When I wrote about my personal struggles with breastfeeding and my choice to switch to formula, the comments and emails came pouring in—many of them supportive, and some, not so much. I was writing about releasing the stigma and shame over how we feed our babies, but the comments and tweets scolding me for my choice made me feel the very shame I'd been trying to shed. And anyway, why were strangers on Twitter so upset about what I fed my son?
Since then, I've heard stories of gay dads being pressured by hospital staff to feed their newborn breastmilk by any means necessary. I've heard about women with double mastectomies being shamed for using formula. I've heard about mothers who said that breastfeeding helped them bond with their child after postpartum depression. Each parent has their reasons for breastfeeding or using formula, but because the issue is so emotional and so intertwined with our identities, there is a divide that creates an extra layer of stress for new parents.
Extra stress is the last thing we all need, especially during a pandemic when most of us are trying to parent and work, often simultaneously, from home. When will the breastfeeding versus formula battle end?
The Pressure to Breastfeed Is Real
Breastfeeding is on the rise in the U.S., and, of course, research shows there are benefits for the baby, including boosting the immune system, helping to prevent obesity, and lowering the risk of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. But that doesn't mean if you don't breastfeed you're a bad parent.
Courtney Jung, author of Lactivism and political science professor at the University of Toronto, says when she was pregnant with her first child, she experienced intense pressure to breastfeed from other moms—pressure that she says bordered on "smugness." Research shows that for new moms who aren't able to exclusively breastfeed, the pressure to do so can cause them to experience symptoms of postpartum depression.
While Jung says she breastfed both of her children, she has become an outspoken critic of the "breast is best" movement and the pressure put on new parents to breastfeed for medical reasons. The social scientist began looking into the facts and says if we weren't all terrified that feeding our children formula would hamper their health or their intelligence, "We could all agree to disagree." Studies aren't clear on whether or not breastfeeding can benefit a child's cognitive development, and one study compared babies who lost a large amount of weight after birth and found that the infants that received formula in addition to breastmilk were less likely to be readmitted to the hospital. It's not that formula is superior, but it certainly doesn't need to be demonized.
Agreeing to disagree means changing the conversation around how we feed our babies and taking into account that there are various reasons one will opt for formula instead of breastfeeding and vice versa.
Understanding the Cultural Issues of Breastfeeding
The discussion around breastfeeding and formula comes with a different set of cultural, emotional, and historical implications for many Black parents and families of color in the United States.
"Our history is different," says Tracie Collins, a doula and founder of the National Black Doulas Association (NBDA). "During slavery our babies were malnourished because we were wet nurses for slave owners' children, and there was a taboo with breastfeeding.” That’s why formula eventually became normalized in the Black community, says Collins. And there’s more: “In hospitals formula is pushed more on Black and brown babies, and breastfeeding is still frowned upon within some Black families simply because of the stigma of breasts being sexualized,” adds Collins. "There's a movement to promote breastfeeding [within the Black community] because our history is different."
Collins founded NBDA because she saw a lack of resources for Black doulas. She wanted to create a "one-stop shop" that helps parents and professionals understand and lower the infant mortality rate in Black communities, and provide a directory for Black and brown birthing families. Collins encourages breastfeeding, but she also understands that it's not a choice all parents can make.
Years of health inequalities and racist institutions have also contributed to Black and brown families not getting the resources and care they need to make informed decisions about breast milk versus formula, says Dalvery Blackwell, executive director and co-founder of the African American Breastfeeding Network.
"I don't see it as fighting," says Blackwell of the feeding debate. "We are committed to this work of reclaiming and restoring our right to feed our babies the way we choose. Not all women are going to breastfeed or can."
Blackwell might advocate for breastfeeding, but she cautions others not to judge a parent who chooses formula. "We don't call women out," says Blackwell. "We embrace women where they are."
Changing the Conversation Around Formula
Laura Modi, a mother living in San Francisco, had switched to formula with her first baby because of issues with milk supply. By the time she had her third child in May 2020, she was homeschooling two kids and running a company during a pandemic, so formula was the choice that made sense for her.
Still, she felt the sting of shame early on. When she'd see moms breastfeeding at a park, Modi would sheepishly pull out a bottle of formula, or she would hide her formula cannisters when people came to her house. The shame was real. "I felt second best," says Modi, a former Airbnb executive. "That was hard."
But when Modi noticed a large proportion of working mothers she knew were importing organic formula from Europe, she saw a need: A safe, healthy infant formula made in the U.S., without ingredients, including corn syrup or palm oil, which can lead to health issues like cardiovascular disease. She co-founded the startup Bobbie, a formula company created and led entirely by moms. It recently got FDA approval and the owners hope to bring the product to market this fall.
Modi says the aim of her company isn't to promote formula to all parents, but to change the conversation (one of their slogans is "Don't Assume") and support the parents who do choose formula, whatever their reasons may be.
"We should absolutely normalize and support breastfeeding," she says. "It is so important that it continues, and in the last decade lactation consultants have been a godsend. But some of that education isn't available to all parents."
Plus, not all parents can breastfeed, and some can, but choose not to. The question is how do we change the conversation so that no parent feels ashamed of their choice if they're just trying their best?
"We have to give women permission to say, 'It's OK, you did what you thought was best with the information you had,'" says Collins. "We have to release the mom guilt."
Dina Gachman is an Austin-based writer and she's on Twitter @TheElf26.