The Fearless Formula Feeder visits Our Milky Way

My eyebrows raised. My mouth hung slightly open. I cleared my throat in discomfort. My eyes darted left to right, then left to right again to see if anyone else had noticed. There she sat on the lawn at an Improving Birth Rally; a mother casually mixed a bottle of formula for her infant.

“How dare she?!” I gasped inward, as if she were holding some obscene object deliberately trying to offend me.

While my mind nearly exploded, some how I held onto my last bit of tact and kept the unsolicited comments to myself.

Although I kept quiet, I found myself judging this woman for feeding her baby, the same way I often find myself being judged for my parenting choices.

I am part of the Mommy Wars.

Admittedly, it seems to be easier to associate with mothers with similar parenting styles. My girlfriends and I recently chatted about how we find refuge at our local birth center, how it serves as Our Safe Haven, Our Oasis, Our Bubble.

Our Bubble. I got to thinking about the implications of living in Our Bubble. Sometimes there’s reason to cut yourself off from the world– like when you contract a nasty communicable disease– but what kind of example are we setting for our children if we can’t learn to socialize and ultimately integrate with the many different kinds of people who share our Earth? We already know the appalling effects of living in a world of Us and Them, so why risk perpetuating that hate and hostility?

unnamed-3I had the opportunity to learn from someone who I thought to be very different than me. Come to find out, I was wrong. Suzanne Barston AKA Fearless Formula Feeder (FFF) advocates for all moms and she’s here on Our Milky Way. Barston recently completed Healthy Children Project’s The Lactation Counselor Training Course. Below, she shares her experiences, reflections and goals and a very important message.

Barston writes on her website:

“There’s a lot of research out there about imprinting, and how first experiences affect infants. But isn’t new motherhood a sort of infancy, itself? Here you are, reborn into mother, your skin and organs and thoughts raw and foreign. Everything is new. Everything is a first, postpartum- your first shower, the first time you have sex, the first time you take the baby for a walk, the first time you feel confident in your new role. Is it surprising, then, that your first social interactions as a mother don’t imprint on you in the same way a new food imprints on an infant’s taste buds?”

Q: It got me thinking, is there such thing as a bottle-feeding support group?

A: The closest thing we have to bottle feeding support groups are online forums – Facebook, mostly – some large and public (like FFF and Bottle Babies) and some small and private or “closed”. The public ones are tough, because the online world is sort of like the opposite day version of the real world – breastfeeding is the norm in parenting social media, and formula feeding is seen as a cardinal sin. On the FFF main page, I try and strike a balance between providing support and also encouraging healthy discussion with people who don’t understand why formula feeding moms need support. Unfortunately, we do get a lot of people coming on and trying to educate moms who are well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding; in fact, many of them went to great lengths to breastfeed. It’s like salt in the wound for these women to have to come to what they assume is a rare safe space on the internet, and be berated for their choices – or lack thereof. I recently opened a private group for some of the mothers who felt uncomfortable posting on the public FFF page, and this seems to have helped them in that they can post more freely, without fear of strangers shaming them. But it’s also sad, because I don’t know how we can really end the divisiveness and misunderstandings between mothers who feed their babies differently without some productive – and potentially uncomfortable – discussions.

I think this is a danger of the Internet, though – and it’s why I feel so strongly that formula or combo-feeding families need face-to-face support, especially in the early days. Anonymity is not conducive to kindness – and new parents need kindness; they need connection; they need to feel like they have a “tribe”. What I envision is a “new parents group”, where moms (and dads, too) are encouraged to come as early as a few days postpartum, similar to the breastfeeding support groups I’ve seen hosted by hospitals. There would be feeding consultants there – [Certified Lactation Counselors] CLCs, nutritionists, people who have trained specifically to assist bottle-feeding parents – who could provide feeding advice no matter what the parents’ situation may be. These individuals would also be trained to screen for [postpartum depression] PPD and postpartum anxiety, because too many women are falling through the cracks. Personally, I think some of the correlation between early breastfeeding cessation or breastfeeding problems and PPD may be related to a lack of support and screening. Feeling like you’ve failed your first test as a mother can provoke some disturbing feelings, and too often, women who are in the thick of breastfeeding struggles are treated as two breasts, rather than a whole, complex, worthwhile person who happens to be lactating.

I still believe we’d need breastfeeding groups – organizations like [La Leche League] LLL are stellar for this type of much-needed practical and emotional support – but I don’t see any reason why there can’t be both. And I don’t love the idea of formula-only groups, because there are so many families who are using a combination of methods (breastfeeding, exclusive pumping, donor milk, formula, tube feeding, etc.) who feel like they don’t fit anywhere.

Q: What are your thoughts on the terminology we use around infant feeding? So often we say “breastfeeding is best”, but breastfeeding is physiologically normal. Aside from sometimes shaming moms who use varied infant feeding methods, how else does the language we use affect mothers?

A: This is a really interesting question. I’ve struggled with terminology. I think “breast is normal” is probably the best option I’ve heard, but I also worry that the word “normal” levies some sort of judgment. It’s like saying “being able to conceive naturally is normal” to a group of women going through IVF. Sort of triggering, you know?

On the other hand, it is biologically normal, and its important for people to understand that. I think we would be best served by steering away from rhetoric, labels, and terminology, and focusing more on supporting parents with good information and better hospital and workplace policies. I’m not sure we need slogans, anymore – and I know this is a wildly unpopular [point of view] in the breastfeeding advocacy world (and I 100% consider myself a breastfeeding advocate) – because I think parents are getting the message. What they aren’t getting is a fair shot at making it work, realistically. When we focus so much on talking about the benefits of breastfeeding, or making cute slogans or posters, I think we often end up widening the divide between those that have made it work and those who have not. Imagine what we could accomplish for ALL parents and children if we could work together to improve child-rearing policies in our country?

Bartson on breastfeeding her baby: "We only managed it for a short time, but I have some really blissful memories of those precious days. I was really excited to look at this picture when I got back from training and noticed that her latch (at least what I can see of it) looks darn near perfect!"
Barston on breastfeeding her baby: “We only managed it for a short time, but I have some really blissful memories of those precious days. I was really excited to look at this picture when I got back from training and noticed that her latch (at least what I can see of it) looks darn near perfect!”

Q: Please tell me more about the “Family Friendly Hospital” program. Where do you stand with this project?

A: The idea for the Family Friendly Health Initiative (we changed the name, because we didn’t want it to seem like we were competing with [the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative] BFHI, and because our goals extend past the hospital setting) came out of my concern for moms who had reported bad experiences with baby-friendly hospitals. BFHI has many, many great aspects. I think there are one or two tweaks that could be made to make a few of the 10 Steps a bit more sensitive to personal choice and a woman’s individual history. But I also believe that many of the problems are coming out of the execution of the initiative rather than the philosophy behind it. For example, I’ve heard from more moms than I can count that their babies were shoved onto their breasts within moments of delivery, instead of just being able to do skin-to-skin. That was something that really jumped out at me from my CLC training – how important that first hour (or two) really is. I’ve also heard from many moms with body issues or histories of sexual assault that having their breasts touched without being asked permission was extremely traumatic, or moms who asked to supplement and were given no support or info on how to do so, and that is also happening a great deal in the hospital environment. Both of these things are covered in the 10 Steps, so this is a problem with implementation, not BFHI itself.

These are the things I hope to change with FFHI. At this point, I’m working with an interdisciplinary group (sort of a maternal health “think tank”) to see how we can best serve the needs of moms, especially vulnerable populations. I see it as a complement to BFHI – ideally, I’d like to go into hospitals that have implemented BFHI and help them ensure that they are adhering to the Ten Steps in a way that is respectful and sensitive to all families, regardless of how they feed. I 100% believe that this is possible, and I think it would be useful to hear from someone who represents those who have had trouble with breastfeeding, or chosen not to breastfeed – because that POV is often absent when policy is put into place.

Perhaps of more importance, though, FFHI also wants to fill the need that families have for good, impartial formula info and assistance. I know there are ethical reasons why prenatal breastfeeding programs don’t include info on formula, but there needs to be a system in place so that once the decision has been made to supplement or switch to formula completely, those families are given solid support. It’s absolutely shocking to see the responses when I talk to my community about what they’ve been told about formula and bottle feeding. These are smart, incredibly educated and caring mothers, and they are desperate for accurate info. And they can’t find it. That’s unacceptable.

Q: Where have you seen the effects of the “I Support You” campaign?

A: So much good came out of that campaign, and we are gearing up for our second year, which is really exciting. It was such a seemingly obvious idea – expressing our support for one another, no matter if we are breastfeeding or bottle feeding or tube feeding. I was a bit shocked at how enthusiastically it was received, to tell you the truth! But I think a lot of moms were wanting this, for a long time. I think the vast majority of us don’t like this asinine idea of mommy wars. We don’t want to fight with each other, because who the heck has the energy? And the little energy we do have, we want to be fighting more important fights – against child abuse, hunger, rape, our environment… the list goes on.

But on a personal note, the movement was a game-changer for me. It allowed me to foster amazing friendships with some leaders in the breastfeeding community – people like Jessica Martin-Weber of The Leaky Boob, numerous IBCLCs and breastfeeding bloggers, and of course Jamie Lynne Grumet, who is one of the I Support You co-founders. It gave me the courage to pursue my CLC training, which is something I’d wanted to do for a long time. Seeing the outpouring of support for the movement made me believe that the tide was changing, and that many people were ready for a more inclusive sort of lactivism. Supporting breastfeeding doesn’t have to mean condemning formula feeding, and lifting up breastfeeding moms doesn’t have to mean stepping on their formula feeding sisters to get them there. And vice versa – I have no patience for mothers who demand respect for their choice to formula feed, and then put down breastfeeding mothers. Support and respect need to go both ways.

Q: What inspired you to take the CLC course?

A: I really struggled to breastfeed my son. And for the past 5 years, I’ve heard from far too many women who had similar experience and felt totally alone, confused and unsupported in their similar struggles. I wanted to be able to do more than say a bunch of empty platitudes to them – I wanted to help women like them meet their goals, and be supported gently and sensitively if those goals couldn’t be met.

I hope to use my CLC training to serve breastfeeding, combo feeding and formula feeding moms – sort of a one-stop shop for infant feeding issues –

and I think the key to feeding babies, no matter what the means, is to understand the biological norm. There are so many ways bottle feeding can be bottle nursing, and moms deserve to be shown how to do this. I would love to further my training and learn all I can about managing more complicated and severe breastfeeding problems, as well (especially as I was one of those “unicorns” the authors speak of in the pocket guide!)

Q: What surprised you most about the training?

A: One of our teachers, Cindy Turner-Maffei, truly boosted my belief in humanity. She was incredible, and so positive and straight-forward. I was nervous about the training, because for obvious reasons I knew it would be triggering for me. But I found myself so intrigued by the technical aspects of breastfeeding counseling – how to recognize a good latch, the importance of that initial skin-to-skin time, how to manage issues like sore nipples and mastitis.

Q: What was the most important thing you learned?

A: I know I’ve mentioned it about fifty times already, but I was floored by the videos they showed us of babies doing the breast crawl after birth. My understanding of skin-to-skin was that babies are put directly on the mom’s chest and a nurse would “help” latch them on, in a rather hurried way. That was my experience, and the experience of the majority of women I’ve talked to. It makes me wonder how many of us would have had easier journeys if we’d just been left alone with our babies.

Q: Anything you wish would have been covered that wasn’t?

A: I wish CLCs were given more education and guidance on how to counsel a mom who is showing signs of psychological distress over breastfeeding problems. Also- I know it’s sort of out of the scope of our practice, but I have this pipe dream of doing a co-training for CLCs on postpartum depression and anxiety. Often, breastfeeding workers are the only ones who really see the mom in those first, key postpartum weeks – because the pediatrician is focused on the baby, and the moms don’t typically see the OBGYN for 4-6 weeks. Imagine what an asset a CLC could be in terms of screening for PPD, or recognizing the red flags?

Q: If you could give lactation specialists one piece of advice, what would that be?

A: It’s an occupational hazard of what I do, but I work with a bunch of unicorns who have been treated like horses. These unicorns are made to feel like their horns don’t exist; that the only reason they think they have them is that they were uninformed or lazy. It’s an awful feeling, being told that your problems aren’t real. Lactation problems can be organic, or triggered by events, as we learn in our training – but either way, we need to listen to moms, because dismissing their concerns doesn’t help anybody.

I also worry that while it’s a huge asset to be passionate about breastfeeding in this field, its easy to forget that for certain women, breastfeeding is going to be exceedingly difficult – whether for physical, emotional or situational reasons. We need to be careful about how we talk about formula, because otherwise those women are going to feel skittish about returning to us for help when things go wrong. I work with many moms who have been successful the second time around, after formula feeding a first child. Often, they are scared to work with lactation professionals because they felt so judged when they ended up formula feeding, and what if they end up using formula this time, too? And these are the very women we can and should be helping. So in a very oversimplified way, I guess my plea is just this: listen to that song in your head, the one they made you sing at training: When you counsel, never judge. And remember, the goal is to have a healthy mom and a healthy baby. However that has to happen.

For more on the Fearless Formula Feeder visit and follow her on Facebook.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.