Breast is best. It is the gold standard in infant nutrition. This fact cannot be refuted. “Fed” is not best; it is the bare minimum. Yes, undoubtedly, you must feed your baby any way you can – breast, bottle, tube, syringe, dropper, teaspoon – whatever. Feed your baby! However, if you have a choice, breast milk is better. Breast milk is best!
As a neonatal nurse and mother of three, I have witnessed firsthand the frustration and heartbreak that comes with being unable to breastfeed your baby; and the anxiety, fear, and guilt surrounding the perception of ‘not having enough milk’ for your baby. But, I have also witnessed the miraculous benefits of what breast milk can do. Just because it is natural does not mean it comes naturally to every mom and every baby. Breastfeeding is laborious. It is hard work and takes dedication. It can be mentally and physically exhausting.
With this ‘fed is best’ movement, I fear that we will shift statistics away from breastfeeding and start believing that formula is just as good as breast milk. It’s not. Breast milk is best. In the absence of breast milk, then yes, formula is the next best choice – the alternative.
The benefits of breastfeeding, and more importantly, of breast milk, are extraordinary! Breast milk is dynamic, automatically adjusting to the needs of your baby. The milk a newborn receives has a different nutritional profile than one who is 6 months old. Even the milk the mother of a premature newborn makes is different than that of a term baby!
(Image: Baby Center, 2017)
In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), breast milk is preferred, as it provides the perfect nutrition for fragile neonates, improving growth and neurodevelopment, and decreasing complications such as necrotizing enterocolitis (a dangerous condition of the intestines with potentially fatal consequences) and sepsis (Underwood, 2013). Donor human milk is the next best thing for these vulnerable babies, though a very costly option in Canada.
Breast milk contains antibodies to help protect infants from bacteria and viruses, and has been proven to decrease the incidence of allergies, diabetes, and obesity in adulthood. The production of breast milk also burns between 300 and 500 calories a day, helping mom to lose excess pregnancy weight. Not to mention, formula costs between $70 and $150 per month! Plus bottles, nipples, a sterilizer, and potentially specialty formulas if your baby stops tolerating generic formulas! Breast milk…yeah, that’s free.
The “fed is best” movement undermines the enormous efforts moms are making to breastfeed their babies. It gives struggling, fragile moms an immediate “fix”, and an apparent way out of their difficult situation. Giving moms “permission to quit” isn’t empowering women to make their own decisions on what is best for themselves and their families, it is encouraging them to surrender to defeat. “Fed is best” capitalizes on mom-guilt, post-partum hormone fluctuations, and anxiety, and says it’s OK to give up on the choices you originally made and instead try a readily available, simple alternative (pretty convenient campaign for the formula companies – a billion dollar industry!).
While I can empathize with wanting a quick solution for the suffering of mom, and hunger of baby, it is a reflexive, short-sighted solution to the problem. Once the dust and stress (and hormones!) settles, and you feel capable of tackling the task of breastfeeding again, it is most often, too late. For the most part, the decision to formula feed is a permanent one (not referring to temporary and necessary supplementation).
We are failing new mothers. While “fed is best” does encourage mothers to FEED their babies by any means necessary, it fails to support mothers to fulfill their initial choices. The choice to breast feed is usually made prior to delivery, in idealistic circumstances. When the going gets tough – and it gets TOUGH (and cracked, and bleeding!), it is understandably enticing to change your mind. But, decisions made in duress are seldom a mom’s true desires, and are rather an attempt at comfort…and sleep…and survival, really! I get it!
Moms need to be supported through the chaos, not given an convenient way out. They need encouragement and education…and sleep…and food. They need help and support in any and all ways. We need to rally around new moms and lift them up, wipe their tears, and bring refrigerated nipple cream! Health professionals need to educate and prepare moms prenatally and postnatally for breastfeeding. They need ongoing support and follow-up, and proactive assistance in the days and weeks following the birth to ensure things are still going smoothly, and to troubleshoot and problem-solve together.
Women need to talk about their breastfeeding struggles, and their triumphs, so moms know they can get through the impossibly hard days, the growth spurts, and the terrible, awful, horrendously bad latches (OUCH!).
We need to educate moms on the difference between a starving and dehydrated baby, and a growing baby doing exactly what he needs to do to increase your milk supply. We need to teach moms that very few women are actually chronically unable to produce enough milk for their baby.
We need to understand mom’s true wishes on how she would prefer to feed her baby, and her motivation and circumstances leading her to question those wishes. If temporary stress, exhaustion, and discomfort are what are motivating the decision, then we are failing these moms in not providing adequate support, assistance, and education.
Breast is best. But, it takes the whole village.
Baby Center. (2017). Donated Breast Milk: A Life-Giving Journey. Retrieved from https://www.babycenter.com/101_donated-breast-milk-a-life-giving-journey_10389312.bc
Underwood, M. A. (2013). Human milk for the premature infant. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 60(1), 189–207. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2012.09.008