- Offering adequate support to enable mothers to breastfeed should be evaluated as preventative health care, not as an expense. Tweet This
- Formula is not an empowering alternative to breastmilk; it is a limiting compromise that mothers must make at the expense of their children’s health to make ends meet in a country where maternal leave is inadequate. Tweet This
- The lack of paid maternity leave means that poor mothers are more likely to have to bottle feed to return to work too soon, making the healthier form of breastfeeding untenable. Tweet This
The shortage of baby formula in the U.S. has left many wondering why so many mothers here rely on corporate-manufactured nutrition rather than breast milk. The situation is indicative of a larger problem that I have witnessed for decades as a psychotherapist: the devaluation of motherhood. Apart from moms who cannot breastfeed for medical or other reasons, many mothers opt for formula out of financial concerns and the difficulty of balancing work and feeding schedules. A recent Vox article framed formula as an empowering alternative for mothers who choose to focus on their career. But the truth is that formula is not an empowering alternative to breast milk; it is a limiting compromise that mothers must make at the expense of their children’s health to make ends meet in a country where maternal leave is inadequate.
The immunological properties of breastfeeding are well-known. Medical experts use the slogan “breast is best” to advise new parents that breastmilk is better absorbed by the baby than formula, is advantageous for brain and nervous system development, and is associated with fewer health problems throughout life. The World Health Organization recommends that mothers breastfeed for up to two years in most parts of the world. Offering adequate support to enable mothers to breastfeed should be evaluated as preventative health care, not as an expense.
As a psychotherapist and parental guidance expert for over 30 years, I have witnessed how the emotional advantages of breastfeeding outweigh even the nutritional and economic value. Breastfeeding secures the emotional and physical bond between mothers and babies in the first year of life. The skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, a love hormone which cements the attachment between mother and baby and which bottle feeding cannot replicate. The position of the baby to the nursing mother is also unique. The angle of the mother’s right brain to the baby’s right brain—particularly if the mother primarily breastfeeds on the left side—stimulates and develops the right (or social-emotional) brain of the baby through touch, eye contact, and the skin-to-skin experience. It is a spiritual as well as emotionally elevating experience for both mother and baby. Breastfeeding helps to create secure attachment in babies, which in turn helps them to do better emotionally and mentally than insecurely attached babies. The first three years of life are critical to creating that secure attachment, and breastfeeding in the first year is an important part of that process.
Bottle feeding is a more detached process through an artificial nipple. It can be done by anyone, and therefore encourages babies to be fed by others rather than the mother, interrupting the importance of the feeding experience as part of the attachment process. Bottle feeding also often takes place in positions that encourage detachment. I have been incredibly saddened to see so many mothers feeding their babies with bottles while facing away from them, or sticking a bottle in a baby’s mouth when the baby is sitting in a stroller or a crib, or while the mother is using a smartphone (which turns out not to be smart at all). Our smartphones, along with other modern technologies, our jobs, and economic and political events offer great distractions. They are diversions that interfere with a mother’s need to pick up, hold, and gaze into the eyes of her baby through the feeding experience.
I want to reiterate that there are exceptional cases where mothers cannot breastfeed because they have physical issues that prevent them from doing so, or because they must go back to work earlier than most prefer. In these cases, the experience of bottle feeding with formula is a life saver for the baby and for the mother.
Formula is not an empowering alternative to breastmilk; it is a limiting compromise that mothers must make at the expense of their children’s health to make ends meet in a country where maternal leave is inadequate.
But in general, bottle feeding has become a sign of modernity going off course. It has come to symbolize the full-time working mother who leaves her infant to return to work after a few short weeks or months. It once again brings up the unfairness in a society where there is no paid maternity leave of consequence. Mothers who are fortunate enough to work for companies that give a fraction of what they and their babies need to be physically and emotionally healthy will get three months of maternity leave, not even approaching the first year of a baby’s life before they can drink dairy or cow’s milk. The lack of paid maternity leave means that poor mothers are more likely to have to bottle feed to return to work too soon, making the healthier form of breastfeeding untenable.
Advocacy for mothers does not look like the Vox article that framed formula as empowering; it looks like the work done by Kimberly Seals Allers, a breastfeeding expert who for years has tried to encourage and support breastfeeding, especially among women of color who experience the brunt of financial disparities and are targeted heavily by formula manufacturers. Advocacy for women starts with the truth that breastfeeding is best and attempts to get private and public interests to meet the needs of mothers. If this formula crisis has taught us anything, it is that we have devalued motherhood, and in the process have become too dependent upon an artificial substance and the detached experience of plastic bottle feeding, rather than leaning into nature’s most emotionally sustaining, nutritionally best, and financially affordable option for families. In trying to become modern, we have deprived our babies and ourselves of one of the most emotionally and physically rewarding experiences of early childrearing.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters and Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.