Saturday, 14 September 2013

Formula feeding - my story

Please help. I have six packs of Boots Breast Pads taking up room in Roshan’s nursery and I don’t have a clue what to do with them.

And that’s because despite best intentions (as pregnancy bulk buying of above breast pads should indicate) and a lot of effort, Roshan is a formula baby. I am a formula mum.

I started a version of this post with a guilt-laden, confessional tone. And then I scrapped it. Because, you know what, there’s far too much guilt and judgement of formula mothers as it is. It’s suffocating. And last week, at the health visitor clinic, I mentally turned a corner. The HV asked me how Roshan’s feeding was going and I apologetically shrugged my shoulders and said “well he’s a formula baby now”. The HV responded “oh that’s fine! But how is he doing on it?” – and I realised that she wasn’t interested so much in what he was feeding, but the quantity and quality of his feeds. I realised that I was loading the guilt onto myself, projecting the judgement of others onto myself when sometimes there was none (though many times no such projection is needed). And then I decided – no longer. I’m not apologising for bottle feeding anymore, to others, or to myself.

For every mother I know that has sailed through exclusive breastfeeding (a term I really hate with a passion, designed to make us “lesser” mothers feel like we’re being refused admittance to some elite club we’re too rubbish to be part of) I know of at least four who’ve struggled, mixed-fed or formula fed. There’s plenty of support for mothers to facilitate breastfeeding in the form of groups, lactation consultants, community breastfeeding assistants and so on. But that support network is ripped away when you decide to formula feed – and there’s nothing in its place.

So I wanted to write a post that’s, as controversial as it might seem, positive about formula feeding. I want to write down the things I’ve learnt, two and a half months on, mostly through trial and error, for other women in my situation – things I wish I’d been told in the many, many classes and workshops I attended during my pregnancy but which were never spoken of for fear of inciting women to formula feed.

Incitement to formula feed. The present climate in the UK regarding breastfeeding is such that any lone voice that comes out in support of formula does indeed seem like a pariah. But really, is formula such a big, so very moral, deal? As Anne Maxted points out in what I found to be a saviour of an article, in the developed world, not really. So why the fuss? In my opinion, the hysteria around breast/formula is just an another way for women to judge one another, to load even more pressure on each other, to create another impossible to achieve goal of perfection for us all to strive towards and endlessly beat ourselves up about.

Don’t get me wrong – I think breastfeeding is fantastic. I was deeply committed to it throughout my pregnancy – I set up cosy nursing places, bulk bought those wretched breast pads, and was generally so excited at the prospect of nurturing and nourishing my child.

Two and a half months on, on formula 100%, I am doing that still – but just not in the way I anticipated, visualised, dreamed of. But Roshan’s thriving now, crossing centiles, getting stronger, longer and louder and we are both so, so happy.

It wasn’t always this way. When I say I tried to breast feed, I don’t think I could have done anything more to try to establish it for Roshan. To the extent that I almost put his health at risk. And it still didn’t work out. And what they don’t tell you in those pregnancy breastfeeding workshops is that sometimes that just happens.

I’ve written about my frankly terrifying birth experience. After all of 5 minutes of “skin to skin” (continually interrupted by paramedics trying to keep Roshan alert), I ended up being apart from Roshan for over nine hours due to my surgery. So, it wasn’t surprising that it took some time for my milk to come in and when it did, that it came in tiny, tiny amounts. But I persevered and I mastered latching Roshan within a couple of days. But he couldn’t get much from me, and as I’ve found out, he’s not the most patient of babies even when he’s happy. He began to get so very hungry he’d work himself into a complete state, so much so that he couldn’t feed, flapping his little arms, delatching himself in complete fury. I would sit with him latched for an hour at a time, as he would fall asleep after five minutes of drinking. One night, I recorded my feeding and I had had him latched for a total of five hours overnight. But though he latched, he would fall asleep and stop suckling almost immediately, and then he’d wake up and delatch in hungry fury. It was a terrible, emotionally devastating cycle. He ended up losing 1/6th of his birth weight, going from 6lbs to 5lbs. He looked like a little prune, drawn and shrivelled, and he couldn’t sleep for more than half an hour at a time because of his gnawing hunger.

In retrospect, I can’t quite believe I held on with the breastfeeding for as long as I did. He did have the odd decent drink, and when I wasn’t around in the intensive care unit, he was given formula with a cup or syringe. But he still wasn’t putting on weight, and when we were discharged I was left with a starving, dehydrated, sleepless baby who couldn’t feed and couldn’t settle. Add my pain from my tear into that mix, and the first two weeks were the hardest of my life.

My health visitor ended up basically ordering me to mix-feed. I also started to express, to help my frustrated, cross little baby consume the “good stuff” he refused to take by breast. But as Roshan was a demanding baby during this time, this meant that when I wasn’t feeding/settling I was expressing and I had simply no time to do anything else. After five weeks I made the decision to stop mixed feeding and switch Roshan to EXCLUSIVE formula feeding. Given that by this stage he didn’t like the taste of breast milk and wouldn’t take from the breast at all (too much hard work!) he didn’t complain at all about this.

But it wasn’t plain sailing – even on bottles, he’d struggle, wriggle and take in lots of air so he was full of wind and in lots of pain from it. It took a switch to Hipp Organic (I feel like such a Hampstead yummy mummy feeding my child an organic formula!) and anti-colic bottles for me to get the happy, smiley and THRIVING little baby I have now. But looking at him now, all chubby cheeks, bright eyes and flapping, strong limbs, I know I made the right decision and we’re all brilliantly happy. So I’m not going to apologise anymore for what was right for Roshan and right for me.

Things I’ve learnt – you can master all the techniques of breastfeeding, but if you don’t have an easy/simple birth experience and/or your baby doesn’t have the right temperament, then it might not work out. Don’t underestimate the power of switching formula – I was sceptical, having read that all formulas now are pretty much the same, but I’ve seen a dramatic change in Roshan’s ability to digest his food. We have no back arching, no pained crying, no hours of coaxing burps out of him anymore. Infacol is a useful thing if your child is colicky. So are wide necked bottles – but for me, Tommee Tippee ones ended up drenching Roshan because of leaks (googling I found this to be a common issue) so we’re using Avent Natural. Teats also make a huge difference – some bottles come with teats for older babies, but don’t make it clear on the box that this is so. If your baby is spluttering out milk – check if the teat’s right. Formula dispensers are ace if you have a crazily impatient child like I do (Roshan would work himself into a frenzy before I’d measure eight scoops into a bottle if I dared to do that when he’s hungry). Burping is important. Some babies don’t like bibs – muslins are softer and more easily tucked into chubby neck rolls (neck rolls! We have neck rolls!)
The benefits of formula? I know how much food Roshan takes, when, which reassures me given his weight struggles. He feeds regularly, and in consistent quantities, so we’re getting close to having a schedule established. He stays over at his grandparents’, giving me time to sleep and time to do other things (gosh, that makes me sound less than devoted, doesn’t it? But it’s important too, I think, for Roshan to have a happy, rested, and fulfilled mother). I feel we – me, Bartimaeus, grandparents, uncles and aunts – co-parent Roshu by all of us being able to feed him. And whilst expressing worked, it (literally) sucked so much time from my day, I couldn’t even play with Roshan between pumping, feeding, settling him and housework. He’s developing brilliantly now I can actually give him proper attention.

So here we are. Happy Roshan, happy me. On formula. Exclusively.

Any tips on how to use up those breast pads would be more than welcome.


  1. Well done for this post. I have mix fed both of my babies and gone through the guilt of the formula!!! Looking back I realise I put the pressure on myself but always felt the need to explain and justify to others why I had made that decision. Interestingly the HVs have changed between the two as when I had my first it was minimum formula whereas now they say give her what she wants. They are much more interested in how the baby is and how I am. They recognise that you have to do what is best for you all. Happy mum = happy baby.
    They grow up so quickly so why waste that time worrying over how they are fed.
    It sounds like you had a really tough time and I am so glad that things are great now.
    Jo Icke - married to Dan Icke :-)
    PS we have the anti-colic bottles, always get asked what the parts are for!!! And I gave all my breast pads to other mums to be - TWICE!!!! Now that's a lot of breast pads ;-) xx

  2. Neck rolls! hurrah! literally who gives two hoots how we feed our babies, it should always be the mothers (well, and dadas) choice and if things arent plain sailing and one or both of you arent happy then what on earth is wrong with formula feeding! I can see the benefits to it, no perching on someones garden wall revealing a stretch marked belly to the world whilst feeding a baby who you thought would stay asleep for a quick trip to the shops wearing something not designed for breastfeeding in because you didnt think you'd have to. Plus you can let other people feed Roshu to give you a break. Plus you dont have to live in wrap dresses or things with buttons that pop open at unfortunate times.

    I'm pleased that i'm still managing to do it, but for so many people bottles are easier and mean much happier babies and mums, and THAT is what counts!

    ps, use the breast pads to remove eye make up? or nail varnish.... oh, COASTERS! they'd look great on anyones coffee table!;)

  3. I felt so so awful for a long time about not breastfeeding Seb , i tried but he just wouldn't latch and there isn't much support here for breastfeeding so i had nobody to show me how. As he had a quite a difficult birth we had no skin to skin and i didn't hold him until the next day it's not surprising really.
    I fed Alex for 10 days and he went from 7lb 13 to just under 7lb so again i went to formula, i didn't feel so bad the second time around though as i knew it would be ok.
    I hate how formula feeders can be made to feel, its awful. Breastfeeding is an amazing thing but it simply isn't the best for everyone.

    I ended up giving my breastpads and sealed Lansinoh to charity x