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The Unapologetic Case for Formula-Feeding

I formula-fed my daughter, starting from the first hour of her life. I loved it. And I would do it again. Do you hear me, Mayor Bloomberg?

New York City already has an aggressive program to promote breastfeeding called Latch On NYC, and the city’s health department has convinced most hospitals to stop distributing free formula samples to new parents. But that apparently still made it possible for some mothers to bottle-feed their newborns. So starting September 3, the city will urge hospitals to put formula under lock-and-key. Parents who want to bottle-feed their infants will have to convince a nurse to sign out formula for them by giving a medical reason for every bottle. They’ll also have to endure a lecture about why they really should be breastfeeding instead.

This breastfeeding madness has gone far enough. Not just because holding it up as a universal ideal shames those mothers who physically can’t nurse their infants. And not just because the expectation adds further stress to the lives of women who have jobs that aren’t compatible with pumping. But because it is pure and simple snobbery.

What about the studies proving that breastfed children are smarter and healthier, you say? Doesn’t everyone know that “breast is best”? The only disagreement is over how long to breastfeed, right? The U.S. Surgeon General, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics all agree that breastfeeding is the ideal choice. So many experts can’t be wrong, can they?

That’s what my husband wondered as well when he realized that I was serious about formula-feeding. He is, to put it mildly, neurotic. Once we knew I was pregnant, he had our house tested three times for radon—and we don’t even have a basement. He made me leave the kitchen whenever the microwave was in use. If I let him, he would still leave the windows open to air out paint fumes from two years ago. So to get him on board with formula-feeding, you better believe he checked out all the relevant research findings.

What he found is that nearly every study that purported to prove breastfeeding led to more positive outcomes for children relied on flawed methodology—there was no control group. Two neuroscientists writing for Bloomberg View a few weeks ago explained the problem in the case of studies about breastfeeding and IQ:

“Although it is true that children who were breast-fed as babies have higher intelligence than bottle-fed children, the reason for the correlation is in the mother’s brain, not her breast. A U.S. mother whose IQ is 15 points higher than her neighbor’s is more than twice as likely to breast-feed. Women who breast-feed are also more educated and less likely to smoke. Intelligent parents pass along their genes and also create a more stimulating environment, two advantages for the baby’s development. In short, smart mothers have smart babies.”

If breastfeeding doesn’t automatically provide extra advantages and it does require women to go weeks without getting more than two hours of sleep at a time, why is it the undisputed standard for loving, responsible parenthood? So far as I can tell, people need to believe that breastfeeding is better precisely because it’s harder. The rules of modern parenting say that whatever requires the most sacrifice from us must be best for our children. This belief also allows us to look down on selfish previous generations that turned to formula as the answer. And what better way to validate our own decisions than by requiring that others follow in suit?

To get a sense of how blinkered the conversation about breastfeeding has become, consider those few brave thinkers who do take on the breastfeeding purists, most recently Alissa Quart, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, and the wonderful Hanna Rosin. Even their arguments are reluctant. They point out the economic factors that make breastfeeding incompatible with the lives of many working women. They reassure women who have physical problems nursing that formula won’t harm their babies. But they all breastfed their own children and assert that of course any woman who could make that choice would.

Breast-feeding is a perfectly valid choice, and I would never stand in the way of any woman who wanted to nurse. But it is not the only or even the ideal option available for new parents, despite what advocates claim. Which is why I want to present the full-throated case for formula-feeding and its unacknowledged benefits.

I made the decision to formula-feed for one reason: I wanted to have a fighting chance of setting up an equitable parenting arrangement. I was already alarmed by the fact that every parenting resource was addressed just to mothers. “A strong, lasting bond grows through regular day-to-day interactions,” read one helpful update from “So encourage Dad or your partner to get involved in even the most basic baby care tasks, like changing diapers, bathing, and feeding.” Encourage him to get involved in changing diapers? Oh, hell no.

My husband fed our daughter her first bottle in the delivery room. And he gave her the next three or four as well before showing me how to feed her. That didn’t stop him from directing baby questions to me: “Should I give her a bath?” “I don’t know. I’ve never had a baby before. Does she need a bath?” But it did start us out on something close to equal footing.

The choice to formula-feed also gave us a precious gift in those first few exhausting months: sleep. We were fortunate to have my mom stay with us in the beginning. Bottle-feeding gave us a three-man rotation during the night. That meant it was sometimes possible to manage a glorious eight hours of sleep before I was on-duty again. Eight hours, people. (I bet the La Leche women don’t mention that!) To have a happy baby, you need a happy mama. And a rested mama is a very happy mama.

More importantly, bottle-feeding allowed both me and my husband to bond with our new daughter. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that breastfeeding creates an amazing bond between mother and child. And while I’m sure it does, it also guarantees that fathers have that much less time to develop a bond. I may have initially been a formula-feeding proponent because I bristled at becoming the Parent-In-Charge. But once I saw how my husband adored our daughter and loved their ritual of nightly bottles and stories, I could not imagine denying him that special time with her.

My bond with our daughter did not suffer as a result of formula-feeding. Now almost two-years-old, she spends hours wrapped around me like a baby koala. It would frankly be frightening if she were any more bonded to me—she’d have to be surgically attached. I love her madly. And I was surprised and thrilled to find I enjoyed middle-of-the-night feedings, both because we were the only ones awake but also because I was rested enough to relish that time. Parenting a newborn was both much less exhausting and far more fun than I ever expected.

As for that shameless promise that breastfeeding will help women lose weight faster after giving birth, I am sorry to report that’s not true either. Yes, women burn a lot of calories breastfeeding. But they have to consume a lot of calories as well. My appetite diminished once our daughter arrived, while my activity level rose. Because I was relatively well-rested, we could walk for miles around the city in gorgeous autumn weather. It didn’t take long to walk my way back into old clothes.

Six weeks after our daughter’s birth, we went to lunch with some other moms and infants after a baby yoga class. I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation because it was entirely about the woes of breastfeeding. One woman was worried about her son, who had been projectile-vomiting because he was apparently allergic to something she had been eating. Another made trips every other day to the pediatrician to weigh her daughter, who hadn’t been gaining enough weight. The woman next to me was close to tears: “I had no idea it would be this hard.”

I looked down at my sleeping daughter, her belly full of formula. I knew from the experience of friends that breast-feeding would get easier for these women. But I was so grateful not to share their complaints during these blissful early weeks with my little girl. I grinned at the realization: I had become a smug formula-feeding mama.

Follow me on Twitter at @SullivanAmy.