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Look, It's No One's Business Whether You Breastfeed Or Formula Feed

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According to a piece published in The Guardian by author Erik Assadourian, the only people who should be allowed to feed their babies formula are a select few who have proven "beyond a reasonable doubt" that their milk production is so low that they would qualify for a prescription. And even then, he would prefer that their children drink donated breast milk instead. Assadourian's article casts those who feed their children formula as uneducated and misguided. But if there's one thing new parents are educated about, it's breastfeeding.

According to the CDC, 79 percent of infants breastfeed immediately after birth in the United States. At every single prenatal and post-natal appointment, doctors and nurses tell expecting parents about the miraculous benefits of breastfeeding. "Breast is best" posters line waiting rooms; pamphlets are strewn in Lamaze classes. This is not a hard-to-come-by lesson, and frankly, I'm not sure who Mr. Assadourian is talking to if he thinks this is some great unknown.

New parents internalize these messages so well, actually, that having to move to formula feeding out of necessity often causes turmoil and angst and guilt. In any case, what's best is that a baby is fed — period — with high-quality nutrition, whether manufactured by a company or by their mother's body. It doesn't actually matter so much how it happens just that it happens.

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What Mr. Assadourian does not seem to understand is the great breadth of factors that might conspire to lead someone to choose formula over breastfeeding. Sometimes, as in my case, there is low milk supply. Sometimes breastfeeding is painful. Sometimes breastfeeding is traumatic or triggering. Sometimes, for gender-variant or transgender parents, breastfeeding can lead to dysphoria. Sometimes a new parent is poor, and has to go back to an inflexible schedule where she isn't allowed adequate time or space to pump. So her milk supply slowly dries up sooner than she'd like. And sometimes a parent just doesn't want to breastfeed.

Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.

Even though I had ample support for breastfeeding — no formula was given to me at the hospital; I was provided with not one but two lactation consultants; and I was given a prescription, actually, for a breast pump — none of it worked. I still wound up with formula.

All of these cases are equally valid. Whether it's a simple matter of preference, a fluke of the body, or a constraint of class, all of factors that cause a woman not to breastfeed should be treated with equal respect. None of them should be questioned. Formula exists because there is a need for it, and it shouldn't be shielded behind a prescription where the parent must jump through additional hoops to get it. If that was the case, what would happen to uninsured families?

Courtesy of B R Sanders
Articles like Assadourian's only add to the guilt and shame that new mothers feel when they have to let go of breastfeeding for reasons out of their control. Keeping an infant alive is terrifying, and society scrutinizes new mothers especially closely. Having a man dictate what women should and should not do rankles.

I tried hard to breastfeed, but my body didn't cooperate. Switching to formula was better for me and my kid. It gave him the nutrition he needed. It let me start sleeping again, and it let me stop worrying that he was going to starve to death. And that's not actually an exaggeration given how pitifully low my milk supply was. I am definitely a better parent to him when I am not freaked out and under-slept. He is definitely healthier when he is not malnourished. For us, there was no way to cut this that didn't result in formula coming out the winner in my case. Even though I had ample support for breastfeeding — no formula was given to me at the hospital; I was provided with not one but two lactation consultants; and I was given a prescription, actually, for a breast pump — none of it worked. I still wound up with formula.

Articles like Assadourian's only add to the guilt and shame that new mothers feel when they have to let go of breastfeeding for reasons out of their control. Keeping an infant alive is terrifying, and society scrutinizes new mothers especially closely. Having a man dictate what women should and should not do rankles. Assadourian is privileged enough not to be caught up in the same bind that parents are. He's not caught between messages that say, Breastfeed because it's best, but not in public because that's disgusting; breastfeed because it's best, even if it's painful, or at the cost of your mental health. Perhaps he is a parent; I don't know. But I do know he has no stake in this, so having him tell us what we should do with our bodies is very much out of line.

Courtesy of B R Sanders
The US has one of the poorest and most paltry parental leave policies in the developed world, and Assadourian wonders why formula feeding is a thing. When you have to go back to work a month after giving birth, formula may be a more convenient option. For some parents, supplementing or switching to formula becomes the only way their family can survive. It's not a breast milk versus formula debate; it's about a culture that consistently devalues motherhood.

If Mr. Assadourian is truly serious about increasing breastfeeding, then what's needed isn't a "ban on formula," or additional stigma on formula-fed babies, but increased support for new parents and decreased stigma on breastfeeding mothers. Many mothers are reluctant to breastfeed in public because of the responses they get — they're told to put their breasts away, that what they are doing is unacceptable. That breastfeeding is an isolating act, and because babies are not allowed at work, means that many women stop breastfeeding before they want to. American culture is not exactly breastfeeding friendly, even as we drill it into the heads of new mothers that breast is best.

The US has one of the poorest and most paltry parental leave policies in the developed world, and Assadourian wonders why formula feeding is a thing. When you have to go back to work a month after giving birth, formula may be a more convenient option. For some parents, supplementing or switching to formula becomes the only way their family can survive. It's not a breast milk versus formula debate; it's about a culture that consistently devalues motherhood and actively seeks ways to remind women that no matter what they're doing, they're doing it wrong.

It does no one any good to shame each other for the practical choices we make to keep our children healthy and cared for. Breastfeeding works for some of us. Formula works for some of us. A combination works for some of us. But guilt and second-guessing ourselves? That works for no one.