My honest reaction to The Honest Company’s new formula

So there’s a new formula on the market.


This should be good news, right? Especially as this particular formula brand (The Honest Company) is trying to corner the organic, natural-minded formula feeder market, which is steadily growing. I’ve heard from many FFFs who import a British organic formula because it’s the only one that suits their needs; this is certainly not cost-effective or efficient, and it’s spectacular that these parents now have a Stateside option.

Unfortunately, most of the formula feeding community (including me) learned of this new product via an article on PopSugar which only served to infuriate a good deal of its target audience.

“When you’re trying to feed your baby, you’re riddled with emotion, shame, judgement . . . all these extra layers,” Christopher Gavigan, the company’s cofounder and the creator of the formula, told us. “We acknowledge that breast milk is the most nutritious form of food on Earth, but if you look at the research, the majority of moms will end up doing some combination of feeding, whether it’s a choice or because they have to. It’s a growing reality around the world. And in that reality, parents have to be able to choose something.”

Um, I’m no marketing genius, but since when has “well, we know you feel really shitty about using this – and you SHOULD – but since you have to do it, you may as well choose us” been an effective marketing strategy?

One could argue that for moms who just need to supplement a little, or who are still feeling awful about their “failure” to breastfeed, this self-flagellating attitude might be welcomed. But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful. I wonder about the impact of this language on moms who already worry enough about nutrition to shell out $30/can for formula.

This product launch is also causing drama because Gavigan implies that other widely-used commercial formulas are sub-par:

What he came up with was a formula carefully modeled after breast milk, nutritionally complete, easy to digest, and meticulously blended using ingredients sourced from trusted organic farms. It’s free of gluten, GMOs, flavorings, steroids, growth hormones, and pesticides. And it’s the only formula on the market that has chosen to leave out hexane-extracted DHA (while the fatty acid is known to help with baby’s brain development, the synthetic forms don’t meet safety standards).

While there are many who don’t feel comfortable with hexane-extracted DHA (and I’m thrilled they have a new option, because all parents deserve to feel comfortable with what they are feeding their babies), it’s patently false that the forms used in other formulas don’t meet safety standards. They may not meet Gavigan’s safety standards, or the Cornucopia Institute’s standards, or European standards, or YOUR safety standards, but they do meet the safety standards formula companies must adhere to. Speaking of which, I highly doubt this formula’s ingredients closely resemble breastmilk any more so than Good Start’s. Every formula company wants to get as close to breastmilk as possible. That’s sort of the end-goal. If Honest Company has cracked the code, I think we’d be seeing articles in the Wall Street Journal, not PopSugar.  (Also, for the record, Baby’s Only also has a hexane-free option, although they market it as a “toddler formula” because they believe babies should be primarily breastfed for the first year. But it really is an infant formula. Which is weird. But whatever.)

That said, it is plausible that they have sourced all their ingredients from trusted organic farms. That’s probably where the hefty price tag comes from.

Yet, while Gavigan’s quotes in the Pop Sugar article left a lot to be desired, whoever designed the company’s website is a genius. In the introduction to their feeding section, they state:

No breast versus bottle, no right or wrong: We believe how parents choose to feed their babies is a personal process based on the needs of their families. We know it can be quite an emotional decision. That’s why we’re here not to judge, but rather to support parents with a range of researched information and safe, premium products that empower every family to make the best choices given their unique circumstances.
We’re aware that breast is best, but we also understand that families may choose or require other options. No parent should have to feel guilty for choosing to feed her or his baby one way or another. Parents have been nourishing their children in all kinds of ways since the beginning of time as we know it. With Honest Feeding, The Honest Company hopes to represent the next step in the evolution of nourishment as we help you lay the foundation for a safe, healthy and happy future.


Freaking amazing, isn’t it? And even better, they have a section called “Transparency” where they take you through the ingredients in their formula, where they are sourced, etc. The old guard formula companies could learn a lot from this approach. It’s beautiful.

Problem is, I don’t know if what’s on the site is merely lip service, and the “persona” of Honest as a formula company will be closer to the PopSugar representation. I really, really hope that Gavigan was just misquoted.

Regardless, when I posted about this new formula on the FFF Facebook page, all hell broke loose. Some echoed Gavigan’s feelings about currently available commercial formulas, saying that what was available was “garbage”. Others understandably balked at this suggestion. Feelings were hurt, insults were hurled, and I ended up turning off the computer and watching Law & Order SVU because it was less frightening.

(**This is what we’ve come to. We’re so reactive, because we’ve been forced to live in fear, under this heavy, smelly cloud of judgment. It puts us in bad moods, makes us jumpy and defensive, and who can blame us? You spend too much time under a smelly cloud, and you start to kind of stink, too. I know I do.** )

So where do I stand on this new product? First, it doesn’t matter what I think. It’s not my baby. It’s yours. And what mattered to me when I was choosing formula doesn’t have anything to do with what matters to you. My kids couldn’t tolerate anything but expensive hypoallergenics, and I was so relieved to have a way to feed them that allowed them not to starve or bleed from their GI tract that I wouldn’t have cared if the ingredients came from the seventh layer of hell. If organic, hexane-free formula is important to parents, then I damn well want to see organic, hexane-free formulas on the market. We should have more options, overall. That doesn’t mean formulas differ in how they will nourish your baby – they all meet the same nutritional standards and your baby will grow well on all of them, unless s/he has a special need/allergy/intolerance that necessitates a specialty formula. But there’s enough “noise” out there when it comes to our food (not that I condone or agree with this noise, but that’s not really here nor there) to make any new parent anxious, and when you’re already feeling anxious about not breastfeeding, the last thing you need is more anxiety.

One more thing I want to address, in this convoluted post: On Twitter, a lot of pediatricians I respect and who have fair, balanced perspective on formula use, surprised me with their reaction to this new formula. I share their skepticism on the marketing claims, but I worry about this attitude of “no formula will ever match breastmilk, so why even try?” That’s fatalist and scientifically pessimistic. There is always room for improvement. This may mean more options, better safety protocols, more transparency from the formula companies  And yeah, someday, it might mean making a formula that is even closer to breastmilk, at least in terms of certain specific aspects of human milk that we could potentially recreate in a lab. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.

Sometimes, I think that our desire to promote breastfeeding denies us the opportunity to do better for our population as a whole. As Gavigan rightly points out, many parents use formula. That will not change, at least not in our lifetimes. Throughout history, babies have been fed with drinks and foods other than breastmilk, much earlier than the currently advised 6-month mark. Providing the healthiest alternative possible should be a major goal. Dismissing formulas as “all the same” translates to “all junk” in the hyper-alert minds of loving parents. That’s not the message we should be sending, and more importantly, it’s not true.

Here is what it comes down to: No formula is “better” than another, nor is any parent “better” than another. We make choices; sometimes those choices are made for us, for financial or health reasons. The beauty of having options is that we feel we can exert some control over our babies’ health. The downside of having options is that we feel pressured to make choices that can exert control over our babies’ health.  And it gets even more complicated, because no one can agree on what is “healthy” half the time. Depending on whether you read Food Babe or Grounded Parents, your definition will vary.

But here’s what it also comes down to: We can’t confuse innovation, marketing and development within an industry with the politics of infant feeding at large. It’s the difference between arguing whether parabens should be in skin care products, and proclaiming that no one should be using anything but water and olive oil to clean their faces in the first place. It’s telling a car company that they shouldn’t be talking about their safety ratings, but rather encouraging people to walk.

It’s good to talk about these things. And no one should feel they have to sugarcoat or keep mum about issues that concern them. But if we could all just be realistic, be wary, and be kind, it would make for a much more palatable and productive discussion.

Honestly. It’s that easy.

Experiences of Formula Feeding: Results of a survey of 1,120 formula-feeding parents

We talk a lot in the Fearless Formula Feeder community about the negative experiences we’ve had with medical professionals, media outlets, and our peers. And this is good, and healthy – we need a place to chew on these bitter feelings, and hopefully digest them so we can move on with our lives. Still, I want to go a step further this year, and really think about (and act upon) what could be made better. I think the time for some positive, real change is now, don’t you?

Considering how much the infant feeding world likes research, I think some data is a good place to start. Mind you, what I’m about to talk about isn’t peer reviewed or even professional compiled data; it’s merely a Survey Monkey study, which any Joe Shmoe can do at any time. This one was written by me, and I am by no means an epidemiologist (although I like to pretend I am, and probably would have tried to be if I could wrap my mind around simple algebra, let alone statistics) or PhD or anything of the sort. So it’s important to take this data with a grain of salt; it’s simply anecdotal, self-reported data crunched by a website to give us some idea of what’s going on for a particular, self-selected group.

Let’s talk a little about what this all means. Basically, I posted this site on the FFF Facebook page. It was shared and spread around a fair amount, but it’s safe to say that the majority of the respondents were FFF members. Which means something, because as a group, we tend to be a few things: educated, interested in parenting, mostly white, mostly lower-middle to middle class, mostly English-speaking (although the respondents included people from the U.S., Canada, the UK, France, United Arab Emirates, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, South Africa, Russia, and Mexico), and people who read a lot and care a lot about formula feeding issues. Because of this, we can’t necessarily assume that our experiences are typical of ALL formula feeding parents, but considering we have a pool of 1120 people, from a variety of geographic areas who formula feed for a number of different reasons, we can infer some things from the data we have here.

That said, I think it’s interesting and helpful to at least collect our experiences in a way that can help us talk about them more clinically, to understand the experience of some formula feeders, who tend to be parents who think a lot about parenting. That’s important, I think, because it suggests that these answers are relevant for care providers who are trying to serve this market.

With no further qualifications and hemming and hawing, I’d like to present you with the results of the first ever Fearless Formula Feeder/I Support You Survey on Formula Feeding Experiences. 


Question 1: When did you begin formula feeding?

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The majority (32%) of respondents began using at least some formula shortly after birth, although breastfed at least once. But those who began using formula after one month were a close second, at 25%, and 19% formula fed from birth.

Real-world implications: If most of these respondents were formula feeding a one-month infant or younger, their responses on the degree of instruction they received carry particular relevance. In completely unscientific terms – we’re talking about tiny babies and brand new, very sleep deprived parents. If anyone needs explicit guidance on something which can, at times, resemble a junior high chemistry experiment, it’s these folks.

Question 2: What were your reasons for choosing formula?

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Respondents were able to select more than one answer here, so please note that there was often a combination of reasons that led an individual parent to formula feed. The most common answers were “I couldn’t produce enough milk” (44%); “My child wasn’t able to breastfeed successfully” (33%); and “Breastfeeding contributed to my postpartum depression” (22%). 17% of respondents chose “I did not want to breastfeed.” As respondents could elaborate on their reasons via a text box, some of the comments received were as follows:

“I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and both childbirth and breastfeeding were intensely triggering.”

“I stopped because it was straining my mental health and I felt like I was missing my daughter’s life because I was so consumed with trying to make breastfeeding work.”

“When they tested my milk with my 2nd child (32 weeker preemie) it was as fatty and nutritious as tap water.”

“Doing all of the nightfeeds by myself was never a realistic option for our family because I earn most of our income, I can’t show up to work massively sleep deprived and I have no opportunity to pump during the workday. This little detail was glossed over in all our prenatal breastfeeding education. When I caught on to it in the first week postpartum my husband and I jointly decided that breastfeeding was not for us.”

“I had mastitis so severe I was hospitalized. It turned into an abscess that they tried 3 times to drain with a needle but it didn’t work. They eventually had to do surgery to remove it. I tried to breastfeed through all that up until the second time they tried to drain it with a needle when I finally decided to stop trying because it was killing me.”

“Child ended up hospitalized due to dehydration.”

“I had postpartum thyroiditis. Only ever… produce(d) 2 ounces of milk per day. It also triggered devastating insomnia that lasted for 12 days. I decided it was killing me, so i stopped.”

Real-world implications: The responses on this question are obviously all self-reported, and there’s no way to verify the validity of medical reasons such as an inability to produce milk. However, I’m in the business of believing moms when they tell me things, so I’m assuming that there was a valid reason each of these moms felt that breastfeeding did not work for them. The point of including this question, for my purposes, was to see the variety of reasons parents chose formula and to get an idea of what would be best discussed prenatally. For example, there are visual cues for Insufficient Glandular Tissue, which physicians could be trained to notice during prenatal exams. Or, for women with histories of depression or sexual trauma, it might be helpful to be more open about the effect breastfeeding may have on them in an individualized, sensitive way – because what is empowering and healing for one woman might be damaging and re-traumatizing to another.

Question 3: When you first began formula feeding, were you given instruction/guidance from medical/hospital staff?

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55% of respondents said that were not given any formal instruction or guidance on how to use formula. While 33% of the rest of the group did get some sort of verbal guidance from a medical professional, only 12% got a pamphlet or written material.

Real-world implications: This seems like a no-brainer – how hard is it, really, to give new parents a brief one-sheet on formula prep, with resources listed for further help?

This leads me to….

Question 4: Where did you receive most of your guidance on using formula?

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53% – just over half- said that the main source of instruction was from the back of a formula can.

Parents are also getting help from other sources – nearly 30% did cite their pediatrician/other medical professional as a resource, so that’s promising. Another 33% said that websites were helpful, and 23% got assistance from friends or relatives.

Real-world implications: Considering pediatricians typically give verbal or written instructions on how to administer baby ibuprofen, and discuss things like television use, potty training, and sleep training with patients, I think it’s odd that we assume the instructions written on the back of a can are sufficient for safe formula prep. Not all parents are native English speakers or fully literate. Not all parents can read tiny print on the back of a can at 2am, when they are sleep deprived and worried about a newborn.


Question 5: Do you feel you received adequate information about formula feeding safety and use?

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While 40% said yes, 34% said “no” and another 22% said “I’m not sure”.

Real-world implications: This suggests more than half of parents using formula aren’t convinced that they were given enough information to feed their babies safely. Not acceptable.

Some additional responses:

“Too many people I spoke to IRL seemed to be compelled to remind me that breast was best. That shaming did not help me during a time when I was very vulnerable and wanted information”

“Eventually, after I did my own research. The nurse in the hospital almost yelled at us for leaving the half consumed bottle of ready-to-feed out at room temperature. We had no idea as new parents what we were supposed to do with formula, and no one had taken the time to explain it to us. So any information I got was from my own research.”

“I feel I had to ask too many questions to the pediatrician that should have just been told to me. For example, in the hospital they gave him 2oz every 4 hrs. When we went home no one told us to change that so he dropped a lot of weight…”

Question 6: If you could choose the way you received info on formula, how would you like it to be given?

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Respondents could choose more than one answer here, but there were two methods which received the vast majority of responses: “a nurse or doctor to talk to you about it” and “a pamphlet or written materials.”

Real world implications: Medical professionals need to be informed on formula feeding safety and practicalities, and be allowed to impart the information in a judgment-free manner. Written materials should also be created to be given to parents at discharge. Since 18% and 16% responded that they’d like to learn about formula via a peer support group or websites/books respectively, it also may be helpful to offer a resource list to all expectant mothers that is truly comprehensive, and not just helpful for those planning to breastfeed.

Question 7: What was the hardest thing you faced when you began using formula?

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This was one of the most interesting questions on the survey, in my opinion; 65% of parents responded that “my own feelings about formula use (guilt, shame, fear, etc.)” was the hardest aspect. The other two popular answers were “the lack of social/emotional support from fellow parents” and “the lack of information on safety, choosing a formula, bottle feeding, etc. (practical issues).”

Real-world implications: Formula feeding parents need a safe space where they can access peer support, work through feeling of guilt/shame/fear, and learn about practical issues of formula feeding. To me, the simplest answer is that we need peer support groups, our own version of La Leche League. Kim Simon and I have been developing a platform for these peer groups through the I Support You organization, and I am really excited that two FFF members have already started their own local chapters (Atlanta and Baltimore). I hope that we can grow this movement so that every major metropolitan area has a resource for formula feeding/combo feeding parents, because as these numbers show, it is desperately needed. Need more proof? Here are some of the open-ended responses to this question:

“I became very depressed and felt worthless as a mother and human being. Luckily, my husband caught me in the middle of writing a good bye letter to my daughter as I had planned to end my life.”

“felt like a failure for not giving the “liquid gold.” I really had to search for good evidence. I remember finding a paper by 3 biostatisticians who had all breastfed. They dug into the evidence. Reduced mortalitly? One study had one infant death in the formula fed group, but the baby fell off the counter!!! Finding unbiased, easily accessible info would have been great. “

“The NICU lacation consultants were relentless. My doctor told me that I most likely would not be able to successfully pump. The NICU nurses understood that it didn’t work out. My baby’s doctor made arrangements for donor milk. However, the lactation consultants hounded me and made me feel like it was my fault it wasn’t working. They added unnecessary stress to a situation that was already a nightmare.”

“I didn’t know any other formula feeders. It wasn’t that my fiends/peers were unsupportive… but they were all breastfeeding and could not relate to formula feeding.”

Question 8: Did you have any trouble with the technical aspects of formula feeding?

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43% of respondents said no, they hadn’t had any issues in this regard. Of the remaining respondents, the most commonly-faced issue was reflux/other GI issues, followed closely by “I had trouble finding a formula that worked for my child.” A small but significant amount (14%) “(were) confused about formula or supplementing and felt lost on where to go for help.”

Real-world implications: More than half of those surveyed endured some sort of struggle with the technical aspects of formula feeding, suggesting that using formula is not as simple as “add powder and water” for many parents. I hear this excuse a lot from those who deny the importance of formula feeding education and support – that it doesn’t have a learning curve, that doctors don’t need to know much about it because every formula is the same, etc., etc. And that is certainly true for some people, but not for all. Not for over half of us.

Question 9: Did you experience any emotional challenges due to your choice to formula feed?

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Only 18% of respondents said no, that they hadn’t experienced emotional challenges. The rest (who were allowed to choose more than one answer) mostly struggled with their choice or need to use formula (58%), and worried what others would think (55%). 35% felt “left out by other moms” and a quarter of respondents (26%) felt that the emotions around infant feeding contributed to postpartum depression and/or anxiety.

The open-ended responses included:

“I would have felt very comfortable in my decision to formula feed from the start if I had not been pushed into breastfeeding by the hospital, and also my mother and stepmother made me feel incredibly guilty. I had asked for info on bottle feeding while in the hospital and was snubbed. These issues contributed to my emotional challenges. It took almost 4 months for me to realize everything was okay.”

“I felt guilty for not feeling more guilty. Also felt like I didn’t try hard enough and that subconsciously maybe I was using PPD risk as an excuse. Oh, and I ended up with PPD anyway.”

“I was worried that all the negative health outcomes would come true- it’s pretty dirty to scare a mom into thinking that one choice could make her child overweight, less intelligent, and generally unhealthy. Happily, none of these things have come true in 3 years!”

“Despite knowing better, I felt guilty that I wasn’t giving my baby “the best.” That I hadn’t “tried hard enough” for her. The pediatrician at the hospital compared bottle feeding to “taking your baby to the drive through.” Thankfully her actual pediatricians were wonderful and told me it absolutely makes no difference either way.”

“I did feel some guilt about not breastfeeding, though I got over it rather quickly. What resonates more with me, though, is the fact that I didn’t want to breastfeed in the first place, but felt pressured friends, my community, the hospital, etc. to do it. And while it’s true that my kid had serious reflux, allergies, etc., and I had production problems, I also just HATED breastfeeding. And even sites like FFF sometimes make it sound like it’s only ok to FF if you tried to breastfeed and couldn’t. I’d love for women to have permission to just chose not to breastfeed in the first place.”

“I knew that there was no way that I could carry on attempting to BF and pump while still taking care of myself and my child (literally I would feed, attempt to pump, and he would be ready to eat again). But I could not relay that kind of feeling of desperation and failure to other moms who had no problems BF. I thought I was doing something wrong.”

“…I was confident in my decision about FF from birth, well educated and versed BUT still got side-eyed and looks from some people. No matter how confident you are when there are people who truly believe formula is poison and if you don’t BF you don’t deserve to have children (even when you fought with infertility to get said child) it’s disheartening. The lack of correct info on FF and the slew of misinformation on the benefits BF make it difficult to even the playing field.”

Real-world implications: Mothers are hurting. When over 80% of formula feeding parents are talking about the emotional ramifications of their feeding method, we need to sit up and listen. We have a large body of breastfeeding research now, but an abysmally small body of research on the effect of postpartum depression and adjustment difficulties on both mother and baby (not to mention other children, partners, employment, future relationships, etc.). If the way we approach infant feeding is contributing to emotional duress in a generation of parents, it seems worthwhile to reassess the risk/benefit of promoting breastfeeding in the way we currently do.

If we insist on continuing down the same path, then we need to also make sure that the negative experiences of formula feeding parents are tempered by appropriate measures. This means ensuring that they are treated with respect and with regard to personal autonomy; setting up social support systems like peer groups or pre/post-natal classes which address other methods of infant feeding; and perhaps providing sensitivity training for those dealing with newly postpartum or expectant parents so that they learn to impart the benefits of breastfeeding in a manner devoid of shame, guilt, or fear-mongering. It is possible, and it is well worth it.

Question 10: What country do you live in?

Most respondents were from English-speaking countries: the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Real-world implications: Not sure we can take much away from this, except that the reach of FFF (which is how respondents were recruited) is mostly in the English-speaking world. But while we’re on the subject… let’s address the need for culturally-specific infant feeding recommendations and policies. Even within the countries we’re discussing here – which on the surface have many similarities – there are demographic, socioeconomic, religions, cultural, and political differences. People cite the World Health Organization as a good source for formula feeding best practices, but it’s rather simplistic to try and make this issue universal. Mixing formula in a place with unsafe water and hygiene issues is quite different than doing so in a Lysol-happy kitchen using filtered, purified, boiled water and a dishwasher with a “sterilize” cycle. And that’s not even mentioning the impracticality of assuming that genetic, lifestyle, and dietary factors do not affect biological processes; to say IGT only affects 1% of the Swedish population, for example, means nothing to a demographic of Eastern European Jewish women in Manhattan. There are higher rates of breast cancer and Crohn’s disease in some ethnicities; higher rates of genetic diseases in others. Why should breast tissue be immune to these same factors?

I know I’m going off into tangents here, but the point is: it is time to think of infant feeding with more nuance, even in seemingly homogeneous populations. At the same time, we need to recognize that feelings of guilt, shame and fear are common in Western, relatively privileged demographics, regardless of breastfeeding rates and months of paid maternity leave. This is complicated stuff, and requires far more complex analysis than we’ve been given it. It’s time to step it up.

Question 11: What would have helped your experience with formula be more positive?

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The highest amount of responses went to the following (again, respondents could choose multiple answers): more support and guidance from medical professionals (50%), more support and guidance from peers (45%), prenatal preparation for formula feeding (50%) and a peer support group for bottle feeding or combo-feeding parents (44%).

Real-world implications: All of this would be so simple to accomplish. If medical professionals were not scared to discuss formula, lest it be considered giving women “permission” to not breastfeed; if formula could be discussed in prenatal classes in an honest, clear, factual way; if we could stop making it “breast vs. bottle” and just make it two different, sometimes compatible, ways to feed a baby…. just imagine what could happen.

When La Leche League began, it was due to the inadequate support for breastfeeding mothers from society and physicians. While there are still battles to be fought, we are seeing more and more support for breastfeeding (as long as its done within the parameters of what is deemed “socially acceptable” – ie, for no more/no less than a year or two – which is most definitely a problem we need to address), if not from society as a whole, at least from the medical establishment, the government (at least in lip-service and funding for Baby Friendly and corporate lactation programs) and the parenting community. Now may be the time for a formula-feeding equivalent of LLL to do the same noble work – ensuring that moms (and dads – formula feeding is not gender-specific, and dads need to be included more in this conversation, especially those that are primary caregivers) are getting the support they need, when the powers that be cannot provide it themselves.

I will be following up with another survey soon, which will examine if there truly is a need for more “education” about formula feeding, or if it really is simple enough to merit the lack of focus given to it in prenatal and postnatal settings. But until then, I want to leave you with a few more of the comments left in the open-ended sections of this survey. My hope is that this will inspire those with the money and resources to conduct actual, peer-reviewed research on these topics to do so. At the very least, I hope it gets us thinking. Because we need to be thinking, and not just shouting at each other, endlessly, about who knows best.


“I just wish that they would give better instruction at the hospital to moms who choose to formula feed about mixing, feedings and choosing the right formula for your child. They send lactation consultants for breastfeeding moms. Why can’t they teach formula feeding moms a few pointers about formula feeding? We are all feeding babies. Why give one method so much attention and neglect another entirely? All that matters is babies get fed. Is that not the most important objective?”

“If there was more support (from) medical practitioners perhaps breastfeeding mums would be less critical.”

“I took a breastfeeding class, but looking back I wish it would have been a general baby feeding class. To learn about pros and cons of breastfeeding, formula feeding, using bottles, and starting solids. Because although not everyone will breastfeed, everyone will at least need to learn about several of these options.”

“I  had no idea what I was doing and didn’t even know where I should look to find the information. It’s hard to find good formula info online and I didn’t know what to trust, especially when I was emotionally and physically exhausted and felt judged by others as well as by myself.”

“Can you fix the world and let everyone know that formula feeding isn’t bad? As long as you feed with love. This is such a touchy topic and I just wish everyone would let it go bc they only make it worse for moms. I also hate the attitude that formula feeding is okay IF you tried to breastfeed or IF you have low supply. I really want the attitude to be that there is nothing wrong with a mom who chooses to formula feed from the get go. Essentially if you could fix the whole attitude about how we feed our babies that would be great.”


The Sorority

You honestly thought you were past it.

It’s been four years since you’ve had a newborn. Four years since you had to answer the inevitable are you nursing? questions, or had to buy a can of expensive hypoallergenic formula, or stare in envy at how easy it was for your friends to feed their babies. You’d sit there covered in renegade powder and splashed water, smelling like rotten potatoes; they’d push aside a designer nursing top and feed with ease. But you got through that hard first year. It was done. It was over.

But then, friends starting having more babies. Some were first timers, some were on number three. And though they may have struggled, all went on to join the sorority. You know the one: Alpha Lacta Nu. 7110705855_5443084995_mIt’s a pretty easy sorority to join; the hazing involves some cracked nipples, a few hundred dollars in lactation consultant fees (at least pre-influx of Baby Friendly initiatives and ObamaCare), and a successful completion of Lactogenesis II. But for those who don’t pass the lactation equivalent of pledge week, it can feel like the most exclusive club in town. (Exclusive. Huh. Why does that ring a bell…?)

Beyond the politics of infant feeding, beyond guilt, beyond misleading articles, beyond the pressure to meet public health recommendations, lies something far simpler and emotionally loaded: it’s the feeling of being left out. Of not being allowed into the sisterhood. Of not being part of the real Club Motherhood, the one that shares inside jokes about drinking while nursing or recipes for lactation cookies.

Years go by, and the club opens up – now, your entry is based on toddler tantrums, preschool admissions, moving to neighborhoods “for the schools”. You find common ground. You start feeling like maybe motherhood is more than this, more than milk, more than nutrition, more mind than body.

But it’s always there – that little fizzle of ugly jealousy in your gut – and it will remind you of its presence when you see one of your own – one of the “uninitiated” – gain entry into the sorority with a second or third child. Suddenly, you’re left out again. One of your uncool friends just got invited to the cool kid’s table. She looks up, over her tuna fish sandwich, and shoots you an I’m-sorry-I’m-still-me-I-still-love-you-but-this-is-way-more-fun kind of half-smile. And the leggy blonde next to her, the one with the perfect teeth and 4.0 GPA, tosses her hair and you know, in that moment, that your friend is no longer like you. How can she be? She’s in.

And while you know – you know – that your lack of breastfeeding did nothing to your child’s health, or intelligence, or beauty; and you know – you know – that you are no less of a mother because of how you fed – that doesn’t stop the hurt. Because that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about guilt, or regret, or even jealousy of the nursing itself. You know you made the right choice for your and your family. It’s not about what people think it’s about.

It’s about wanting to be part of the club. Just for once. To not have to be the one people feel sorry for (oh, she couldn’t nurse, poor thing) or talk about (I bet she didn’t have enough support) or judge (I heard she could have if she’d just tried) or try and reassure (it’s okay! My aunt/sister/friend’s baby was formula fed and she’s just fine!) as they politely close the door to the sorority house in your face.

It’s about feeling happy and sad at the same time, when you see one of your own finally gain entry. You want her to be happy, to succeed at something that caused her pain and sadness the last time. But it’s also the loneliest feeling in the world to lose one of the only people who know what you know, and feel what you feel. You’re thrilled for her. And you also hate her, in the ugliest, tiniest, most disgusting part of your soul.

It’s about wishing for the day that motherhood won’t be measured in ounces produced, or tears shed, or bottles filled, but knowing that day probably won’t come, because it’s human nature, and we’re human.

It’s about reaching out, and wanting to start your own sorority – one that accepts you for who you are, and knows that your journey isn’t exactly like hers, and that’s okay – and finding more drama, more disagreement, and more ugliness.

It’s about realizing – finally, really realizing – that you’re not alone. That there’s community out there. That one day, this too really shall pass; that the majority of your close friends will leave the childbearing jungle years, and this sorority will cease to matter.

Someday, we will all graduate. I promise. And when that day comes, I’ll be the one waving my cap in the air, shouting hallelujah to the bigger, broader, world that’s waiting for us all.


Win-win or lose-lose: Study suggests breast may not “beat” bottle in multiple long-term outcomes

Every morning, I receive Google alerts for several terms: breastfeeding, formula feeding, infant formula, breastmilk, etc. And every morning, I brace myself, waiting for the inevitable headline that will cause panic among bottle feeding moms, or re-ignite the incessant argument between breastfeeding advocates and formula feeding parents (as if it ever needs reigniting – it’s like one of those trick birthday candles, always sparking back to life even after you’ve wasted all your breath), or force me to take some semblance of a “position” on an issue that is hardly ever black and white.

One might expect that this morning, I would’ve broken out in that annoying Lego Movie song. You know, ’cause everything is awesome!!!!!



News broke that a study out of Ohio State, which examined sibling pairs where one child was breastfed and the other formula fed, had found that there was no statistically significant advantage to breastfeeding for 11 outcomes. These outcomes included things like obesity, asthma, and various measures of childhood intelligence and behavior. As the study explains:

“Breastfeeding rates in the U.S. are socially patterned. Previous research has documented startling racial and socioeconomic disparities in infant feeding practices. However, much of the empirical evidence regarding the effects of breastfeeding on long-term child health and wellbeing does not adequately address the high degree of selection into breastfeeding. To address this important shortcoming, we employ sibling comparisons in conjunction with 25 years of panel data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to approximate a natural experiment and more accurately estimate what a particular child’s outcome would be if he/she had been differently fed during infancy…


Results from between-family comparisons suggest that both breastfeeding status and duration are associated with beneficial long-term child outcomes. This trend was evident for 10 out of the 11 outcomes examined here. When we more fully account for unobserved heterogeneity between children who are breastfed and those who are not, we are forced to reconsider the notion that breastfeeding unequivocally results in improved childhood health and wellbeing. In fact, our findings provide preliminary evidence to the contrary. When comparing results from between- to within-family estimates, coefficients for 10 of the 11 outcomes are substantially attenuated toward zero and none reach statistical significance (p < 0.05). Moreover, the signs of some of the regression coefficients actually change direction suggesting that, for some outcomes, breastfed children may actually be worse off than children who were not breastfed.”


Source: Colen and Ramey, Is Breast Truly Best? Estimating the Effects of Breastfeeding on Long-term Child Health and Wellbeing in the United States Using Sibling ComparisonsSocial Science & Medicine, Available online 29 January 2014

I will admit that the comments made in several news outlets by the lead author of this study, Cynthia G. Colen, have made me want to run through the streets, acting as a one-woman ticker-tape parade in her honor. (Case in point: “I’m not saying breast-feeding is not beneficial, especially for boosting nutrition and immunity in newborns. But if we really want to improve maternal and child health in this country, let’s also focus on things that can really do that in the long term – like subsidized day care, better maternity leave policies and more employment opportunities for low-income mothers that pay a living wage, for example.”) But I’m not celebrating the results of this study, any more than I’d celebrate one that said formula feeding caused children to sprout green hair from their chiny-chin-chins and opt to live under bridges.

Why? Because this shouldn’t be a freaking contest.

The backlash that comes out of studies like these feels more like if someone came out with research that claimed fried Oreos were just as healthy as raw kale. Instead, we should be approaching it as if someone came up with a way to make a vitamin supplement that would offer similar benefits to kale, for those who hated the taste. One is natural, one is synthetic; one is manufactured, one exists organically. But for those of us who don’t or can’t eat raw kale on a daily basis, a good substitute is a godsend. (And maybe helps us justify those fried Oreos. A girl can dream.) Now, a study showing comparable effects of the supplement to the organic kale would not negate the fact that kale, grown in your own garden, is a nutritious, amazing thing – and tastes quite delicious to those of us who have a palate for it. If we started telling the kale aficionados that the supplement was better in some way, that would be a problem. But if the people who loved kale insisted that the supplement wasn’t a valid option and was somehow morally wrong, that would be a problem, too. Chances are, if we were really talking about kale, nobody would care all that much. The people who liked kale would eat it, and those who didn’t, might opt for the supplement – feeling confident due to the research that suggested the supplement was a viable option.

But we’re not talking about kale. We’re talking about breastmilk. And that, apparently, is where we all fall apart, and are rendered completely incapable of rational, measured discussion.

What the Golen/Ramsey study shows should not be controversial. The results should be reassuring- evidence that formula feeding does not condemn a child to a life of obesity, poor health, and lackluster intelligence; proof that whether a woman chooses, or is capable of, feeding a baby from her breast is not what defines her as a mother.

Imagine, for a minute, if we didn’t compare breast and bottle, but rather celebrated BOTH as valid, safe, healthy options for mothers and babies. Accepting that formula has legitimacy – that there is a reason it was invented (out of a need and a desire for a safe breastmilk substitute), and a reason why a woman may decide that a substitute is preferable – should not threaten those of us who celebrate breastfeeding. Yes, we should continue to rage against predatory formula marketing, especially in the developing world. Yes, we should speak up and speak out when companies (hello, Delta) retreat to 1953 when they express their breastfeeding policies. (For that matter, we shouldn’t need breastfeeding policies – if children are allowed, breastfeeding should be allowed. End of story.) Yes, we should ensure that women are entitled to adequate pumping breaks, and given solid breastfeeding assistance, and are supported by solid research regarding medications and breastmilk and best practices from pediatric professionals. But none of that means formula has to be Public Enemy No. 1. None of that means parents who formula feed should be left floundering due to an embarrassing lack of support and education. And for the love of god, none of that means we should be smugly celebrating when formula fed babies are shown to fare poorly, or gleefully rejoicing when and if the opposite occurs.

This is one study, with its own set of limitations and biases, like any other study in the modern canon of infant feeding research. But it’s a good study, artfully designed, and one that raises some extremely important questions about how the emphasis on feeding babies might be distracting us from the real work of supporting better maternal and childhood outcomes. Because speaking of retreating to 1953, it’s awfully easy to shove the responsibility for future generations onto women’s chests, rather than addressing true social inequities that can impact children’s lives. Maybe if we stopped wasting energy trying to prove how evil formula is, and just accepted it as part of life – not a slap in the face to our mammary glands, or an excuse for idiots to treat nursing mothers as horribly as they do now – we would have more energy to understand and destroy these inequities.

Or, you know, we could do what we always do and spend time looking for vague connections to the formula industry to discredit the study authors. Because that’s a really great way of helping families thrive.




FFF Friday: Mental health, bottle feeding and self care

I don’t think this post needs much introduction. I specifically chose it to run this week, because it explains why I feel that the “I Support You” campaign is so integral to World Breastfeeding Week. Only by approaching each woman’s journey as an individual, personal, and valuable experience, can we hope to properly support mothers in their breastfeeding goals. 

Thank you so much, Anne Marie, for allowing me to share your story – and I hope the FFF audience will also check out her blog, “Do Not Faint”,  as she is a tremendous advocate for maternal mental health.

Happy Friday (and happy Breastfeeding Week, and “I Support You” week), fearless ones,



Anne-Marie’s Story: Mama’s Mental Health, Bottle Feeding, and Self-Care

Many excellent, well-informed doctors helped me take care of my mental health before, during and after my pregnancy, and I feel both grateful to them and proud that I have become such a good advocate for myself. My talent for advocacy came in particularly handy when it came to making decisions about how we would feed our baby, because I received so much conflicting advice that I once burst into tears at the idea of another doctor giving me more information. To be fair, I did a lot of planning before we even tried to get pregnant, because I depend on twice-weekly therapy, anti-anxiety meds and antidepressants in order to function as a human being. In other words, there were many people over many months with many opportunities to offer advice, information and opinions, solicited and unsolicited.

Here is a list of my decision, in chronological order, based on the advice of various “professionals” and “experts”–

  1. Exclusive breastfeeding.
  2. Exclusive bottlefeeding: formula.
  3. Exclusive bottlefeeding: donated breastmilk from a close friend.
  4. Exclusive bottlefeeding: the hospital’s donated breastmilk during our stay (lawyers refuse to allow us to bring our own, but the head nurse in postpartum recovery managed to get permission to get me access to the milk bank because the whole thing was patently absurd) followed by our friend’s donated milk when we got home.
  5. Short-term breastfeeding, followed by bottlefeeding: a team of midwives, nurses and lactation consultants meet to discuss the stupidity of the hospital’s liability fears dictating our choices about feeding our son and it occurs to someone that a few days of my colostrum might actually do more good than harm, for me, my baby and everyone’s stress levels.
  6. Breastfeeding and bottlefeeding, followed by exclusive breastfeeding, once we have established that our son and his tiny liver are doing ok with the medicine that is in my breastmilk.
  7. Breastfeeding with intermittent Dad-administered bottles of my own pumped milk or formula.

The point of it all, really, is that this combination of my milk, donated breastmilk and formula has worked really well for us. But a combination like that would never have occurred to me without all the expert help and opinions I had, and I don’t think that many mothers consider doing anything like what we have done. Shouldn’t it at least be an option? Why is it breastfeed or formula feed? And why does “bottlefeeding” always mean formula?

My midwives talked with nurses and lactation consultants, because I had so much anxiety about feeding my baby. That wonderful team directed me to a pediatrician who specializes in breastfeeding medicine, and it is she who changed my entire outlook. The psychiatrists who warned against breastfeeding on meds meant well, but they knew about adult-sized doses and side-effects. My first clue should have been that one of them actually said, “Lots of our generation, including me, had formula, and we are all fine!” Can I get an eye roll for that line? This was hardly the evidence-based reassurance I was used to getting from the same doctor who had once handed me a whole stack of pages of medical journal articles on pregnancy and psychiatric medications. The pediatrician who helped us, an actual expert in actually feeding actual babies told me that the nursing relationship only works well if everyone is relaxed and happy. This is why she was thrilled to tell me that I could breastfeed on my medicine with safety, as far as the evidence showed, and that we could use our freezer full of precious donor milk to give us peace of mind.

She also taught me to relax about breastfeeding before I gave birth, because in her experience, a mother/infant pair can learn to breastfeed even if (heaven help us!) an infant should have a bottle or pacifier early in his life. That came in really handy when my son was born with a tongue tie that the hospital staff failed to notice. He could not, would not latch. The nurses fretted. I pumped colostrum and tried to stay calm, but it wasn’t until our breastfeeding expert clipped that tongue tie that we could nurse comfortably. In the meantime, we were happy to feed him from a syringe or a bottle, and we loved seeing his grandparents participate.

For the first three months of his life, my son had bottles of donor milk, and he breastfed, every day. I pumped for the ounces he drank to keep up my supply. By the time we ran out of donor milk, we were thrilled to see that he was showing no sign of any side effect from the medication in my milk. Unfortunately, he quickly began cluster feeding for hours right around the time I was getting used to exclusively breastfeeding. I had no time to pump for bottles; he was always nursing. After a night during which he nursed from 11 pm to 4:00 am, stopping only to switch sides or scream while his diaper was changed, I arrived at my therapist’s office in despair. I can’t manage my anxiety without sleep. Every doctor had told me that without at least a four-hours-in-a-row chunk of sleep every night, my mental health would suffer. My therapist asked about formula. I cried about how hard I had worked to feed my son only breastmilk. Then, I thought about sleeping, and bought formula immediately after leaving my therapist’s office.

I ask my husband to give our son a bottle when I’m feeling very anxious or stressed, or when I would just like a break, or when I would like to finish what I am writing. When I need to sleep or recover from a migraine, all I need to worry about is keeping myself comfortable, because I know that our son will be fine with the loved ones who care for him and feed him. Usually, I find that breastfeeding strengthens my bond with my son, that we both enjoy it and, for us, it’s extremely convenient. I also find that my anxiety and depression are much easier to manage when I have had enough sleep. My husband and I both get at least one break, every day, when we are “off-duty” and responsible for none of the parenting. When it’s my turn, that often means a bottle of formula. I am still trying to figure out why so very many people get so very upset about that. I honestly do not understand.

Mom, Dad and Baby are happier with the way our family does feedings. That short-lived experiment with “EBF” was absolutely miserable for me. It was a huge moment for me when that switch in my head flipped from “breastmilk or formula” to “do whatever it takes to be healthy and happy,” because I stopped believing that I could sacrifice my mental health for my child. All three of us suffered when I made myself a martyr.

Everything we learned about feeding babies along our rather strange journey has helped my husband and I in other areas of our relationship and family life. We check in with each other and stay creative in how we try to balance the trickier parts of this child-raising business. Sometimes, that means that one of us takes on responsibilities that may be uncomfortable so that the person who is ill or exhausted can try to get from “miserable” to “uncomfortable. A few bottles of formula have not transformed us into people who are happy all the time. But our approach to feeding our son has made us more creative problem-solvers, and that has definitely made us happier.


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