'Fearless Formula Feeder' Wants Moms to Know It's Okay Not to Breastfeed

Despite every advantage -- a breastfeeding-friendly pediatrician and hospital, access to an extensive network of lactation consultants, a loving husband, and a genuine desire to breastfeed -- Suzanne Barston struggled. Her son had a tongue tie and wouldn't latch. He was also diagnosed with a severe milk allergy despite her vegan diet.

Further complicating matters? Nerve damage in one of Suzanne's breasts made breastfeeding excruciatingly painful. And then there was her crippling postpartum depression (PPD) ... she had to deal with feelings of failure that she couldn't breastfeed through a haze of sadness.

She felt alone, so she started to write. Suzanne launched her Fearless Formula Feeder blog with the mantra Standing Up for Formula Feeders Without Being a Boob About It. And that changed her life.


Fast forward six years and two kids later and Suzanne is a sassy force to be reckoned with when it comes to formula feeders. Her book Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn't is a rallying cry for moms on both sides.

The Stir sat down with Suzanne Barston to talk about the strong feelings, stigmas, and stereotypes surrounding the always-heated breastfeeding vs. bottle-feeding debate.

Are you against breastfeeding?
Hell no. I just became a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) because I want to help women breastfeed. I think breastfeeding is amazing.

What inspired you to start Fearless Formula Feeder?
I think there were two straws that broke our particular camel's back. First, I had PPD, which had a very early onset -- quite literally, right after delivery. I was mothering through a cloud of confusion and darkness, and my depression has always been tied to both my hormones and my body image, so it was sort of a powder keg from the start. But I still kept trying to breastfeed, and eventually I was exclusively pumping very successfully, which I figured I'd keep up as long as I could. And then we discovered that the reason my child had been a sleepless, miserable, rashy, bloody-diapered mess since day one was a severe milk allergy, and we tried a hypoallergenic formula, and it was ... magic. Within 12 hours, we had a happy, content, healthy baby. That was when I realized my desire to breastfeed -- or more accurately, my desire to do the "right" thing, was punishing him as well as me.  

And there I sat, with all these feelings of failure, and a ton of "knowledge" about breastfeeding and breastfed babies from my online baby groups and parenting classes and books, with absolutely no support or guidance for what our situation had ended up being. I tried researching bottle feeding techniques and all I came up with was foreboding, scolding essays on why I really should be breastfeeding. I was scared, angry, and feeling utterly alone, so I started blogging. The title of the blog was sort of ironic, but also hopeful -- because I wanted to be fearless. I wanted other parents who made the best choice for their families to feel confident and supported. Luckily, the more I learned about the politics and science of infant feeding, the more truly fearless I became. 

Did anyone ever give you a hard time for using formula?
Oh yes. We had a doctor who told me I should have kept breastfeeding, that it was my fault my child was allergic to milk (he ignored the medical record that clearly showed his health had improved and signs of allergy had disappeared right when we stopped breastfeeding). Another who told me it wouldn't matter which formula I used because they were all bad. I had several friends who were well-meaning, but made a point to clarify to anyone who'd listen that I'd "tried" to breastfeed, as if simply choosing to formula feed would've meant something negative, or tried to badger me about whether I'd breastfeed future children while I was still trying to worth through my feelings about my first experience.

Do you think formula is as healthy for babies as breast milk?
Breast milk is made for human babies, and nutritionally, I think breast milk is the best food for most babies. Not all, but most. It's kind of silly to try and argue against that, you know? But that doesn't mean that formula can't nourish a baby, nor does it necessarily follow that there will be repercussions because we "messed with nature." I do think our research is a bit lacking when it comes to comparing formula to pumped, frozen milk, or milk from a mother on specific medications or dietary restrictions. This is not to say that formula is "better," because there are many benefits to breastfeeding that have nothing to do with nutrition. The problem in speaking in superlatives and absolutes is that if you're relying on science, you need to see the full picture. I'd rather we skip the comparisons and just verify that kids can grow up healthy on either, and try and make sure both substances are as healthy as possible.

So do you think moms should try breastfeeding before choosing formula?
I think if a mom is on the fence, there's no harm in trying, because she can always go to formula. The reverse isn't as easy. I usually say, "breast is best until it isn't," because while it might be the best nutritional choice for most babies, it isn't always the best choice in a holistic sense (i.e., if the mother or infant is suffering because of it). And I've seen many, many moms go in thinking they will hate it and end up nursing for three years! But if a mom has a specific reason for not wanting to breastfeed, I would never suggest she at least "try." I trust her to know her own body, and her own mind. That's why unbiased, unemotional education is so essential -- we need to let parents know the research behind breastfeeding and formula, as well as the limitations of this research, so that they can perform their own risk/benefit analysis. Also, I never go into the conversation trying to "convince" a woman to do either -- I just listen to her, ask if she has questions, address her concerns, and support her in her decision, whatever that may be.

What's the biggest misconception about formula feeding you're trying to overcome with your advocacy work?
Gosh, do I have to choose one? I think the biggest misconception is that formula feeders would be breastfeeding if they just had "more" -- more education, more support, more stamina, more love for their children. I've spent nearly six years talking to women all over the world about formula feeding, and sure, there are a few I've encountered who could have used more support. But they do not lack love, or knowledge that breastfeeding is the preferred method of feeding a baby, or inner strength. They have all chosen (or had the choice made for them) to formula feed for complex, personal reasons, and we tend to ignore that in infant feeding research and discussion. Because no one stops to actually talk to the women who have "failed" to meet breastfeeding recommendations. Instead, they just talk for them, or about them, or at them. 

I'd also say that a big -- and important -- misconception is that we can learn all we need to from the back of a formula can. Why should we be getting what is essentially medical advice from a company that is selling us a product? Formula feeding can be safe and healthy, but it can also be dangerous when parents aren't given accurate guidance. Unlike breastfeeding, it isn't natural. Using powdered formula is like a mini chemistry experiment. One you're forced to do at 3 a.m., two days after you've given birth, when your milk hasn't come in yet and your baby is screaming and you're feeling panicked and guilty. We need better education and support for parents who use formula -- which, as statistics show us, is more than half of us who have babies under 3 months (even if we're just supplementing once or twice). 

How do you feel about the recent trend of formula being "banned" in hospitals?
I don't have a huge problem with banning formula sample bags, although I also don't think it's a big deal to just set them aside and only give them out upon request. But what I do worry about is that often, the only thing that passes as formula instruction or "education" comes from those same gift bags. Not that this is sufficient education, AT ALL -- but at least it was something, and the bags usually contained single-serve, sterile nursettes which are the most foolproof and safest option for newborns. I hope that when hospitals ban the bags, they are also handing out educational materials that give clear instructions about formula use, free from rhetoric or warnings. 

As for banning formula altogether, I haven't heard of that happening here, but there is a trend to "lock up" formula so that only doctors or head nurses can access it, or to at least make parents sign waivers or endure repeated "conversations" before dispensing the formula. One mom I spoke to said she was only given 2 oz. at a time, and had to have a lecture on the benefits of breastfeeding before she could get more -- each and every time she fed her infant. That's not okay. Babies shouldn't be given formula unless medically necessary, unless a parent requests it. There are two unless-es here, and we only are paying attention to one. That has to change. Otherwise, you are interfering with a woman's bodily autonomy.

You've said the way we feed our babies has come to define motherhood. How did this happen?
The short version is that for several decades, formula was seen as the best way to feed babies, and women were taught not to trust their bodies. Then a few formula companies did some awful things and people responded by trying to put them out of business and bring back breastfeeding. But we went too far in that direction, too, and once again women are taught not to trust themselves -- we are too fragile to defend our psyches from formula marketing; we need doctors and lactation professionals to teach us how to mother. This also happened in a time (1980s-present) when women were going back to work, gender roles were changing, and there was a big anti-science push (man made was bad, natural was good) going on simultaneously. We also saw the advent of the parenting "industry" -- so many experts, books, products, and of course the Internet played a role as well. But honestly, I think a large part of it is that parents feel lost. The world is a scary place. And when you feel like by breastfeeding, you can keep your child safe, and have the "experts" and your community tell you that you are doing the "best" thing, that is reassuring. Because as a new parent -- and especially a new mother -- you are floundering. Being a "breastfeeding mom" is a definition, something to hold onto when everything else seems out of your control.

More from The Stir: 10 Things Never to Say to a Formula-Feeding Mom

Do you think the "mom wars" surrounding this issue will ever end?
It depends what day you ask me! Last year, when we started #ISupportYou to compliment breastfeeding week, I felt really hopeful. Women we supporting each other and recognizing their common bonds -- it was sort of magical. And then we decided to sit out for World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) this year, because we got a lot of criticism from breastfeeding advocates that we were usurping their week. I feel now that it was a mistake -- because instead of feeling positive and having everyone supporting breastfeeding as the WBW intends, all we saw was anger, hurt, resentment, defensiveness. Negativity ended up usurping the week, instead of our campaign. I feel strongly that until we can stop seeing formula as a competitor to breast milk and realize that the end goal should be healthy babies and healthy parents, feeding their children in the healthiest way possible, we're going to see "mommy wars." Also, I want to point out that I don't necessarily see this as a "mommy war" as much as a messed-up situation that moms are reacting to. It would be a lot easier to talk about feeding babies calmly, without defensiveness, if we didn't have people tweeting that breastfeeding was gross, or moms being kicked out of stores for nursing their infants (or toddlers!), or public health campaigns that equate formula to cigarettes, or hospitals that made women sign forms stating they are making a deadly choice by choosing formula. I think most of us can learn to shut out the haters on Facebook, but those systemic issues are harder to fight.

What tips do you have for formula-feeding moms?

  1. Realize that you can do everything a breastfeeding mom does minus your breast delivering the milk. You can hold your baby close, do skin to skin, practice responsive feeding, babywear.
  2. Know that formulas do differ -- one might work better for your particular child. But in terms of nutrition, all commercial formulas will provide the same essential nutrients.
  3. Find supportive people. Make sure your pediatrician understands formula and is formula-friendly. Make sure you reach out and find other moms who lift you up instead of making you feel inferior. Learn all you can about the nature of infant feeding studies so you aren't freaked out unnecessarily by every headline. Know that you are doing YOUR best for your child and your family.

What would you say to critics who think that by supporting formula feeders you are discouraging breastfeeding?
I'd say that supporting formula feeders and supporting breastfeeding can and should be the same thing. We all need support -- just different kinds of support. I would never try and tell my friend who is breastfeeding her 3-year-old what kind of support she needs, because how could I possibly know? Same goes for critics saying that since we live in a bottle-dominant society, there's no need for formula feeding support. They have no idea, because they haven't lived it. That sort of us vs. them mentality is fruitless, because so many formula feeding moms started out as breastfeeding moms. Of course they support breastfeeding! Of course they want to ensure that their breastfeeding sisters can nurse without harassment! But when you're told by the people you're trying to support that you're the enemy, or that they feel sorry for you ... it gets hard to want to keep fighting. There is room for all of us at the table -- we just need to be more conscious about knocking each other's elbows. I would assume breastfeeding advocates who are of past generations can understand how it feels to be fighting against stereotypes, medical authorities, and the media. It's not easy. And we aren't the enemy. The woman sitting next to you at the mall feeding her baby a bottle is not the jerk who reports you to the security guard for public indecency. She isn't responsible for the atrocities committed by Nestle in the 1970s. She's just trying to feed her baby.

What are your hopes for both breast and formula feeders?
My hope is that breastfeeding moms and formula feeding moms can stop defining themselves as such. The labels need to stop altogether. Attachment parent. Crunchy mom. Peaceful parent. C-section mom. I mean, really? Is this what feminism did for us? Allow us to go around labeling ourselves based on how we birth or the parenting books we read? We are all so much more than this. We are mothers. We are also lovers and friends and spouses and professionals and sisters and daughters. How you feed your baby doesn't have to define you. If we got the support we all crave so badly, I believe we could come to a point where we just feed our babies the way we see fit and move on to more important things, like who we are as people, how we enjoy our lives, and how we are going to raise a generation that will do better than ours did in treating others with respect and empathy. 

Did you feel supported in your decision to breastfeed or formula feed?

Image via © Lisa B./Corbis

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