Sometimes life decides to throw you unexpected curves. That’s exactly what happened when my water broke at 32 weeks, followed by a premature delivery at 34 weeks. During the three days it took my milk to come in, my baby boy was fed formula through a feeding tube to make certain he didn’t lose any weight. My former sure-I’d-exclusively-breastfeed self would have melted into a puddle of angst at the very thought of his nutrition coming from anywhere other than my bosom, but the truth is this new mama didn’t even bat an eye when it came to ensuring the health of her child. I was going to do whatever I needed to keep my baby alive and growing, and if that meant formula, so be it.
When my milk came in, I had to pump every hour-and-a-half for the first two weeks of my tiny guy’s life until he was able to master sucking. Once he got it, I was able to breastfeed for the following four months, supplementing only one evening feeding each day. I considered this a rip-roaring success, but that all changed when I went back to work.
A month after I returned to work my milk supply waned. I could only pump half of what my little one was consuming each day. I tried electric pumps, manual pumps and even the hospital grade pump that had worked so fabulously for me the first weeks after my son’s birth. There wasn’t a verified reason for my dwindling supply, just a quiet retreat from my body due to what I can only guess was the stress of it all and the fact that the pump just couldn’t retrieve what my tiny guy needed. Soon we were down to two nursing sessions: one in the morning and one at night. But I saw my beautiful baby was happy and growing (boy was he growing!) and I knew with the assurance of my pediatrician that everything was going to be just fine, even if I didn’t make it to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ six- month breastfeeding recommendation.
And I’m not alone. There are plenty of moms and dads out there who choose to supplement or formula-feed their babies for a slew of reasons. There are even cases of bona fide medical circumstances in which a mom is physically unable to breastfeed. For all of them and for all of us who realized that feeding our babies was more important than succumbing to the pressure of unrealistic expectations, I dove in to investigate the real deal on formula. Was it truly as awful as some of the more hard-core breastfeeding activists make it out to be? Was I setting my child up for a lifetime of poor health? Was I forfeiting my chances of forming a strong bond with my son? Here’s the scoop.
Something I learned right off the bat: Don’t take anything at face value. Searching out the facts became my way of owning my decision to supplement. Around the same time I was dealing with my own ego and thought processes, I embraced a book written by Suzanne Barston titled Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t. Barston is also founder of the website FearlessFormulaFeeder.com which serves to unite parents who formula feed in a supportive and understanding way. She encourages everyone to delve into the research concerning infant feeding: “Learn all you can about research and statistics. Don’t assume that what you read online, or even in your baby books, is necessarily ultimate truth.” She adds, “Infant feeding science is full of human error, bias and political interests—on both sides of the breast and bottle debate.” She urges parents to read as much literature as possible to weed out misrepresentations that cause parents to “believe they are putting their children at terrible risk, when that’s simply not the case.”
Breast is best but bottle is just fine
According to Nicole Caldwell, MD, a pediatrician with Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, infant formulas have been used since the early 1900s and are entirely safe for babies to consume. “In fact, nutritional science has allowed the makers of commercial formulas to manufacture a product that is nutritionally comparable (yet not equivalent) to breast milk,” she says, noting that formula is completely safe for an infant to consume. “Since 1971, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published regulations to the manufacturing safety and marketing of infant formula,” she adds.
The 411 on FF
If you’ve made the switch to formula or are considering it, there are some important steps you must learn in order to feed your baby safely and effectively. Here are some tips from Barston to get you started on the right track.
- If you can afford to do so, use the single-serve ready-to-feed “nursers” offered by most major formula companies for the first 8 weeks of your baby’s life. Newborns are the most susceptible to infection, and new parents are the most susceptible to making sleep-deprived mistakes. Nursers eliminate those risks.
- When using powdered formula, always measure the water first and then add the scoops of formula. Doing the opposite can disrupt the ratio of water to formula, which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
- Read the back of the formula canister. Different brands and types of formula can vary in how they are prepared. Some use packed level scoops, others unpacked—follow the directions carefully and always use the scooper provided.
- Feed on demand, not on schedule. Obesity concerns may prompt some parents to regulate their babies’ formula intake, but for newborns, it’s much healthier to learn to read baby’s cues and feed on demand. You really can’t overfeed a newborn, and babies vary in their metabolic needs. Just don’t force the baby to finish the bottle or prop the bottle so that baby is eating unassisted, and you should be fine.
- Don’t be afraid to find a better formula. Not all formulas are right for every baby. Some kids do better on different brands, need a sensitive formula, or require hypo-allergenics. It’s not a great idea to keep switching around for the heck of it, but if your baby is gassy, uncomfortable, breaking out in rashes, spitting up excessively, or showing other signs of distress, it might be worth trying a new option.
The bottom line
The very fact that you’re taking the time to research all avenues of formula feeding and its effect on your child is evidence you’re a caring, considerate mom—and that’s really what it takes to raise a healthy and happy baby. “You are the expert on your child, and you are the expert on yourself. Motherhood is not martyrdom, and it’s OK to make a choice that protects your own health and autonomy,” says Barston. “Breast milk is the ideal nutrition for most babies, but that doesn’t mean breastfeeding is ideal for all women—nor does it mean that formula isn’t a safe alternative.”
As for me and my wee one? I would consider my own little man to be pretty sharp, but I don’t think his intelligence has anything to do with my choice to breastfeed or supplement. Instead, I think it has everything to do with the fact that I am an attentive mother who listens to his needs and nurtures him in every way possible. We may not have committed completely to breast or bottle, but at the end of the day, I know we made the best decision we could for our family.