Gay or straight, parents inevitably face a host of really tough questions: hospital or home birth, cloth or disposable diapers, co-sleeping or a crib. But perhaps one of the most controversial choices is how to feed your baby. Breastfeeding versus formula is a debate that can spur the ugliest of mommy wars.
That's what writer Suzanne Barston discovered first hand when she became a mother. There are countless benefits to breastfeeding and Barston says before she had her son Leo, she didn't feel like she wanted to breastfeed, she felt like she had to.
Her new book is called "Bottled Up: How The Way We Feed Babies Has Come To Define Motherhood And Why It Shouldn't."
What were some of the preconceived notions you had about breast-feeding?
"I took all of the same infant courses that everybody does at the hospital recommended by my obstetrician...The way it was presented to me was that this was something extremely natural and should come relatively easily…but nobody talked about any of the physical discomfort that many women experience at the beginning, nor did they touch upon the surprising challenges that many women come up against.
"I was under the impression that if I did formula feed my child at all, that if I was even given one relief bottle in the hospital, that it not only was going to ruin our breast-feeding relationship, but it was going to ruin him. It was going to make him majorly unhealthy it was going to take off a couple of IQ points and we weren’t going to bond the way that I really desperately wanted to bond with him."
What were the challenges that you faced when you tried breast-feeding your son?
"We faced a whole slew of challenges but most of them were on my son’s part and not on mine...he couldn’t latch, and no one could figure out why. It took about a week to see that he had a tongue-tie, so we fixed that but by that point he I think had just lost interest. He had lost a large amount of weight and was very tired and the work it was going to take him to breast feed no matter what we tried, and we tried it all, it just wasn’t going to happen.
"So I ended up pumping for him exclusively, which was great for a while because I felt like I was giving him this liquid gold, but I still was able to do it and adequately nourish him, instead of watching him starve because he couldn’t latch. But then he started showing these really curious symptoms, which turned out to be a severe milk and soy allergy. And I cut everything out of my diet that they told me too, but nothing helped, so I tried this for about three weeks, nothing changed.
"So at that point they advised us to try hypoallergenic formula, and within 12 hours we had a completely different child. And that was my first clue that something was amiss with these message that were given. Here I was, an educated mom that really cared for her child and I was really making him suffer to sort of pray to this alter of milky goodness, even seeing how well he was doing on the formula it still took me several days to stop feeding him breast milk, even when I saw his symptoms return and he was miserable…For a mom to watch her child suffer and knowingly make the choice not to do something for him that was going to relieve that suffering, that speaks to the brainwashing that we have been experiencing here.”
Did you feel any judgment from other mothers?
"This is such a heated topic. It depends where you are in the country...In the middle of the country, formula feeding is very much the norm, so the pressure you are going to feel is from your doctors and the Internet. Where I live in Southern California, breast-feeding is very much the norm. So when I walked into mommy and me classes or any kind of baby-related activity, I was typically the only formula feeding, and I did get dirty looks.
"I don’t think they were worse than the dirty looks that most moms have to deal with at malls, but I feel like you could justify those looks, you could hold on to that knowledge that you were doing the best thing for your baby. For me, I already felt this internal guilt, so any judgment I felt form other moms and any dirty looks I got from people in the grocery store when I was buying formula, that just compounded my own guilt. There was nothing that told me I was doing this right. Nothing told me that my choice was justified, I felt very lost.”
Is there anything that surprised you in your subsequent research?
"Over all its pretty clear that breast feeding is better. What’s surprising was the concept of how much better it is we’ve really blown out of proportion. Even though I personally in my gut believe that breast feeding is best in the health sense, the nutritional sense, it makes sense biologically, human milk is made for human infants… however I think that the way that the information is presented to us a lot of times can sort of freak parents out unnecessarily. They might say you have a 200 percent higher chance of getting SIDS, but when you actually look at the numbers, that chance of SIDS is .001, so I think we forget that statistics are just that and you need to look at them in a real world context."
What do you think is the best way to deal with this pressure?
"We should be supporting breast feeding because women want to do it. It is important, it’s important to feel that connection with our bodies. We should have that right, the right to do it that works for us, so I think that the pressure to exclusively breast-feed discourages a lot of moms who know that they have to return to work several weeks after giving birth and women who have supply issues, because they think they should throw in the towel because if its not exclusive for a year it’s not worth it. I think if we could meet women where they are at and help them feed their children in a way that feels right for them in the healthiest way possible for that given scenario we would probably breast feeding rates go up, we would definitely see happier moms, and we would probably happier babies because of it too.”