Breast vs Formula ‘debate’/feeding ‘wars’

I dislike both of these terms. I don’t believe there should be a debate about breast vs formula and it’s certainly not a war. A war is a terrible thing that devastates the lives of many. I hate when words like this are used so casually. It’s on the same level as the term “breastfeeding Nazis”. I HATE that. Think about what the Nazis did. Do you REALLY think it’s appropriate to use that word for someone who is passionate about breastfeeding?

I feel like this should be so simple but it’s not. Breastfeeding is the biological norm. If there are difficulties, support needs to be provided to the mother to help with breastfeeding. If the mother genuinely can’t breastfeed direct from the source, the next step is for her to express her milk to feed the baby. If this isn’t possible, donor breastmilk should be sourced. If this isn’t possible then formula is available. Breastfeeding advocates are not trying to shame formula feeders. They are working to make the above the normal way things are done and for it to become more simple for things to work this way (as donor breastmilk isn’t always readily available).

Breastfeeding is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large.

-The World Health Organisation

You trusted your body to grow your baby. You trusted your body to sustain your baby’s life for 9 months. You trusted your body to grow a brain, lungs, kidneys, liver etc. Yes there are some who may not have trusted their bodies as much if you experienced difficulties in pregnancy and/or previous losses. That’s so tough. Support is needed for those women too. But most women probably didn’t give much thought to “will I be able to grow this baby inside me, will I be able to bring it into the world”. Yet when the baby arrives and it’s proven that your body was capable of growing an actual human being and bringing it into the world, so many women start to doubt that their bodies can continue to sustain this tiny life.

We are not saying formula is poison. We are not saying babies should starve or become dehydrated in favour of giving formula. We are not saying you have failed as a parent if you give your baby formula. The fact is though that formula does carry risks so we just want to help all women feed their baby in the way that is biologically normal. The way our bodies were designed to. The way all other mammals feed their babies. Humans often seem to forget that we are mammals too. Yet you don’t worry if your cat who just gave birth to 5 kittens is going to be able to feed them all. She just gets on with it.

I see so many defensive comments from formula feeders and I’d like to explain a few things.

“My formula fed baby hardly ever gets sick, my/my friends breastfed baby gets sick all the time, so clearly it doesn’t matter”

When we say formula increases the risks of certain illnesses, that does not mean that every formula fed baby is going to be sick all the time and every breastfed baby is going to be the picture of health. It means that if you look at a group of 100 breastfed babies and 100 formula fed babies, the formula fed babies on the whole will have higher occurrences of certain illnesses. A breastfed baby who is sick “all the time” would possibly be sick even more if they were formula fed. Possibly, not definitely. This is not to make formula feeding parents feel guilty. This is a scientific fact.

“My formula fed baby and I have a great bond”

When we say breastfeeding helps mother and baby bond, we are not saying that you can’t have an amazing bond with your formula fed baby. Just as dads can have a great bond with their breastfed babies, so can mums who don’t breastfeed. Yes breastfeeding is a lovely bonding experience but it’s not the only way to bond. There are loads of other ways!

Similarly “I want to give some bottles so my husband gets a chance to feed the baby”

Again, feeding is not the only way to bond with a baby. There are so many other ways to bond. There is no need to give some bottles purely for that reason. When I was looking for pictures and information for this blog post, I saw time and time again in lists of benefits of formula feeding that people besides the mum can bond equally with the baby. This makes me so so sad to see. We have got to stop perpetuating this idea that breastfed babies can’t bond with their dads or other family members!

“Formula saved my baby’s life, without it they wouldn’t be here”

Yes, formula can be life saving in certain instances. Yes there can be a need for formula. Yes it is great that formula exists for these occasions where there is genuinely no alternative. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, we don’t want to ban formula! We just want more support for breastfeeding because we know there are so many instances where formula is unnecessarily given. But we are not saying it is always unnecessary. Formula is and should be thought of as a medicine.

Above image from Breastfeeding Uncovered

When we talk about advertising laws around formula, we are not bashing formula feeders. Everyone knows formula is there. People trained in breastfeeding know formula is there. They will recommend it if all other avenues have been tried and it is vital for the baby to survive. But formula advertising is not needed! It just perpetuates formula being the norm. It makes people think they need to or should give formula at some point even if there is no real need medically. If there is any bashing going on, it’s of formula companies and not any parent who gives formula.

I’m sorry to those who have experienced negativity from a breastfeeder for giving formula. But I can assure you people like this are a minority. Thinking all breastfeeders are like this is comparable to thinking everyone of a particular race are the same because of your experience of one or two out of thousands. The majority of breastfeeding advocates only want to help and get correct information to people so they can make proper informed decisions. We get so passionate about it because there is so much misinformation flying about!

There aren’t benefits to breastfeeding. This implies that formula feeding is the normal base level and anything on top of that is a bonus. Breastfeeding is the normal base level. There are risks to giving formula. But like I said above, these risks are outweighed by a baby not being fed at all. I am not saying “fed is best”. I dislike that term too. Fed is the absolute minimum you can do for your baby. But it does make a difference how this is done. 

Most importantly, when breastfeeders talk about how proud we are about our breastfeeding journey, this is not meant to upset or offend formula feeders.

Lots of people are proud of lots of different achievements every day but others aren’t offended that they want to celebrate those achievements.

Yes we’re proud but we’re not saying that your formula fed baby is inferior to our breastfed baby. We’re not saying your formula fed baby can’t be happy and healthy and a brilliant human being. Feeding isn’t everything. Please don’t take offence to our celebrations. Focus on your achievements and what you’re proud of and celebrate that.

Whilst one mother shouldn’t be shamed about giving up breastfeeding, that doesn’t mean that the other mother shouldn’t be celebrated for succeeding and getting through any difficulties. 

It seems that celebrating one mothers success is an indirect shaming of another. Which is really sad.

Also remember that social media is just a snap shot of someone’s life. There is a lot more going on “behind the scenes”. A mother celebrating her breastfeeding journey may have been going through some really tough times and just wants to be proud of this one thing. Everyone can be proud of something. It doesn’t all need to be the same thing. What are you proud of?


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