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