In severe situations, it can even lead to inadvertently starving your baby—a scenario Dr. Castillo-Hegyi knows firsthand. “I found myself with a dehydrated, jaundiced baby, because of my inability to produce milk when he needed it.”
Imagine if the nursing staff at the hospital where you gave birth didn’t even give you the option to formula feed. This is the reality at hospitals that adopt the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative—a designation given to hospitals that enforce guidelines and practices that meet strict criteria around breastfeeding. In practice, this can look like a nurse who repeatedly discourages you from using formula or the complete removal of nurseries, which historically have been used to give new parents a few hours to sleep, and can involve supplementing with formula. Again, this adds to the undue pressure on birthing parents to chestfeed exclusively.
Perhaps if the message were different, fewer people would find themselves in situations like the one Castillo-Hegyi faced. “Formula has been demonized, weaponized, and moralized, but as far as nutritional content, it’s so expertly developed for absorption, and it contains every macronutrient, micronutrient, vitamin, and mineral that breast milk contains,” Jody Segrave-Daly RN, MS, IBCLC, a former NICU nurse and lactation consultant, and co-founder of the Fed Is Best Foundation, tells SELF.
The bottom line is that the benefits of being fully fed far exceed the differences between being breast or formula-fed, she says.
It’s time to reframe this messaging so parents feel empowered.
The antidote to this exclusive breastfeeding-is-the-only-way messaging, Dr. Castillo-Heygi says, is to start speaking the truth. “The differences between breastfeeding and formula-feeding are not as big as advertised,” she says. “So, if you are struggling to feed your child with breast milk alone, do not despair. The best option for you and your child’s health might be combo feeding with breast milk and formula, and if you can’t do that, or it’s impacting your mental health, exclusive formula feeding is also a healthy option.”
Fed is best. Period. “We want your baby to be fed and get the nourishment that it needs to continue to meet these milestones, and give you peace of mind,” Conyers says. “The goal is to have a healthy, thriving baby.”
The other big factor to consider is yourself, says Gunyon Meyer. “We want a mom who is mentally and emotionally healthy, too,” she says, for the sake of you and your baby. If chestfeeding is causing a problem with mood, depression, or anxiety, then it’s time to think through other options.
There are benefits to formula feeding, too. The big one? Freedom. Since the onus is no longer on one person to shoulder the entire responsibility of nourishing the baby, other caretakers can step in to bottle feed—and bond with—your baby so you can take a shower, go for a walk, have a glass of wine without guilt, sleep, oh, and go to work for eight hours. Of course, pumping and freezing breastmilk is also an option, but that still equals less freedom due to all the pumping that has to take place.
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