Breastfeeding Moms Could Need Formula More Than They Know

bottlefeedingWell knock me over with a feather! For as long as I can remember -- or at least since I started reading every book I could find on babies during my pregnancy -- I've heard that formula is harmful to moms trying to initiate breastfeeding. And now a bunch of researchers say that's not really true.

Word out of the University of California San Francisco is that early formula use can actually -- gasp -- help breastfeeding moms.

Ready to fill up those bottles?


Just hold on a second ...

The study -- supported by a grant from the National Institute of Children Health and Human Development and just published online by the medical journal Pediatrics -- refers only to what they call early limited formula (or the adorable nickname ELF) use. Under their guidelines, small amounts of formula are given to babies to help curb their hunger while mom waits for her milk to come in, but mom still breastfeeds.

The study took 40 newborns who had lost 5 percent of their birth weight and whose moms' milk hadn't come in yet and split them into two groups. One got ELF. The other group was breastfed exclusively. When they checked back at 3 months, almost 80 percent of the babies who were given formula early on were breastfeeding exclusively. Forty-two percent of the moms who'd breastfed exclusively from the get-go were still doing so. 

The goal of ELF is to help moms and babies both -- it keeps the little ones from losing weight and helps prevent moms from giving in to the stress of not "making enough" to sate a hungry baby. In all, it's only supposed to last a few days before moms goes to full breastfeeding.

It all sounds pretty tricky, and even the folks at UCSF admit it's not perfect. In a press release, the study's lead author Dr. Valerie Flaherman, an assistant professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF and a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, even calls formula use a "slippery slope to breastfeeding discontinuation."

But I'm buying what they're selling ... if only because I remember those early days after my daughter was born, when nothing, and I mean NOTHING satisfied her. My nipples were rubbed raw and felt like they were going to fall off, and still she screamed. I didn't want to give her a pacifier -- because of course the books all tell you that causes nipple confusion -- and I was at my wits' end.

I ended up sinking into postpartum depression in no small part because of my feelings of failure and inadequacy as a mom who wasn't doing well at this breastfeeding thing.

I can only imagine how much less stressed I would have been if someone had said, "Hey, a little formula isn't a bad thing." If someone -- a medical someone -- had helped me lay out a plan for a little formula to get us over the hump, a plan that had a specific beginning and end so that it was only a supplement and NOT a crutch that ruined my breastfeeding future.

That's what the folks at UCSF are talking about. They're not saying moms should pump baby full of something man-made from here until eternity. Just give that ravenous baby something to drink when mom can't make it ... something to help mom get over the hump while her poor body adjusts to new motherhood.

If that's what it takes to make breastfeeding work for a long time, it just might be worth it.

Did you ever supplement with formula? Did it help or hinder your breastfeeding experience?


Image via Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr

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