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Breast Milk or Formula: Why All the Drama?

What moms choose to feed their babies continues to be a heated discussion in the parenting community. On one side, there are impassioned breastfeeding advocates who say “breast is best,” and a woman who chooses otherwise, is not as good a mother. While the other side, made up of moms who have chosen to either supplement or exclusively feed their children formula, often feel judged or guilty for their choices.

According to a 2001 survey conducted by BabyTalk magazine, 30 percent of breastfeeding moms think formula feeding moms are “selfish and lazy,” while 83 percent said they have actually been the ones who were criticized by a formula feeding mom. All mothers, whether breast feeding, pumping, formula feeding, or all of the above, want the best for their children, so why all the drama?

Elyse Bender-Segall, who gave birth to her now 15-month-old son at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said, “I breastfed because I felt like I was forced into it.” Although she knew the benefits of breastfeeding, she wanted to wait until after giving birth to make a decision. Yet at the hospital, she says her right to choose was taken away from her when the pediatrician and the nurses pressured her to breastfeed and even denied her requests for formula. “I really didn’t feel that the choice was mine at all,” she said.

Once home, Bender-Segall continued to breastfeed because she thought it was what she was supposed to be doing. She even started pumping, but she says it felt very unnatural for her and not what she wanted for her son. Although she enjoyed the bonding experience, she was tired from her cesarean section and didn’t believe it was important to exclusively breastfeed, so she decided to start her son on formula. “I remember giving him that first bottle of formula, and feeling like the biggest failure,” she said. Yet at the same time, she felt the greatest sense of freedom making that decision, a choice she believes to be right for her and her son.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual Breastfeeding Report Card, an estimated 35 percent of moms exclusively breastfeed until their babies are 3 months old. That number significantly drops to about 14 percent at the age of 6 months. Although there are many reasons why moms are unable to breastfeed or simply decide not to, many feel guilty for doing so.

According to Stephanie Casemore, author of Breastfeeding, Take Two: Successful Breastfeeding the Second Time Around, “We’ve been made to believe that we haven’t done enough, that we’ve failed our children, or our bodies didn’t work in the way that they were supposed to.” 

Casemore said that because breastfeeding is something mothers are biologically expected and programmed to do, oftentimes it’s not really guilt they’re feeling, but a sense of loss and grief that society doesn’t recognize.

“It’s not enough for us as physicians and as breastfeeding advocates to simply say ‘breastfeeding is best,’ and then leave it at that. We have to address the obstacles that prevent mothers from achieving their feeding goals, whatever those goals may be,” said Dr. Gerald Calnen, a pediatrician and former president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. Calnen said that if a woman chooses to breastfeed, more support is needed in hospitals, the workplace, from physicians and within the community to help moms.

So how can this judgment stop on both sides? “It’s all in the way the message is delivered,” explained Calnen, who says that with any social movement, there are going to be people on both sides who feel strongly one way or the other. “Unfortunately, they’re the people that get most of the attention. And the reasonable people who speak with quiet voices, they’re the ones who all too often get drowned out by the noise. We have to start learning to get beyond that.”

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, and women's issues, a certified Spinning® instructor, and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.co

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in parenting, health, healthcare, nutrition, food and women's issues. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.