Q&A with Suzanne Barston, The Fearless Formula Feeder (Part One)

August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, which means our social media feeds will likely be filled with articles and photos about the joys and benefits of breastfeeding. So, I wanted to talk to someone who could share more about the joys and benefits of simply feeding your baby, because there are alternatives and breastfeeding isn’t for everyone. And shouldn’t that be okay?

Meet Suzanne Barston, also known as The Fearless Formula Feeder and author of the book, Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t. After experiencing many breastfeeding complications with her son, having postpartum depression and switching to formula (the best decision for her family) only to realize that there was a severe lack of information and way too much judgment when it came to formula feeding, she decided to create a support network for moms who also went the formula route.

Suzanne’s judgement-free advice and determination to change the conversation about how moms choose to feed their babies and the support they should receive are a breath of fresh air. Her work is a testament to the fact that whether a mom chooses breastmilk, formula, or both has everything to do with the right choice for her and nothing to do with how much she loves her baby.

Becoming The Fearless Formula Feeder
When I had my first child, I was fully expecting to breastfeed – although truth be told, I had a very romantic notion of what that meant, and what motherhood meant in the first place. We had a slew of problems right off the bat – he couldn’t latch, I had nerve damage in one breast that made nursing excruciatingly painful, he had a milk allergy, etc., etc. I pumped for a while, but was suffering from postpartum depression and all the drama with feeding exacerbated it. So, I switched to formula, and while I knew it was the best thing for my family, I still felt the judgment from doctors, friends, fellow moms, and society. Worst of all, whenever I searched for information on formula or bottle feeding, the only things that popped up were admonishments – warnings about the dangers of not breastfeeding instead of practical information on safe formula feeding. I wanted to change that, and to provide a resource for parents like me who wanted support and evidence-based information on infant feeding. I also wanted to explain the reality of news headlines about research – I knew how to read and interpret scientific studies, so I felt like I could help mitigate some of the fear-mongering.

Reception of The Fearless Formula Feeder
It was surprisingly positive at first. I got a lot of traffic right away, which just made me sad – because I was some random, new blogger on the internet and all these women were writing to me in desperate need of support and advice. I didn’t really feel equipped to give it, so I made it my goal to become worthy of that responsibility. I decided to write a book that would examine both the sociological and scientific implications of the breast vs. bottle debate, and I basically read everything I could on lactation and the science behind infant formula development. I realized that there weren’t really any formula experts out there, so I thought, “I better become one quickly – because there were a lot of parents needing solid, non-judgmental info.”  

The Haters
Of course, as soon as people started becoming aware of my blog, the name Fearless Formula Feeder drew a lot of critical eyes. People were NOT happy that someone was encouraging people to be fearless about formula, especially when they were trying to scare moms out of even the smallest amount of supplementation. Reading hate mail became a daily event – but for every angry, mean email came five more from parents needing support, so I just focused on those instead.

Why So Much Controversy
You know, I used to think I knew the answer. Heck, I wrote a whole book about it. But as I’ve been doing this for 8 years now, I’ve seen the controversy ebb and flow – and I’m not sure things are as simple as I once believed them to be. I do think it mostly comes down to history – formula companies made some terrible errors in the past, and continue to do some pretty tone-deaf things in resource-poor countries – and deep-rooted ideas about motherhood. I also think the rise of the natural parenting movement has made food a moral issue for some groups, something that starts with breastmilk and continues into later childhood with orthorexia behaviors. But in the end, I think it comes down to this erroneous belief that there can only be one “right” way to feed a baby. There are so many things that factor into what makes a choice “right”.

The Importance of Choice
Choice is imperative, because every family has its own specific needs. We can’t take what happens in a tribal society and impose it on a mother living in suburban Illinois, and vice versa. Heck, we can’t take what happens to the mom in one room of a hospital and impose that on the mom in the next room over. There has NEVER been a time in history when every baby was fed solely on breastmilk for 6 months. There have always been mothers with issues breastfeeding and babies who were too weak to suck. There have always been pre-lacteal feeds and supplementary foods used prior to this magical, made-up 6-month mark.

When You Take Choice Away
When you take away choice, you force a woman into using her body in a way that may not feel right to her. You force a baby into eating in a way that could hurt her chances of thriving. You create a perfect storm for postpartum depression and a prison sentence for moms who don’t respond to a pump, but need to work to feed the rest of their families. Choice is something we are lucky to have – the fact that babies can be fed and healthy no matter what the lactation status is of the primary caregiver is something we should celebrate, not restrict.

On The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative
There are many good aspects of BFHI, but I have trouble with positioning a breastfeeding initiative as “baby friendly”, First of all, it should be “family friendly” – babies thrive with happy, functional caregivers. Also, it is not friendly to starve a baby, and making a mother jump through hoops in order to give formula isn’t helping to get that baby fed. If we could take the part of BFHI that ensures formula isn’t forced on moms, and that they are given good lactation support, but do away with the rest of it, I think it could be something really fantastic. But as it stands, the program is judged on the number of babies who leave exclusively breastfeeding – and that should not be the goal, in my opinion. The goal should be parents and babies leaving the hospital with the resources they need to safely feed their babies, and mothers leaving with support in place for all the challenges of new motherhood and the postpartum period.

Amen to that! Come back tomorrow for part two of my Q&A with the amazing Fearless Formula Feeder. Suzanne will be talking about the pressures new moms feel when it comes to breastfeeding, the problems with the catchphrase “Breast is best” and more.

BIO: Suzanne Barston is the author of Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t and the creator of the “Fearless Formula Feeder” website and community. Barston was raised just outside of Boston and earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Northwestern University. A former freelance writer, she now lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with her husband and children, and works as a corporate content producer. Her writing and work with FFF has been featured in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, SheKnows, Babble, Pregnancy & Newborn Magazine, Parenting, Babytalk, OhBaby!, Fit Pregnancy, The Observer, Yahoo Shine!, Australia’s Good Weekend magazine, and on a variety of radio programs including KPCC’s “Take Two”, numerous NPR affiliates, “Parenting Unplugged”, “Positive Parenting”, “Mom Enough”, “For Crying Out Loud”, “Voice of Russia”, and more.

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