interest in doing this. The same medication that’s not safe for pregnancy is also not safe for nursing mothers. But moreover, I personally saw the downsides to breastfeeding. Dad doesn’t get the bonding time. Mom is attached 24/7. As for the supposed benefits, I agree, if you’re in a developing nation without access to clean water, “breast is best.” But, here in the US, formula is just as safe as breastmilk. As I learned more about “green parenting” and found out how much we’re poisoning ourselves with our processed food and over-scented bath and body products, I realized that everything a woman ingests or wears ends up in breastmilk anyway.

We chose formula for our son. He started talking at 9 months, and was speaking in full sentences by 18 months. He met all of his cognitive milestones before he was supposed to. He was – and is – incredibly smart. I attribute that to a combination of genes (his birthmom is no slouch in the brains department) and environment (my husband and I aren’t so bad ourselves). He also had no trouble bonding with his dad and me, and remains a sweet, affectionate boy.

When my son was born in 2006, adoptive breastfeeding wasn’t discussed much. Fast forward to 2011, when we were in the process of adopting a daughter. Adoptive breastfeeding hit in a big way. At this point, there are support groups for it, magazine articles devoted to it, I think there’s even a book about it. If you can’t lactate, then you’re urged to get donor milk. Nevermind that donor milk isn’t screened, and even if you’re getting the milk from a friend, you don’t have any control over what goes into the finished product. There was a woman on a support group, her religion prevented her from breastfeeding a child who wasn’t related to her, and, thus, from using donor milk, so she was seeking camel’s milk, because she heard it was the closest to breastmilk.

Camel’s milk. This is the extent to which some people will go to avoid the “toxins” in formula.

There has become a subtle, but distinct, pressure in the adoption community to breastfeed your child if you are at all able. There are the insinuations that bonding will be better and easier if you do so, or the flat out statements that you will not bond properly with your child without that connection. If you don’t breastfeed, use donor milk and an SNS (Supplemental Nursing System), for skin to skin contact that is “crucial for adopted babies.” Now, when people ask about brands of formula, they get lectured on the benefits of induced lactation and breastfeeding.

I’m an anomaly. I never wanted biological children. But many adoptive moms did. They wanted to experience pregnancy, and their bodies would not allow them to. If you spend anytime in the adoption community, you’ll see the posts from people who talk about their bodies failing them, how they felt – or still feel – like failures. It’s heartbreaking. And now, with this mounting pressure to induce lactation and breastfeed, there’s a whole other way for women to feel guilty, to feel that their bodies have failed them again.

Adoptive mothers are already subject to added scrutiny. In addition to the invasive, yet necessary, home study process, the people in our lives want to know every last detail about why we’re adopting, why our kids’ birthmothers “didn’t want them,” what about their birth fathers, how can we possibly stand open adoptions… everything we do is under a microscope. Now, if we don’t breastfeed, we’re somehow denying our children something vital and setting them up for attachment issues, poor school performance, and God knows what else.

As a mom to two children through adoption, I can tell you: Bonding and attachment are absolutely possible when you formula feed. My husband got the chance to bond through feeding too, and I got more sleep, which is incredibly important when dealing with babies. Your child will not be at a disadvantage to her peers if she is formula fed. Looking at my son’s Kindergarten class, I know I couldn’t tell who was breast fed and who was formula fed. Even in my daughter’s preschool class, what is evident is how much the children’s parents love and care for them, not how they were fed as infants.


Feel like sharing your story? Email it to 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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21 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “Adoptive mothers are already subject to added scrutiny…”

  1. Great post! I have two friends who adopted two children each. It never in a million years would have occurred to me to even ask how or what they were feeding them. Induced lactation is great if that’s something you want to pursue, but I can’t fathom how anyone would feel justified in *expecting* an adoptive parent to do it.

  2. Telling someone with CRPS, someone who’s dealing with MORE PAIN IN ONE HOUR THAN YOU WILL EVER DEAL WITH IN YOUR ENTIRE LIFE that she should do ANYTHING other than what works for her is asinine, heartless, cruel, unethical, insensitive, and criminally moronic.

    I’d say more but I’m so angry at hearing how Robyn was treated that I can’t use terms that are acceptable in polite company. All I’ll say is lactivists: if you cannot fathom why someone would choose medication over breastfeeding, try your standard line–“educate yourself.” Stop it with the ableist assumptions that moms don’t have health issues, or that if they do, they can and must sacrifice the medications and therapies that they need in order to function just for breastfeeding. All people with chronic illness deserve your utmost respect and support in however they feed their babies. Full stop.

    • Right on! This reminded me of a recent story on the news here in Canada about a study that shows that women who take Tylenol while pregnant may give birth to children with attention issues. The author of the study cautioned that this study should not be used to tell women not to take Tylenol whatsoever, and as long as they don’t take it chronically they should be fine. The news story concluded with a woman who has some painful issue in pregnancy managing her pain with stretching and meditation or something like that. It made me furious, because a) I just KNOW that some Helpy McHelpertons, including those in the medical profession, will caution pregnant women against using Tylenol at all ANYWAY, when Tylenol is pretty much one of few acceptable-for-pregnancy OTC pain meds, and b) as a migraineur who had a few migraines during pregnancy, “stretching and meditation” doesn’t cut it. Heck, Tylenol doesn’t even cut it for me. It’s just–how DARE they suggest “stretching and meditation?” Pregnancy can be a very painful condition, and I’m just completely fed up with the idea that pregnant and lactating mothers are supposed to be mere incubators and then food sources these days, and that they don’t have the moral right to manage their own pain. I’d rather be able to function and have a kid with ADHD, myself. I found out postpartum that Imitrex is more or less OK to take while breastfeeding, but if it hadn’t been, and no other migraine meds had been, I would choose the meds and formula over breastfeeding in a heartbeat. It’s not even a choice, since I need to be able to function while caring for a baby. I can’t believe the gall of lactivists who feel justified in criticizing women for making the choices they need to in order to manage their chronic conditions and take care of their babies.

    • Wow! Someone who knows what CRPS is all about. That hardly ever happens. I hope it’s because you’re a physical therapist, neurologist or other doctor, or jus really interested in rare diseases, and not because you or someone you love has this nasty disorder. Thanks for the back up! 🙂

      • More the latter category than the former. I mean it when I say I am sick to death of how breastfeeding advocacy has turned into an excuse for ignorant boors to pile on people who already have enough to be going on with.

  3. Pingback: Featured on the Fearless Formula Feeder | The Chittister Family

  4. My mum had a friend who was adopting, and did the induced lactation thing. Then, because the kid was a couple months old by the time she received custody, he wasn’t interested in the breast and would only take formula from a bottle, so she ended up not breastfeeding after all.

    Seriously, adoptive parents have so much pressure on them already. Why add to it?

    • I have to say I feel that way too. If people *want* to breastfeed, then OK, great. But it seems like a lot of moms feel pressured to breastfeed, as opposed to really wanting to do it. And, anecdotally, it doesn’t seem to work out very well. Some people can, but it seems like more people fall into the same category as your friend – the baby is older and uninterested, or the baby arrives totally unexpectedly. Remember, when you adopt, you don’t really know when you’re

      • ” But it seems like a lot of moms feel pressured to breastfeed, as opposed to really wanting to do it. ”

        I agree. I’m not sure if you just mean adoptive parents, but it goes for birth parents as well. I’ve seen hardcore, militant lactivists admit that they HATE breastfeeding and that they’ve had a lot of times where they and their baby sat there crying because they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it, even though they still firmly believe breast is best and that everyone should breastfeed until the child weans. This is supposed to be better than the bottle?!

        Honestly, I think this is WHY some people become militant lactivists who refuse to believe anyone can’t breastfeed- because some of those who suffered to breastfeed *need* to believe that formula is a poor substitute, that they didn’t suffer in vain. It’s a heartbreaking situation.

  5. I am a birth mother and gave my oldest daughter up for adoption when I was 22 because I knew I couldn’t give her the life she deserved. It’s an open adoption and I have an amazing relationship with her mom. I refuse to believe that I some how did her a disservice because she was formula fed. She is verbs smart and an amazing athlete. When I had my little one in July I could only pump and that lasted a month, she is amazing as well. Adopted families are amazingly wonderful and nurturing environments. Perfectly capable of raising kids who change the world….ever hear of “Steve Jobs?”

  6. Good grief. People are just way too intense and out of control. I have a new answer for people who question my bond with my son, “I can’t speak for him, BUT I am incredibly insulted that you are telling me I am not as bonded with my mother as my breastfed sister is.” I was lactose intolerant, she was not. We are a perfect example of a pair of siblings, same family, etc., fed differently. You would never be able to guess which of us is the formula one and which was the breastfed one. I did better in school and don’t have to watch my weight but both are slight differences and genetics explains them better than anything else would. I made two mistakes formula feeding my son. The first was failure to switch formulas immediately when he was screaming and crying and fighting every ounce. We are overseas and the other choices had a glucose syrup listed as the third to last ingredient. The second mistake I made was in not calling Nestle, or someone, and offering him up as a 100% formula poster child. He is very cute. And it would have probably covered college at the bare minimum. What happened to women, in some societies (like not French women), that they feel a need to be such extremists on any issue? And why is what we feed our children, or where and how, a conversation that only really looks at one year out of 17??

  7. I just adopted an infant boy. Like the author, I have never had a desire to biologically have a child, and I really have not had a desire to nurse. Maybe I’m just a rabble rouser, but when people get on me about inducing lactation or even supplemental nurser kits, I look them straight in the eye, smile a huge smile and say, “No, thanks! I have no desire to give birth to a baby, I have no desire to nurse, and he’s healthy. Maybe that makes me a heartless shrew. We’re good.” That usually takes people aback enough that they at least are quiet about it to my face. I really don’t care much what they say behind my back…

    I adopted as a single woman, so people tend to be even more judgy. Oh well. I think feeling bad about things other people say only happens if you find a kernel of it to be true. I don’t really. My brothers were formula fed and one is a biogeneticist and the other is an engineer. It’s all good. 🙂

  8. I am an adoptive mom that did choose to try to induce lactation. I had a breast reduction when I was 20 and had chosen a surgery approach as it had an increased the chance that I’d be able to breastfeed some day. Fast forward 10 years and I found my partner and I were unable to conceive a child. My greatest loss I felt was not the pregnancy but breastfeeding. When I found out that this was possible I decided to at least try it.

    I was able to produce a very small amount of milk which supplemented the formula that I gave her. Unlike Robyn I actually was pressured NOT to breastfeed. I read on one blog that equated breastfeeding an adopted child to child molestation.

    I am not sure of the medication Robyn is discussing that is bad for the infant. The medication I took the only negative research I could find on it was found harmful if given intravenously. The drug was never intended to have been given intravenously and as a result people did die recieving it intravenously. Unfortunately because of this mistake the drug is no longer FDA approved but is approved in Canada and in Europe. I can be obtained legally from compounding pharmacies in pill form within the USA with a prescription. The drug I used has historically been used to treat reflux in infants/children. With any medication there is risk but there is inherent risk in much of our daily choices.

    I don’t think adoptive parents should take on breastfeeding unless it is something they feel like they and their child will equally benefit from. The take away I think is- no one should be pressured to do something that is not right for their family. The amount of work I had to put into achieving lactation for most people would not be worth it- for me it was.

    • It sounds like you’re talking about Domperidone to induce lactation, and I agree that the FDA’s ban of it to induce breastfeeding is absurd and baseless. The author of this post is talking about the medication she takes for her chronic medical condition that is unsafe for during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

  9. Induced lactation is not offered to pressure mothers into breastfeeding, induced lactation is offered because there are MANY adoptive mothers out there who wish to breastfeed their newborns. Induced lactation is a fantastic option for mother who want to breastfeed, obviously if a woman chooses to formula feed than that option isn’t of great importance, certainly choice is better than no choice at all!

    Breastfeeding mothers are encourages to ‘breastfeed on demand’ which means the mother should feel she can breastfeed whenever the baby is showing signs of being hungry. Which is exactly what mother would do if the baby was being bottle-feed, so if one baby is hungry every 20-40 minutes on the breast than he’s going to be hungry every 20-40 minutes on the bottle. Additionally newborns in particular go through phases of cluster-feeding where for a short period of the day or night (usually 2-3 hours) they will want to feed more regular (often resulting in half hourly feeds) than other times of the day, which can also occur during growth spurts (which all adds up; faster growth needs more intake). Also patterns of feeding change dramatically as newborn grow, it’s HIGHLY unlikely that a 20-40 minute feeding pattern would continue for very long at all! (It’s important to first understanding breastfeeding patterns if you are to judge)
    Additionally donor milk is certainly screened, if you looked into hospital and milk bank policies and procedures you would see that there is a very strict screening process to protect babies.

    It’s certainly unfair to say that breastfeeding mothers bond better with their children, those statements are usually found in qualitative studies where woman who breastfeed identify periods of breastfeeding as a bonding experience. There are many ways to bond with your child, breastfeeding may just be one to some mothers.

    As far as medications in pregnancy, yes there are safe and ‘unsafe’ medications for pregnancy. It’s all about weighing up the harm-risk and benefits of taking that medication regardless of the reason (whether pain medications, anti-depressants, hypertensive drugs). Women need to know if a medication has any risk for her baby, what if no one had that conversation with a mother with a high risk of teratogenic effects (birth defects), and was not in any way prepared for the arrival of a baby that would have additional needs.

    • Donor milk from registered milk banks is certainly screened, however there is not nearly enough screened donor milk to make it available to babies who are not premature or sick. Donor milk through informal donation networks online or friends sharing milk is much less likely to be screened.

    • I don’t think anyone’s suggesting the sole purpose of inducing lactation is to pressure people into it, it’s wonderful that it’s an option and I’m glad that those who’ve had success have been able to get the experience of a breastfeeding relationship with a child they didn’t give birth to! The induction protocols can even work for men- and I’ve heard of several fathers who braved societal stigma to be able to breastfeed their babies!

      However, when paired with the already present breastfeeding pressure- a side effect of anything that increases who can breastfeed is that more people will be pressured into it. As I mentioned, even men are now feeling the pressure to breastfeed, even if it means taking feminizing hormones to grow breasts to do it!

      Also, to your point about cluster feeding- yes, bottle fed babies cluster feed, but they’re able to be fed by other parents and caregivers, even siblings, whereas breastfeeding (unless another parent has induced lactation) is left up to one person. We fed our baby at least once every single hour for the first few days- both my partner and I were able to switch off who did the feed, and were both able to enjoy holding and snuggling and feeding our baby. If only one of us had been breastfeeding, then it would have severely cut into the other’s bonding time. Also, it’s possible for the breastfeeder to grow resentful of this and feel trapped- I know someone who’s successfully breastfeeding but thinking about switching to formula as her first baby did fine one formula and she hates feeling trapped by being the only one able to feed her baby.

      Also, donor milk sometimes refers to milk that is given through informal milksharing- this is NOT screened. Because milk bank milk is hard and expensive to access, the most easily accessible donor milk is through milksharing. And I’ve seen quite a few people who push this as safer than formula, despite risks of contamination with HIV and Hepatitis and all sorts of nasty things.

      • If someone chooses to go through a private pathway for breast milk, then they understand the associated risks. The risk of HIV, and hepatitis has no relevance with milk banks. Sperm donations follows the same idea, you can choose to go through a certified clinic, with screening protocols, or you can use privately donated sperm. Its not a point of argument.

        • Not everyone does, though, those risks are grossly downplayed among milksharers and there are people who are uneducated or just don’t think. There is virtually no discourse about diseases being transmitted in breastmilk, because it goes against the Breast is Best idea and the diseases like HIV have such stigma. There are still people who don’t realize that condoms and such also reduce the risk of STDs- not just pregnancy.

          Some groups that facilitate milksharing provide people with questionairres and encourage people to ask to see test results- but others don’t give any information beyond how breastmilk is Liquid Gold and far better than that awful formula and there is absolutely no risk entailed!

          I was seriously pushed by “breast is best” types into seeking out milksharing without being given any warning about the risks of it. I even talked about it with my midwives and no one raised any concerns. It wasn’t until I talked to a hospital trained nurse that someone said “You know HIV and hepatitis can be transmitted in breastmilk, right? Make sure you’re safe about this”. If someone who DIDN’T know this was pushed in the same way I was- they could put their baby at risk without even realizing it!

  10. I had my gorgeous baby girl via a gestational surrogacy arrangement after 17 years of infertility. I found there was massive pressure on me to do induced lactation, particularly from medical people who said I would struggle to bond with her (since I didn’t carry her) if I didn’t breastfeed. I spent months following the induced lactation protocols and pumped my breasts till they bled, I never got a drop of breast milk. When I questioned the protocol I was told I just wasn’t trying hard enough! It turns out that I am one of the women for whom induced lactation doesn’t work. My darling girl is now a thriving formula feed baby and she is the most precious thing in the world to me. I really could have done without being told that I wouldn’t bond with her If I didn’t breast feed and now I still get comments and remarks from people who tell me I “should” be breast feeding and that “breast is best”

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