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To Breastfeed, or Not to Breastfeed…

March 28, 2024
Ahma & Co Team
Image Credit: Nathan Dumlao
Image Credit: Nathan Dumlao

When it comes to nourishing your baby, the phrase “Breast Is Best” may as well be printed onto the sky in flashing neon lights, given how much it is thrown around in the mom-sphere. Sure, breastfeeding is fantastic in its nutritional and immunological value to babies, decreasing the chances of morbidity and offering the perfect carb-fat-protein-vitamin combination. Keith Hanson, former Vice-President of Human Development for the World Bank, once said, “If breastfeeding did not already exist, someone who invented it today would deserve a dual Nobel Prize in medicine and economics.” With praise like this, it is no wonder why the World Health Organization encourages mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months following birth.  But breastfeeding is not all sunshine and daisies; it’s far from it. Breastfeeding can be incredibly challenging and sometimes even impossible for some moms. So, it’s rare that mothers reach that 6-month mark, with over 60% of mothers claiming they stopped breastfeeding earlier than they hoped. But, grappling with the physical pain of breastfeeding is not the only pressure of deciding how to nourish your baby best- there’s also the stigma around formula feeding.

A study within the Journal of Maternal and Child Nutrition explores the shame attached to nourishing babies. Their article “Shame If You Do- Shame If You Don’t: Women’s Experiences of Infant Feeding”  discusses the struggle of experiencing shame for both breastfeeding and not breastfeeding. Considering formula feeding, it outlines that mothers who formula feed often feel guilt as they feel they do not live up to society’s expectation of what it means to be a mother or a woman. Specifically, the study mentioned that pro-breastfeeding discourse and criticism from others (often emerging from health care professionals) made mothers feel second best. It also discusses the challenge of public breastfeeding, with “violating the ideal of feminine modesty” - a topic that could (and will be) a whole new article.

Nevertheless, non-breastfeeding mothers often internalize the criticism of being second best to breastfeeding mothers, being more likely to self-deprecate their mothering skills because of their absence or premature cessation of breastfeeding. Hello, Moms! How unfair is that? Every mother and family has completely valid reasons for not being able to or prematurely ending breastfeeding. Would we love to make breastfeeding more accessible for mothers across the world? Absolutely. While a stellar long-term goal, the here and now of nourishing babies means that breastfeeding for some moms is simply out of the question- and that is valid! So, in trying to help you nourish that beautiful, hungry baby of yours, we give you our candid breastfeeding versus formula insights outlining the pros and cons of both.

Breastfeeding: Perks

1. Nutritionally & immunologically beneficial to babies

The nutritional and immunological benefits that breastfeeding gives newborns are significant. Breast milk provides a pretty perfect source of nourishment for babies, being just the right distribution of fats, carbohydrates, and protein. Moreover, it is linked to supporting strong physical and cognitive development.

Immunologically, breast milk does a super job of strengthening newborns’ immune systems. It helps babies defend themselves from harmful illnesses and diseases. When mothers breastfeed their babies, they transfer their developed antibodies to their baby, which protects them from developing illnesses as they progress and wait throughout their vaccination schedule. Evidence demonstrates that breastfeeding widely decreases infant morbidity and hospitalizations, including reducing the odds of asthma, obesity, respiratory diseases, and gastrointestinal infections.

2. Smaller environmental impact than formula feeding

Perhaps overlooked, breastfeeding is less harmful to the environment than formula feeding. Breastfeeding limits the amount of waste produced in nourishing babies, limiting the use of containers, bottles, and the energy needed to create and use all of those things. What about breastfeedings’ respective equipment, like breast pumps and bottles? Well, conversely to formula feeding’s one-time-use equipment life, breastfeeding utilizes products that are often reusable and will be used over and over again.  

3. “No, I do it because breast is free” - or at least cheaper than formula

Comedian Ali Wong said it best in her special “Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife” when defending her choice to breastfeed her baby to her mother, saying:

“ [Her mom] … was like, ‘Why are you breastfeeding? I raised you on formula, and look how shiny your hair is.’ She was like, ‘Are you falling for that bulls*** slogan, breast is best?’ I was like ‘No, I do it because breast is free.’”

While free may be hyperbolic, breastfeeding can often be cheaper than formula. The Surgeon General states that mothers who breastfeed at the suggested optimal rate can save from $1200 to $1500 in formula costs within the first year of infant care. Studies also support that the increased health benefits from breastfeeding lead to lower long-term health care costs.

Breastfeeding: Cons

1. Traveling and working?  

Breastfeeding entirely depends on moms’ breasts, which can be pretty constraining for mom! A common frustration with maintaining breastfeeding is that it is incredibly difficult to balance as moms return back to their normal life. Particularly, breastfeeding is complicated to manage for moms when they are returning to work. While the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the United States requires reasonable break time and a suitable place to breastfeed, many work environments are less than ideal for moms to pump or nurse - and don’t even get started on the logistic-heavy process of transitioning into bottle use for newborns.

2. Being super cautious about what you consume

You may be drinking water thinking you're being a hydrated queen for your baby- but research shows even this requires caution when breastfeeding! Water contamination can have a direct impact on the health of your newborn while breastfeeding.

Harvard School of Public Health demonstrated through a study utilizing serial blood analyses that infants who breastfeed have a higher chance of gaining toxins, namely “Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances”  (PFAS), than infants who do not breastfeed. Why is this? The presence of PFAS in a mothers’ system is transferred to their baby through breastmilk. Mothers accumulate PFAS in their bodies through the consumption of PFAS contaminated water and exposure to PFAS in common household items like stain-proof textiles, waterproof clothing, and packaging.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals' ' because they often bioaccumulate within food chains and persist in bodies for a long period of time. This study notes that the presence of PFAS can be detrimental to babies as it has been shown,  “to be linked with reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and immune system dysfunction.” It is important to note you may be unknowingly transferring substances to your newborn, so try to be cognizant of the chemicals you are exposed to and consume!

Additionally, breastfeeding moms must monitor what they knowingly eat and drink in consideration of how it may impact their breast milk. In the case of alcohol, for example, the CDC states that moderate alcohol consumption is a-okay. However, high levels of alcohol consumption can adversely impact your newborn across their development, growth, and sleep patterns. It would be best if you also avoided excessive caffeine and fish that are high in mercury. To learn more about what to avoid or indulge in, check out our tips in our article: Fourth Of July Indulgence of the Summer. That’s all to say, your body can and will transfer what you knowingly and unfortunately sometimes unknowingly consume to your newborn!

3. Latching, teething and breast pain...oh my!

Latching, teething, and breast pain are understandably enough to make any mom transform into the cowardly lion.  Mothers' comfort, health, and happiness are essential to both her and her newborns' well-being, and sometimes breastfeeding can be counterproductive in maintaining these things for some moms. Breastfeeding is tiring, sometimes very painful, and challenging for some mothers.

Formula Feeding: Perks

1. Family members or partners may not be able to breastfeed, but they can make formula

Convenience- with formula feeding, nourishing babies is more of a team effort! Mom’s support network can make formula just as well as she can- no breasts needed! This allows for more effortless mobility for moms who do not have to be relied upon as the sole provider of nourishment, like mothers who choose to breastfeed exclusively. For example, work becomes less stressful when moms can avoid the hassle of having to tightly schedule pumping time between meetings.

2. Your breasts are allowed to belong to you!

Formula feeding can help moms in avoiding the pain and difficulties of breastfeeding. For some moms, breastfeeding can be a challenge physically, emotionally, or mentally. These challenges vary, but all are equally valid for why a mother should not or cannot breastfeed. For example, some mothers may find they have issues with their mammary glands or milk supply, making breastfeeding an unenjoyable and unproductive experience. Mothers experiencing Postpartum depression may find that breastfeeding is an added stressor that for both mom and their baby is best to avoid. Some mothers also may refrain from breastfeeding given they are on certain medications or possess certain illnesses, like HIV, that can pass these substances and vectors through breastmilk. And for some moms, the pain of breastfeeding (soreness, chapped-ness, bleeding) are all deterrents for breastfeeding. Formula feeding is a great way for moms to nourish their babies while avoiding the unpleasantness breastfeeding may cause them. Every mom is unique, and if formula helps her be a healthier and happier mom, why shouldn’t she?

Formula Feeding: Cons

1. Formula is more expensive than “free”

The cost of formula can quickly add up, costing more money than breastfeeding. As previously mentioned, the Surgeon General noted that formula feeding could cost up to $1200 to $1500 more within the first year post-birth than breastfeeding. While the benefits can offset the financial cost for some mothers, that’s still a decent chunk of change!

2. Preparing a bottle requires more work than feeding directly from the breast

In the middle of the night, when your newborn is crying, the idea of getting up, preparing and warming the bottle, and feeding your newborn sounds less than idyllic. Requiring a lot more preparation, formula feeding can be more labor demanding than resting your baby on your chest to breastfeed.

3. Formula cans and bottles create heavy amounts of waste

Formula feeding is waste-intensive across the boards. A substantial amount of the products used for formula feeding are single-time use, having a short use life only to be thrown away after. Alongside product waste, the process of warming up the formula to the right temperature wastes energy as it expends more energy than breastfeeding.

The Final Word

With all of this in mind, you should know that however you choose to nourish your baby is entirely valid as every mother and family have their unique reasons for breastfeeding or formula feeding- or a mix of both. There is no rule in the mom code book that says you have to either exclusively breastfeed or formula feed, so choose whichever option works best for you - and if still torn, consider the combination method. The combination method is an entirely valid and commonly used way to nourish your baby, utilizing both breastfeeding and formula; mothers choose this method for a multitude of reasons, including low breast milk supply, medical reasons, convenience, or just plain and simple personal preference!

At Ahma & Co, we provide educational guidance to help you choose the right way to feed your newborn. Get in touch with us today to learn more about how we can set you up for success in the transition into motherhood.

Ahma & Co Team

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