If there are any two topics I’ve noticed will divide mothers, and have so much anger, sadness, and shame tied into them, it’s cesarean vs natural birth…and breastfeeding versus bottle feeding. It’s such a shame, truly. We are all mothers who are doing our best. Yet, instead of lifting each other up, we pull each other down. It’s a subject fraught with emotion, but it needs to be talked about, with empathy and compassion and from a place of love.

The Struggle of Breastfeeding

One person in my life I am most proud of is a dear friend of mine. She fed her first baby for well over a year, but with her subsequent two babies, actually struggled more, and weaned earlier, each time – much earlier than she planned to. She then went on to successfully breastfeed her fourth baby. So, a mixed bag, really.

Do you know why I’m proud of her? Because even when she struggled, even when she “gave up,” even when she was someone who chose to formula/bottle-feed…she supported and advocated for breastfeeding because she knew and understood why breastfeeding is so important.

It wasn’t something we talked about in great detail at the time, as we were quite new friends, but I’m sure she felt a sense of failure and shame about it, or at the very least, disappointment. But she didn’t use that as a reason to defend her choices by saying “fed is best,” because even though she didn’t meet her breastfeeding goals, she knew that human breastmilk is undoubtedly the best choice for human babies.

Breastfeeding versus Formula Feeding

I wish more people were like her. I truly feel that if we could approach the breastfeeding/formula feeding discussion from an objective, rather than an emotive, point of view, more women would be supported to successfully reach their breastfeeding goals. Instead, we are quick to reassure women that “fed is best,” in the hopes that we can allay their feelings of shame, disappointment, and sadness.

But the truth is, women who planned to breastfeed, and didn’t or couldn’t, are likely to have those feelings regardless. The vast majority of women, when they are pregnant or have just had their babies, WANT to breastfeed and PLAN to breastfeed. By jumping on the “Fed is Best” bandwagon, we are not actually supporting the women who need that support to reach their breastfeeding goals, and the result is an abysmal breastfeeding rate.

In Australia, in 2014-15, 92% of babies had received some breastmilk during their life. Research shows that 9 out of 10 Australian women want to breastfeed, and initiate breastfeeding. Yet, by 7-12 months, only 42.4% of babies were still receiving breastmilk, at all. Only 24.7% had been exclusively breastfed until 6 months of age.

Fed Is Best

We are quick to say “Fed is Best.” We tell women over and over again that it’s okay to give their baby a bottle. We undermine women by constantly saying, “Maybe s/he’s hungry,” or “Feeding again already?” or “S/he should be sleeping through the night by now.”

We tell women that they “aren’t pacifiers” and discourage comfort feeding, which can be hugely important not only in bonding but in supply and demand. Dummies/pacifiers were created to mimic the breast because sucking soothes babies – so, actually, we ARE human pacifiers, and how awesome is it to have the ability to soothe our babies at the same time as offering them nourishment?

We tell mothers to have a tin of formula in the cupboard “just in case,” which in itself can plant that seed of doubt, and is all too easy to reach for on those really hard days where their baby just wants to feed and feed and feed (and yes, we all have those days). We encourage dads to feed expressed milk to bond with their babies, instead of encouraging them to bond with their babies in a myriad of other ways that don’t involve feeding.

Breastfeeding Myths

We shame mothers for breastfeeding in public. There are doctors, midwives, nurses, and other health professionals who don’t give women evidence-based breastfeeding information. We perpetuate breastfeeding myths. Breastfeeding is made to sound really hard (and sometimes it is, and it’s ALWAYS a learning curve).

We are constantly bombarded with insidious and subtle marketing messages from formula companies, even if they can’t directly advertise. If you dare speak out in support of breastfeeding, you are labelled a “breastfeeding Nazi.” How can women who want to breastfeed, but are struggling to, push past all of that messaging to find the support they need to reach their goals?

Provide Parents with Support and Information

Do they really want permission to bottle-feed, with people reassuring them that “Fed Is Best,” or do they want real practical support and evidence-based information and just plain old encouragement and emotional support to help them continue breastfeeding? Personally, I feel that they deserve the latter. IF breastfeeding is their goal.

Give them skills. Give them information. Provide them with resources. Give them support. Offer words of encouragement. Normalise breastfeeding. And if you can’t breastfeed, or don’t want to breastfeed, that is your choice, own it.

It doesn’t mean you can’t continue to support and advocate for breastfeeding. It’s not an admission of guilt or failure to say, “Breast is best…but I didn’t breastfeed (or I “only” breastfed for x amount of time).” In fact, I think it’s courageous to be able to say that. Oh, and you don’t need to explain it or justify it, either.

In fact, your experience could actually be an invaluable tool in helping other women successfully breastfeed. By looking back on your breastfeeding journey, you can identify roadblocks and “booby traps” that stopped you from reaching your goal, and share that experience so others can learn from it.

Support Groups and Organisations

Maybe you were given bad information or advice. Did you know about the Australian Breastfeeding Association helpline or support groups? Were you made aware of the Independent Board Certified Lactation Consultants? Maybe you wish you’d done a breastfeeding education class BEFORE you had your baby.

Maybe you wish you’d realised that topping up your baby with formula could lead to issues with supply and demand. Do you wish you’d known about tongue ties and their impact on breastfeeding? Maybe you wish someone had told you about nipple shields, or supplementary nursing systems, power pumping, or different feeding positions.

Do you wish you’d known about donor milk (through organisations such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies) and that formula wasn’t the only option? Maybe you wish you’d gotten help sooner. Maybe you wish you’d known your rights around breastfeeding and work. Do you wish that instead of everyone telling you that Fed Is Best, and that’s it’s okay to use formula, that someone would have given you the information and support that you needed to reach your breastfeeding goals?

Maybe you would do things differently in the future. And maybe you wouldn’t. That’s ok, too.

Lack of Support for Parents

Whether you breastfeed, formula feed, or both, all of our experiences are valuable. If we stopped the breastfeeding vs formula wars, maybe, just maybe, we could get back to simply sharing information and supporting each other in our feeding journeys.

Instead of being angry at each other, why not get angry at the lack of support, the bad information and the shaming of breastfeeding in public? Why not direct our anger, in a useful way, towards a system that leads to poor breastfeeding outcomes and to drive change? We are all doing our best.

I don’t hate formula, and I certainly don’t think women who feed their babies formula are lesser than or have failed. A lot of the time though, I think they have been failed by others, and by society as a whole. It’s time to change that. And we can only do it together.

We can’t be scared to share research, evidence-based information, and our own personal experiences because we’ll be seen as shaming women who didn’t or couldn’t breastfeed. Knowledge is power. Fed is essential. Obviously. Informed Is Best. Always.

Disclaimer: I am not “anti-formula” and believe that it is ONE tool at our disposal when it is needed, just like I’m not “anti-cesarean” but promote normal birth. I don’t want to contribute to any further division amongst mothers, and that is absolutely not my intention here. Also, if your breastfeeding journey was shorter than you hoped for, or if you hold a lot of negative feelings around your experience, I’m sorry if this was painful for you to read.

If you are a mama who has used formula, but you still advocate for and support breastfeeding, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, on behalf of all mamas.