Talking about breastmilk or formula can be difficult to navigate with a loose, slippery, and uneven terrain. One second you think you have sure-footing and the next you’re on your butt.
I’m not going to deny that hurtful phrases come from breastfeeding supporters, occasionally in the form of personal attacks, and if you’ve personally experienced that, I’m truly sorry. Please know that most of us just want to get information out there, encourage others and want to see babies fed. Including me.
More often I see what are truly meant as innocuous statements of information and education that are simply misunderstood. All of us experience life through a variety of personal filters and we often have sensitive areas that automatically put us on our guard and we may take things as a personal attack when that’s hardly the intent. When it comes to feeding babies all those devoted moms doing their best have some serious passion.
An article is released sharing the findings of a new study that revealing some new findings about breastmilk or there may be some issues with formula and hundreds of comments pour in with things like “formula is the same thing, really and all the breastfed kids I know are sick all the time but my formula fed kids have genius IQs and are never sick” or “you know, not everyone can breastfeed so I guess I’m a bad mom because my breasts just didn’t work.” To add fuel to the fire there are the comments that say things like “See, this is why I’m so glad I gave my babies the best and breastfed.” And really, what does saying something like that do for anyone? Heaven forbid it be an article on a formula recall and the “so glad I breastfeed, breastmilk is never recalled” comments start flooding Facebook newsfeeds and loading the comments section on blogs and articles. Nothing like rubbing someone’s face in their scary circumstances and flaunting “sucks to be you!” If we’re not careful we cross the line from passionate advocacy into plain ol’ bullying.
Then there’s the mom celebrating her success in breastfeeding, sharing “So excited we’ve made it to 6 months without even one drop of formula! GO BOOBIE MILK! WOOT!” In that moment that mom is inviting everyone to a party at her house because she’s truly excited about her accomplishment. But just as sure as she’s about to pop the cork on that sparkling grape juice to pour a round for everyone someone says something like “I don’t know why everyone has to be so down on formula, it makes moms that use it feel bad.”
They probably don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer and they don’t intend to dismiss the celebration of that mom (or maybe they do, I can’t really say) but stirring in their internal narrative of parenting confidence are insecurities on this issue, perhaps closer to the surface than they realized. Instead of being able to celebrate with that mom, they are having to deal with their own less than happy feelings and defend, at least to themselves, their reality.
Thankfully, most of the time people can just say some encouraging and supportive words. Once in a while, far more often than I’d like, the communication deteriorates. Quickly. As though we’re trying to have an important conversation but lack the skills. Like we’re speaking different languages.
Maybe we need an interpreter? What follows is my light-hearted attempt at some translations to help us navigate these slippery slopes.
It’s not a put down on formula feeding mothers when breastfeeding advocates say:
“Breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby.”
What we don’t mean: “Formula feeding moms are less of a mother and less than normal.” We know that’s not true. We also know that breastfeeding isn’t (yet) accepted as normal in society. We certainly don’t mean that it is always easy or even possible for every mom. Or that formula feeding moms don’t deserve to be treated as normal, loving, caring mothers because we know they are normal, loving, caring mothers. Nope, none of those things are what we mean.
What we do mean: Breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed a baby. A mother’s body is programmed to breastfeed and a newborn baby is programmed TO breastfeed. Meaning that, barring any physical difficulties, babies are born ready to breastfeed; the delivery of the placenta signals the mother’s breasts to produce milk to feed, the mother’s body biologically responds to birth by producing milk, and human milk is (usually) the perfectly formulated food biologically for a human baby.
“I’m proud to breastfeed.”
We don’t mean: “I’m better than a formula feeding mom.” Just like being proud to be a mother isn’t a put down to those aren’t mothers, so being proud of breastfeeding isn’t a put down to those that don’t breastfeed.
We do mean: Breastfeeding is important to us and sometimes it’s hard and comes with recognized challenges. We’re celebrating our accomplishment of something we value as important for ourselves. We’re also recognizing that there is a lot in our society that sabotages moms that want to breastfeed and combating that can be challenging.
“I love the bond I have with my baby with breastfeeding.”
We don’t mean: “Moms that don’t breastfeed aren’t as connected to their babies.” Feeding a baby is a deep connection no matter how it’s done and is just one way parents bond with their babies. Most of us know moms that formula-fed and are incredibly bonded to their children and don’t doubt for a second that formula-feeding moms deeply love their children.
We do mean: This is something we consider special and helps us feel connected to our child. That, to us, breastfeeding has a deep feeling of interconnection that goes beyond something we can explain but we try even thought words fail us. Feeding our babies with our milk and at our breasts is one way we feel deeply bonded to our babies.
“I’m so glad I’ve never had to give my baby formula” or “I’m so glad she’s not had 1 drop of formula.”
We don’t mean: “Formula feeding moms are lazy or giving their babies poison.” Nope, it’s not a commentary on what someone else does. We’re not saying that somehow formula feeding moms should be ashamed of giving their babies formula or that never giving a baby formula is some dividing line between the good moms and the bad moms.
We do mean: Like being proud of breastfeeding, not giving their baby formula just feels like a personal accomplishment. It is in no way a reflection of our opinion of anyone else’s choice or situation, merely an acknowledgment of a personal goal.
“Breastfeeding is beautiful!”
We don’t mean: “It’s perfectly beautiful all the time.” Finding something beautiful doesn’t mean it’s easy or right for everyone and it doesn’t even mean we always enjoy the experience.
We do mean: Not only do we NOT find it gross, we also think it is special, something wonderful, and to be celebrated. It is more than nutrition to us and is a beautiful experience we treasure even though it has plenty of challenges along the way. We also know that not everyone agrees with us, that’s part of why we say it though so we can hope to change negative cultural attitudes toward breastfeeding.
“Breast is best!”
We don’t mean: “The moms that breastfeed are the best moms and the moms that don’t are just ok or bad.” That’s not it at all. In fact, this slogan came first from formula companies when they were forced to acknowledge that breastmilk was a superior product to formula. They had to acknowledge that but had to find a way that could make formula sound normal and breastfeeding to sound like it was a parenting “extra,” an optional choice.
We do mean: Breast milk is the best food choice available for a baby and young child. Personally, I don’t care for this statement myself (you can find more on that here) but I know when people say it they aren’t intending anything other than their enthusiasm for breastfeeding and stating a simple fact: breast milk is good for babies. It’s not a put down towards anyone.
“I feel sorry for babies that aren’t breastfed.”
We don’t mean: “Those kids are just so screwed.” This comment makes me uncomfortable, I don’t like it. But I understand where it’s coming from and why it’s said. Those of us that breastfeed see the joy and delight our own children have in the experience, how they love breastfeeding. We are completely convinced it is special for both them and ourselves in a purely innocent, sweet way. While it can be very close to a put down, I don’t believe it usually is intended as such and we don’t actually full on pity children that didn’t get to breastfeed but rather mourn the loss of an experience we consider special.
We do mean: This is an awkward but genuine expression of sadness for those missing out on something we feel is so special. Should it be said? I don’t think so. But if it is I hope formula-feeding moms can understand it is most likely only because the speaker/writer truly believes every child should get to have the marvelous experience her own enjoyed so much.
“There need to be strict regulations regarding the manufacturing and marketing of formula.”
We don’t mean: “Formula-feeding parents are gullible and fall for the marketing of poisonous formula.” Voicing the view point that there need to be standards in how formula is marketed and that there should be strict regulations for formula as a product isn’t a reflection on the parents at all. It may reflect a cynical distrust that formula manufactures have anything other than a bottom line on their mind (Unsupportive Support- For a Profit). Ultimately though, those of us that believe that the manufacturing and marketing of artificial breastmilk substitutes in infant and toddler nutrition believe so for the good of the children’ receiving the product.
We do mean: Even if our children don’t receive formula, the children that do are worth higher standards of excellence. We demand transparency and better regulations for artificial breastmilk substitutes manufacturing for the babies that need it. Formula is necessary, the health of many children depend on it being manufactured with integrity.
Before you find yourself careening down a conversation on your butt, try to remember that most people aren’t trying to start something and those that are probably aren’t worth your time. As a breastfeeding mother, I promise, I’m not trying to push formula feeding parents down. We’re all just carefully trying to pick our way over the rocks, slippery spots, and potential jabs to enjoy the view life has to offer and with a little bit of sensitivity and understanding going both ways, we can all offer a hand to each other in spite of our differences.