Formula vs breast milk. This is quite a hot debate, fueled by a whole lot of emotions, not to mention hormones. Which is better? Is formula actually awful for babies? Is breast milk better than formula? Should we gamble with our mental health over breast milk? We will get into all of it.
I’ve experienced the gamut when it comes to feeding babies. Between my three, I’ve exclusively nursed, nursed and pumped, (basically) exclusively pumped, nursed and supplemented with formula, and have used exclusively formula. I’ll get into my experience, but spoiler alert: I’m currently feeding my youngest exclusively formula. (And he’s healthy!)
I’m not a doctor. I have no medical training or training in lactation consulting. I’m just a mom who has fed her three babies. Please make any feeding decisions under advisement of your pediatrician. Having a supportive partner and lactation consultant can make all the difference, too.
Formula vs Breast Milk: My Stories
Formula vs Breast Milk: Round One
My first had low-weight issues by the first doctor’s visit. Aside from this, everything had been very healthy with her, including all of pregnancy. I had only nursed her, and was encouraged to nurse more. I wasn’t quite sure how to do that, because I felt like I was already constantly nursing. We were in and out of the doctor’s about every two to three days for weight checks over the first three weeks. This was all incredibly stressful, but I was determined not to give up on nursing. The weight issues began evening out around one month old, but we kept going back to check regularly.
At three months old, I had to return to work. Literally after my first day back to work, she refused to nurse. I knew the bottle was just easier, but I was devastated. I had left her to go to work, and I felt as ditched as I imagined she did. Obviously I was reading way too far into it, but, hormones.
So I was attached to the pump a lot. My baby nursed first thing in the morning, but took pumped bottles the rest of the day. She continued to always nurse first thing in the morning, but that was it. Until she was one, that’s how we did it.
I pumped all the time. On my way to work, twice during the school day, locking my classroom door, praying I wouldn’t have kids come back from the cafeteria who forgot a lunch box, on my way home from work, and before going to bed. It was all the time.
The other thing besides pumping just being awful, is that it was really hard for me to produce enough milk. Looking back, I’m not even sure how I did. I did everything I could to get the most. While I was drinking water constantly, I was also eating all the oatmeal, sticking to a strict schedule, etc. I was producing the minimum for her, and knowing what I know now, I should have supplemented it with formula, maybe even just half a bottle a day. At least having that option would have been a relief for me.
Around ten months, I actually began doing that, but it was short-lived. At eleven months the doctor said I could begin to slowly mix cow’s milk with breast milk. I began to do that rather than using formula.
At twelve months, we were done with nursing, pumping, and all things breast milk. I was never more happy to buy a $7.00 gallon of the most organic whole milk I could find. #firsttimemom.
Formula vs Breast Milk: Round Two
Fast-forward ten months, and I gave birth to my first son. Everything seemed to be going great. He was nursing well and gaining weight. However, right around two months old, everything seemed to change. He was crying when I was feeding him. At his two month appointment, when the concerned doctor said he had not gained nearly enough weight as he was supposed to, I exhaled. Here we go again.
I got in touch with my lactation consultant and I tried all the things. Power pumping. Expensive supplements. Chugging even more water all day long. Special tea. These things did seem to help a little, but not enough. And certainly not enough to make up for all of the effort it took.
I began to get comfortable with the idea that I would need to supplement with formula.
Well, because of all the power pumping and formula, my son quickly refused to nurse and would only take bottles. Even in the morning. I was realizing that my fate would either be to pump exclusively again, while supplementing, or go total formula. Keep in mind, I also had a one and a half year old that required a lot of attention. I weighed all these factors. I felt guilty about not nursing and providing my son with breast milk for a full year, like I had my daughter. (Like he actually cared.) But I knew hooking myself up to a pump six plus times a day was just not going to work.
I made the decision to go full-formula. And do you know what? My son continued to grow and continued to be healthy. He actually grew better than my daughter who was on breast milk her whole first year. And I could focus on the babies, rather than worrying about my body functioning properly. It was truly a freeing decision, and I’m glad I made it.
Formula vs Breast Milk: Round Three
Fast-forward another ten months and I gave birth to my second son. (Are you noticing a pattern yet?) Because I now knew that I tended to be low on supply, I decided to supplement with one bottle of formula a day from the very beginning. Everything seemed to be going great. Until about two months old. Again. This time I wasn’t too stressed, or even surprised, because I knew exactly what I was dealing with.
My baby began fussing and crying during feedings. I now knew that it was because he was having a hard time getting enough. At his two month appointment, his weight gain wasn’t where it was supposed to be. However, it wasn’t nearly as severe as his brother’s weight one year prior.
Before giving birth to him, I was very open to switching to formula if it was needed. My first son thrived with it. Also, I had a two year old, a one year old, and a newborn. I was very open to formula, if I had problems again.
I only pumped a few times, and quickly decided that I wasn’t going to continue with that long-term. He would nurse, but would refuse the more I gave him formula bottles. Within two weeks of the doctor’s appointment, he was exclusively formula-fed. And he still is, and he’s healthy and happy. And I’m more sane with all of my cluster babies.
Hierarchy of Baby-Feeding…According to Me
Given all of my baby-feeding experiences within a tight three-year time frame, I’ve come to some conclusions. I believe this to be the hierarchy of baby-feeding:
- Nursing to produce breast milk
- Pumping to produce breast milk
- Breast milk with supplementing formula
- Exclusive formula
Even though I believe this to be the hierarchy, I am currently (and have for the past year and a half) opted for the lowest, which is exclusive formula. This is because I also believe that there are not huge gaps in nutrition for the baby between these different levels. (Again, I’m not a doctor, nutritionist, or a scientist. Just speaking from experience.) We are not in the 1950s where formula was made from evaporated milk, water and honey. This is actually a fascinating read, if you’re interested in the history of baby formula and nursing.
Baby formula has the highest of standards, and we are fortunate to live in a society where it is so readily available.
Speaking of formula, there’s the other thing. The cost. It is expensive. But there are options. First of all, talk with your pediatrician. I’ve gratefully walked out of the doctor’s office more than once with a bag full of canisters of samples that I didn’t even ask for. Go to Enfamil.com and Similac.com. Fill out your information, and they will mail you samples and coupons. I wouldn’t be surprised if other formula companies did this as well.
These options help for a little while. They’re also helpful if you’re trying to find a good fit for your baby. For the long term? I’ve gone generic. I get the big blue tub at Target for $20. It lasts about a week, so it’s $80 a month. A name brand costs about $37 (for five less ounces), for $148 a month. I used the generic for my first son, and am still using it today with my second. The store brand formula has to meet the same high standards as the name brands. Both my boys have gained weight and continue to be healthy.
Of course some babies have different nutritional needs and might need different formulas. Talk with your pediatrician for their recommendations.
Some Notes About Lactation Consultants
It can be incredibly helpful to have a good lactation consultant. The one I used was recommended to me by two separate friends, as well as the hospital. She was great, and I’ll tell you why. She was open to pumping, formula, or whatever was needed to keep the baby gaining weight. I know there’s many out there who push exclusive nursing. Now, if that’s your goal, then that type of lactation consultant could be perfect for you. But mine was open to what I wanted, and more importantly, what my baby needed in the tough moments.
Some things to know about lactation consultants: They are usually covered by insurance. If you are concerned with the cost, check with your insurance. I was lucky enough to have all our visits completely covered. They usually make home visits. Mine had an office space with my first, but she switched to home visits by the time I had my second. Your hospital should have a list of preferred lactation consultants. That list is a great place to start.
My lactation consultant was a total blessing to me. She had seen all sorts of moms in all different situations. So even though I was stressed and worried, she was completely used to it, and was able to help. She knew what she was doing when I did not.
Hormones Are Real.
Hormones are amazing because they are what created your baby. But hormones can also drive just about anyone at least a little crazy.
I never really understood anxiety until I had my first baby. My anxiety was definitely tied to nursing and pumping. And I wouldn’t even call my anxiety severe or all that serious.
I do believe in nursing. If my babies weren’t so close together, there is a very good chance I would have pursued it more. I do believe in sacrificing our own comfort for our babies’ needs. But I also think in today’s society where the formula is so good, we can give ourselves permission to use it, if we feel we need it. A mom that is incredibly stressed about nursing isn’t ideal for anyone. Especially when we have excellent alternatives.
All of this to say, do what works for you and your baby. Weigh the things you need to consider. For me it was the weight-gain of my babies along with the needs of my other very young kids. Fed truly is best.
Oh, and if you didn’t catch on, a little warning: Switching to formula from nursing can lead to another adorable little baby. It happened to me. Twice. #clusterbabies
4 Month Old Schedule: How to Get Your Precious Sleep Back (Finally!)
2 under 2, 3 under 3, & other Cluster Babies: 19 Tips for Surviving