Thursday, November 11, 2010

The "Lemonade" of Formula Feeding

Sometimes, life gives you lemons.  When it comes to breastfeeding David the 9th, I got a big old pile of lemons.  I breastfed him for 2 months, but had to stop due to my own life-threatening medical issues.

If I could control the universe, I would still be breastfeeding my son. Even with all these "honorable mentions." I wanted to breastfeed him SO badly that I ended up in the hospital! I will probably always feel guilty that my health cost my son and I our breastfeeding relationship, and if I could, I would be breastfeeding now, despite its challenges.

This is not a list of "10 reasons not to breastfeed", although it could be read that way. I try to live by that silly saying, "if life gives you lemons, make lemonade" - this list is my lemonade.

It is meant to be lemonade for other women like me who constantly feel guilt or sadness over feeding woes, to not just come to terms with formula-feeding, but enjoy what we have. I hope breastfeeding moms can appreciate this in the spirit in which it was written.  My next post will be all about why I support nursing in public and why I'm boycotting Nestle.  I plan to breastfeed my next child, if my body will allow it.

Also - because the subject has come up - I contacted 2 milk banks and found that not only was the milk $3-$4 per ounce,  it was only available to the sickest preemies.  My son is healthy, and I did not qualify.  I also posted on MilkShare's board, and sent money for "shipping" to someone who never sent me any milk.  That scared me off of milk donation from strangers; if I couldn't trust someone on the board not to steal my money, how could I trust them not to do drugs, drink, take medicines, or eat onions and garlic?  I don't have any friends or family who are lactating.  In addition to better support for nursing moms, I would deeply appreciate open access to clean, safe, donated breast milk.  I would much rather be using that than formula. 

The Lemonade of Formula Feeding

We all know that “Breast is Best”, but for some women, myself included, it’s either not possible or not appropriate, and we instead feed our babies formula.  The benefits of breast milk are well-documented, there’s a ton of information online about the benefits, and I am in no way underplaying them.  I support breastfeeding moms.

Nonetheless, when I stopped breastfeeding, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are real plusses to formula feeding for my family – and while they might not stack up, they certainly are worth honorable mention. 

A note – many of these benefits can be achieved with pumped breast milk, and should be if it is possible.  A little bit of breast milk is better than none at all; if you can feed your baby breast milk, please do!

1. I know exactly how much food my son is getting.

I constantly struggled with supply while breastfeeding.  My son always seemed hungry, and there was no easy way for me to tell if he was getting “enough”.  I counted wet and dirty diapers, but I never felt confident that he was getting enough food.   Pumping yielded 1-2oz per breast, but I was regularly told that pumping was a poor indicator of production.  Once a week, we went to the doctor for a weigh-in, but these results were varied.  I tried every method known to raise my supply with no luck (herbs and galactalogs and 9-hour pumping/nursing sessions, you name it).  I probably had these supply problems because of my serious health issues.

With formula, I know if he is getting enough to eat; there is no fear of dehydration or poor weight gain due to poor supply.  I know if he’s only had 2oz and will be hungry again soon, or if he’s filled up and will be good for a while.

2. Daddy can feed the baby.  So can anyone else.

My husband was happy when I stopped breastfeeding for a number of reasons (mostly because I didn't die), but one of the biggest was that he was able to feed our son.  When we switched to formula, we went to a split-night system; from 2am to sunrise, he was the “primary parent”.  I got to catch up on sleep, and he was in charge.  No handing baby to mama with “he’s hungry”; there was no excuse.  He became a better parent and a better husband.

Feeding my son is now a community activity.  He has been fed by his great-grandfather, his 8-year-old cousin, and our minister, and it is a joyful experience for everyone.   It is absolutely a bonding experience – not one that is restricted to just mommy.

3. I can feed my baby anywhere.

I support nursing in public - anywhere.  Unfortunately, not everyone else does (though they should, prudish morons).  I can happily feed my son in a restaurant, park, church, or anywhere else, and the only funny looks I get are from people who think formula is evil.  I did nurse in public while I was breastfeeding, but I was always (unfairly) uncomfortable exposing my breasts for the world to see, even if it was only an inch.   The bias against breastfeeding isn’t fair….but it’s nice not to have to deal with it.

It may seem a small benefit, but I can also feed my son in a moving car (while someone else drives, obviously).  This may seem trivial, but when you’re 30 minutes from your destination and stuck in traffic, it is a lifesaver!  I can mix up a bottle in the middle of a store without looking for a place to set up.  It is very convenient.

4.  I can eat or drink whatever I want. I can take whatever medicines I need to take.

If my son develops a food sensitivity or allergy, I will simply switch to a different formula.  If I want to have a margarita night with the girls, I can, without fear of damaging my baby or having to ‘pump and dump’.
Most importantly for me, I can take the medicines I need to take to stay healthy.  Not all medicine is safe for breastfeeding mothers, and there is not always an adequate alternative (in my case, I am on 6-mercaptopurine, methotrexate and Remicade, category X drugs that pregnant women can't even touch).

Mom’s health is more important than her boobs.  Period.

5.  I have more freedom.

I can work outside of the home, and I don’t have to take 3 pumping breaks in my car.  I can head out to the grocery store to pick up eggs without looking at the clock.  My husband and I can go on a “date night” and leave baby with his doting Grammy without worrying about pumping or supply. 

6. My boobs don’t hurt.

I read everywhere during my pregnancy, “if breastfeeding hurts, you’re doing it wrong.”  Then I actually did it, and found out that the books were lying.  Breastfeeding was excruciatingly painful.  My nipples bled, blistered, and literally fell apart – even though our latch was fine.  My breasts would become engorged and ache.  I had bouts with thrush, clogged ducts and mastitis.  It wasn’t always painful – I had a lovely 2 week stint before my hospital stay where I didn’t cry during feedings – but I spent 2 months in hell, literally screaming when he first latched on, dreading his hunger cries.

There is no pain in feeding formula (unless you count the emotional pain, of which I've had a LOT).  None.  I was delighted to see my son’s first teeth, not terrified!

7.  My boobs don’t leak.

I made a quick trip to the store while breastfeeding.  A baby cried in the next aisle over, and I soaked through my nursing pads and straight through my shirt.  I was horrified, and my husband told me not to worry at all… it really was not a big deal. 

I’m still glad I don’t have to worry about leaking through my white shirt during my next performance of “Messiah.”  I also don’t leak anymore during sex.

8.  My son sleeps longer and better.

There.  I said it.  I know, research shows that on average, breastfed and formula-fed babies sleep the same, but my baby slept better with a full belly of formula.  Again, this was probably because of my supply problems, which most moms can work through with proper support.

The first day that my son was exclusively formula-fed, he slept through the night.  8pm until 6am.  Previously, he was up every 2 hours like clockwork.  We thought it was a fluke.  It was not – unless he is teething, in a growth spurt, or otherwise upset, he sleeps “like a baby”, and that phrase is no longer a sick joke.  So – not only does he sleep better, but obviously so do his parents!

9.  Formula’s not that expensive.  For me, it was cheaper than breastfeeding.

Luckily, my son isn’t a picky eater.  He likes Target Up & Up Organic formula, which costs $15 per can when you buy in bulk.  Each can makes about a week’s worth of bottles, for a cost of around $2 a day.  We spent $30 on bottles, for a total annual expense of $760, or less than my daily visit to Starbucks.  If you’re eligible for WIC, formula is even less expensive (though in my opinion WIC should also cover any and all breastfeeding expenses and it is a travesty  that they do not).

Conversely, I spent $350 on a breast pump, $50 on the special bottles that work with it, $600 on 3 visits to a lactation consultant, $90 on prescriptions for thrush and mastitis, $50 on lanolin creams and special ice packs, $30 on a breastfeeding pillow, and $200 on nursing bras and tops, for a whopping total of $1360.  I spent this in 2 months.

10.  I am a happier, healthier, and better mother.

This is the biggest and most important benefit for me.  Instead of being sleep-deprived, in pain, and anxious, I am confidently enjoying being a mother.   I do not dread feeding my son; I look forward to it.   I am healthy, taking the medicines my body needs to be strong.   I am enjoying him more, and I am a better mother for it.  I thank formula for saving my life, and for improving its quality.

UPDATE: I have reached out (thanks to the wonderful commentators on this blog) to my local Eats on Feets organization, asking for donor milk.  No bites yet, but I am hopeful.  Huge thanks to Emma Kwasnica for her hard work in creating this new organization - I look eagerly forward to seeing this take off.


  1. Oddly enough, I am much more nervous about posting this blog post than anything else I've ever written.

    Maybe it's because I know, for sure, that breast milk is normal, best, and something every infant should have a right to. Maybe because it highlights my own personal failure in a pretty pink light. I think I'm mostly afraid that I will get comments that add to my already-daily guilt about my breastfeeding failure. So, keep it gentle.

    I promise, my next post will be all about lactivism - and why EVERYONE should support it, not just lactating moms.

    Is it possible to be a lactivist who uses formula? Or is that an oxymoron? Am I kicked out of the crunchy-mama club?

  2. Hon, I had the almost exact experience as you (only I got a trip to the mental ward of the hospital because of my breastfeeding hell and emotional turmoil caused by my "failure" and she didn't even manage to get breastmilk so I basically starved my kid for three weeks for a principle...

    Be gentle with yourself. Formula isn't the devil. It isn't ideal, of course breastmilk is the IDEAL, just like organic food is the *ideal*, 8+ hours a night sleep is the *ideal*, driving a car with a 5 star safety rating is the *ideal*... and so on. Sometimes though, it doesn't always happen for whatever reason.

    Don't continue to feel guilty, what purpose does it serve? When I released the guilt, I was free. It is up to no one else to judge you, and people don't need judgment, they need understanding. Judgment only leads to negativity all around.

    I hear you, I understand you. In fact I'm pregnant with #2 and I have resolved to give breastfeeding the good fight again... BUT have also made peace that if I run into the same hell as last time I will have zero qualms about going to formula. A fed, happy, secure baby on formula is better than one who's mama spends 5 days away from her healing from sleep deprivation and crushing emotional defeat and subsequent nagging guilt.

    Yes, it is possible to be a lactivist who uses formula, because it isn't always so black and white or cut and dry.

    For what it's worth, my child is 5, has no allergies, isn't obese, has a high IQ, no allergies whatsoever, and is thriving and happy. I'm not endorsing formula AT ALL (I think every mama who can breastfeed, physically and emotionally, should. However, I don't think formula is the devil either. You do what you gotta do and I refuse to allow anyone to marginalize or demonize me for doing what I had to do...and neither should you.

    - Tara

  3. Hi! I completely agree with you about the need for finding clean, safe milk that is accessible to the masses. To answer that call, I started Get PUMPed ( last year, almost accidentally, when a friend's wife died unexpectedly, leaving their 6-week old exclusively breastfed baby behind. Currently, we only serve Central Florida residents, but we are hoping to expand as time and resources allow. If you happen to be local (long shot, I know), please feel free to apply for milk if you're still interested. We screen all donors just as the milk banks do, are a legitimate 501c3 nonprofit, and have served 10 babies with more than 12,000 ounces of milk since our inception last year. We ask for a donation of $.20 per ounce (approximately the same as formula) to cover some of our business expenses. No one in our organization receives salary and all donations are used to find and screen additional donors.

    Anyway -- I don't mean to make this a commercial for Get PUMPed (or maybe I do!), but I did want to let you and your readers know that there IS a place to find screened human milk. Best of luck to you and your beautiful boy!

  4. Mandy, that is amazing - what a wonderful thing you're doing! Unfortunately, I'm in New England, but I hope your organization gets the press it needs to expand beyond Florida. There is certainly a need, and at $0.20 a ounce, it's surely a no-brainer for those who have the option.

    Tara, thank you for the comments. It's nice to know I'm not alone! I wish us both luck with Baby #2 (if I am blessed to have a #2).

  5. Where are you? There are piles of Eats on Feets popping up EVERYWHERE on Facebook. Are you FB friends with Emma Kwasnica? She can 100% help you with local contacts.

    EOF is local milksharing, so no shipping, no paying for milk. I've been taken more than once on mommy boards (mostly on diaperswappers, sigh) and I hear you on the not trusting part.

    I found you through your circ post, loved it and shared it.

  6. I'm so sorry about your milkshare experience. I hope you reported the fake donor so that she gets banned. I've donated lots of milk to milkshare moms but only locally. I've never shipped milk, so no money exchanges hands.

  7. Hi Sarah and April, yes, I did report the Milkshare experience. My son is now 9 months old, and has been thriving on formula for 7 this point, I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense to re-open the issue of donation; my husband was very upset by the experience we had, and he would not be supportive of donated milk from anywhere but a bank. My son is healthy as a horse, has never been sick, and with BLW is getting most of his calories from "real food" these days anyway.

    If I find myself in the same situation next time around, I will certainly reach out to Emma and some of the other organizations for breast milk donation. Hopefully, I'll be able to get off these nasty meds by then. I did love the bonding that came with breastfeeding, and hope to be able to provide my next child with breast milk, either from me or someone else.

    Thank you for the helpful information - I wish I'd known about it back then!

  8. Unfortunately, we are hardest on ourselves. If this same thing happened to a friend, you would let them off the hook and say you tried your best. But since it is you, the guilt just keeps showing up like an unexpected guest that refuses to leave.

    When I was pregnant with our second child I told myself I'd give breastfeeding a try, but if it didn't work out then I'd be ok with formula. My first child was severely premature so I struggled for 3 months with low milk supply. I stopped and switched to formula and he really continued to thrive. I anticipated the probability of having low milk supply again.

    When my second son was born, my milk never really came in. I had to stay an extra day in the hospital because he lost so much weight. I had to feed him partially on formula so his weight would stabilize enough for the hospital to let me take him home. And so it began, the 4 month struggle with breastfeeding. What makes it hard is so many voices saying, "its natural". Every woman can do it given enough time. You should do what's best for you baby. But who said what's best for my baby is starving him or requiring us to nurse every hour with neither of us getting any sleep just to prove I'm are good moms. Yet, I struggled on. I just could not get over the guilt of not being able to do it. I couldn't believe I just couldn't be like every other mom and make this work. Finally my milk just stopped and I didn't have the energy anymore to try to get it back. (Another guilt producing moment. Maybe I should have tried harder.)

    Thank you so much for posting this list. As a mom who struggled with breastfeeding and really wanted it to work, I really appreciate this list to keep the guilt at bay and take heart it what I do have. I do have a wonderful relationship with my 7 month old son. He knows who his Mama is and who gives him comfort and love. I'm the last person he sees before he drifts off to sleep and the first person he sees when he wakes up. I think that is pretty special too.

  9. I too am a lactivist who had to feed formula to my son after 6 months. I was profoundly sad about it, but that's how it happened. He is a happy healthy baby and I support breastfeeding moms 100%.

  10. Man, I just typed a very long post and it wouldn't let me log into my google account for some reason, so when I hit "back" I lost it. Grrr. I shall summarize. A friend sent me a link to this post because she knows I struggle with the condemnation and judgment women often feel who are forced to formula feed. I take a medication to prevent seizures, and it passes through the breastmilk at a 1:1 ratio (meaning my tiny newborn would be getting my full, adult-sized dose). My neurologist didn't think it would do any harm to breastfeed for a few weeks, so that's what I did. My son was a terrible latcher and I had flat nipples, but with the help of many lactation consultants I battled through it and breastfed him for the first couple of weeks. But, soon after birth he developed alarming tremors and abnormal reflexes that were indicative of Cerebral Palsey. They weren't sure if he had CP or if these were simply a side effect of the medication, so I had to stop breastfeeding. He screamed for weeks, which they believed was withdrawal from the medication (as an adult, if I'm even a few hours late taking a dose, I get a migraine that will last the rest of the day, so I can only imagine). The tremors slowly disappeared, and I had to formula feed my son. I am pregnant again and know that probably the most responsible thing to do in this situation is formula feed right from birth, eve though the idea repulses me. (In case anyone's going to suggest it, I am not comfortable using milk sharing banks and have been advised not to by many doctors as the milk is not screened. How do I know the woman providing the milk isn't on a medication as well, and simply doesn't think it's a big deal or doesn't know?) It's very hard dealing with the judgment and condemnation of women who look at you with disdain and don't even know your situation. I appreciate you posting this, and I completely agree - when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. I tried to focus on the positives as you have done, and my son is a very happy and healthy 18 month old little boy. Thanks again!

  11. Monica, your story is terrible and important.

    The decision to breastfeed can be complicated. It's important to weigh all of the risks and the benefits, and accurate information from our medical providers so we can make informed decisions.

    As for milk donation, that too is a personal choice. I have gratefully accepted donations from friends, but I'm not comfortable taking them from people I don't know.

    It is very difficult to deal with condemnation, I agree. BUT, you know in your heart that you're making the right decision for your family, and THAT is ultimately what matters.

    A healthy baby and a healthy mother are more important than breastfeeding. Period.