Breastfeeding Is Not Best – And Here’s Why

Breastfeeding Is Not Best - And Here's Why

It’s important to say from the outset, that sometimes formula feeding may be what’s in the best interests of an individual family.

Not all mothers can breastfeed and not all babies can breastfeed.

This article is not about negating those facts.

It’s about the language used when discussing infant feeding.

In life, do we always do what is optimal, ideal or best?

For example, do we always eat the best food, make the best meals, wear the best clothes, drive the best car, live in the best house?

No, we don’t. Most of us are happy with standard or good enough options. We don’t need the best of everything.

When it comes to feeding our baby, if breast is best, then it’s still okay to formula feed, because it’s adequate. Not the best, but just fine and good enough.

Or is it?

Formula Companies Love The ‘Breast Is Best’ Slogan

Yes it’s true — formula companies love that ‘breast is best’. They even tell you so on their formula tins and television adverts.

You see, if we all believe that ‘breast is best’, then formula is not best, but it is still good enough. Many of us are happy with things that may not be best but are still good enough in life.

The truth is however, breastfeeding is nothing more than normal.

Breastfeeding Is The Biological Norm

Is breast really best?

Well, since breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed babies, it should be the benchmark or the control to which other forms of infant feeding are compared.

Breastfeeding is not best, it’s just normal. Despite something else being necessary, anything else other than the normal is therefore, substandard.

However, being the biological norm doesn’t always mean being the cultural norm.

Cultural Versus Biological Norms

Despite breastfeeding being the biological norm in our society, formula feeding is largely the cultural norm.

In Australia, for example, 96% of mothers start out breastfeeding. The rates of any (and exclusive) breastfeeding thereafter drop off month by month. By 5 months only about 15% of babies are exclusively breastfed (meaning no other liquid or solid other than breastmilk) and by 6 months, only about 60% of babies are receiving any breastmilk.

In other words, by 5 months, 85% of babies have received something other than breastmilk (e.g. formula) and by 6 months, 40% are formula fed.

Indeed, formula use in our society is common.

The language we use also largely reinforces formula feeding as a cultural norm.

The “Benefits Of Breastfeeding”

Have you heard or read about the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding? You may have heard that breastfeeding ‘lowers the risk of infection’, or breastfeeding mothers have ‘lower risks of breast cancer’, or breastfed babies have ‘stronger immune systems’, or breastfeeding ‘enhances IQ’. Find out more about what science and evidence has proven to be risks of formula feeding, here.

Since breastfeeding is the biological norm, breastfed babies are not ‘healthier’. Rather, formula fed babies are not as healthy.

People may say, “Hey that’s a terrible thing to say about formula fed babies!”

But saying otherwise comes at the cost of breastfeeding and healthy babies. Is that what we want?

Our baby feeding journey may have been really physically and emotionally tough, ending with formula, but do we want new mothers to follow in our footsteps of distress and struggle? Or do we hope they can enjoy a better experience, backed with the most evidence-based information available?

We know that it’s not women’s bodies who are failing. Countries like Cambodia have significantly improved from just 11% exclusive breastfeeding at six months (remember we’re 15% at five months in Australia) to a whopping 74%.

Did their bodies improve? No. A mass breastfeeding education campaign was established by the Cambodian government. Find out more here.

By not representing data and information correctly, we’re misrepresenting and undermining the importance of breastmilk, while not being honest or truthful. We’re cutting something down to be more comfortable, while the genuine risks are being downplayed. We need to grow past the discomfort for the sake of future generations.

In order to shift from a largely formula feeding culture to a breastfeeding culture, we need to use language that reflects breastfeeding as the biological norm – in our language, in the media and in research. When this is done, parents can be better informed. Mass education about the risks and facts has significantly raised breastfeeding rates in other countries — way beyond our current rates. So we can do it here. We’re tough, we can take it.

Informed Decision Making

When we talk about the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding rather than the risks of formula feeding, we are not providing parents with complete information to enable them to make truly informed decisions.

Too often in our society, giving formula is often unnecessarily provided as a solution for a breastfeeding problem. This is hardly surprising when we look at the overall lack of health professional knowledge about breastfeeding.

In most situations, breastfeeding problems can be overcome without the need for formula. What is needed is timely and knowledgeable support.

However, because formula feeding is normalised in our society, this is not seen as a risk, but rather a benign activity, even a benefit or solution.

The truth is that there are risks associated with formula use. Parents deserve to be fully informed.

If from being fully informed, they make a decision to use formula, that is absolutely fine. They are the parent and that is their prerogative.

When we are able to make fully informed decisions, we are less likely to feel guilty.

Guilt Associated With How We Feed Our Babies

Some mothers feel a sense of guilt if breastfeeding doesn’t work out how they wanted it to.

No mother ever ‘fails’ at breastfeeding. In many ways though, our society can sometimes fail mothers, making it harder for them to reach their breastfeeding goals.

Through being as fully informed as you can (with accurate and up-to-date information), and by feeling well supported, most mothers will be able to meet their breastfeeding goals – whatever they may be.

However, everyone’s individual circumstances are unique. Even by being fully informed, for some families, the best option may be not breastfeeding. Everyone in our society has a role to play in making mothers feel supported no matter how she feeds her child.

Being a mother is so much more than how a baby is fed. Doing what is right for you, given your own unique circumstances is important. Be proud of doing what is right for you.

There are many things that need to happen in our society to improve breastfeeding rates. The vast majority of mothers want to breastfeed. We all have a role to play to help more mothers be able to achieve their goals. One thing we can do to assist this is thinking about the language we use when discussing infant feeding.

Last Updated: August 5, 2015

CONTRIBUTOR

Renee Kam is mother to Jessica and Lara, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), a physiotherapist, author of 'The Newborn Baby Manual' and an Australian Breastfeeding Association Counsellor. In her spare time, Renee enjoys spending time with family and friends, horse riding, running and reading.


2 comments

  1. The shaming does need to stop and articles like this are important, but please do not negate the benefits of breastfeeding as simply a “healthy v. unhealthy” thing. Babies will be nourished, happy, healthy, on both breastmilk and formula. At the end of the day, formula is going to help your baby grow and thrive. Breastfeeding provides added benefits and also added stresses.

    Breastfeeding has the ADDED benefits of digestive bacteria to help build a healthy digestive system for fewer tummy troubles *in the early stages of life*. Your formula-fed baby will still acquire that bacteria later in life during the introduction of solids, it just might occur slightly later in their short lives.

    Breastfeeding has the ADDED benefit of germ exchange between mother and infant, and the mother’s body responds by tailoring the antibodies provided in breastmilk to exactly what their infant is fighting at the time. However, studies show these immune-boosting benefits seem to taper off around 6 months, and most babies are kept fairly isolated, vaccinated, and away from germs during that time anyway.

    Breastfed babies get fewer ear infections, and generally eat until they are sated. Breastfed babies tend to have fewer issues with gas and constipation. All of these are because of the different suctioning with bottles, swallowing more air from a bottle, and the larger amounts of food in a bottle.

    Formula feeding has the ADDED benefit of allowing all members of the family to feed and bond with baby from the very beginning. Breastfeeding moms generally spend at least the first 2 weeks as slaves to their baby’s growing appetite which can be very stressful in addition to leaving a recovering and hormonal mother extremely sleep deprived.

    Formula feeding has the ADDED benefit of a full and fed baby from the very beginning. Breastfed babies are nourished via a supply and demand system which means there are times where baby is hungry (demanding) and the body is adjusting its supply. While the body will almost always adjust, baby’s weight is monitored very closely in those first days and losses can become a very personal sense of failure.

    Formula fed babies have the ADDED benefit of vitamin D. Breastfed babies often require a supplement.

    There are benefits that apply to both breastfeeding and formula feeding. In breastfeeding it largely takes the form of digestive enzymes and antibodies. In formula feeding it largely takes the form of lowered stress levels (which ARE a big deal) and readily available nourishment 24/7 from anyone available to feed the baby. BOTH breastfeeding and formula feeding allow for bonding, and bottlefeeding of either allows bonding for other members of the family.

    We get it, breastfeeding moms are tired of feeling judged for how they choose to feed their babies (largely the issue is public feeding), formula feeding moms are tired of feeling judged for how they choose to feed their babies (largely the issue is which has more benefits since both provide good nutrition), but writing an article where you bash breastfeeding isn’t the way to bridge the gap. All moms make choices, and formula has been around for a few decades now to the point where I think we can all agree it doesn’t appear to have had a negative impact. So let’s all just look at the pros and cons, make our choice, and feed our kids, k?

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