Breastfeeding Benefits or Formula Risks – Does it make a difference?

I’m writing this post during world breastfeeding week, spurred on by the usual promotion of breastfeeding – romanticised photographs of smiling mothers and breastfeeding babies and the standard ‘breast is best’ taglines, usually followed by a list of breastfeeding benefits and once again I’m wondering if this is the right approach.

Breastfeeding rates are still very low, in the UK 83% of mothers breastfeed their newborns at birth, but by 6 weeks only 24% are still exclusively breastfeeding (stats from HERE), what is happening in those intervening 6 weeks to spur such a huge abandonment of breastfeeding?


The answer is surely a lack of support. I have supported many mothers in the early weeks struggling with the establishment of breastfeeding and often getting appropriate support is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I’m sure breastfeeding supporters will shout me down here, but I write this as somebody fully aware of all of the different organisations and individuals providing breastfeeding support. The problem is that there are just not enough of them and oftentimes the quality of support varies greatly. It is hard enough establishing breastfeeding without doing so on the receiving end of conflicting advice from people you are supposed to trust. Then there is the dreadful provision of tongue tie diagnosis, but – more importantly division services. Not everybody lives near, or can afford to use a lactation consultant, that’s just not good enough.

Not only is professional support too patchy, we are growing up in a society where formula feeding is the norm, our friends and family bottle feed and our mothers see us struggling and suggest “why don’t you just give him a bottle?” adding “it was good enough for you”, this leads me to the point of my post, formula feeding has somehow become the mainstream norm in our society, so much so that breastfeeding is now considered a ‘beneficial extra’. If breastfeeding is beneficial, then that surely means that formula feeding is the norm and the norms are considered healthy and well ‘normal‘…For many women, for whatever reason, breastfeeding is too difficult and they have a perfectly acceptable alternative in formula milk (or so they think). Occassionally formula is not only seen as normal, it is seen as superior to breastmilk – here I am talking about the ‘hungry baby’ milks (implying that breastmilk is not enough to satiate a baby’s appetite), ‘follow on milk’ (implying that breastmilk is not adequate past 6 months) and the ‘lactose free’ formulas (implying that breastmilk is not suitable for babies with lactose intolerance).

I fell for the last two myths. I breastfed my firstborn for 16 weeks until I began to wean him (as was the advice then, I cannot tell you how much I wish I hadn’t and how I had watched for the real signs of weaning readiness, not myths such as waking more at night, dribbling, putting everything into his mouth and looking at food, perhaps he would not now have coeliac disease if we had waited), we then moved onto follow on milk as I truly believed my breastmilk was no longer enough for him. My second born had typical signs of lactose intolerance so, on the advice of my health visitor I switched to a special formula when he was 8 weeks old, again certain that it was better for him than my breastmilk (nobody told me about avoiding lactose in my diet). My sons now are happy and healthy (aside from the coeliac disease) and I don’t seem to have done them any lasting harm (or so I hope), but being duped into giving them formula and ceasing breastfeeding prematurely is right ‘up there’ in my parenting regrets list.


What if we changed our vocabulary to “The risks of formula milk” instead of “The benefits of breastfeeding”? – Would that then imply the truth that breastfeeding is the norm for our species and as the norm has no benefits, as the norm anything else must surely carry risks? Would this change of vocabulary make a difference in the informed choice parents make in terms of feeding choices? What about those mothers who do not have enough support to breastfeed – would it make society lobby harder to get the support we need? What about those who truly cannot breastfeed for medical reasons – would it make us lobby harder for the availability of donor breastmilk?

I’m not writing this to be sensationalist, I’m writing this as a mother who has both breastfed and formula fed and a mother who has looked past her own guilt at not doing the best for her babies because I didn’t know better, to now one who is angry at the powers that be rather than her breastfeeding contemporaries.

The risks of formula feeding are many, they include:

For the baby:

  • An increased risk of otitis media
  • An increased risk of gastroenteritis
  • An increased risk of pneumonia
  • An increased risk of type 1 and 2 diabetes
  • An increased risk of leukaemia
  • An increased risk of obesity
  • An increased risk of SIDS
  • An increased risk of necrotizing enterocolitis

For mothers who do not breastfeed:

  • An increased risk of breast cancer
  • An increased risk of ovarian cancer
  • An increased risk of type 2 diabetes

See THIS article for more.

Now, perhaps it’s just me, but if I had seen this list of risks (and by no means is my list complete!) whilst I was pregnant with my firstborn, or somebody had talked them through with me when I was holding my newborn I’m pretty sure my choices would have been different.  Am I angry? You betcha! Why wasn’t I given this information? At the time I made the best choice I could have done with the information I had, I have forgiven myself – but I can’t forgive those people who knew this information yet didn’t share it with me.

So often breastfeeding mothers – or ‘the breastapo’ as they are so charmingly called (really – these are fellow mothers, who just passionately care about getting this information out there – do they really deserve to be compared to murderers?) are attacked for being insensitive when they talk about this information and I’m pretty sure my inbox is going to be flooded with similar emails when I hit the ‘publish’ button on this post, but it isn’t fellow mothers we should be angry with – we need to get angry at those in power – the governments and policy makers – for keeping this information from us and angry at those who, in a quest to spare our feelings, opt for the lame “breast is best” tagline and tell us of the “benefits of breastfeeding” rather than tell us the truth. It makes me laugh that very often those who try to share this information are called “anti women” or “anti feminist”, because really this could not be further from the truth, those who suppress the information about the risks of formula feeding are the REAL anti feminists, suppressing this information and keeping women in the dark so they cannot make choices with all of the information, if we really want to support women then this information needs to be out there!

When we know the truth only then can we make an informed choice and only then can we see how important it is to campaign for better support for breastfeeding mothers. Only then do we have any chance of increasing breastfeeding rates. Happy World Breastfeeding week.


About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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