Most moms have experienced being judged or receiving disapproving looks and comments about the parenting choices they make. But breast versus bottle is a particularly hot topic, and one that's pretty much guaranteed to get people fired up.
So who, exactly, is getting glares? As it turns out, everyone. Studies overwhelmingly show that judgment isn't limited to one side of the debate. 2005 research from the University of Kent, England, found that a third of formula feeders felt guilt about using formula and a sense of failure for not breastfeeding. These feelings were made worse by the comments and criticism women reported receiving for their choice. Formula feeding moms stated they faced pressure to breastfeed, judgment if they didn't, and 44 percent of moms said they were "made to feel guilty" about formula feeding.
As for the breastfeeding moms, a 2011 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that knowing an individual was breastfeeding led to discrimination. In a double-blind study of the attitudes of others towards breastfeeding, the breastfeeders were perceived to be less competent at tasks like math and work performance, and less likely to be hired, by both men and women. In recent years, reports of breast feeding women receiving glares, accusations of indecent exposure, and even being asked to leave stores has led to groups of women staging "nurse-ins" at various retailers and restaurants.
So what's behind the glares that each group is experiencing?
- The pros: Michelle Call, La Leche League leader, discusses some of the many ways that breastfeeding is ideal: "From convenience, to jaw development, keeping up supply, bonding, and baby getting the maximum amount of nutritional and immunological properties, breastfeeding works the best."
- The glares: Breastfeeding mothers report that negative remarks and open disapproval increased as the baby grows older. Dr. Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC and author of The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers, says that "breastfeeding is so much more than breast milk. It is a relationship. An intimate relationship. And many in our society are afraid of intimate relationships. When it comes to breastfeeding, it is also colored by the whole issue of 'child sexual abuse' because in our society, breasts are seen only as sexual. It becomes even more of an issue when it's about a toddler breastfeeding."
Formula Feeding Moms
- The pros: Women who have certain medical conditions or who must take incompatible medicines can use formula without concern of passing on the condition through their breast milk. In addition, feeding isn't left up to mom—all family members can take part.
- The glares: Newman says formula feeding is such a heated topic because "there is a huge group of people who are carrying the baggage of their own children not having been breastfed. It is a bigger issue than smoking, for example. The smoker feels he is hurting only himself (not true, but the notion of second hand smoke being damaging is only starting to be widely accepted). But the parents whose baby is not breastfed are being told they are harming their children." And not only are formula feeders being told they are harming their infants, they are told it's because they didn't try hard enough.
But just because someone is feeding from a bottle doesn't mean it's necessarily formula. A small, but significant group of women exist who possibly receive the most judgment of all—exclusive pumpers. Stephanie Casemore, author of Exclusively Pumping Breast Milk: A guide to providing expressed breast milk for your baby, explains that "women who are exclusively pumping are caught between the two commonly recognized options for infant feeding. They are not directly breastfeeding, but yet they are not feeding the artificial baby milk (formula) that is the common contents of a baby's bottle. Many women who exclusively pump find themselves in this unrecognized and unacknowledged position."
- The pros: Newman says "despite the formula company marketing, formulas, none of them, are even close to breast milk in composition." Exclusive pumping is a way for moms to give the nutritional and immunological benefits of breast milk, even when breastfeeding itself is impossible.
- The glares: Casemore—who also authored Breastfeeding, Take Two: Successful Breastfeeding the Second Time Around—says that "since exclusively pumping is not frequently recognized or presented as an option to new mothers when breastfeeding is not possible, many people have no idea of what it means to exclusively pump breast milk and therefore women who are exclusively pumping find themselves in a position where they either need to explain themselves to people or hide what they are doing." Pumpers may be judged by the formula feeders for going to crazy extremes when formula is readily available. And breastfeeding moms may judge the pumpers for not trying hard enough or taking the easy way out, even though pumping is far from easy.
Next time you're about to make a snap judgment, remember that you can't tell all the factors from the outside. You don't know if that bottle has milk or formula, and you don't know the reasons why breastfeeding failed. Casemore says, "Ultimately it's not a matter of how we feed our baby, but how we support each other to make educated decisions and to help women have the experience they deserve. Mothers love their babies and want the best for them. Let's support them in doing that, regardless of feeding method."