Breast versus bottle: not a simple dichotomy

Picture the scene…. A good friend and I meet up for lunch in a busy cafe, we both have small babies, hers just a few weeks older than mine (and my bigger little man is off running around the shopping centre with Daddy having wolfed down his lunch already). Once we’ve ordered and our food arrives, our babies also decide that they are now hungry, so we each set about feeding them. I set up my SNS which contains a couple of ounces of formula and my baby latches on to me and begins to feed, taking in whatever breast milk I am able to produce as well as formula which is necessary to make sure he is getting enough to satisfy is hunger. My friend gets out her bottles of expressed breast milk and her baby latches on to the teat, which is something he had massive difficulty doing on to her breast as a newborn, hence her decision to express her milk and feed it via a bottle.

There we were, both feeding our babies in our own way, both happy, relaxed, feeling like we were doing nothing unusual, just fulfilling our role as mum to our own baby. It struck me how there was a huge irony in this situation: I was feeding formula at the breast and my friend was feeding breast milk with a bottle – it seemed so weird that we’d both ended up at this point, rather than the classic breast milk at the breast and formula milk with a bottle scenario.

This is actually another lunch out that we had recently, but it illustrates my SNS feeding in a cafe. It could also serve as a caption competition.... Tom and I have some very interesting expressions here! (I think Andrew took the photo, with Grandad's help)

On my way home as I was pondering, a question came to mind that appeared in an issue of a breastfeeding magazine that I receive as a member of La Leche Laegue (LLL). It asked whether, if these were the only two options available, I’d rather feed my baby formula (only) at the breast (if that were possible) or breast milk in a bottle. The point was whether the act of feeding at the breast, and the closeness and bonding that comes from this, was more important to me than the properties of breast milk such as the antibodies it contains that formula doesn’t. When I’d first read that, it made me think – which would I prefer, that’s a tough one! I like both bits of breastfeeding, the physical contact and the milk itself.

And actually, although obviously I would have loved to be able to exclusively breastfeed my babies, I’m grateful that the arrangement we’ve come to, through much persevering in the early weeks of Andrew’s life, allows us to have both. For us it’s not just a simple dichotomy like the question in the LLL mag asked, because my babies do get breast milk at the breast, as well as formula. Reflecting again on this after our lunch reminded me to be grateful for what we do have rather than feel annoyed at what we don’t have. My friend and her baby are lucky that he gets all the goodies in breast milk and doesn’t need formula milk which is expensive, produced by ethically unsound companies and at the end of the day isn’t human milk designed for human babies; but my babies and I are lucky that they both latched on brilliantly to my breast within minutes of being born (though Andrew needed some help to be more efficient at sucking by having his tongue tie snipped later at 10 weeks) and have never struggled to stay latched for comfortable breastfeeding.

As my friend said, we are both doing the best we can for our babies given our circumstances. And that is right – although our breastfeeding problems have been very different, we have a lot in common. We have both had feelings of failure in the past, that we had failed at our role as a mum because we were not able to do the ‘normal’ thing of (exclusive) breastfeeding (at the breast). Both of us have suffered, mainly emotional pain for me as it dawned on me that I wasn’t physically able to produce enough milk for my baby and had to figure out how and if I could continue breastfeeding at all, and both physical and emotional pain for my friend who desperately wanted her baby to be able to latch comfortably for more than a minute at a time and urgently sought help from health professionals whose care they were in. We both have the faff of sterilisation and having to remember and gauge how much milk to take out with us.

But both of us have come to realise that we are not failures, and that our decisions on how to feed our babies are in the best interests of our babies considering the experiences we’ve been through, and we are giving them all they need for the best start in life. The same goes for all other mums I know personally, whether they have breastfed (exclusively/ partially/ at the breast/ via bottles) or formula fed; there is a story behind every decision on how each one feeds/fed their baby. When I think about how many mums I know who have breastfed with no major problems, it’s quite a low number given how many started out trying to breastfeed.

Not that I want to put pregnant mums-to-be off, but I think it’s important to be realistic about it, and equally say how important it is to get good support, preferably set up and in place before baby arrives so you know who to turn to if you do encounter issues. Accurate information and knowledge of breastfeeding, as well as sensitive emotional support, are key to overcoming challenges, and we are very blessed that we found it at the right time. Before I had a baby, I thought that feeding one would be a simple black and white decision – breast or bottle – but since I had my first baby, I’ve come to learn that it’s a much greyer picture than that. And my friend and I painted some of that (positive) greyness one lunch time in a busy cafe, where there could well have also been a mum feeding formula milk via a bottle and a mum breastfeeding in the classic way (I didn’t notice, it was too busy and I was more interested in talking to my friend!)