[Disclaimer: The views in this article, and in the rest of the blog, are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect any organisations I am associated with.]
When I had my first son, Peter, I was determined to breastfeed him exclusively, having been educated through many books and classes, with the support of friends who were also pro-breastfeeding.
Alas, this dream was not to be. Within my first week, despite getting the help of nurses and a lactation consultant, my nipples continued to bleed and I had to be taken off breastfeeding while Peter received formula. After healing I managed to continue providing breast milk, although Peter grew impatient with the breast for having a slower flow. No matter what I ate, from supplements to the mythical fish soup, I could not get my supply up. However I continued to offer Peter the breast and he did breastfeed for 15 months.
On hindsight, there were a few things I didn’t know then which I know now. Strangely, the books I had read and the classes my husband and I had attended, made no mention of the slight detail of using nipple cream after breastfeeding. I was only told that I should have used it when I had already started to bleed. So, with the birth of my second son Paul two weeks ago, we ensured that there was sufficient nipple cream to keep me going – along with ensuring that he was properly latched.
Secondly, I should have started expressing milk within my first week, as an alternative to breastfeeding directly with sore nipples. I did so with Paul and amazingly my milk supply increased to the point where I was producing over a litre a day, a week after his birth. It has continued to increase, to the extent that I have had to switch to larger bottles to contain my expressed milk. I later read, happily, that the first week is crucial to establishing milk supply.
Thirdly, and crucially, depending too much on formula actually decreases your milk supply. While we are eager to ensure that our babies are well-fed, using formula as a supplement is only a short-term fix that does not help you increase your own milk supply. Formula also takes twice as long as breast milk to digest, thus the baby may seem fuller and suckle less often at the breast, which then causes milk supply to decrease. Formula-fed babies also look fatter, which makes some traditionalists believe that formula is better when this isn’t necessarily the case.
So I have a love-hate relationship with formula, because it takes the pressure off some inexperienced mothers who may otherwise feel guilty and inadequate, but it also causes them to fall back too much on it and further diminishes the role of breastfeeding.
Some are also of the belief that formula is good enough. Yes, many people have been raised on it and turned out fine. But there are also many studies which show that breastfed babies have a lower risk of obesity and diabetes, and have fewer allergies. In addition, the antibodies in breast milk (which formula does not have) also give them added immunity. There are various benefits to mothers who breastfeed, too. It is also much safer for mothers in third world countries to breastfeed than to give their babies formula, due to public sanitation problems and other factors.
Given the rising global trends of obesity and diabetes, among other things, I do wonder how many people suffering from such conditions today were formula-fed as babies. Of course, many other factors – genetics, lifestyle and environment – also come into play. But every little bit counts as well.
So, if you know a mum-to-be who is keen on breastfeeding, do respect her wishes and give her your total support. This will contribute to the real ‘formula’ for having a healthy baby.
[ps. This post was written while I was expressing milk at 3am. You may post your comments and any amendments or additional points of importance which I may have missed out ]