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Is Breastfeeding Really Better than Formula Feeding?(And are we even asking the right question?)

Sure, we could go into detail about the evolution of infant formula (some in my parents’ generation raised their babies on corn syrup and evaporated milk, for crying out loud) and how since 1980, when the FDA began regulating it, infant formula has become incredibly safe and nourishing to a baby’s growing brain and body.

We could talk about the historical cycles of breastfeeding versus formula feeding, upper class versus lower class, who, when, and why.

We could go on and on with our scientific analysis of the benefits of natural breast milk over man-made formula.

The problem is, as long as we continue ask “which is better,” we perpetuate an adversarial relationship between moms who choose opposite paths. And that relationship can have devastating consequences.

A brief (recent) history…

By the 1950s, the prevailing belief about breastfeeding was that it was old fashioned and only the uneducated, lower class people did it. In the 1960s, the trend shifted 180 degrees and it became more popular amongst the educated, upper class. Ironic, eh?

Breastfeeding was high in the 90s until the early 2000s when, due to advertising by prominent formula companies as well as its increasing recognition as an acceptable method for nourishing one’s baby, breastfeeding declined. Then in 2007, a major push was made to return to breastfeeding. Since then many activists have gone toe to toe with the formula companies, pushing for breastfeeding to be recognized as the superior choice for infant food.

Which is why this ad by infant formula company Similac is especially brilliant. Take a look:

Though the ad obviously aims to make light of the various “camps” of early parenthood, it hits on some deep truths – and potentially some really sore spots for moms who don’t breastfeed – either because they can’t, or because they choose not to.

Breastfeeding and Postpartum Depression

According to this recent study, there appears to be a direct correlation between breastfeeding and postpartum depression (PPD). Specifically, women (who did not experience depression during pregnancy) had the highest risk of PPD if they had planned to breastfeed and were subsequently unable to do so.

Dr. Amy Tuteur published a critical analysis of the study on her blog, The Skeptical OB, concluding that the issue has very little to do with breastfeeding and much more to do with “the impact of societal pressure on a new mother’s mental health.” She writes in other articles about the reality of nurses and lactation consultants shaming new moms who are unable, or choose not to breastfeed, with no empathy or understanding for their perspective.

Back to the Similac ad.

Is breastfeeding really better than formula feeding?

(Or, are we still asking the wrong question?)

The point is, we ALL have concern for our children’s health, safety, and well-being, and we each choose how to accomplish those based upon a number of factors: our upbringing, culture, education, experiences, and value system to name a few. And while we are entitled to our own personal opinions and convictions, we need to acknowledge that there are many different ways to raise healthy, happy babies. Breastfeed, bottle feed. Pump, formula. Baby wearing, stroller pushing. Sleep train, family bed.

We’re all moms, we all love our babies and want the best for them.

As a new mom, how many decisions did you agonize over? Probably too many to count, right? Choose X, and it could lead to this outcome. But choose Y, and you’re certain to receive criticism from this or that group of people. And chances are at some point, you made an unpopular decision … or even a bad one! So you can relate, right?

Just love your baby, nurture her and tend to her needs, and she’ll turn out okay.

That’s more than just a cliche, you know. It’s actually VERY good news for formula feeding moms. Turns out some recent research shows that whether you’re breastfed or bottle fed may not matter all that much in the end anyway.

This recent study compared formula fed and breastfed babies over a period of years and a number of factors such as obesity, asthma, hyperactivity, attachment, compliance, academic achievement, and more – and found very little difference in the outcome. The surveyors concluded that breastfeeding in America is “strikingly socially patterned” and that the “typical estimates of the impact of breastfeeding on child well-being may be overstated.”

So, see? It will all turn out okay. Let’s relax and give moms the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she doesn’t breastfeed because she physically can’t. Or, maybe she just doesn’t want to.