Food is one of the most basic human needs – but when it comes to our babies, the way we do that can be one of the most contentious decisions we make.
Health professionals unrelentingly drive home the ‘breast is best’ message to expectant women in their care, and those who express a preference for bottle-feeding and formula often face disdain.
Last week’s incident in Phenix City in the southern US state of Alabama, in which a young mother claimed a restaurant owner tried to cover her up with a dish towel while she was breastfeeding, and the announcement in the UK that The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has updated its official position on breastfeeding and says mothers who choose not to breastfeed should be ‘respected,’ have underscored the tension the issue generates.
However, there’s no denying the medical evidence. Breastfeeding helps protect babies from infections and other diseases, with mothers’ own antibodies passed on through their milk.
According to the UK’s National Health Service, breastfeeding reduces instances of diarrhoea and vomiting, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and childhood leukaemia. It also makes Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease less likely in later life.
Benefits to the new mother are equally beneficial, with the risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and obesity lowered.
So, if it provides all these advantages, surely breastfeeding is the obvious choice?
The other side of the story
Whatever women are told, not every new mum is able to breastfeed.
Some struggle with their milk supply and simply can’t provide enough for their baby to thrive. Some babies are born so prematurely they have to be fed through a tube. Some women simply prefer not to breastfeed.
In an age where women everywhere are standing up for their rights, from demanding equal pay to denouncing sexual harassment, why can’t they choose how to feed their babies without being judged?
Formula milk may not have the same natural health benefits as breast milk, but it’s certainly not poisonous – even though some pro-breastfeeding campaigners might argue otherwise.
Choose what works for you
For some, the advantages of breastfeeding far outweigh those of formula, while for others the reverse is true.
If you’re breastfeeding, it’s the easiest thing in the world to adjust your clothing and attach your hungry baby to your nipple. You’ve got the perfect complete food source on tap, if you’ll excuse the phrase. It won’t run out, there’s no fiddly equipment, and no waking up suddenly at 2.30am when you realise you forgot to mix the night-time feeds.
Conversely, some mothers prefer to know exactly how much milk their baby is taking and want to establish a regular feeding routine as quickly as possible. They don’t find the sterilising and preparation irksome – it’s just another routine task around the house.
Some mothers love the rush of endorphins that comes as their baby starts to suckle, while others find it stressful and traumatic. Some thrive on the unique link that develops as you share your body with your baby in this way, while others want to include their partner in the feeding ritual so they can bond too.
And while some women feel confident about breastfeeding in public, others are only happy to leave the house with a bottle of formula ready for when their little one starts fussing.
Advantages to each method
There are some positives for each that simply can’t be countered.
If your newborn is feeding every couple of hours, including through the night, breastfeeding is by far the easier option. No stumbling around, half-asleep, to get a bottle out of the refrigerator and heat it to the right temperature.
It’s free, too. You’ve got everything you need right there, from your own body. Formula will cost you around £45/$60 a month, not to mention buying a steriliser, bottles, teats and so on.
Breastfeeding can halve the risk of post-natal depression, according to a study of 14,000 new mothers carried out by Cambridge University in the UK. It also burns up to 500 calories a day, helping women shed the ‘baby weight’ that much quicker.
On the flipside, bottle-feeding mothers don’t have to deal with sore, cracked and bleeding nipples or the agony of mastitis. And after carrying a baby for nine months, it’s a relief to reclaim your body as your own.
Bottle-feeding generally gives mothers more freedom. It’s easier to socialise, go shopping or visit the gym when you can leave your infant with your partner or trusted babysitter, a stash of bottles safely in the refrigerator.
And if you have other children to care for, bottle-feeding is generally quicker and less frequent, allowing you to share your time more equally.
Mother knows best
The breast versus bottle argument isn’t as cut and dried as some health professionals and campaigning mothers might profess. But neither should it be such a divisive issue.
With all the evidence and research so readily available to new mothers, shouldn’t they be allowed to make their own decision, without judgement – whatever that may be?