Although most women in the United States plan to breastfeed their babies for at least some amount of time, it doesn’t always end up working out as planned. Pain, medical problems, tongue ties, allergies, and even educational and societal barriers can all contribute to unplanned formula use. While we support a woman’s choice not to breastfeed for her own reasons, today we’d like to specifically talk to those who end up relying on formula feeding unexpectedly – and how to have a great experience doing so.

When Does Formula Feeding Become Necessary?

For most parents who feel strongly about breastfeeding, the thought of using formula instead can be distressing. However, it’s important to remember these three things:

  1. If you are temporarily supplementing with formula due to a medical reason, you CAN still cultivate a breastfeeding relationship later on.
  2. Your health and sanity matter too. Your baby needs a healthy, alert, and loving parent more than breast milk.
  3. You are still an awesome, caring, and competent parent. You have not “failed” and you are not “broken”. Your baby is still going to turn out wonderfully.

One of the most common reasons for formula feeding a newborn is jaundice. While most cases of physiological jaundice are harmless and go away after a few days, it’s possible for jaundice to cause more severe health problems. Supplementing with formula may be recommended by the pediatrician to flush out the excess bilirubin while you are still working on your milk supply. In many cases, under the supervision of a lactation consultant, you will be able to fully breastfeed once this complication has run its course.

Insufficient weight gain is another common reason to begin formula feeding. There are many factors that can cause “failure to thrive” or inability to adequately gain weight in a baby. Low milk supply can often be fixed by frequent nursing and pumping, but when it’s not? Oral restrictions, insufficient glandular tissue, complications of prematurity, acid reflux, and breast surgery are just some of the possibilities that should be thoroughly discussed or ruled out by your care team, including an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), your personal doctor, and the baby’s doctor.

Oral restrictions deserve their own special mention. Otherwise known as tongue ties and lip ties, these minor defects in the mouth can keep a baby from being able to latch onto the breast well, and effectively transfer the milk from breast to stomach. A poor latch can quickly result in excruciating pain and bleeding in the mother, gas pain in the baby, breast infections, and insufficient weight gain. Although a trip to the pediatric dentist or ENT for your baby, and a trip to the lactation consultant for you, may be able to help correct these issues, they can definitely cause a real need for temporary or permanent formula supplementation.

Breastfeeding-Unfriendly Medications

Certain medicines and medical treatments which are unsafe for breastfeeding can also lead to unexpected formula use. These could include HIV drugs, cancer treatments, chronic illness management, and even some medications for postpartum mental wellness.  If you are not sure whether or not your medications or treatments are safe for use while breastfeeding your baby, you should visit the LactMed database online, as well as bring up the subject with your doctor and lactation consultant.

Becoming Okay with Formula Feeding

Although you may initially experience feelings of sadness and disappointment about not being able to exclusively or partially breastfeed, in time you may come to a place of acceptance and even gratitude for the life-saving invention of infant formula. As you cuddle your sweet baby and look into their eyes while holding their bottle – or watch your significant other enjoy this special act – you will realize that your precious parental bond is still strong and unaffected.

As your doula, I am on your side as you navigate these challenging parts of your journey as a parent. Trust your gut, listen to your instincts and your baby’s cues, and never hesitate to seek help and opinions for your care team. We know that you have your baby’s absolute best interests at heart.  You are capable of making and handling tough decisions for the well being of both of you.