‘The Stigma Around Formula Feeding Is Still Very Real’

If you bottle feed there’s an implication you’ve made a lazy decision or you don’t care about the health benefits of breastfeeding, says one writer


by Jessica Barrett |
Updated on

The recent formula crisis in the United States has been distressing to read about for any mother, affected or not. The idea that you might not be able to access what you need to keep your child alive is one of the most terrifying prospects a family could face, yet this has been a reality for millions of Americans following the closure of the Abbott Nutrition factory in Michigan as a result of safety concerns.

It’s due to reopen in June though it’s thought it will still take another two months for formula to hit the shelves. President Biden orchestrated an emergency airlift of formula from Germany this month - an unprecedented move which stressed the very real threat to babies, after many were hospitalised when they couldn’t get the specialist formula they needed.

Over in the UK, formula has been in the headlines after some stores have begun to security tag it because of price rises coupled with the cost of living crisis.

So why, then, has one of the overriding narratives of these horrifying stories been: why are mothers feeding their babies formula at all? Comment upon comment on news stories detailing developments were aimed at mums who feed their babies formula (rather than, say, the 192 Republicans who voted against a suggested $28million emergency fund to help families access formula). ‘Go back to breastfeeding it’s actually healthier,’ wrote one commenter on Facebook. Another added, ‘Mums: get lactating if you want to feed your babies. This is an emergency!’.

The stigma around formula feeding is very real: whether in real life or on social media. There’s an implication that you’ve made a lazy decision or you don’t care about the health benefits of breastfeeding. As the first time mother of a 12-week-old baby who physically couldn’t latch on to breastfeed from birth, when it comes to the latest slew of judgement I can assure you the last thing mums who are struggling to feed their babies need is added pressure and shame.

My son had a tongue tie, a small piece of skin connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth, which badly affected his ability to breastfeed. We were readmitted to hospital after he lost 13% of his body weight in the five days after he was born. The doctor put us on a feeding programme which involved trying him on the breast for 20 minutes, then supplementing with formula and then pumping. As the nurse on the ward helped me feed him a bottle of formula for the first time and he guzzled it down, I cried as I realised just how hungry he was. I wasn’t able to pump significant amounts of milk, so once we were discharged from hospital, formula feeding became part of our daily schedule as I worked on trying to increase my supply.

Once my son’s tongue tie was divided (and then, six weeks later again after it reattached) it still took weeks for him to learn how to use his new tongue movement in order to suck. The formula we fed him bought us time and he was thriving - I on the other hand was the lowest I had ever been, sobbing every day at my perceived failure to do things ‘right’. I remember phoning my mum in floods of tears and telling her I was too ashamed to admit to my friends that I was a ‘failure’ because I was formula feeding.

It was the very real stigma around formula feeding which led to me feel this way. We are repeatedly told that breastfeeding is best, and that’s exactly what I’d planned to do. I’d taken a course, read all about the vital benefits of it (there was even a poster next to my bed while I gave birth), yet when it wasn’t straightforward forward for us I felt abandoned when it came to getting the support I actually needed to make breastfeeding work successfully, and I felt I wasn’t educated about formula feeding at all even though it’s a common option. Midwives are overworked and simply don’t have the time to devote to feeding tutorials on the understaffed wards.

So, it fell to me to do everything I could by myself, full of hormones and barely sleeping, I was desperate to do what I thought was best for my son. I begged the NHS for tongue tie consultations (the wait lists can be weeks and even months), I paid a private lactation consultant to come and watch us feed, I bought expensive supplements to try and increase my supply, I rented a hospital grade breast pump to try and express what tiny amounts I could and visited a local charity funded breastfeeding support group. I ate porridge and oat cookies all day as they’re said to improve lactation.

My husband, who was massively supportive throughout, began to worry about me as it utterly consumed me. It took blood, sweat and tears - which makes comments about just ‘getting on’ with breastfeeding all the more galling - but I am very proud that I didn’t give up. I reached my goal to breastfeed my son, though we are still supplementing with formula.

I am far from alone in this story. When I shared it on Instagram over half of the mums I know shared their stories, often exactly the same as mine. Many, many mums make heartbreaking decisions to give up on their breastfeeding journey for various physical or emotional reasons (both Millie Macintosh and Stacey Solomon have revealed that they abandoned breastfeeding their most recent babies because of tongue ties and painful feeds).

For other mums and parents, perhaps who have had mastectomies, have adopted, or used surrogates, formula feeding is the only option, and for others it’s simply their choice. There should be no room for judgement on any of this, particularly from strange men on the internet, yet we are routinely led to feel as if we use formula we have failed, that formula is our dirty little secret.

Former Made In Chelsea star Louise Thompson recently revealed that, after a traumatic birth experience at the end of last year, she had taken the decision to feed her son Leo with formula rather than breastfeed after a difficult surgery. She wrote on Instagram, ‘For those that have ever glanced at a woman feeding a newborn with a bottle and questioned it in their head, there are several reasons why mums might not be able to breast feed besides being in intensive care.’ She added that, like I had, she had previously been too ashamed to post any pictures on Instagram where bottles of formula were visible.

Can you be a good ‘mama’ if you’re sterilising bottles and spooning out formula every few hours? The answer is yes, of course you can. Nothing can affect the bond I have with my son, least of all a plastic teat and some powder. Whether he’s breastfeeding or drinking from a bottle we are close as we can be, holding hands, I’m stroking his fluffy hair as he falls asleep full and contented. He is happy and healthy.

New mums are under such extreme pressure to do everything right, enjoy every moment and look great while they’re doing it. Breastfeeding felt to me like this unattainable club full of better mothers than me that I’d never be part of. Now I’m a part time member and it’s wonderful to me, but formula feeding is great too. By creating shame and stigma around feeding choices and making mums feel like a failure if they can’t or don’t breastfeed - without providing proper support for them to explore doing so - we are creating yet another unrealistic standard for new mums.

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