After I had an incredibly difficult time feeding my first baby, I became a crusader in support of formula-feeding moms. I started a blog on the topic and even wrote a book about it. But I don't think I realized how desperately all moms need better support, until Kim Simon, Jamie Lynne Grumet and I started the "I Support You" movement, a social media campaign to bridge the divide between breastfeeding and formula-feeding parents. Everyone had dramatically different experiences with breast and bottle, but we all agreed on one thing: There's more than enough pressure on parents to be perfect, and the last thing anyone needs is more stress.
We need to open an honest dialogue about the first raw days of new parenthood and how we can help each other through it. That can start by acknowledging the offensive and hurtful things we sometimes say to each other.
Obviously, the world has a long way to go before nursing moms can feed their children freely, wherever and whenever they want, and for however long they feel is right. But we bottle-feeders get our fair share of hurtful comments too. I believe most people don't mean to offend, so I hope that following a few rules of the road will minimize the risk of stumbling over emotional potholes.
6 Things You Should Never Say to a Formula-Feeding Mom:
1. "Why aren't you breastfeeding?"
There are so many reasons why a woman might be feeding her child formula, and some are very personal. She could have adopted her child. She could have had breast cancer. She could be exclusively pumping because she was sexually assaulted as a teenager and breastfeeding gave her post-traumatic stress disorder. Or maybe she tried to breastfeed, and it just didn't work for her (meaning she also may be mourning the breastfeeding relationship she never had).
2. "I have a great lactation consultant. Would you like her number?"
Nearly every mom I met in the first three months recommended a professional to me. If I'd been asking for help, this would have been an entirely welcome response. But I'd already paid for nine different lactation consultations, so the advice felt more like an accusation (the implication being I hadn't tried hard enough, and the "right" person would have made my body work the way it was supposed to).
And if I'd been one of the many women who didn't want to breastfeed in the first place, a question like this could make me feel like I couldn't tell you the truth about my choice. Either way, it's probably best not to email your LC's info to the bottle-feeding mom in your playgroup unless she asks.
3. "I'm so sorry..."
When other new moms heard I wasn't breastfeeding, they'd express their condolences and ask what happened. I appreciated their concern, but the pity made me feel as if I had something to be ashamed of. Many women turn to formula because it's the best option for their family, and it can be a lifesaver in some situations. It's important for moms to feel proud of nourishing their babies, regardless of how they do it. If a bottle-feeding mom tells you she's hurting or regrets not nursing, feel free to express sympathy, but don't assume she's unhappy with her parenting choice.
4. "Don't you worry about your baby eating high fructose corn syrup (or GMOs or BPA)?"
Here's the problem with this question. There's no good way to answer it. If a mom simply says "no," she sounds like she doesn't care about her baby's health. If she launches into a long explanation of the research and reality behind these claims, she sounds defensive. And if she actually does worry about these things, bringing it up just rubs salt in the wound. There's a time and place to demand better formula quality and options (something we could all fight for together), but casual conversation is not that time.
5. "It must be so nice not to have to wake up for feedings (or be able to just leave or not have to be the only one to take care of your baby)."
Just because a mom is bottle-feeding, it doesn't mean that she isn't getting up at night. (My formula-fed babies ate two or three times a night, and I snuggled them at every feeding.) And it doesn't mean she hands off her baby to someone else every chance she gets. You probably don't mean to imply anything negative, but she might be feeling defensive about bonding because so much emphasis is put on attachment and breastfeeding. Comments like these just feed into every myth and insecurity about formula-feeding.
6. "Breastfeeding moms really need support."
That is absolutely true. Breastfeeding is a learned skill, and it's vital to be surrounded by supportive, knowledgeable peers who can help you overcome hurdles. Though it would be a huge step toward ending the breast vs. bottle battle if we could amend this frequently uttered statement to "all moms need support."
Practical support is one thing, and emotional support is another. Many bottle-feeding parents don't have access to either until their babies are old enough to take to classes (typically around 8 weeks). Formula-feeding moms don't have the advantage of La Leche League meetings or lactation clinics at the local hospital, both places where new moms can form bonds with each other. While we ensure that breastfeeding moms are getting the support they need to feed their babies, let's also make sure that other moms aren't being denied support simply because they ended up feeding their babies a different way.
2 Things You Should Say to a Formula-Feeding Mom:
1. "Did you watch Scandal last night?"
Living in a community where breastfeeding is prevalent can make it hard for a non-nursing mom to feel like she fits in with her peer group. If you are with a formula-feeding friend in a group setting, and the conversation is veering into formula bashing or becoming boobcentric, change the subject. There are a million things for new moms to talk about that aren't divisive, and it might do everyone some good to focus on something else for a while.
2. "How's it going?"
The best thing to say to a bottle-feeding mom is also the best thing to say to a breastfeeding one. Rather than passing judgment on her parenting philosophy (even with a positive comment like "good job" or "you're such a great mom"), give her the opportunity to let you know how she's feeling. She may be perfectly confident in her decision. And if so, it doesn't even need to be a topic of conversation.
On the other hand, if she's struggling and feels like talking about it, reassure her that motherhood is about so much more than food. Ask her if there's anything you can do to help her get into a better frame of mind. For example, you could ask her to go with you to a Mommy and Me class or join you for a walk.
By allowing your friend to simply express what kind of support she needs from you, you'll avoid the trap of overanalyzing or censoring yourself. Every woman has her own journey, her own fears and her own pain. Instead of alienating each other with insensitivity and assumptions, imagine what we could accomplish if we just listened.
This article originally ran on the Seleni Institute website. Seleni is a nonprofit organization providing clinical care, research funding, and information to transform mental health care and wellness for women.