I'm into breastfeeding. Nothing comes close. No-one will ever convince me that it's not the optimal way to nourish and nurture your child. What's more, I think everyone should do it, and I think the benefits for everyone in society would be huge if breastfeeding was 'normal'. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am aware that it's not always easy and sometimes it's very difficult to breastfeed. I am also a huge believer that mothers need guidance and support to be able to do it. In something like 98% of cases, a mother has the potential to entirely sustain, protect, and comfort her baby for the first 6 months of its life and she can continue to do this for years on end. Formula companies can never even hope to compete with something so special. To pretend that formula milk comes even close to the complete, living food that is breastmilk is to live in ignorance.
What about the mothers who don't breastfeed - whether through choice or circumstance? What if they don't provide this 'liquid gold' to their babies? Does it make them bad mothers? Some 'breastfeeding advocates' seem to think that it does.
I'm not one of those people.
I was born and raised in Northern Ireland - I grew up with the Troubles. My father was active in the peace process. He used to say 'you've got to take people with you'.
Now, I'm not for one moment comparing the divide between formula feeding mothers and breastfeeding mothers to the problems in the North of Ireland (although I can think of a few internet posters I wouldn't want to have in the same room!). However, I do think as breastfeeding advocates we need to start 'taking people with us'.....
Many mothers who stop breastfeeding - and even some who never start - experience terrible guilt. They might not admit it publicly, but privately they will tell you that they do. Many others who formula feed feel judged and patronised. They feel that no-one cares about the background to their situation, about why they come to be formula feeding. How can we ever hope to improve breastfeeding rates if this 'them and us' situation continues to prevail? Women who have chosen not to, or who have been unable to breastfeed at one point in time will simply shut their ears. They won't listen and they won't know how to support their friends and daughters if they choose to breastfeed.
Apart from the myriad health benefits of breastmilk itself and the potential risks involved in formula feeding, breastfeeding is more than just breast milk.
It's not just WHAT we feed our babies, it's also HOW we feed them.
Whilst I am aware that many formula-feeding mums take time to cuddle and hold their babies when feeding them, there are others who don't.
I'll be completely honest - I really struggle when I see this:
Cute baby - but although many of you might see nothing wrong with this picture, I feel something is missing - loving arms!
One of my pet-hates is when I'm out and about and I see a baby in a car seat with a bottle propped up in it's mouth.
'But when I'm doing the shopping I'm busy and I haven't got time to hold the bottle' one mother told me during an online discussion.
I guess the products below are ideal if you're too busy to spend time holding your baby.
I doubt very much that I'm the only mother to be bothered by these images. Partly because obviously leaving a baby to 'feed' itself in this manner is dangerous, but also because children fed this way are completely separated from their main care-giver. With breastfeeding the care-giver and the nourishment go hand-in-hand. It's unavoidable and it's not just because the baby is in your arms - it's chemical too.
When a breastfeeding mother gives her baby a feed a hormone called oxytocin is released into her bloodstream. It triggers the 'milk ejection reflex' which allows her milk to flow. This hormone gets into her milk and the baby receives it in the feed.
Oxytocin is very interesting. Recent scientific research has led to a greater understanding of how it works and it's effect on us. Some people have called it 'social glue'.
Oxytocin is also released during labour and birth - the high levels of oxytocin present after birth help mothers to bond with their babies, and cause the uterus to contract helping it to return to it's normal size.
'Oxytocin has been described as the ‘love hormone’ and it is secreted when falling in love with another adult, or a baby, and it makes mothers feel relaxed, contented and less anxious.' ~ New Zealand Ministry of Health
Oxytocin levels are also raised by skin to skin contact, by hugging, kissing, caressing, touching, and by sustained eye contact. This is my point. Despite not breastfeeding, a mother can encourage increased levels of this hormone in herself and her baby just by keeping the baby close! This is why when I see a baby with a bottle propped up in it's mouth I feel sad. The very thing which would help reduce the loss of the breastfeeding relationship (to both mother and baby!) is not being done.
Now, obviously there are very many mums who formula feed and make a point of keeping their baby close. However, I do see many in real life who do not, and the devices shown above would indicate that there's even a market for products which allow the baby to feed without being held. I wonder if this difference in HOW we feed is a significant factor in creating the 'lazy mother' myth which quite rightly upsets so many formula feeding mums?
Ok - so if breastfeeding didn't go well for you, what can you do to minimise the impact of this loss to yourself and your child? Do you really have to 'throw the baby out with the bath-water?'
How many bottle-feeding mothers are aware that by mimicking practices more usually associated with breast-feeding they can increase and enhance their baby's exposure to oxytocin? Studies into the effects of oxytocin in the body reveal that increasing levels of the hormone in men caused them to be more 'empathetic'. Some research has been done into the effects of the hormone on high-functioning autism and it concluded:
'we found that after oxytocin inhalation, patients exhibited stronger interactions with the most socially cooperative partner and reported enhanced feelings of trust and preference'.
A study focusing on new parents showed that both genders experience a rise in oxytocin levels during the first six months of their baby's life, and commentators have suggested that this increase may be nature's way of helping the new parents to 'bond' with their offspring.
So how can a formula-feeding mother close the gap between giving her baby a bottle and breastfeeding?
How can formula feeding mums increase their baby's exposure to this 'social glue'?
How can formula feeding mums increase their baby's exposure to this 'social glue'?
- Feed your baby yourself. Formula feeding frequently means that a very young baby can be passed around from person to person for feeds. Each time this happens an opportunity to foster oxytocin development for both mother and baby is lost. Speaking about recent findings which suggested breastfeeding mums were less likely to abuse their babies, the report's author said:
"Breastfeeding may simply promote that interpersonal bond between a mother and her baby - the physical touch, the holding, the eye-to-eye contact. It ensures that physical touch occurs in an attuned way, but I would imagine a similar result for any mother who has that same one-on-one contact while they're feeding on a regular basis." - Lane Strathearn
- Make eye contact. This might seem obvious, but eye contact is crucial in enhancing oxytocin and strengthening trust: 'research has shown that breastfeeding mother-infant dyads spend significantly more time in mutual gaze during feedings than do bottlefeeding dyads'.
- Have lots of skin to skin contact. Breastfeeding necessitates skin to skin contact with the mother, but just because you bottle-feed doesn't mean you can't enjoy the benefits of skin to skin. 'When mothers hold their nude infants against their chests in direct skin-to-skin contact, increases in maternal responsivity and bonding are observed ... skin-to-skin contact might elicit such effects via elevated oxytocin levels in the caregiver's plasma and cerebrospinal fluid.'
- Practise 'Attachment Parenting'. Wikipedia lists the following as key to this theory of developmental psychology.
1. Preparation for Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting 2. Feed with Love and Respect 3. Respond with Sensitivity 4. Use Nurturing Touch5. Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally 6. Provide Consistent Loving Care 7. Practise Positive Discipline 8. Strive for Balance in Personal and Family Life.You can see from the list above that if you bottle-feed it does not mean you cannot be an 'attachment parent'. For more information about attachment parenting have a look at this website.
- Baby-wear. This is really an extension of skin-to-skin. Rather than pushing your child around in a buggy, consider using a sling. There are lovely ones out there, and for a fussy or refluxy baby they can be an absolute god-send!
Recent research has shown that 'Our distant ancestors spent much of their time being held and caressed by their mother, forming a close bond.' ~ Professor Darcia Narvaez, from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, US Keeping your child close by baby-wearing helps to reduce anxiety and has myriad other benefits, many of which are listed here. The slings are pretty darn nice too ;)
- Consider Co-sleeping. There are many benefits to co-sleeping, physical and emotional. Remember that the term 'co-sleeping' actually covers room-sharing too. Many couples like to remove the side of the cot and push it up to the side of the bed, for example. Experts strongly advise against bed-sharing if families are formula feeding their babies, as this can have a fundamental affect on their awareness of their babies, the way their baby sleeps, and their natural immunity to certain pathogens in the environment. More on this is here.*
- Feed on Demand. Stop clock-watching! A historic culture of 'scheduled feeding' has ensured that many bottle-feeding mums still think they should only feed their baby at certain intervals. The latest advice differs though, the Baby Friendly Initiative recommends demand-feeding whether you breast-feed or bottle feed. 'You should feed your baby as much as he wants, as often as he asks, provided he is not regurgitating significant amounts.' They also caution against over-feeding. I have frequently heard bottle-feeding mothers say 'it's not time for his feed yet'. My husband likens this to telling your baby 'it's not time for your nappy to be changed'.... Feeding on demand also helps to mimic the 'little and often' feeding pattern that breast fed babies naturally adopt and lessens the likelihood of them bringing up excess milk. A great article on 'baby-led bottle-feeding' is here.
As we strive to promote breastfeeding in our communities, perhaps the best way to do it is to promote a change of parenting culture.*This section has been edited (10:05:11 & 21:05:12) and my thanks go to Charlotte for an extremely thought-provoking discussion about co-sleeping!