Infant feeding choices, breast milk or formula? - Guest Article by Dr Kiran
If there is one thing I have learnt in my decade long parenting journey and career as a paediatrician, its that nothing polarises parents more than the decision on how to feed their baby.
Infant feeding is a big deal, and it’s not just about making sure your tiny human gets their grub. It’s a whole world of decisions and considerations, and it’s different for everyone. It’s a personal decision and it is my firm belief that all parents should be supported in their choice.
I have spent many hours on postnatal wards, on neonatal units and in A&E meeting parents who express intense feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment about how they fed their baby. Women who wish they could breastfeed, women who don’t know the benefits of breastmilk, women who didn’t feel supported enough by healthcare professionals in their decision as well as women who made the choice to formula feed from the get go. I’ve met them all.
Infant feeding should be a choice you make with your partner AND a healthcare professional. As a Paediatrician I cannot deny that breastmilk nutritionally is the best thing for a baby. However, as a Paediatrician AND as a mother, I believe that breastfeeding isn’t the best thing for every mother and not always possible in every journey. This is why I always tells parents there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to feeding your little munchkin. You’ve got a buffet of options: breastfeeding, formula feeding, or a combo of both. It’s all about what works best for you, your baby, and your unique situation. No matter which path you choose, you deserve some backup. Parenting is no walk in the park, and feeding your baby can be a rollercoaster ride. Whether you’re nursing or mixing formula, it can be exhausting, physically and emotionally. So, having a support system is like having a lifeline when you’re navigating the infant feeding maze.
Dr Kiran's Topics and Tips
Parental Mental Health
As parents we can places HUGE amounts of pressures on ourselves to do things the ‘best way’ or ‘right way’ and for many this means breastfeeding. The UK has one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the developed world with less than 50% of babies being breastfed at 6-8 weeks of age. Reasons for such low rates include poor investment in maternal health, negative breastfeeding experiences, difficulties feeding, limited access to breastfeeding resources and social attitudes towards breastfeeding. In the ideal world, women wishing to breast/chest feed would be supported by doctors, midwives and health visitors. They would have access to the help they need to establish and maintain breastfeeding. However, breastfeeding might come naturally for some, but for others, it can be a Herculean task. The journey of feeding a newborn can be emotionally challenging, and the pressure to breastfeed exclusively, as well as societal judgment, can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and stress. On the flip side, formula feeding can bring relief for some parents, but there’s often this sneaky guilt that creeps in – society sometimes paints it as the “second-best” option. Some babies require special milk and formula can be lifesaving.
What most parents forget is that their mental well-being is just as important as their baby’s nutrition. Being in the postpartum phase is like stepping into a whole new world, and it’s totally okay to feel like you’re drowning sometimes. What I wish more parents acknowledged is that maternal mental health is deeply intertwined with infant feeding choices. Up to 10 to 30% of women will suffer from depression during the postpartum period and approximately 13-40% with postpartum anxiety. Add to this the physical and emotional demands of early infant feeding, and parental mental health can really take a hit. For some parents, breastfeeding may exacerbate postpartum depression or anxiety, while others find it to be a source of comfort and connection. It’s vital to recognise that the mental well-being of the parent is of paramount importance. Providing support, understanding, and a non-judgmental environment for parents, regardless of their chosen feeding method, is crucial for nurturing both the baby and the parent’s mental health during this transformative period.
Different Feeding Methods
Breastfeeding and formula feeding are two primary options for nourishing your baby. Breastfeeding provides a unique blend of nutrients and antibodies, promoting a strong bond between parent and child. It’s free and always available.
Formula feeding, on the other hand, offers convenience and flexibility, allowing others to share in feeding responsibilities. The choice between the two depends on individual circumstances and preferences, and what matters most is a healthy, happy baby, regardless of the method chosen.
Mixed feeding involves a combination of breastfeeding and providing expressed breast milk or formula. It offers flexibility to parents who may face challenges with exclusive breastfeeding while still benefiting from the bonding and nutritional advantages of breast milk.
One thing I am always keen to combat as a paediatrician is the taboo around bottle feeding that often stems from societal pressure and misconceptions. While breastfeeding is celebrated for its numerous benefits, bottle feeding is sometimes unfairly stigmatized. This taboo can make parents who choose or need to bottle feed feel judged or even isolated. I am here to remind parents that bottle feeding IS a valid and practical choice for many. Whether you breastfeed, mixed feed or formula feed, bottles are a lifesaver! My only bugbear is that bottles are often poorly sterilised, and sterilisation is crucial. Babies are delicate little beings, and their immune systems are still in the development phase. Sterilising bottles and nipples helps kill any harmful bacteria lurking around, keeping your baby safe from tummy troubles and infections. The good news is, sterilising doesn’t have to be a major production. You can use a steam steriliser, boiling water, or even the dishwasher. Just make sure those bottles are squeaky clean before each feed.
As a community, we all need to create a more supportive and inclusive environment where parents can confidently make the feeding choices that work best for their families, without fear of judgment or criticism. What’s more important than how are babies are fed is that we engage parents in open, honest conversations about infant feeding and support them in their journeys. That we take the pressure and importantly judgement around feeding away. Just like every baby is unique, so is every feeding journey and ALL parents deserve support in their feeding choices and ALL parents deserve to be happy about how they feed their babies
With that in mind I leave you with my gold nuggets of advice to help you on your infant feeding journey:
Tip 1: Trust Your Gut
Whether you’re breastfeeding or using formula, remember that you know your baby best. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitate to seek advice from a healthcare professional.
Tip 2: Build a Support Squad:
Don’t go it alone. Reach out to family, friends, or support groups. Share your struggles and triumphs with others who’ve been through it. They’ve got your back.
Tip 3: Take Care of Yourself
Your mental and physical well-being matter. Find moments to rest, eat well, and practice self-care. A happy, healthy parent is the best gift you can give your baby.
Tip 4: Educate Yourself
Knowledge is power. Learn about infant feeding, whether it’s breastfeeding techniques or formula preparation, being informed can help you feel more confident.
Tip 4: Be Kind to Yourself
Remember, parenting is a wild ride, and you’re doing an incredible job. There’s no one “right” way to feed your baby. Embrace the journey, imperfections and all.
In the end, infant feeding is just one piece of the parenthood puzzle. It’s a journey full of twists, turns, and importantly a lot of love. Whether you choose breast or bottle or a bit of both, do what works best for you and your family and remember:
You’ve got this!
About the Author
Dr Kiran is a NHS Doctor, specialising in baby, child and adolescent health. She has worked across many London Hospitals and uses her own experience as a mother to three children to work in harmony with patients. Kiran is a passionate advocate for child health, health promotion in BAEM communities and supporting women to pursue higher education and leadership roles and uses her social media platform to talk about key issues relating to women and child health.
She created her educational platform on Instagram to provide easy, evidence-based, Tips and Tricks to help parents on the most important journey of their lives. As a mother, Kiran understands the challenges faced by parents of all backgrounds, in particular BAEM parents, who are often under-represented in healthcare. Her goal is to share her knowledge base by providing tips and medical advice in an empathetic and non-judgmental ways well as bridging the gap between healthcare professionals and parents. Her Instagram account has a wealth of information for parents and she regular hosts child health Q&As to empower parents to understand their childs health better!