Beyond Bottles And Breasts – The Key To Whole Baby Nourishment

I am riveted by the contentious online debate between breastfeeding advocates and formula feeders. I’m reading heart-wrenching stories of women who persevere through frustration and physical pain until they finally give up breastfeeding, and then feel judged by breast-feeders for their perceived ‘failure’. At the same time, I’m hearing about the stunning lack of support breast-feeders deal with. They are undermined by perinatal nurses, bombarded by marketing messages from formula companies, and face subtle (and not so subtle) intolerance from others for feeding babies in public.  In reaction to this, and to give support to other breastfeeding moms, some become “lactivists”.

With compassion for all new mothers (I was one, I teach many, and I’m well-aware how sensitive most of us are), I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around both passionate sides of the issue. Some of the recent, artfully presented perspectives I’ve read include: An Open Letter to My Fellow Breastfeeding Advocates by Megan at Sorta Crunchy; Sitting On the Breastfeeding Fence by Jill at Baby Rabies; If You Plan to Breastfeed, Educate Yourself  by Anonymous Guest at Fearless Formula Feeder and Cause of Death Not Breastfeeding? The Bias That Won’t Die by Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. at Momma Data: Children’s Health In The Media.

These are informative stories worth sharing and I recommend them all, though none were my experience. Breastfeeding came naturally (unlike other aspects of new parenting!). And it seemed so much more convenient than heating up bottles. Nursing three babies until they weaned in their second year was all positive. I’m grateful. But I never thought breastfeeding made me a better parent than a mother who chose to formula feed.

There is one thing I strived for when feeding my babies, and I have not seen it mentioned in the breast/bottle debate.  It is an equal opportunity way to bond, promotes secure attachment, and is available to adoptive parents, stay home moms, working moms, moms on medication, 2 dad families, parents with one child or ten, moms with mastitis, or moms who for whatever reason choose to either breastfeed or formula feed. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and professional caregivers can do it, too. It’s simple: Make feeding an intimate, focused time with your baby. 

Take a break from the phone, TV, computer and other distractions and let your child know that when he is in your arms he is worthy of your full attention.  Take the opportunity to nourish your baby physically, emotionally and spiritually while you feed. Several minutes spent in communion with each other every day (bottle or breast) is more satiating, more vital to a baby’s well-being than hours and hours of nursing (or dry sucking) with a disconnected, multi-tasking parent.

If I was a new mom on-the-fence about breastfeeding (or at my wits end trying), one particular article I recently read might have put me over the edge – to the formula side.  Nursing at Keyboard (NAK ): How to give boob and type too is by an influential proponent of breastfeeding and a parenting advisor. She shares her tips for positioning a baby on pillows so that the breastfeeding mother is encouraged to ignore the baby and type on the computer, or scrapbook, etc.

Advice like this gives potential breast-feeders the false and discouraging idea that they must keep the baby at the breast nearly all the time, even while the child sleeps. Breastfeeding becomes nothing more than “giving boob”, an empty task to be ignored as mothers busy themselves with more interesting activities.  I’m not sure this is the best advocacy for breastfeeding, and I know it’s not best for babies. (For one thing, don’t we want to teach our children to associate close physical contact with emotional intimacy?)

Of course, we may not be able to give our baby 100% of our attention every time we nurse or bottle feed. If we aim to do it most of the time, our baby will feel valued, internalizing our love and appreciation. Infancy is a sensitive stage of life. Babies know when they have our attention and sense whether or not we are enjoying being with them. If breastfeeding is unpleasant or annoying for the mother, it may not be fulfilling for the baby either.

Yes, mothers should absolutely be encouraged to breastfeed, and they should be supported.  Mothers who formula feed, by choice or circumstance, should also be supported.  But it is the total, nurturing experience of feeding that makes all the difference.  Surely, connecting with our babies is something we can all agree about.

“…mental health is not something that pertains only to adults or older children. Babies have ‘mental health’ — they are deeply feeling beings who are developing a sense of who they are, their value and worth, from day one. This process begins with the dance that takes place during everyday moments, like feeding, which are actually quite extraordinary when you look at them through the eyes of a young child.”
Matthew Melmed, Executive Director, ZERO TO THREE. International leader and advocate for infants and toddler



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I could not agree more. As usual, your common sense, loving approach to parenting is so appreciated.

    And thanks for the shout-out! Just for the record though, the post you linked to was part of my Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays series, and was by an anonymous guest blogger. Just want to give credit where credit is due!

    1. Oh shoot! And I was just sending you an email alert! You beat me to it. Thanks so much, I’m going to change it on the post.

    2. angela mancuso says:

      I actually remember when you had your kids, and particularly Ben ,and we would be visiting – often a busy chaotic houseful. you would go quietly into your own spot in your own chair and tune us all out and give the baby your undivided attention. A beautiful thing. I for one have also had those lovely moments, and also had the moments when stuck in traffic for way too long for a little baby to hold out, and nursed in the back seat of a car on the shoulder of the 405 freeway!!! Both work, as long as you are not feeling like you are fueling your car. i loved holding my babies close and looking down at them relaxed and satisfied. Some of the best moments….

      1. Angela, thanks! Glad to know I really did that and wasn’t just imagining. Those freeway feedings are a thrill, aren’t they? At least you stopped the car first!

  2. Thanks for linking to my post. I’m so glad you found it to be compassionate to both sides. I really struggled with writing it to make sure that that’s the way it came across.

    I agree that all moms, no matter how they end up nourishing their babies, deserve to feel supported. It’s just unfortunate that sometimes one side feels slighted when the other side is getting support. We need to work to change language and perspectives.

    I will have to say, in defense of Annie’s NAK post, that as much as breastfeeding can be and was for me a bonding experience, there were times I did need to do things other than just sitting and staring into his eyes while he ate. There were many times I had to get creative and learn to just “give boob” for my sanity. I don’t think that should scare anyone away from breastfeeding. So many argue that breastfeeding can be inconvenient because it takes so much time, especially when bottles aren’t an option (like for me, since I couldn’t pump). By learning to multi-task while breastfeeding *some* of the time, I was able to feel a little less tied down.

    And with a baby with colic who refused a pacifier and a bottle, I really did have to keep him at the breast nearly all the time those first few months.

    Thanks again for the shout out 🙂

    1. You’re welcome! Yours was one of the first I read about the breastfeeding/ formula feeding conflict and it definitely piqued my interest.

      I just want to clarify that we can be emotionally present with a baby without being eyeball to eyeball!

  3. Breastfeeding while typing is one thing (I had to do it sometimes to get my job done while home with my daughter) but these contraptions really go beyond…

    I had no idea stuff like this even existed until I saw it on Babble. Whoa.

    By the way I loved your sandbox post – we just bought a little sandbox for our daughter this past weekend. We live in an apartment but were able to get a small one to put out on the balcony. Great idea!

    1. Wow. Those things are scary! Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you got the sandbox!

  4. Roseann Murphy says:

    “Breast vs. bottle” how can there be any controversy regarding nourishment? Oh, I realize there is scientific documentation regarding the benefits of infant’s immune systems, etc. But once again the basis of these arguments comes down to that high school mentality of “us vs. them. ”

    Generations grew up on the bottle. Generations grew up on the breast.

    The Generations who grew up on the breast are generally healthy, are attached to their families, love their parents and are successful.

    The Generations who grew up on the bottle are generally healthy, are genuinely attached to their families, love their mothers and are successful people.

    The issue here is not the bottle vs. the breast, but what women are doing to women when they want to make a choice. If breast feeding works for a family that is the choice the mother makes, if the bottle works for the family that is the mother’s choice. Why in heaven’s name after all the years of fighting for equality would we demean our sisters for their choices instead of supporting one another?

    The sensitive issue here is not what closeness the bottle or breast brings to the child and mother or the nutritional value but how it is done. Breast and bottle are meant to nourish. Once we use the breast or the bottle as a means of stifling our children we have crossed the line.

    I have read about the special devices and techniques used to be able to breast feed and multi-task. I can only shake my head.

    Who among us has not been victim to the grocery store clerk who continues a conversation with a co-worker while checking us out? We go away feeling like we did not exist. Aren’t we bothered by the person walking along with us, or dining with us or driving with us while they continue a cell phone call? If it happens often enough we can’t help but feel less than important to that person. As adults we can verbalize and we can say how we feel. Our babies say nothing.

    Why do we continue to find all these ways to “stay attached to our infants” while never once thinking about the infant itself and the lack of respect we show when we are “feeding” and doing so many other things. Can’t we stop “doing” for one minute and just concentrate on the nurturing/nourishing aspect of this process, respect our baby and ourselves and do nothing else? For that moment just feed your infant then place the baby down and continue on with our “jobs” How can we type and feed our precious infant? How can we not stop long enough to just do that one task?”

    I am so tired of this mean girl behavior. The funny thing is many of the people who follow these fads are well-educated, well-read women who have been hood-winked into some contrived thinking. Follow your own instinct and inner voices. Breast feed if you choose, bottle feed if you choose – know you are supported by your fellow mothers…just focus on that one job of nourishing your infant. The other jobs can wait.

    1. Roseann, I could hug you, I love what you wrote so much.

    2. Jessica Isles says:

      Sadly I feel that in our culture a choice of whether to breast or bottle feed is not currently possible. For women to make a choice they first need labeling information about the risks of formula and all the aspirational ads and misinformation regarding formula must be made illegal. And, at the same time, there needs to be much, much more free, plentiful support for breastfeeding women. In this environment and only this environment can we truly talk about women making a choice. Instincts and inner voices are drowned out by vast formula advertising budgets – let’s silence them so we can hear ourselves.

    3. Jessica Isles says:

      Yes, we as women are being hoodwinked into these ‘mommy wars’ by guess who…?? The dairy industry! Women are very supportive of each other but the dairy industry wants us to fight because it benefits them and their profits so they fuel the fire – all conflict creates ambiguity around the facts and the facts indicate that their product is sub par. Kimberly Allers has written a great book called ‘The Big Let Down’ and points out that we women are just pawns in this HUGE well funded, vastly subsidized industry. Did you know that the dairy industry lobbies against maternity leave? Of course it makes sense – if women have to go back to work right away they are more likely to formula feed and more formula means more profits. They lobby government for subsidies for cows – not women or breastfeeding support.
      Even the word ‘choice’ has been hijacked – the dairy industry uses it to try to convince women that choosing formula is the modern woman’s right and feeds into our beliefs of feminism and hard won victories in the working world. Mothers must unite against our common enemy – the dairy industry. We must support each other and understand that when making a choice on how to feed our babies we are making this choice in the context of manipulation by a well financed marketing army that breastfeeding advocates can never compete with. All things being equal, no mother would choose to increase the risks to her health or her baby’s health of the many diseases and conditions that breastmilk substitutes cause. But all things are not equal. We don’t have maternity leave, we are made to think that formula isn’t that bad, we are made to worry that breastfeeding will ruin our sexualized breasts (even more than pregnancy does!), we are made to feel insecure about our milk supply, we have to have nerves of steel to breastfeed in public in case of unwanted stares or comments, we are told co-sleeping is dangerous (in fact formula fed infants have a higher rate of SIDS) so feeding at night is even more exhausting – the list of tactics the dairy industry employs against us, for their profits, is never ending, subtle and effective. So every time we judge a mom for however she feeds her baby know that we are promoting the dairy industry’s agenda to create conflict and doubt and ultimately to sell more formula. When breastfeeding is not an option for whatever reason why isn’t there easy access to free donated breastmilk? Let’s lobby for that as well as much needed maternity leave and stricter laws for better breastmilk substitutes. Mom’s let’s stick together! Together we can make the meaningful changes we all need.

  5. Having breastfed 2 kids back-to-back for the last 5 years now, yeah, I don’t always stare into their eyes as we nurse. My first was born a very slow and inefficient nurser – once taking 6 hours for a feed, but at least 45 minutes, 10-12 times a day in the early weeks. Multi-tasking with nursing helped me feel more a part of the world around me. And it’s continued to be important to me to have my babies close, but not be child-centric, either – i want them close and going through life with me. Sharing the view on life, having them observe adult activities as part of their learning about the world… And then of course with my second child I was perforce multitasking while nursing her, because I was still parenting a toddler.

    I think the idea of being able to entirely commune with your child while nursing is not very compatible with a nursing relationship that allows for frequent nursing, long nursing sessions (comfort nursing) and a long duration of the nursing relationship. And in that sense, I think this particular idealization of nursing can undermine a more biologically appropriate style of nursing.

    I do take the point that there are times I was checking out mentally when my kids would have been happier with me more present, but in my experience trying to be fully present for them while nursing doesn’t interest them much – they have work to do, they are looking away from me, and they just keep nursing. And for those times I was just exhausted and needed a break, at least nursing guaranteed that I was holding them in arms, experiencing skin-to-skin contact, and teaching them to look for nourishment and comfort from people before things. Bottlefeeding parents can do the same, it just takes more conscious dedication to doing so.

    1. I found that once we were past the very beginning newborn stages, my kids would get too distracted and wouldn’t settle for a feed if I was paying them too much attention. They nursed better if I read a book or RSS feeds on my iPhone or held a gentle conversation with someone. Although I have nursed while typing at the computer, it was both too awkward and did feel disconnected in a way that cuddling on the couch with my iPhone or a book doesn’t.

    2. Jessica Isles says:

      100% agree! Too difficult to commune all the time and not practical and not wanted by the baby either. Native cultures multi task while feeding so we can too. At some point during feeds I used to check in (my youngest is 10 so no longer in that space!) but not because I thought I had to but because it was simply natural to adore the child and appreciate the moment together. Carrying the baby in a carrier and feeding while out and about is so freeing. And it also builds bone density: sunshine (vit D), carrying the extra weight of baby, and breastfeeding is a combo to build strong bones and in our culture of women having weak bones we need to feel free to do this. Love all the feedback and comments 🙂 Empowering and informative on many levels.

  6. Great discussion, Janet! Thanks for the reasonable perspective and also for articulating one of the often-overlooked aspects of feeding a baby – the opportunity to block out other distractions and enjoy that little body.
    Not so easy to remember or do with our busy lives but enjoying our children and listening to them (throughout their development) is more important than whether we feed them breast milk or formula.

    1. Polly, thanks! And I agree that paying attention and listening to our children is something we have to make an effort to do with such busy lives. As the children get older it sometimes takes a minor crisis for me to remember to tune-in, (like a very upset child). Often the most difficult, painful moments together end up being the most precious, because they are the most connected.

  7. I agree with Jill and others, that sometimes one does need to keep the baby at the breast a lot of the time, especially in the early days/weeks/months and may need to do other things while nursing. But I love the article and definitely agree that both breastfeeding and bottle/formula-feeding moms can turn feeding into a wonderful bonding time with their little ones! I’m a working-outside-the-home mom who managed to nurse both kids past their third birthdays, using a combination of breast, bottle with pumped milk, and (for the first child) bottle with formula. I do think breastfeeding is the normal natural and best situation BUT more important is getting the child fed and giving them lots of love and attention.

  8. THANK YOU! I want to read this lovingly written piece from the rooftops and then shout AMEN! Again thank you.

  9. Lovely, thank you, and emphasizes the essence of nurturing that is lost in all of the commentaries and backlashes I have read.

  10. Excellent article 🙂 Lots to think about.

  11. Leslie Tello says:

    I was secretly wishing for you to post something about this.

    “Several minutes spent in communion with each other every day (bottle or breast) is more satiating, more vital to a baby’s well-being than hours and hours of nursing (or dry sucking) with a disconnected, multi-tasking parent… Totally agree! breastfeeding won’t do all the work for you!

    The first two months my baby would want to nurse almost for as long as he was awake. I would not stare at him for the whole time, so i would use the chance to sew, eat and chat with my partner. I knew the whole time that he felt me present. He was comfortable because he was there with me. and I was there for him.

    I was breastfed until 5 years old I still remember some of it. My mother worked full time and came back very late at night. She was a busy, and a little anxious woman. Whenever She came back my world was shiny again. She would pretty much ignore me and talk to my dad. but she would have some of herself for me and only me. I would nurse and feel her body moving while she talked. And some hair touching here and there. Man, that was heaven. the most beautiful part of the day.the most intimate direct and protective show of her love to me. (even if she didn’t notice) I don’t doubt that could have worked with a bottle. But I remember what it is like to be nursed by a mother who “ignores you” and for some families and their circumstances. that is worth gold.

    Connection is all that matters, but if you are going to be too busy to connect to your baby, then breastfeed for sure baby will be glad.

  12. Leslie Tello says:

    Oh, please excuse my grammar. I’m working on my english

  13. This is such an interesting read. I find myself on the receiving end of judgemental stares all the time when bottle feeding my baby in public. Little do they know I express and bottle feed because of latching issues! I used to break my heart going to lactation consultants to fix our latching issues and talk about my over supply and recurrent mastitis. (Its been six times in three months) and I felt the need to tell these strangers- “don’t worry, it’s breast milk”. But now I don’t care! They may still stare, I don’t know! Because I’m focused on my little girl and appreciating the bonding time we have together. And I can feel good for donating some of my extra milk to my local hospital for the premature babies!

  14. My baby breast fed for hours on end, cluster feeding for 6 hour stretches and more. I couldn’t give undivided attention for that long. Undivided attention when bottle feeding is easier as it only take 10 minutes, but I don’t think this makes bottle feeding preferable to breast.

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