You are what you nurse: Does breastfeeding define motherhood?

It was “easy” to park yourself on the couch with your first child, nursing almost non-stop at times. Being that dedicated the second time around is more challenging when your first child needs your attention too.

Baby taking a bottle

Is there a way to make peace with the bottle if nursing exclusively isn’t in the cards?

Time constraints, physical issues or a demanding toddler can leave mothers wondering if exclusively breastfeeding your second child is truly possible. Suzanne Barston experienced her own unique nursing guilt and bottle woes. And then she wrote a book about it — Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t — to help other mothers assuage their guilt and worry.

Food is just food

SheKnows: Imagine a mom who successfully nursed her first child and feels strongly about this nourishment and nurturing. But for her second child, she’s considering the bottle and — gulp — formula. How would you soothe this mother’s feelings of guilt or failure?

Suzanne Barston: Food is not love. It’s food. Choosing formula over breast milk does not mean you love your child any less — it means that, for whatever reason, you feel you can be a better parent if you don’t breastfeed. Your parenting will be slightly different with each of your kids. Just because breastfeeding felt right the first time doesn’t mean you won’t feel differently the second time around.

I’ve spoken with moms who hated breastfeeding the first time and loved it with subsequent kids, and moms who decided not to breastfeed second or third kids and felt there were a lot of great aspects to bottle feeding they hadn’t realized before.

Plus, for those who had to struggle to make breastfeeding work, it’s understandable that the thought of going through difficulties with a second child is daunting. You have two children to think about now so, as hard as it is, you have to make some choices more holistically, considering how your options will affect the entire family, including your mental health, your ability to care for two kids, etc.

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Bottle feeding 101

Must-know formula and bottle tips from Barston:

  • Start with the gentlest formula possible, whether formula feeding a newborn or transitioning a breastfed baby onto formula.
  • Look for partially hydrolyzed proteins which are more easily digestible.
  • Signs of formula intolerance or a food allergy include: extreme discomfort, refusal to eat (or comfort feeding, where your baby wants to eat constantly), rashes or mucous or blood in the stool.
  • Use ready-to-feed formula for the first six to eight weeks — less chance of human error and far lower risk of bacterial contamination.
  • If transitioning from the breast or supplementing, choose a bottle brand with nipples that resemble your own.
  • Choose a bottle based on how much you like doing dishes — some of the more popular bottles have a ton of parts, which can be frustrating when there are no clean bottles at 3 a.m.

SK: Would you encourage bottle-feeding classes for new parents?

SB: I’m known in the online world as the Fearless Formula Feeder. I’m in the process of developing a bottle feeding curriculum which I hope can be offered at hospitals, in Mommy & Me classes and support groups. It might seem like a no-brainer to mix a bottle of formula, but parents — especially sleep-deprived, overwhelmed parents — often make mistakes which can actually affect a newborn’s health to a pretty significant degree.

I get emails daily from parents who feel confused about which formula to choose; who wonder if their children might be showing signs of food allergies; who have no idea how much they should be feeding a newborn, or if they should still go by hunger cues as they learned in their breastfeeding classes. Doctors don’t always know the answers, and I think many of them feel that it’s breastfeeding moms who need the help. The truth is, we all need help.

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Nobody puts mama in corner

SK: How would you respond to bottle-feeding naysayers who spout that it’s the mother’s “duty” to nurse her child?

SB: Moms have many reasons that they choose bottle over breast; all are personal, valid and nobody’s business but hers. We do our best in our given circumstances, and formula — while certainly not the incredible, live substance that breast milk is — gives us options. It is still a healthy way to feed a child, even if it isn’t the healthiest. And actually, I’d argue that if the choice is between giving formula or breastfeeding but having to let everything else in your life go to hell in a hand basket, formula feeding may end up being the “healthier” choice because having a depressed, exhausted mom who can’t care for her other kids because she’s hooked up to a pump isn’t good for anyone. Only you can decide what will work for your family.

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SK: Any last words of advice?

SB: No mother should feel guilty, whether she breastfed one child and formula fed another, or is formula feeding her firstborn. As long as you do your research and make an informed choice, you are making the best choice for you. There is so much more to being a mom than what we feed our babies in the first year. The very fact that a mom is agonizing over this choice proves that the choice is not being made lightly.

Suzanne Bartson - Author of Bottled Up

More articles on bottle feeding and breastfeeding

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