Sunday, 31 August 2014

Unrealistic expectations: 16 truths and myths about feeding your baby

Deciding to breastfeed my newborn baby seemed the obvious choice - why would I not want to do something so natural and beneficial to my baby? Every time I went to see a midwife I would be greeted with posters and pamphlets full of pictures of happy mothers breastfeeding their babies. I never once thought that it would be a challenge. The problem is that there are a lot of myths surrounding feeding a newborn baby that can be most unhelpful for new mothers.

Unfortunately, much of the information that new mothers are provided with may leave them feeling like they are doing something wrong, or that they are a failure if they find breastfeeding difficult or if they choose to (or have to) use formula. From the experiences of most of my parent-friends, they didn't realise how much of a challenge feeding could be and many faced disappointment or felt disillusioned in the first months of parenthood.

Below are a list of things I was told as facts before I breastfed my baby, many of which were unhelpful or not founded in truth. I decided to look into these things to see if I could find any evidence as to whether they were actually true or not. I will say though, that although I have tried to research the facts as accurately as possible I am obviously bound to be influenced by my own experiences too. I am not an expert in medical research and would therefore encourage you to look up these things yourself if it is important to you. My aim is to support women whatever their feeding choice and give them better information so that they can be better prepared and seek the right help if they need to and have more realistic expectations of early motherhood.

1. Breastfeeding will happen naturally.
False. Only 23% of mothers are still breastfeeding at six months (1) which gives you a clue as to how difficult it is. What is expected to be the most natural thing in the world takes a lot of practice and determination. As opposed to one popular myth, I do not think babies 'instinctively' know how to feed – it is a learnt process for both the baby and mother. Mothers can develop mastitis, thrush and will most certainly experience some pain in at least the first week of feeding. Many women go on to find that the pain eases and breastfeeding does indeed become easy and even pleasant for them. Each mother will have a very different experience, but it is important to know that if someone finds it difficult it is not always entirely down to technique or perseverance - some babies may just be more difficult to feed than others. Other mothers and babies have medical conditions making it more difficult or impossible. It is important that new mothers are equipped with people to help them in the first few weeks of their baby's life and that new mothers are prepared mentally and emotionally.

2. Mothers who formula feed are more likely to have post-natal depression
Partly true. What this fact doesn't inform you is that the group at highest risk were those that planned to breastfeed but couldn't (2). The study concluded that:

“Our results underline the importance of providing expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed, but also of providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to,” they argue.

If mothers were made to feel supported whatever their feeding choice then I strongly believe that this would benefit both formula fed and breastfeeding mothers and lower post natal depression on the whole. I would suggest that one of the most important things is that you do not take on board unnecessary pressure and that you ask for help if it is needed.

3. Babies who are breastfed do not get trapped wind
False. I was told that only bottle fed babies need to be helped to get rid of excess wind after a feed but my baby was breastfed and needed to be 'winded', otherwise he was very restless. He also had colic which actually seemed to ease once he was on the bottle, but this could have been entirely down to his development stage.

4. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of cancer for both mother and baby
True. But this is only relevant for babies who have been breastfed for over six months. Those breastfed for up to six months do not appear to have any decreased cancer risk compared to bottle fed babies. (3) As most mothers stop breastfeeding by six months I would suggest that this statistic is irrelevant for the majority of the population. There is also evidence to suggest that ovarian cancer is reduced for women who breastfeed but again this is only significant in mothers who breastfeed for two years or more (4) which I consider highly impractical for most women. What does this also mean for women who never have children?

5. Babies who are breastfed have increased immunity and reduced risk of allergies
True. This is probably one of the biggest reasons for choosing to breastfeed because breast milk passes on the mother's antibodies to the baby. There is evidence to suggest that babies who are breastfed have healthier immune systems for the duration of breastfeeding, others say longer. From many of the studies I have found it was hard for me to conclude just how much breastfeeding reduces allergies by. One stated that asthma found in breastfed infants was 7.7% as opposed to 12% of formula fed babies in the first two years of life (5). Another study concluded that children with asthmatic mothers were actually more likely to develop asthma later if they were exclusively breastfed. (6)  There are numerous studies done on this so you may find some of the links at the bottom of this post helpful.

6. Breastfed babies are exempt from infections and illnesses
False. Although babies may be less likely to pick up infections during the period of breastfeeding, it is likely that once they are on solids and in settings such as nurseries and play groups that they will pick up plenty of illnesses in the first 6-12 months of life regardless of if they are breastfed or not.

7. Breastfeeding serves as a contraceptive
Partly true. Although breastfeeding is supposed to have a contraceptive effect this is not a failsafe theory. I know at least two of my friends who have conceived whilst breastfeeding so it is more common that you think.

8. Bottle feeding is expensive
True. Breast milk is free, and although you will most probably be spending more on the weekly food shop for yourself to stock up on calories, your extra expenses may not be as high as a tin of formula. The cost of formula feeding is approximately £40/month for six months (or until your baby is on solids).

9. Breastfeeding prevents obesity
Inconclusive. There are studies to suggest that breast milk lowers the risk of obesity in children, alongside others that say there is no evidence for this (7)  I would suggest that if parents who bottle feed their babies are intentional about giving their children a healthy diet and teach their children about portion control this will have a significantly higher influence on their BMI.

10. Breastfeeding helps mothers lose weight
Partly true. Woman burn up to 500 calories a day by breastfeeding which is all well and good if you are suddenly on a rigorous diet (not very practical or advisable when trying to provide nutrients for your baby!). The reality is that those 500 calories will need to be replenished in order to make sure you have enough energy for you and your baby. I was constantly hungry whilst breastfeeding and put on weight during this period (but this was probably because early motherhood didn't allow time to make myself healthy food and I lived off Haribo instead!).

11. Mothers who breastfeed bond better with their babies.
False. Of course some mothers may find it a bonding experience, and others may not. No one can dictate what is going to enhance that for you and your baby. For some mothers breastfeeding is painful and difficult and they can end up resenting feeding times (hardly a bonding experience). For others breastfeeding is extremely bonding – they feel more relaxed and feel sad when the time comes to give up. Breast feeding may allow for more skin to skin contact, whereas bottle feeding may allow for more eye contact.

12. Bottle fed babies sleep longer
True and false. On the whole formula fed babies will sleep longer because formula keeps their stomachs fuller for longer. Breast milk is easier to digest which means that breastfed babies are likely to want feeds closer together. Other factors need to be considered, though, like the temperament of the baby and other external factors.

13. Bottle feeding is unhealthy
False. Although breast milk is the best option in terms of nutritional value, this does not mean that formula is a bad thing to give to your baby. There has been significant scientific research into creating formula in order for it to have all the nutrients babies need to thrive, otherwise they would not be able to sell it! In some cases formula is better nutritionally if the mother has a deficient diet or has to take certain medication (8).

14. Breastfed babies will have higher IQs
False. One study stated:
"Mums with more resources - with higher levels of education and higher levels of income - and more flexibility in their daily schedules are more likely to breastfeed their children and do so for longer periods of time."
Therefore concluding that intelligence was more directly linked with parenting and resources than any benefits of the actual breast milk itself (9) 

15. Breastfeeding is more convenient
True and False. Many mothers prefer breastfeeding because it is on tap whenever you need it and wherever you go. Breastfeeding also means you are hands free to do things like read a book which you may not find as easy whilst bottle feeding. Other mothers find it an inconvenience having to breastfeed in public or having limited ability to spend time independently. No one method is more convenient than another, it is purely down to personal preference.

16. Whatever is most natural is always best
False. Using contraceptives is unnatural but it doesn't stop the majority of people thinking that they are a better option than a house full of children. You cannot conclude that because breastfeeding is the most natural option that it is better - you must conclude it on it's actual benefits (which are, of course, many). Some conclude that bottle feeding is a recent invention and argue that up until recent years women coped without breast milk alternatives. In actual fact babies have been bottle fed for thousands of years.

There are plenty of other facts and myths surrounding breastfeeding and formula feeding which you may wish to look into, (although it is unlikely you will be able to make any substantial conclusions without investing considerable time into it, or conducting studies yourself!). The research is so varied and has different contributing factors which means that it is very difficult to be well informed. I do, however, hope that some of what I have written will dispel some myths for new mothers and enable them to feel confident about their feeding choices.

If you choose to breastfeed then you should be referred to a breastfeeding support worker who can give you help and advice. You may also find The breastfeeding network helpful.

If you decide to formula feed you may find The Fearless Formula Feeder website helpful.

taken from
2 Taken from The NHS News, based on latest research.
3 benefits of breastfeeding, Natural resources defence council (
4 benefits of breastfeeding, Natural resources defence council (
5 archives of disease in childhood (
7 taken from the American Journal of Nutrition
8 taken from
9 and Bingham Young University,

Other references:

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