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breastfeeding

What’s Wrong With a Little Formula?

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Despite some initial difficulties with breastfeeding, I managed to nurse my now 3-year-old son for just over a year, and he was exclusively fed breast milk until we began introducing solids at 6 months. When I gave birth to twin girls last month, I knew breastfeeding would likely prove to be even more challenging, yet I was still determined to nurse my daughters as I did for my son.

Things got off to a reasonably good start. Despite their tiny size (and mouths), my girls latched almost immediately, and I left the hospital feeling confident. But that changed after about 24 hours at home when I realized they weren’t wetting enough diapers–a telltale sign that my milk supply was not yet sufficient to keep them nice and full. I called our pediatrician, who said I’d need to supplement with formula until my milk really came in, which didn’t happen until the following day. She also advised that due to my daughters’ low birth weight, it would be best to continue supplementing with formula for a few more days until their next weight check.

Though I knew her advice was spot on, a big part of me was disappointed. While it was clear that my daughters weren’t getting enough milk, I felt like I had let them down, even though the circumstances were out of my control. But then I stopped being disappointed and actually found myself getting annoyed, partly at myself, and partly at the breastfeeding guidance I received while at the hospital–guidance that led me to wait for my doctor’s “permission” to supplement when I could already tell my girls obviously needed it.

What held me back from popping open our backup can of formula on my own was the fact that according to every breastfeeding handout or guide I took home from the hospital, formula should truly be regarded as “the last resort.” Now I know the breast milk versus formula debate is a big one on the parenting spectrum, so I don’t even want to go there. My personal decision is to breastfeed, and that’s that. But I think it’s kind of crazy that formula supplementation is regarded as such an unsavory option in so much breastfeeding literature. And it wasn’t just the printed handouts and guides–many of the hospital staff members I interacted with during my stay, though amazingly caring and supportive, echoed the sentiment that one should do everything in her power to avoid introducing formula.

I understand and believe in the reasoning for pushing women to nurse, but why is formula regarded as such a bad thing when it comes to supplementation? Isn’t it just extra nutrients on top of those contained in breast milk? What’s the problem with that?

In my case, my daughters had simply needed a temporary boost, as evidenced by the fact that they started wetting plenty of diapers once my milk supply increased. In fact, we stopped supplementing once their weight check confirmed that both girls had gained nicely.

In situations like mine, many breastfeeding guides will strongly advise women to pump rather than offer formula, and while that makes sense, it’s not always feasible. It certainly wasn’t (isn’t) for me. Since I so far haven’t mastered the art of tandem nursing, I’ve been feeding my girls one right after the other, and we’re currently averaging about 10 nursing sessions per 24-hour period. But that’s 10 sessions each, or 20 sessions total, which means pumping in between just isn’t going to happen.

And I’m not the only mom out there whose options for supplementation are limited. There are plenty of women with multiples, or low milk supplies, or other unavoidable circumstances that make pumping impossible. Rather than make us feel inadequate for turning to formula as needed, why not produce literature that assures us that any form of breastfeeding is a wonderful gift to our children? Why not emphasize the fact that nourishing our children should be our top priority, regardless of how we ultimately get there? I’m sure I’m not the only mom who’d appreciate some sort of acknowledgment that breastfeeding is not a one-size-fits-all process, and that there are situations where formula is not only a necessity, but perhaps even a good thing.

Rather than discourage women from using formula, the literature on breastfeeding should offer guidance on how to introduce it in a manner that doesn’t compromise one’s ability to nurse. For those days when I had to supplement, I fed my girls through a dropper. It took much longer than a bottle would have, but it let me get the job done without having to worry about nipple confusion or anything of the sort. But nowhere on the hospital handout did that tip appear. Rather, it was something I came across when looking for support online.

My girls are now back to breast milk only, but I haven’t thrown out that backup can of formula, and if I need to use it again, so be it. Perhaps I’ll have a night where sheer exhaustion sets in and I simply can’t bring myself to wake up for yet another feeding. Or maybe I’ll have a situation where I need to leave the house for several hours without my girls and don’t have any pumped breast milk on hand. Having formula as an option actually helps take the pressure off for me, and I know several women who’ve said that formula supplementation actually saved their breastfeeding relationships.

So to the people who produce those hospital handouts and guides, I beg you: Please make your breastfeeding literature more formula-friendly. It’ll save a lot of women a great deal of stress and heartache. Most importantly, it’ll help achieve what should be every mother’s ultimate goal–to keep her newborn well-fed and healthy.

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