I’m so thrilled to be able to bring you the following guest post, from Harvard-trained clinician Anna Glezer, MD. Dr. Glezer holds joint appointments in the reproductive psychiatry and OB/GYN departments at UCSF Medical Center, and recently launched a new website, Mind Body Pregnancy.
The Mental Health Benefits of Formula Feeding
A guest post by Anna Glezer, MD
In my clinic, I have spoken with many women who struggled with the decision about how to best provide nutrition for their baby. I remember Cindy, a new mom who had low milk supply postpartum and supplemented her baby’s diet with formula, who expressed feeling inadequate as a mother. I remember Sarah, a second time mom who was taking medications that led to her decision not to breastfeed and the difficult time she had making that decision for herself and her baby. I remember Anne, a woman who felt judged by her peers and even strangers in the street when she would bring a bottle out to nourish her crying child.
As a new mom, you may have heard repeatedly from various clinicians, other parents, and perhaps even random strangers about the benefits and importance of breast feeding. However, not all women are able to breast feed and this article is for you. After reviewing the reasons when formula is the right choice and the negative feelings many women experience when making it, we will discuss all the emotional benefits of choosing to formula feed your baby.
Reasons When Formula is the Right Choice
There could be a wide variety of reasons for choosing formula:
– When taking certain medications that can be harmful through the breast milk. These may include medications for conditions such as multiple sclerosis, certain types of cancer, HIV, or others. Women taking medications for mental health reasons (such as certain mood stabilizers) may choose not to breastfeed because of a lack of data at this time on safety.
– When sleep is a significant issue. For women with bipolar disorder, poor sleep is a common trigger for a mood episode. For women with severe illness, the risks of poor sleep may outweigh the benefits of breastfeeding.
– When breastfeeding causes pain to a degree beyond what is typical. This may be due to medical complications such as recurrent mastitis.
– When breast milk supply is poor (due to a multitude of underlying reasons).
– When breastfeeding is not an option due to a woman’s medical history, such as a history of breast cancer and subsequent surgery.
The Feelings of Many Women Choosing Formula
Women who initially planned to breastfeed but for whatever reason cannot often go through several stages of feelings:
Guilt – Many women describe feeling like a failure as a mother and guilty for being unable to provide breast milk for their infant. I have had women describe this when they are supplementing with formula and when they are exclusively formula feeding, when they are using formula temporarily and when it is for months.
Anxiety – Moms describe feeling worried about their infants’ future. Am I providing my baby with the best possible start? What about my baby’s health?
Shame – While guilt is the feeling you place on yourself with responsibility, shame is what you feel when the judgement of others falls upon you. Women have told me that their parents, partners, clinicians, friends, and acquaintances have made them feel ashamed of their choosing to formula feed their infants.
Depression – Postpartum depression affects 15% of moms, and difficulty with breastfeeding is a significant risk factor.
Grief – A grieving process is not unusual after a significant loss. In this case, the loss is the expectations a mom may have had about what postpartum will be like and what breastfeeding will be like.
How to Manage These Feelings: Looking at the Emotional Benefits of Formula Feeding
Once the decision to formula feed is made (and this is often not an easy decision to make, requiring careful weighing of choices, hopefully with the support of a partner and nonjudgmental health care professional), the next step is managing all those feelings mentioned above that come with that decision.
Recognizing all the positive mental health benefits of formula feeding can help you achieve this.
- First, one of the main reasons breastfeeding is considered so important is that it is an essential time of bonding between mom and baby. This doesn’t change with formula! This benefit remains regardless of what the baby is drinking. The key is in how the baby feeds – in mom’s arms, in a loving, strong embrace, looking into mom’s face and seeing her love. This attachment time between mom and baby leads to healthy bonding and positive well-being for both.
- Second, formula feeding can help moms work on their emotional wellness by providing them with flexibility. That might mean that while the partner feeds baby, mom has the opportunity to attend an exercise class, go to a therapy appointment, or call a supportive friend. That might also mean that mom can share night-time duties with her partner or others, allowing for better sleep. Sleep is crucial for good mental health, particularly in vulnerable women.
- Third, by formula feeding, you might be avoiding some of the emotional costs of breast feeding. One patient of mine suffered severe mastitis from breastfeeding, complicated by a systemic infection requiring hospitalization, which led to the consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Others describe the pressure to breastfeed, coupled with feelings of inadequacy, as the trigger for postpartum depression. Anxiety can rise also after the transition back to work, if you are trying to pump and breastfeed while working full-time. These emotional complications – PTSD, depression, and anxiety can potentially be avoided if a woman is able to move past her and others’ expectations and accept formula feeding as a wonderful way of nourishing a baby.
- Fourth, formula feeding helps to promote a loving bond between baby and dad. Some fathers have said they feel left out of the relationship with young infants. This helps to foster that bond, which can also have a positive effect on the partner relationship, alleviating the sense of helplessness and jealousy that can sometimes arise.
In summary, it is essential to recognize that the decision a mother makes about breastfeeding or formula feeding is very individual and depends on her unique set of life circumstances, including physical and mental health issues. Having the support of a partner, family, other moms, or a provider will help when making this choice. Being aware of the positive mental health benefits of formula feeding might help you if you are struggling with this decision and experiencing some of those common negative feelings like guilt or anxiety.
About Dr. Glezer:
Dr. Anna Glezer is a Harvard-trained clinician with current joint appointments in the reproductive psychiatry and OB/GYN departments at UCSF Medical Center. She is the founder of Mind Body Pregnancy, a new online educational resource that helps women with their emotional well-being and mental health during pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum