This is Why I Chose to Formula Feed

My husband longed to be a primary caregiver for our child. I longed to keep all aspects of my life in balance. Formula helped us do it all.

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Most of the stories I’ve heard from other formula-feeding mothers go something like this: I planned to breastfeed. I wanted to breastfeed. But then… A low milk supply. Severe postpartum depression. A medical issue.

For me, it was the opposite. I snatched that first box of formula off the shelf with a triumphant gleam in my eye at about seven months pregnant, fully intending to offer my son a nice, tasty bottle in the first hour of his life.

What made me decide on formula before I’d even given birth? I get this question a lot—enough to know that my decision appears unconventional.

I didn’t want to shoulder all the responsibilities that breastfeeding would force me to carry alone.

My husband and I had always enjoyed complete equality in our division of domestic labor, and we wanted to divide childcare evenly, too. Locking ourselves into a feeding system that made one of us the primary caregiver and shut the other out from our son’s most basic need didn’t fit our marriage—and it would certainly kill any hope I had of offloading some nighttime duty to Dad.

On top of this lay the irony that my husband longed to immerse himself in parenting while I felt ambivalent about it. Would the constant demands of parenthood destroy my identity? Would exhaustion prevent me from enjoying my hobbies or concentrating on work?

Many of my friends pointed to breastfeeding as one of the major stressors that overwhelmed them in the early days of motherhood, and I wasn’t willing to take on that overwhelm by myself. I’d need to mentally unplug from “momming” on a somewhat regular basis, but I knew I wouldn’t unplug if I were lugging a pump around and constantly hurrying home for the next feeding.

At a deeper level, I felt discomfort about giving my son a claim on my body after pregnancy. I didn’t want all my decisions about food, drink, and medication to revolve around someone else. I didn’t want someone chomping away at one of the most sensitive spots on my body every single time he felt hungry, fussy, or lonely. And I didn’t want the lack of sleep and constant “on-shift” mentality to push me back into the anxiety and depression that I had spent most of my twenties getting under control.

Many women love breastfeeding and look forward to it. For me personally, however, formula seemed the obvious choice.

I soon discovered that voluntarily choosing formula is a lonely road.

I hadn’t heard many stories of women who chose formula on purpose. I didn’t find guides to the pros and cons of formula in pregnancy resources at the doctor’s office. Every mom I spent time with breastfed her child, or had wanted to. Breastfeeding was their default choice, as natural as looking both ways to cross the street.

Kind and generous, my friends offered hand-me-down nursing supplies, advice on exercising with leaky boobs, and condolences for the sleep I was about to lose to nursing. They didn’t think to ask if I was, in fact, planning to breastfeed.

I needed to hear from moms who chose formula on purpose. Did they like it? How did it impact early parenting? How did they weigh formula against the health benefits of breastfeeding?

If my friends couldn’t answer these questions, the internet probably could—right?

Sadly, Google wasn’t as helpful as I imagined. I quickly realized that the formula narrative which tends to gain the most traction online is the narrative of the mom who intended to breastfeed but couldn’t.

Major health websites, such as Mayo Clinic and Medline Plus, spoke of formula as the second choice moms might turn to if something derailed nursing. They rushed to comfort readers about the guilt and sadness they’d doubtless feel if nursing didn’t work out.

I investigated pro-formula groups like Fearless Formula Feeder and Support For Bottle Feeding Mothers on Facebook, but they seemed to function more as support groups for breastfeeders whose plans went awry than as encouragement for those who chose formula on purpose.

The one exception I found to this trend was the op-ed genre, which offered gems by writers like Hanna Rosin and Amy Sullivan sticking up for formula choosers everywhere. But on the whole, when it came to personal essays about formula, everyone from Buzzfeed to Huffington Post to Parenting.com to The Daily Telegraph to Essentialbaby.com pushed the story of the mom who dreamed of breastfeeding but was forced by cruel circumstance to reach for a bottle.

I was glad to see moms receive support for their grief and guilt over the loss of breastfeeding. I appreciated those stories and communities. But that still didn’t help me. I began to resent the mom community for projecting the desire to nurse onto every pregnant woman. Where were the moms who had no emotional attachment to the idea of nursing and chose formula primarily for convenience?

The lack of any widespread discussion on choosing formula made me began to doubt myself.

Was this a ludicrous choice, so selfish that few even bothered addressing it? Was I a cold fish for feeling unsentimental about the whole thing? Should lifestyle concerns not influence a woman’s biggest parenting decisions?

I certainly found quite a few people who would answer yes, yes, and yes to those questions. Even the few moms I knew who disliked their breastfeeding experience never considered formula an option.

“I hate the fact that all I am to my child is a vending machine,” I vividly recall one mother saying, “but what can I do? It’s the only healthy option.”

The NCBI put it bluntly, saying of breastmilk that “infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice.” There it was in black and white, a respected health organization giving the side-eye to my lifestyle-centric attitude.

Speaking of which, what did the research actually say about the health benefits of breastmilk? This question sparked another lonely trailblazing moment on my formula journey: getting actual details on the research into breastmilk.

You’d think that would be easy. We hear about the health benefits of breastfeeding all the time, right?

But to make such a nuanced decision, weighing the breastfeeding pros against the formula pros, required specifics—more specifics than most pregnancy resources were willing to give me.

I found plenty of sweeping statements about “higher IQ points” and vague promises of “antibodies protecting your baby,” but what did that mean? I had to peruse the actual scientific studies to learn more. This annoyed me; why didn’t pregnancy pamphlets and popular web sites give us the details?

The studies around the health benefits of breast milk versus formula revealed a complex picture.

In terms of immunity, breastmilk has a protective function against gut infections and ear infections. Studies disagree on whether it protects from other illnesses like respiratory infections; we know that unlike other mammals, humans don’t absorb antibodies from breast milk directly into the bloodstream.

Research has long linked breastmilk to a wide variety of other benefits for babies including healthier BMI, higher IQ, and more. Yet comprehensive research reviews now suggest that when you adjust for all factors in a baby’s life including home environment, parental education, and more, the differences between breastfed and bottle fed kids—such as healthy BMI and IQ points—may drop away.

Studies even disagree on maternal weight loss as a side effect of breastfeeding. Some studies indicate a small (2-3 pound) benefit for weight loss among exclusively breastfeeding mothers, while others call the effect “negligible.”

Many women would look at these results and find breastfeeding worth it. Others would find it less compelling. What bothered me was that doctors’ offices, web sites, and mom culture in general gave us a vague pep talk about the pros of breastmilk while failing to give a clear, specific, nuanced picture of the research. Further, they neglected to also explore what motivates formula feeding mothers, such as lifestyle concerns, bodily autonomy, and maternal mental health.

All this made me feel as if moms were being carefully guided toward a decision other people wanted them to make rather than just given the plain facts of both options and trusted to choose what works for their family.

In the end, I gave up searching for validation of my choice to formula feed.

I decided I didn’t need the entire mom community to OK my choice. I could be my own cheerleader. We used formula from the hour our son was born…and loved it!

I won’t pretend it eradicated every stress of parenting, but it made the stress manageable. My body felt like my own again immediately. My husband and I traded off nighttime duty, so neither of us reached complete exhaustion. When my husband or my parents watched our son, I left the house for errands or for fun and didn’t check my watch once. Because of these factors, I felt much more emotionally stable than I expected to during the newborn phase—yes, even with the hormonal shifts.  

I’m glad I forged my own path, and I’m pleasantly surprised at the respect and support I get from my breastfeeding friends. Yet I remain frustrated at the lack of real conversation about moms who choose formula.

I believe in making room for all choices, putting all options on the table. We don’t have to project some women’s feelings onto all women. We don’t have to fear that moms need manipulation to make good decisions. Stories of moms who enjoy formula don’t have to trivialize the stories of moms who grieve the loss of breastfeeding.

Let’s lay out the facts in detail, showcase differing viewpoints, affirm both lifestyle concerns and health concerns, and then turn moms loose to parent as they see fit.

I promise you, we’ll make good choices. I’m certainly happy with mine.

Rachel Heston-Davis is a writer, blogger and former journalist who holds an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. Her essays have appeared in Everyday Health Group’s What To Expect and Juno (forthcoming), and her fiction work has appeared in Barren Magazine (forthcoming).