Thursday, April 7, 2011

Is Breastfeeding Really "Easier" Than Formula-Feeding?

Now that I've spent all this time expounding upon the wonders of breastfeeding and breastmilk, I want to look at it from a different perspective. This actually came up in a conversation I had recently with a friend, who is nursing her second baby and who, like me, had mostly formula-fed her first son. We, therefore, each have a firm basis of comparison, having done both.

As a side note, I'm speaking specifically of the choice between breastfeeding (from the breast) and feeding formula from a bottle. There is a third alternative, which is feeding expressed breastmilk from a bottle, but that is a completely different experience from either of the two more common options, and, I would venture to say, harder than either breastfeeding or formula-feeding. So that's not a part of this particular discussion, although I'm sure I will touch upon it in other posts down the line.

A lot of arguments when discussing breastfeeding versus formula-feeding is that breastfeeding is "easier." The breastfeeding advocate then goes on, informercial style, about how much trouble it is to bottle-feed. One can almost see the video, a poor bottle-feeding mother, filmed in black-and-white, spending all her time over a sink arduously washing bottle after bottle, steam sterilizing every bottle, shaking the bottle to mix the formula only to have it spurt out the top of the bottle all over her, spilling formula powder all over her kitchen counter, spending hours in the drug store perusing the formula selection hoping to find the one that is right for her child, spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars every month, etc., etc. Juxtaposed to that is the bright, colorful image of the happily breastfeeding mother, settling down into a comfortable chair, smiling with love and affection at her charming and healthy baby, rocking contentedly and singing while her baby nurses. What a picture! Why would anyone not breastfeed, if that is the reality?

But wait. Where's the breastfeeding mother with the three-week-old baby in the throes of his first growth spurt, attached to mom's breast for hours upon hours, mom still in her pajamas at 3:00 P.M., hair and face greasy because she hasn't found time for a shower in three days, dark circles under her eyes from the nonstop cluster-feeds, nipples sore and cracked, dirty dishes piled in the sink, laundry overflowing the hamper, mail left unopened, bills left unpaid, refrigerator empty because she hasn't made it to the grocery store because every time she tries to go, the baby gets hungry and she has had to stop and nurse him so many times that she can't bear the thought of having to find a place in the store to nurse umpteen times while scanning the frozen food section for whichever TV dinners are on sale so she doesn't have to cook, because who has time to cook? Juxtapose that with the new daddy fondly smiling down at his new baby while giving him a bottle, mom sleeping peacefully in the next room grabbing a much-needed three-hour nap, then waking happily to head down to the kitchen to wash dishes and cook dinner.

So which is easier?

All of the above scenarios are true, in their way. Bottle-feeding can be a hassle. Sometimes you have to try three or four or seven different formulas before you find the one that your baby actually manages to keep down. You (or someone) do have to wash five to eight bottles per day. Breastfeeding, especially in the early weeks, can be very stressful, time-consuming, and even painful.

I would argue that at different times, different feeding methods seem "easier." Certainly, when a new mom is at the end of her rope, trying to handle everything, and having to stop every 45 minutes to nurse again, she might stand helplessly in the formula aisle of the supermarket (if she makes it there) trying to fight the urge to just buy one can, just give one bottle, just to have a few hours' respite. On the other hand, the new mom who has ended up spending much longer at the car repair place than she expected and didn't bring enough bottles and formula to cover the amount of time she was there might find herself envying the other woman in the waiting area who is sitting and peacefully nursing her no-longer-fussy baby while she waits for her car to be ready.

And, of course, if you've already been at the supermarket for an hour, and you just want to go home, and you're in the checkout line, and your baby starts fussing because he's hungry, the last thing you want to do is get out of line to go find a relatively private place to get relatively comfortable and nurse. At that moment, the thought of just putting a bottle into the baby's mouth while you continue to stand in line and take care of your purchase is very attractive.

I'm not being sarcastic. I've been there, on both sides of the argument. I've been in the situation where the baby is hungry and I had nothing to give him because all the bottles were dirty and I'd run out of formula. I've been in the situation where I just wanted to finish my shopping, but I had to stop and nurse for 30 minutes on a bench in front of the pharmacy before I could continue on my way. Both are stressful. Both make you wish there was another way.

But, having bottle-fed for 16 months and breastfed for 2 years, I'm here to tell you that, over time, the very real benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the conveniences of formula feeding. I promise. Let me tell you what I think those benefits are.

All of us, at some point, feel like we are in some way "neglecting" our baby in order to take care of other things, or just take a break for ourselves. Instead of actively engaging our baby every minute of the day, we dare to *gasp* spend 15 minutes on Facebook, or read a novel (well, maybe one chapter), or (G-d forbid!) eat dinner while the baby fusses in the swing. Maybe we plop the baby on a playmat to stare at the very interesting musical star so that we can answer emails and make phone calls. Maybe we are crass enough to pay a nanny or daycare center to watch our baby for a few hours a day so that we can work, inside or outside the home, or sleep, or pay bills, or have lunch with a friend sans children.

And then, suddenly, baby is hungry, and we stop what we're doing, pick him up, hold him close, and put him to the breast. Suddenly, we are forced to spend time holding the baby, looking into his eyes, talking to him, singing to him, cuddling with him. At worst, we continue to browse Facebook one-handed, or attempt not to drop spaghetti on the baby's head, or try to answer that work email by hunt-and-pecking with one finger on whichever hand is free. But the baby is there, in arms, skin-to-skin, receiving the ultimate in comfort, nutrition, and love. Mommy-guilt momentarily alleviated!

Continuing to nurse past newborn-hood gives the added benefit of having available, at all times, the perfect pacifier. If your baby is hurt, or sick, or unhappy, or having trouble sleeping, or agitated, generally all you have to do is put him to the breast, and he'll calm right down. Nursing will make him feel better - it actually has analgesic properties to help soothe a booboo or to calm him after or during immunization shots or blood draws. Breastmilk has all those amazing antibodies and healing properties that can help a baby recover faster from illness, and help prevent that simple cold from turning into an ear infection or lingering cough. Nursing is relaxing, and can help him fall into a deeper sleep, soothe him after a startled wakeup, relieve the tension of being in a new situation.

Nursing can calm a tantrum, provide a distraction, and (forgive me) shut the baby up so you can finish watching "American Idol."

Hey, let's be realistic, here!

I would even venture to say that nursing can calm Mom, too. I'll give you an example. When my second son was about 6 weeks old, nursing almost round-the-clock, I took an hour to go for a regular dental checkup and have a couple of minor fillings done, leaving the baby with my mother-in-law and a few bottles of expressed breastmilk. While at the dentist, I got a call from the daycare that my older son (a little over 2 years old at the time) had fallen and busted his lip and that at least one of his teeth was knocked loose. Now, in most cases, this news would have made me very anxious.  I would have been in a frenzy of "What do we do?" and "I'm in the middle of having a cavity filled! I can't come get him!" and "Oh my G-d, take him to the emergency room!" Instead, I discussed with my husband, over the phone, what we should do, and asked the dentist (since teeth were involved) what she thought. My husband said he'd pick up our son, and the dentist said we could just bring him straight to her (she also did pediatric dentistry) and she could examine him right away. (He's fine, by the way.) What struck me about myself in this whole situation was how calm I was. I'm not, as a general rule, a super-calm person. I'm easily agitated, especially in a new situation, and I'm can be fairly irritable. But not this time. Honestly, I credit all the oxytocin in my system from the constant nursing for helping me to stay focused and calm.

At other times, too, if I was especially worked up, holding my baby close and nursing him helped me to calm down along with him. It made me focus on one thing, evoked pleasant feelings of love and warmth, and allowed that wonderful hormone, oxytocin, to flood through me.

So, yes, I will freely admit that formula feeding isn't of the devil, and there are times that it can be very attractive. But I will also say with absolute conviction that no matter how difficult, no matter how stressful, no matter how much work it is in the beginning, (1) It will get better, and (2) It's totally worth it.


  1. Last night, I mentioned your blog to a friend, and found out that his wife had trouble breastfeeding their son because she couldn't get her milk to drop. Just curious if you have any thoughts on the matter.

  2. I'm not exactly sure what it means that she couldn't get her milk to "drop." Does it mean her milk never came in, or that her milk came in but she couldn't achieve let-down? Because those are two very different problems.

    As far as my thoughts, some women do have a medical or physical reason that they can't breastfeed. Either they don't produce milk at all (very rare), or a hormonal condition such as PCOS causes very low supply, or a past surgical breast reduction cut through milk ducts, preventing milk from reaching the nipple, for example. If the problem is low supply but not no supply, these women can still combination feed, if so desired, and there are also nutritional, herbal, and medicinal supplements that can help boost milk supply.

    If it's a let-down problem, some women may find that let-down (more scientifically called the Milk-Ejection Reflex, which is the process by which milk is released from the alveoli into the ducts and flows down to the nipple) takes a long time, which causes the baby to get frustrated at the breast waiting for the milk to come out. This is usually treatable using certain supplements. Sometimes it's even a psychological problem, or stress. I've never personally heard of someone not being able to achieve let-down at all despite producing milk, but anything is possible. Maybe the oxytocin receptors aren't functioning properly or something. My advice to someone like that would have been to see a professional lactation consultant (IBCLC) to evaluate what the problem might be and if it's solvable.

    For that matter, there are some babies who cannot physically or medically breastfeed. In those cases, there are also options, depending what the exact problem is. I do have a friend whose baby seemed to literally be allergic TO HER BREASTMILK and is now doing very well on a special hypoallergenic formula. But I stress that this is VERY RARE, and one can't assume this is the problem unless everything else has been ruled out.

    I also would hasten to add that my posts are NOT directed at anyone with a physical or medical problem that prevents exclusive breastfeeding. My aim is to get more women to "choose" to breastfeed while still pregnant, so that they will at least be willing to give it a shot when the baby is born. If one of those women who wants to breastfeed finds that for some reason she cannot, I would be the first to say "It's wonderful that you wanted to, and that you tried, but isn't it also wonderful that we do have formula so that you had that alternative!"

  3. This is so refreshing. Thank you for your honesty, openness, and humor. My husband and I are thinking about having children and our relationship is just the opposite of usual--he's got all the natural "maternal" feelings and I'm left feeling like a big dope not knowing anything. He's also waaaaaaaaaaaaay laid back and I'm unfortunately much more uptight, so I'm definitely going to be the one worrying about car seats and trying to figure out breastfeeding or formula feeding, etc etc etc. Everywhere I look, I see people vehemently on one side of every issue and it makes me feel so anxious and alone, lost in a sea of confusion. I appreciate how you share trying this, trying that, looking at this possibility, then at that one...and admit that it's taken hours to figure out car seat configurations when I'd swear that everyone else is born knowing how to do these things. I can tell you really care about your kids but that you're very down to earth (I had to LOL about the part about getting the baby to shut up so you could finish watching American's so refreshing--something tells me your blog might be a good guide as I continue through this uncertain journey ahead). Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the comment! I try to be as straightforward as I can with my readers. I'm glad you enjoyed what you've read so far, and I hope you'll continue to read and comment.

  4. I'm currently nursing my third (2weeks old). I have always hit this breaking point where I say "I CANT DO THIS ANYMORE!!" I have mommy guilt because I can't take care of my other two, especially my 22 month old like I used to. She's taking it the hardest. I broke down and gave the newborn a bottle with formula today. I haven't been able to pump enough. Just so I could spend some time with them. Then I found your post. Which I'm able to read while nursing. Thank you! It's what I needed to read right now. So I'll keep on nursing. Until it gets to the better part.

  5. I rather formula feed, its much easier, and the baby will be just fine.
    I've formula fed my daughter and currently formula feeding my two week old son.
    I was also formula fed and I survived.

  6. Thanks for giving us the great advice on breastfeeding for baby. It's helped my first baby breastfeeding in your article.