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The problem with Fed Is Best and why we need to stop saying it

I’m here today with another discussion type post, this one is around the term Fed Is Best. This is a term that I’ve come to…

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I’m here today with another discussion type post, this one is around the term Fed Is Best. This is a term that I’ve come to hate with a passion.

And it’s not because I’m anti-formula feeding. I believe that a mother should be able to decide how to feed their baby. But that decision should come from a place of knowing all the facts about breastfeeding, formula feeding and everything in between. It should also come from a place of having access to the support should a mother want and need it.

It’s because the risk of postnatal depression is 50% less among women who breastfeed. But a flipside to this is that women who planned to breastfeed and were unable to breastfeed have DOUBLE the chance of struggling with postnatal depression. You can read more about this study in this article here.

It’s the struggle of those women who want to breastfeed but cannot that concerns me. Because most of the time, the problem can be fixed when there is guidance and support.

fed is best movement, mother breastfeeding baby

Feeding choices

Often, the decision on how to feed a baby isn’t a simple one. But the term Fed Is Best simplifies something that is much more complex and something that often carries a lot of emotions.

Sometimes women feel bullied into making feeding decisions without the correct support or knowledge. And sadly, many midwives, doctors and health visitors are not experts in breastfeeding and are often not up to date with the latest information.

My breastfeeding knowledge pre-baby

Before I was pregnant, I was very much all about ‘Fed Is Best’. I had little knowledge about breastfeeding and I thought formula feeding was just the normal thing to do. I thought I would feed my baby some bottles. I thought it had the same benefits as breastmilk. The Fed Is Best campaign was a catchy phrase that aligned with my views. My views that people can to do with their babies and bodies what they pleased when it comes to feeding.

But what it didn’t do was encourage me to learn more.

To me, the Fed Is Best movement made it sound like there’s no difference between formula and breastmilk. But that’s just incorrect. ‘Fed is Best’ overshadows the benefits of breastfeeding, these are often totally eclipsed by horror stories of sore nipples, midnight feeds and no rest. It encourages formula feeding to those who want to breastfeeding.

Mother and baby

Nutritionally speaking…

From a nutritional and health standpoint, breastmilk is the best thing for a baby (please stay with me here – I’m talking nutritionally speaking). Breastmilk is perfectly designed for a baby and easily digested by their little tummies. It contains antibodies to prevent and fight infections and illness. Breastmilk changes when a baby is sick to help them recover quicker. It changes consistency when needed, being more watery on hotter days to support hydration. It even changes in the night to contain the hormone melatonin to help the baby sleep. It promotes bonding and closeness between the mother and baby, the And they are just some of the short term benefits.

Like I said – from a nutritional standpoint.

Antibodies in breastmilk

The antibodies in breastmilk that prevent illness and help babies get quicker is a great benefit, but let’s be realistic here. We live in a modern world now. Medicine exists so illnesses can be treated, babies are offered vaccines. We have clean homes and have access to healthcare. We also know more about how to serialise and clean bottles containing formula so it’s safe and low-risk.

Most of have access to good diets and can start to wean our babies onto solid food with lots of fruit and veg from 6 months (alongside breast or formula milk).

fed is best, mother breastfeeding baby

Breastfeeding problems

There are many things that can get in the way of breastfeeding. Such as cracked nipples, postnatal depression, exhaustion, tongue tie, low supply, lack of weight gain in baby, feeding aversions, Mum needing to spend time away from the baby. I just want to point out that I’m talking about the women who WANT to breastfeed. Many don’t and that’s their choice and there may be many reasons for that, too.

The issue I have is that breastfeeding education is appalling in the UK and that, paired with the saying ‘Fed Is Best’ leads to many women opting for the formula before having the correct information.

When I talk about correct information, I mean information about:

  • nutirtional value of breastmilk vs formula
  • normal behavoir of a breastfed baby
  • how a baby natrually inceases supply
  • what can reduce supply
  • issues with poor latch and how to correct
  • baby having a tongue tie
  • slow weight gain or weight loss
  • beastfeeding myths often cited by relatives
  • long-term benefits of breastfeeding
  • colostrum collection
  • how to use colostrum iafter birth
  • when to introduce pumping
  • causes and prevsion of mastits
  • forth trimeter
  • how partners can bond

Instead, women are bombarded with ‘Fed Is Best’ messages, told the negatives of breastfeeding and the positives of formula. They are not mentally prepared for the first few weeks of being awake at all hours with a velcro baby, so they quickly move to the bottle, or decide not to breastfeed at all.

I was always under the impression that women who formula fed were often shamed by others. But you know what, I’ve had so many comments by people about breastfeeding. I think people love to comment and put their nose in how others parent their children. Especially the older generation! There is a lot of ‘I did it this way, therefore it’s the best way, and if you don’t do it this way then you’re doing it wrong or insulting my parenting’.

There is also a lot for ‘suvrvior bias’ around parenting, too. Which I hate!

mum and baby sleeping

Breastfeeding myths

The unsolicited advice, options and judgement on anything to do with having a baby is just insane. It is often hidden underneath a ‘just trying to be helpful’ guise when it often feels passive-aggressive. But I’m going to try and not get too carried away by this subject because we don’t want another 3000-word blog post, right?

Here are some of the things people have said to me:

You need to get him onto a bottle.

This was said when Leo was only a few weeks old. It seems that many people think you only need to breastfeed for a few weeks then move your baby onto the bottle. This isn’t true – you feed your baby as long as you want to. Whether that’s two hours, two weeks or two years. It’s not really anyone’s business.

Give him a full bottle every four hours

There is this idea we need to get a baby into a strict routine as soon as possible. Feeding a baby a full bottle at set times, rather than when they cry for food.

As adults, we don’t make ourselves go 4 hours without food or a drink if we’re hungry or thirsty. We go and get a drink. Some days we are hungrier than others and babies are the same. Feed on demand, comfort your baby!

Breastfed babies actually have a lower risk of SIDs than formula bed babies, as formula bed babies drink more at once, resulting in a fuller belly and they sleep longer and deeper. Babies are meant to wake up often for regular, small feeds.

You don’t have enough milk for him

This was said to me when Leo was about 5 weeks old and was cluster feeding.

Cluster feeding is when babies want short feeds often. So he would feed for 5-10 minutes, then stop. Then want more after. This is normal breastfeeding behaviour, especially in the early days. As long as the baby is having enough wet and dirty nappies, there is no need for concern. I knew this, but imagine if I didn’t? I’ve seen many women in breastfeeding support groups on Facebook asking how to stop breastfeeding because they don’t have enough milk. Because it’s not satisfying the baby and they are wanting to feed for what seems like hours on end. It’s normal.

It’s actually very rare for women not to be able to make enough milk and is usually something people believe is happening when a baby is cluster feeding.

If you are concerned that your baby isn’t getting enough milk from you, the amount of wet and dirty nappies should reassure you. But if you are still concerned, request a weigh in with your health visitor.

He’ll be breastfeeding until he’s 18

A baby is very dependent on their mother. That’s normal. They want to be close to us, to smell us, to feel our warmth and be near the smell of milk. We have this westernised view of having to get a baby to be independent ASAP. Sleep on their own. Not be held all the time. Get them off the breast.

I practice baby-led parenting, where I pick up my baby if he cries, feed him if he’s hungry and hold him close while he sleeps so he feels safe.

mother and baby

Emotions behind feeding choices

This topic can because heated because there are generally lots of emotions around infant feeding. So many women are left feeling guilty because they ‘gave up’ or ‘didn’t push through the pain’.

It’s not about giving up or pushing through. It’s about having the right information and support to carry on if that’s what you want.

It can escalate quickly if you don’t have those things.

For example, it’s day three of babies life and the mother’s milk hasn’t come in yet, she feeds formula until it does. This means colostrum and milk are not getting removed from the breast by the baby, so more isn’t made which leads to low supply and we get stuck in a trap of giving formula and not increasing breastmilk production.

Another example could be the partner wants to feed and bond with the baby. Mum is exhausted so welcomes the rest. A bottle is introduced each evening. The baby doesn’t have to work as hard to get the milk from the bottle. Mums breastmilk production goes down due to the missed feed and the baby prefers the bottle as they get more milk easier and rejects the breast.

The Fed Is Best Movement seems like a positive term, but it oversimplifies infant feeding. Instead of Fed is Best or Breast Is Best, I prefer:

Informed is best. 

Supported is best. 

Empowered is best. 

Breastfeeding is hard. I have so many friends that have stopped feeding or not even tried because of myths or running into complications and not having the support.

PND, feeling touched out, tired, cracked and sore nipples, exhausted, mastitis, tongue tie, lack of sleep, lip tie, shallow latch and did I mention EXHAUSTED?

If a woman who wants to breastfeed runs into these problems and decides to switch to formula, then that’s fine if she has the information and access to support if she wanted it.

The issue lies in the women who would love to continue but feel overwhelmed, upset, lost, confused and in agony. Someone who has reluctantly stopped when they could have carried on with that support.

  • tongue ties can be fixed
  • supply can be increased
  • mastitus can be treated
  • so nipples can heal
  • latch can be improved
  • co-sleeping ease tiredness
  • someone with PND can be supported

Access to support

Another issue we face is accessibility to this support. It’s often quicker to find a private lactation consultant or get a tongue tie fixed yourself than go through a long referral process via the NHS. Especially during COVID when it was hard to even get seen by a doctor.

It’s one thing having the education around breastfeeding, it’s another to get the required help and often means you have to pay for it yourself, which not everyone is able to do. I know a few women who have gone down this route.

It shouldn’t be this complicated. I know you’re probably thinking there are more important things for the NHS to spend money on, more life-threatening things. But if more people breastfed their babies, then it can save the NHS millions each year in fewer hospital admissions thanks to the benefit of breastfeeding.

Calculations from a mere handful of illnesses where breastfeeding is thought to have a protective effect revealed potential annual savings to the NHS from a moderate increase in breastfeeding rates of about £40 million per year. The true calculations are likely to be much higher.

Unicef

This report: Preventing disease and saving resources: the potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK goes into more detail.

So it would be a worthwhile investment.

fed is best, mother breastfeeding baby

Sometimes it’s too much

Breastfeeding is intense. When you have a baby, it’s a huge trauma for your body and an even bigger one for your brain. You are exhausted and in love and in pain and overwhelmed. You want to sleep but there is a baby on you all the time. You want to shower but he cries for you and won’t let you put him down. All you want is a few hours of unbroken sleep, a shower and to eat a proper meal. Your nipples pour milk and you feel utterly trapped.

It’s the constant touching, feeding and never getting anything done that is difficult. It can lead to mental health problems and dread towards feeding time.

There is support there to allow women to continue their breastfeeding journey. If they really want to.

I believe it really does need to be an informed choice and something that is welcomed. Not something that is done because a mother feels it’s the only option.

So, let’s say it again:

Informed is best. 

Supported is best. 

Empowered is best. 

That goes for breastfeeding, formula, pumping, combi feeding, cup feeding or any other way to feed your baby.

Final thoughts

What I am trying to say is – how you feed your baby is your choice. It also is nobody else’s business. You do what is right for you and your child.

But what saddens me is the number of women who want to breastfeed, come across obstacles that can be overcome with the right support, yet simply do not have access to this support. They are told ‘Fed is Best’ and offered a bottle. This is great if you are happy with this alternative to feeding your baby, but it’s not so great for those mothers who DO want to breastfeed and are left feeling sad and distressed.

If you are struggling with breastfeeding, or plan on breastfeeding yourself, I strongly suggest you join the Facebook group: Breastfeeding and Lactation Support UK. This group has trained lactation specialists that can answer any questions and offer support to guide you in the right direction.

I joined that Facebook group when I was around 25 weeks pregnant and read the experiences of other women. I believe reading other peoples stories and problems helped me align my own expectations around breastfeeding and how difficult it would be and hugely contributed to my own successful breastfeeding story.

Further reading:

Why formula matters

Why breastfeeding matters

16 comments

  1. Great post! I didn’t know about this, but it must be so hard for mothers who want to learn everything before they have their baby- but there is so much misinformation around. Thank you so much for sharing x

  2. This is such an important topic to raise and talk about! I am not a mum myself but have seen so many adverts and unwanted advice to first-time mums about Fed is best and the whole prejudice if you either decide to breastfeed or use formula. As you said it;’s important to be informed and have people around you who respect your decision and help you!

    1. There is aboustely prejudice either way! it makes people feel pressured into things they don’t want to do or are not comfortable with.

  3. This is such an important topic and glad you are raising awareness. Moms should not be shamed for their feeding choices. I use to Fed is best. I think the phrase informed is best is better.

  4. I stopped breastfeeding and don’t think any amount of support would have changed my mind, it was the excruciating pain that made me depressed and nobody/nothing could have taken it away unless I just forced myself to put up with it. We were both much happier switching to bottle, you just have to do what works for you and your baby I think!

    1. It’s true that you need to do what works for you and your baby. My point here is more the lack of education around it as there is little government funding. For example, if there was more money put into supporting women around correct latch/tongue ties then you may have never had that excruciating pain to start with, or had it corrected very early on!

  5. I come from the ‘fed is best’ camp, but for different reasons. I am from a family of formula feeders. Not because formula is best, breastfeeding just wasn’t done by the women in my family. My partner’s family was different. He grew up seeing kids being breastfed all the time. In my own mind, I knew that I wanted to breastfeed. It was always my plan. Unfortunately, my body didn’t agree. I had no supply. I had a lactation specialist and still wasn’t able to produce enough milk to feed by underweight daughter. She was losing weight fast (down to 4lbs.). Her dad didn’t understand or appreciate the challenges I had. I received more negativity about NOT breastfeeding.

    So yes, we switched to a high quality formula for her. And she gained weight back to health and continues to thrive. She was sick 2x as a baby, after seeing school age cousins. But otherwise, remained healthy and strong until starting school herself (now). I am so blessed that she’s thriving. It’s terrifying holding your precious child who is just skin and bones and worrying that you’re failing her. So for me, yes, fed is best, but I do understand where you’re coming from.

    ~ Cassie | letsgrowmom.com

    1. I’m sorry that your partner was not supportive of you during that time. It can be a real challenge for women that come across problems. I am not trying to discount formula feeding, I’m just trying to emphasise that women should be informed, supported and empowered with their feeding choices and struggles and that support and empowerment also should be from partners/friends/family – not just from a medical professional standpoint.

  6. I have never heard this saying, hence I enjoyed this post twice as much for its educational value! Love that you show both sides of the problem and weigh in with your experience + why you believe it needs to change. 🙂

  7. I feel like I’ve had two very different feeding journeys / experiences with both of mine. I want to write a post about it, but feel like I’ve got too much in my brain to say about it all that it’ll come out really rambly.
    With my first I knew nothing, had no real sort of support and ended up formula feeding after a couple of weeks. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that, but in my heart of hearts it wasn’t really what I wanted. I wasn’t informed (partly my own fault) and I wasn’t supported and I used to really beat myself up over it. Gahh there were so many years back then. Second time around was a much different story. I think I was able to use what I’d learnt first time around to do things differently. Boobing was actually enjoyable. But with that came extra regret of not going for longer with my first. Again obviously not that it matters but I wish I was more informed and had the extra support back then.
    Also, boob milk is actually incredible. Our bodies are incredible!

    Claire. X

  8. This is such an important topic. I know what when my husband and I do have children I do want to try to breastfeed, however, the most important thing is the health and wellbeing of my child when we do.

    I still don’t understand why people make comments on how other people’s children are fed, it is between the parent and child. As long as the child is happy and healthy, that is what matters in my book!

  9. It’s such a controversial topic and I agree knowledge is important but I find no matter what peoples choice theres always people there with there opinions.
    I chose to formula feed after being fully informed of everything and find especially in certain mummy groups that it’s seen as choosing the easy route, and seen as inferior among those that have breastfed, it’s such a tricky topic

    For me as long as baby is happy and healthy with their feeding then I’m a happy mum

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