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February 20, 2024

November 9, 2022

Overcoming Formula Feeding Guilt: How to Let Go of Expectations and Pressures Around Breastfeeding

E:
146
with
Mallory Whitmore
Infant Feeding Technician

What You'll Learn

  • Why It’s Difficult to Find Resources About Formula
  • Why We Experience Formula Feeding Guilt
  • How to Overcome Beliefs and Guilt About Formula Feeding
  • Why We Should Prepare for Formula (Even if We Don’t End Up Using It)
  • The Differences Between Breastmilk and Formula
  • The Importance of Flexibility Over Guilt With Formula Feeding

Are you experiencing formula feeding guilt? Moms whose breastfeeding journey doesn’t match their expectations, or moms who choose to formula feed their babies, often face pressure, shame, and a sense of failure. But there are many factors that go into a feeding journey, and staying flexible can protect our mental health. 

Today, I’m joined by infant feeding technician Mallory Whitmore, founder of The Formula Mom, to discuss how to overcome the expectations, pressures, and guilt about formula feeding.

Feeding Pressures, Expectations, and Reality

When I became a mom, I was determined to breastfeed. In my mind at the time, it was the “right” choice—the best choice. I envisioned latching coming easily, peaceful nursing sessions, and strong bonding. 

The reality looked much different. My son and I both struggled—latching didn’t come as naturally as I thought it would. My supply was also low—I ended up having to frequently pump between sessions. 

I was afraid to offer bottles or pacifiers out of fear that it would cause nipple confusion or interfere with the process. 

Because I was so determined to make it work, I ended up taking on all of the night feeds myself, putting my body and mental health through the wringer with sleep deprivation

I did end up breastfeeding all three of my sons. But looking back at it, it came at the cost of my mental health. If I were to ever do it again, I would approach it differently. I wouldn’t have the same expectations. I wouldn’t put pressure on myself. And I wouldn’t think I was failing if I offered formula. In fact, I would plan to combo feed right off the bat, to help protect my own sleep and allow my husband more opportunity for feeding

The pressures and beliefs we hold about breastfeeding are deeply engrained.

The pressures and beliefs we hold about breastfeeding are deeply engrained, often entwined with our identity as moms. We often believe so strongly it is the best and only way, that we feel like failures if it doesn’t work out the way we envisioned. 

I see my mom clients suffer through shame, guilt, and grief about needing to supplement or switch to formula. I also see moms online who choose to formula feed face harsh judgement and criticism. 

I believe that if we could reframe the conversation about feeding, encouraging flexibility, removing shame, and respecting ourselves and each other, then we could all approach feeding with less pressure and more joy. 

Mallory has done a lot of work to help provide resources and a community for moms who use formula, actively pushing back against the stigma and offering a safe, judgement-free space. I was so thrilled to speak with her about the nuances of feeding and how to overcome formula feeding guilt. 

Why It’s Difficult to Find Resources About Formula

There aren’t many great resources for moms who need to or want to formula feed. When Mallory became a mom, she assumed she would breastfeed, but it became obvious that it wasn’t going to work. 

So, she set out to find out the best and safest way to formula feed, only to come across resources that told her not to do it. That started her journey to becoming The Formula Mom. 

Mallory felt like this stigma around formula feeding is unfair, especially since 75% of families use formula at least some of the time. When moms need more information about formula, they struggle to find resources. 

75% of families use formula at least some of the time.

Pediatricians are generalists—they aren’t necessarily well-versed in the nuances of feeding. Lactation consultants can be formula-friendly, but many are not. This often leaves moms not knowing where to turn. 

Mallory ended up becoming certified as an infant feeding technician to help educate parents and provide support. However, most infant feeding techs work in a clinical setting. She believes that we need more accessible pro-formula feeding resources available to us outside of hospitals or clinics. This would go a long way toward normalizing and destigmatizing formula. 

Why We Experience Formula Feeding Guilt

There is a lot of shame associated with the switch to formula, especially when it’s not our choice. Many of my mom clients feel that shame and guilt. They often went into motherhood with a romanticized version of what feeding was going to look like that. 

Mallory said that we do a disservice to moms when we don’t talk about all of the reasons why a family might not be able to breastfeed. There are so many factors that can’t be accounted for, including:

  • Premature birth
  • Lip and tongue ties
  • Milk supply
  • Physical latching struggles
  • Mental health 
  • Sleep deprivation

When our reality doesn’t match our expectations, it can be hard—especially around something as emotionally-charged as feeding. Postpartum is already such a vulnerable time for moms, and when they start to feel like failures too early on it can be hard to recover from. It becomes a perfect storm for shame and guilt. 

Sometimes, moms believe that they shouldn’t grieve or experience such big feelings around feeding—that they should just be happy their babies are healthy. But Mallory pointed out that we need to recognize that this is a very real area of grief and emotion for many moms. 

She shared about her own deep-seated grief and trauma around not being able to breastfeed. She had done all the “right things,” taking classes and reading books. When it didn’t work out for her, she felt betrayed by her own body, and by a society that told her if she just worked hard enough it was going to work. 

She spent ten months in therapy unpacking those emotions. When she had a second child, she chose to formula feed from the beginning to protect her own mental health

Mallory believes that moms should have support for formula feeding as well as breastfeeding, and that we should stop pretending that feeding should only look one way. 

How to Overcome Beliefs and Guilt About Formula Feeding

Moms hold onto many internal beliefs about formula feeding. They tell themselves:

I am not going to be as bonded with my baby.

I am not trying hard enough.

I am weak if I can’t breastfeed.

I am failing as a mom if I formula feed.

I’m being selfish if I prioritize my own mental health.

These beliefs cause immense amounts of guilt around formula feeding. Sometimes it haunts moms for a long time. Mallory hears from moms who mention that they are still grappling with guilt about formula feeding even 15 years out. 

These thoughts and beliefs are strong, but they are also untrue. Breastfeeding isn’t the only way to have a strong bond with your child. You are not failing. If it doesn’t work for you, you didn’t do anything wrong. And your mental health matters. 

It’s also important to remember that we might experience a mixed bag of emotions around our feeding journey, including shame and relief. That relief can bring about even more guilt. But we can both grieve the loss of something we wanted and work toward acceptance. 

Why We Should Prepare for Formula (Even if We Don’t End Up Using It)

Mallory encourages moms to think about formula during pregnancy, even if it isn’t their plan. It’s better to have a plan and not need it than to have to scramble during the postpartum period. 

She pointed out that the “breast is best” conversation feels like abstinence-only education—if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t think about it, then we don’t do it. That isn’t realistic, and it’s not what the data shows.

We can spend time thinking ahead to what types of formula we would want to try and how we would get it. Ask yourself if there are any ingredients you want to avoid or if you prefer a liquid or powdered form. Consider how you would buy formula—for example, you can subscribe to it on Amazon so it gets delivered regularly. Select a formula that feels right to you and have some on hand.

From a nutritional standpoint, you can’t make the wrong decision about the type of formula.

Mallory said that most babies will tolerate a standard formula, and that each formula is regulated with the same nutrients. From a nutritional standpoint, you can’t make the wrong decision. The rest just comes down to personal preferences. 

Contrary to what some people think, no formula is poison or toxic. Some people will point out complex ingredients on the container—but these are just the names of the vitamins. 

The Differences Between Breastmilk and Formula

Mallory pointed out that while formula doesn’t offer everything that breastmilk does, studies and research confirm that formula is safe, healthy, and good for our babies. Research does not support the belief that formula-fed babies will be less intelligent or less bonded to their moms. 

Although they aren’t identical, they are similar. Formula is created to be as similar to breastmilk as possible. It includes the same amount of calories from fat, the same types of fatty acids, and the same nutrients. 

Formula is created to be as similar to breastmilk as possible.

The main difference is that breastmilk is dynamic. It changes throughout the day and over time. Formula doesn’t offer that—it is created based on an average. 

Mallory said that moms sometimes talk about the hormones, stem cells, and tryptophan (the substance in turkey that makes you sleepy), all of which are present in breastmilk and not in formula. This can contribute to the guilt factor of formula feeding. 

But she pointed out that all of those things were present during pregnancy—our babies haven’t lost out on it. 

Another point that gets emphasized about breastmilk is that formula-fed babies are twice as likely to get ear infections. This is statistically true, but the likelihood rises from 2% to 4%. It’s important to keep some perspective. 

Furthermore, we need to consider our own mental health. Ear infections are typically minor and treatable. Having a healthy mom who is able to function and feel well matters too. Our babies need us to be well in order for them to be well. In the grand scheme of risk, that low percentage increase might be worth it if it protects our mental health. 

The Importance of Flexibility Over Guilt With Formula Feeding

Ultimately, it’s important to bring flexibility into the conversation about formula and breastmilk. 

We have become convinced that breastfeeding creates a bond that is unattainable with formula feeding. But this isn’t true. Attachment parenting emphasizes breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and babywearing. That’s all fine—but those individual pieces do not create attachment. Attachment is formed from an ongoing relationship with our child—and it isn’t fragile enough to be shattered by one choice. 

Mallory pointed out that when she was struggling to nurse, she felt resentful instead of responsive. She was always in fight-or-flight mode. That stress wasn’t creating a stronger bond with her baby. 

We sometimes get tunnel vision around our beliefs and are unable to see the bigger picture of how to thrive or even just survive on a functional level in motherhood. When we can become flexible in our thinking, we can see other possibilities beyond our beliefs. 

Mallory wishes that there was more conversation about supplementing or combo feeding. The conversation tends to be very black and white—either you solely formula feed, or you breastfeed until you absolutely can’t take it or you stop producing altogether. 

But a lot of families successfully do both, either from the start or later on. This can take the pressure off, allow for more partner support, and sometimes lets families breastfeed even longer. 

Mallory’s journey allowed her to see formula feeding in a different, guilt-free way. Each journey is individual, but for her, these three points were key to overcoming formula feeding guilt:

  • Identifying safe people in your life to talk to, who you know won’t judge you (She pointed out that this might not always be your partner. If your partner holds rigid beliefs around breastfeeding, this can add another layer of grief.)
  • Doing your own high-quality research (She recommended Cribsheet by Emily Oster as a good resource.)
  • Therapy (Working with a mom therapist to help process your feelings, grief, and trauma.)
  • Realizing that you aren’t alone (This is what The Formula Mom community is all about.)

With the right steps toward working through your guilt about formula feeding and moving forward on your path to acceptance, you can move forward, leave behind your grief, and find peace with your feeding journey. 

From feeding to sleep, the postpartum time is hard! If you need help prioritizing your mental health and protecting your sleep, download A Sleep Plan for Mom for FREE!

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Tags:

Formula feeding guilt

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Postpartum

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OUR GUEST

Mallory Whitmore
Infant Feeding Technician

Mallory is a mom of 2, educator, advocate, and certified infant feeding tech. She's the face behind The Formula Mom, an online platform that helps new parents make informed, confident, and supported infant feeding decisions-- without guilt or shame! She can be found on Instagram @theformulamom or on her website, www.theformulamom.com.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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